Part of me dislikes attacking a phrase like this.
Because I can hear the heart of people coming through the words. A phrase like “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is usually uttered with the best of intentions. It speaks to the inherent tension that is present within the Christian ethic. We want to love people well while also standing up for what is good and right an true.
But this saying is also thrown around in Christian circles as accepted wisdom. (Which is honestly quite interesting, because although it can be traced back to St. Augustine, it found renewed popularity in the last century not from a Christian, but through the autobiography of a renowned Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi. But, I digress…). I’ve even used the words myself. But that doesn’t make them true.
What Trevor pointed out so well earlier this week is that psychologically separating a person and her actions is an incredibly difficult task. It requires deep relationship and love. So although this phrase may sound wise and simple, it may in fact be an impossible undertaking.
So that leaves us with all types of questions. If loving the sin and hating the sinner is impossible, what is realistically attainable? How do we live wisely in a world that is different from the one we seek to construct? How do we act toward those with whom we categorically disagree?
I’d like to tackle it this way — with 2 principles and 2 suggestions. The principles can remind us of how we can view our situation and the suggestions may help with the way we act toward others.
So first, some principles:
1. Every person has the image of God on them
I know that this is about as basic as you can get.But like all things, we return to the fundamentals. And nothing is more fundamental to our faith than this: “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” That’s everybody. Everyone. No exceptions. Every single person you run into today has the mark of the Divine stamped on them.
It feels like something of which I shouldn’t need to be reminded. And for the most part, I honestly don’t. Most of the time I can see the good in others and assume the best of them. But it’s those moments — when that person cuts me off on the highway, when the man at the table next to me is being a jerk to the waiter, when I am betrayed or insulted — these are the times when I need to be reminded. It’s the times when we see someone acting particularly inhuman that we need to go back to the fundamental truth that even that person carries the image of God on them.
2. A wide definition of “Us”
Our minds tend to work in binary ways — up/down, black/white, right/wrong. In many ways, this helps us make sense of the world and is very appropriate. When binary labels are placed on people, though, the categories often break down. Consider what Trevor said in his post earlier this week:
“So the only way to get over our disgust of other people is to incorporate them into ourselves. We expand the circle of the self to include others, and that is what motivates us to get over our disgust.”
In order to get over so many of the psychological hurdles that exist, we have to incorporate others into ourselves. In other words, we have to break down a very entrenched binary view — us & them. We have a much greater tolerance for our own disgustingness (is that a word?) than for that of others. The same principle applies to those we consider “us” — our family, our friends, our team or our tribe.
The more people that can move from the “them” category to the “us” one, the greater patience and tolerance we will have for one another’s faults. I believe that one of the overarching stories of Scripture is the way God keeps widening the circle for people, expanding their views beyond themselves and their tribe to include the alien and the other. This is a movement we need to get on board with in order to have better conversations with those around us and to treat one another the ways we should.
So with these principles in mind, I humbly offer a couple of suggestions that may help us speak and act in better ways:
1. Choose our words wisely
My friend Sean Palmer said something very poignant on Twitter the other day —
Jesus said “Love your neighbor,” not “love the ‘sinner.’” How we see one another shapes how we treat one another. #WordsMatter
— Sean Palmer (@seanpalmer) July 18, 2015
Part of loving one another well is learning the power that our words have in the lives of others. They are potent forces that can build and create or tear down and destroy. The label “sinner” is so much easier to attach to others than to ourselves. God himself calls us “sons” and “daughters” rather than letting us hang on to the old “sinner” label. Like Paul says in Romans 5:8, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”
The term “sinner”, although appropriate for every one of us, is a term we should use very carefully. It is a word that is much more effective when pointed inward than outward. Because when we use it to describe others, it affects the way that we see them. And using it affects the way that they see us. Our love for others is communicated much better when talking about our “friends” and “neighbors” rather than those “sinners”.
2. Embrace the beauty of the Eucharist
This is fast becoming the one drum that beat over and over again. But I am convinced that nothing is more central to our Christian identity and nothing is more powerful in the world than Eucharist. The table is the place where so many of our problems are solved.
When we talk about incorporating others into ourselves, it can seem like an impossible task. How can I incorporate those that are so different than me? The answer is the Eucharist. The Eucharist, or communion or the Lord’s supper, shows us how to welcome others. It shows us that the core of who we are is a people who sit at a table that is not our own. We are invited guests just like everyone else. And all are welcome.
And if we can sit at a table and share bread and wine with one another, we don’t seem that different after all. We realize that we have much in common. We are all “sinners”, yet are brothers and sisters as well. The Eucharist is God’s gift to help us love one another well and widen the definition of “us.”
The world has enough judgement to go around. What it needs is a welcoming table.