Over on the new-ish blog Via Media, Simon Butler has responded to a brief conversation he and I had online, in which he argues that the mantra ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner’ is not only unhelpful, but positively harmful and damaging, and unfailingly hinders the agenda of sharing God’s love. Given Simon’s intense dislike (hatred?) for this phrase, but his commitment to still seeing me as his ‘old friend’ (I take that to mean ‘long-standing’!), then it appears as though Simon is himself practising ‘Hate the slogan, love the sloganeer’. I wonder if he sees the irony in putting into the practice the very statement he is refuting.
It should be said from the outset that summary statements like this can easily be misused—which is simply a function of all language. But such ‘slogans’ must be capable of giving guidance, since Jesus packed his teaching full of such short, memorable summary statements.
Simon dismisses the saying as an ‘Evangelical nostrum’ and ‘almost an article of faith within that tradition’. If so, then this is to the credit of the evangelical tradition; as Thomas Renz points out, the saying has a long history from Ghandi all the way back to the great Augustine:
Moreover, what I have now said in regard to abstaining from wanton looks should be carefully observed, with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin, in observing, forbidding, reporting, proving, and punishing of all other faults. (Letter 211, para 11)
And Augustine has good warrant, since St Paul says something very similar in his ethical instructions to the Christians in Rome:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12.9–10)
What is most striking here is that Paul appears to link this differentiated attitude to good and evil with love with is ‘unhypocritical’; honesty about what we find distasteful or offensive is part of love, not an inhibition to it. And Paul himself is basing his guidance on the example of Jesus.
In the context of this debate, I hardly need to rehearse the evidence that Jesus was radically inclusive. He scandalised the religious leaders of his day by touching the unclean to bring healing; he risked his reputation in order to associate with the impure; he stood close to those whose sin brought the judgement of others in order that he might offer forgiveness. He was very clear that his ministry was not to those who thought themselves righteous enough—the well don’t need doctors—but to the spiritually sick, sinners who needed to repent (Luke 5.32). This was indeed the one who, more than anything, loved sinners.
But did Jesus hate sin? Early in Mark’s gospel there is a story which even his first readers struggled with. Jesus meets a man suffering from a debilitating skin disease, and Jesus is clearly disturbed by this. Most manuscripts have ‘he was moved with compassion’ (Mark 1.41), but there is good reason to think that the minority text ‘he was angry’ is the original. This is very challenging: the New Testament talks of God’s ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’ as his fixed opposition to all that is sinful, but never elsewhere uses the verb ‘to be angry’ of God. Yet here is Jesus, angry at this man’s disease. Is he angry at a fallen world, where such things happen, or the religious culture, which isolates the man, or perhaps even the man’s doubting whether he can be healed? Mark does not tell us. But he does tell us that Jesus gets pretty cross at sinful attitudes and actions.
He seems irked by those questioning his forgiveness of the paralytic in Mark 2. When he meets a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, he looks at his opponents ‘with anger’ (there’s that word again, Mark 3.5). When the disciples refuse to let the children come to him, he is incensed (Mark 10.14). In each of these examples, Matthew and Luke smooth the wording out to make Jesus look less antagonistic. But they cannot escape this aspect of his ministry. In Mathew 23 (and Luke 11) Jesus lets rip at the complacency, selfishness, self-satisfaction and oppression of the scribes and Pharisees. He does not mince his words! He seems really angry at the way they withhold the good news of God’s grace, and confine his blessing to a religious elite. Matthew makes the point strongly—his lists Jesus pronouncing seven ‘woes’, a complete catalogue of judgement. And in the cleansing of the temple, his anger (or ‘zeal’) expresses itself in violent action.
Many of these examples are used to suggest Jesus disliked the ‘religious’. But that is anachronistic; in Jesus’ culture everyone was ‘religious’. The better way to characterise Jesus’ opponents is that they were powerful—but his response is much broader than that. It seems that Jesus didn’t just love the sinner—he hated sin and all the consequences of the way it leaves people broken and their lives distorted.
Simon’s discussion is headed by a picture of the women ‘caught in adultery’, and it is reproduced above. Jesus is opposed to the self-serving complacency of her accusers, which he exposes. But after refusing to condemn her himself, he offers no compromise to the question of sin for the women either: ‘Go and sin no more’. This looks very much like ‘Hate the sin; love the sinner’ in narrative form.
So shouldn’t we be the same? It isn’t much defence to say that this is something only God can do, since we cannot hate sin without that spilling over into a hateful attitude to people. If I give up on trying to do anything that only God can do perfectly, then I might as well pack up now as a disciple! In fact it only takes a few moments consideration to see that this attitude of Jesus’ is something that we cannot avoid.
How do we respond to the closing of ranks, fabrication of the truth and defence of self-interest we have seen in the recent judgement about the Hilsborough stadium disaster—sinful actions that left so many locked in grief for 27 years? Don’t we feel indignant? How do we respond to the stories of exploitation of workers around the world in order to source luxury goods for those of us living in the West? Don’t we feel the sting of injustice? How do we respond to the relentless accumulation of vast wealth by a few, the wanton destruction of the environment, and the sexualisation of our culture which leaves young people, especially young girls, insecure, uncertain and open to exploitation and manipulation? How do we respond to the self-concern endemic in our society which leaves so many alone and isolated? If we do not share Jesus’ sense of anger and indignation concerning the sin we see around us, we have failed as disciples and lost our humanity.
Simon’s reflection on the way the phrase is used is to conclude that ‘it seems to me almost impossible to separate a person’s identity from their actions’ (though his quotation from Gordon Oliver, that every person is broken and sinful, yet beloved in Christ, appears to suggest the opposite). This is potentially disastrous in terms of our theological anthropology—understanding who we are as humans in the light of the truth about God.
In between our identity and our action stands the long process of intention, will and decision. If we collapse this distance, as Simon is suggesting, then we undermine the notion of humans as responsible moral agents. This is evident if we consider extreme examples, people involved in damaging and addictive patterns of behaviour. What does it mean for the alcoholic, the paedophile, the compulsively violent or the kleptomaniac if their identity is ‘impossible to separate from their actions’? Coming closer to home, there is good research evidence that men in every culture have a deep propensity to promiscuity. Is this part of male ‘identity’, and is it a ‘shadow side’ that might be ‘befriended’?
I would heartily agree that theology which denies experience is unhealthy. But Simon appears here to allow experience to form his theology, rather than allowing theological truth to inform and shape experience. When Paul writes that ‘We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?’ (Romans 6.2) he is not just addressing enthusiastic, naive young evangelicals who have yet to realise the frailty and compromise of human nature. He wants this truth to shape the experience of all Christians. God’s desire is not for us to embrace our shadows, but to allow his light to shine on them.
Sadly, Simon’s discussion of holiness finally lapses into parody. We should see ourselves ‘not as victims of an angry God, but as the beloved of a worried Parent, who can be loved into befriending and finding wholeness’ in our sinfulness. But the holiness of God is a much larger concern in Scripture than God as an angry old (evangelical?) man; it means he is a parent who is prepared to pay the ultimate price, in himself, for our forgiveness. Simon is quite wrong to suggest that it is ‘Western, juridical models of atonement’ which create ‘binary views of sin and goodness’; this binary is a theme that runs deep through all of Scripture, and is addressed at least as much in the ransom, Christus victor and reconciliation models of atonement as in ‘justification’ models. (It is fascinating to see that, when the binary of sex identity is lost, the binary of sin and goodness follows quickly after it.)
In the end, I am not sure Simon really believes what he is arguing for. Certainly many supporters on the blog disagree with him—they think that the reason they dislike the saying is not because you ‘cannot separate someone’s actions from their identity’ but because they don’t believe that same-sex relations are sinful. Here is one characteristic comment:
For me, the crux of this isn’t that “hate the sin, love the sinner” is a bad formulation, but that it shouldn’t apply to homosexuality, because there’s nothing immoral about consensual homosexual relationships. If the Bible says there is, then the Bible is simply wrong.
I like Simon very much—I love him as a brother—and I hope that we will continue to be ‘old’ friends. But I think he is being dishonest. I wish he would face up to the fact that his conviction—that same-sex sexual unions are not sinful—is not compatible with Scripture, and in doing so join the vast majority of scholars on both sides of the debate, and so state clearly that on this point he believes Scripture is wrong and should be set aside.
But because he wishes to hold on to the label of ‘evangelical’ he is not willing to do this. As a result, he misreads the history of theological thought, he disregards key parts of Scripture, he misconstrues a whole area of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, he distorts his theological anthropology, and he damages our approach to pastoral theology. The attempt to justify same-sex sexual unions pushes all manner of theological concerns out of shape and has wide-ranging and damaging consequences.
And I really hate that.
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