The story is common enough. Joe and Mary are walking out of a college classroom where the topic of homosexuality just came up. Joe, a conservative Christian convinced that all homosexual sex is sinful, expressed this conviction during the class discussion. Mary, a lesbian, isn’t quite ready to let that go. She’s tired of staying quiet.
“You really think I should break up with my girlfriend,” she says, “even though we love each other?”
“The Bible says it’s wrong. I can’t go against that.”
“But what about love your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that in the Bible, too? You really think it’s loving to break apart people who love each other?”
“I’m not breaking you apart. You’ve got to decide to do that for yourself.”
“But you think we ought to break up. You would encourage us to break up.”
“That’s what God says.”
“You really know what God says? How arrogant can you be!”
“I…it’s in the Bible. I don’t have anything against you or your girlfriend, but the Bible is clear. What you’re doing is a sin, and I can’t condone sin.”
“This is the most meaningful relationship of my life. Anyone who knows me knows what ending it would do…it would be…” She falls silent, seething with frustration. She doesn’t know how to say it. He seems to her like a wall of righteousness. She gropes for words: “If you think the world would be improved by Katy and me breaking up, what you really think is that the world would be better if both Katy and I lost the most meaningful, beautiful, loving relationship either of us has ever known. You think the world would be a better place if this beautiful thing were destroyed, if it were taken away from us, if both of us were left heartbroken. How is that love? How can you possibly claim to love me and Katy if that’s what you think should happen? You think it would be loving to tell a happily married couple they should break up, that it would be wrong for them to grow old together? You think it would be loving to call what they have an abomination?”
“I didn’t use that word.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“But it’s not the same thing. A married couple—”
“It is the same thing!”
“It’s not! One’s a sin and the other isn’t!”
“I’m telling you that Katy and I have something beautiful together, and wanting to tear us apart is wanting to destroy something that makes our lives better. That’s not love.”
“I don’t want to tear you apart. That’s not what I’m saying.”
“You don’t? So you think it is fine for us to stay together?”
“No! I’m saying I’m supposed to love the sinner while hating the sin.”
“That’s a f**king copout!” she shouts. “If you hate my relationship enough to insist that it should end, then you don’t love me and you don’t love Katy. You can’t call what we have a sin and still love us. That’s bulls**t!”
Mary storms away. Joe stands there, shaking a little in the aftermath of her fury.
So is Joe right that he can love Mary while condemning as sin her most intimate relationship? Is Mary right that to hate her relationship is incompatible with loving her?
The question is important. Setting aside extremists like Fred Phelps with his “God Hates Fags” signs, conservative Christians typically agree that we ought to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves—in other words, that the Christian call to love one another includes sexual minorities. But they typically hold that such love is fully compatible with condemning homosexuality—because we can “love the sinner but hate the sin.”
For many of my gay and lesbian acquaintances, they’ve heard this phrase so much it has become an emotional trigger. They react as if it were nothing but a smokescreen for perpetuating hateful practices and policies, a false promise of love to make the reality of hate more palatable (that is, more palatable to the agents of hate and third-party observers, not to the victims).
In a recent Tulsa World op-ed, Mike Jones expresses just this sort of cynicism. He concedes that the “love the sinner, hate the sin” phrase could be used in beneficial ways. “But what can be a helpful, even comforting phrase, under the right circumstances,” he says, “has been hijacked by those whose purpose is to hand down judgments . . . ” And instead of being a general remark about sin and sinners, it has acquired a focus. In Jones’s experience, the phrase “is used now almost exclusively for those who disapprove of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.”
The widespread LGBT suspicion of the phrase doesn’t spring out of nowhere. James Dobson, for example, repeatedly says that we should love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves. The following statement is typical:
Christians have a scriptural mandate to love and care for all the people of the world. Even those who are living in immoral circumstances are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. There is no place for hatred, hurtful jokes, or other forms of rejection toward those who are gay.But as we’ve already seen, Dobson has persistently used rhetoric that feeds anti-gay ideologies of division, including claims that homosexuals are a threat to children. Dobson founded the Family Research Council and remains closely tied to it—the same Family Research Council that published the slanderous pamphlet we looked at in the last chapter, in which homosexuality was falsely linked to pedophilia through egregious misrepresentation of the research.
When such public figures pay lip service to loving gays and lesbians at the same time that they pursue and supporting unloving practices, it is not at all surprising that when gays and lesbians hear “love the sinner but hate the sin,” they find it a kind of disingenuous double-speak that is mostly about making hateful practices tolerable to the wider public by wrapping it up loving words.
But in my experience, most individual Christians who talk about loving the sinner while hating the sin are sincere. There was a time when I used the phrase myself in relation to my gay and lesbian neighbors—and I was earnest enough when I did so. My problem wasn’t that I didn’t mean it. My problem was that I didn’t wrestle with what it means to show love for gays and lesbians. The phrase became a mantra that I could fall back on to avoid confronting a real difficulty—the difficulty highlighted in the exchange between Joe and Mary. What is involved in believing that homosexuality is a sin—that is, really believing it, acting as if it were true? And what is involved in really loving my gay and lesbian neighbors? And are these things compatible?
There is a tension here, and conservative Christians who invoke the “love the sinner, hate the sin” dictum are often dodging that tension. The dictum becomes an easy conversation-stopper, a way to hide from challenging questions about what it means to show love. Gays and lesbians have every right to complain when Christians do that.
Nevertheless, I think the dictum is an indispensable part of the Christian moral life. No Christian who seeks to live by the ethic of love can deny that we must love sinners while hating sin. The problem doesn’t lie with the dictum itself, but with how it is invoked and with the challenge of figuring out what it implies.