In my experience, people want to be nice. Our desire is to treat people fairly, not rustle feathers or cause each other to feel uncomfortable. We avoid saying upsetting things to one another. Often we contort our minds to find a way to express in a nice way what we feel or think about uncomfortable or unfamiliar things.
We are subject to catch phrases and clichés. We have all absorbed prevailing myths, stereotypes, mischaracterizations and popular phrases.
I cannot count the times I have heard people that I know and love say, “Well, we just have to love the sinner and hate the sin.” I understand that the person is attempting to find a place of common ground, a way to agree to disagree, a means to hold fast to one’s biblical viewpoint while not being mean.
Here are three ways that “love the sinner, hate the sin” falls short of such good intentions.
It is founded upon an “us” versus “them” position. A decision to love the “other,” “outsider,” distant person from a lofty perception of oneself is a self-serving statement, more in the vein of ”how wonderful of me to love the unlovable.”
It arises out of judgment of another and thus is not loving. The judgment is of another’s personhood, not their actions. Each of us has a sexual orientation and gender identity; it’s who we are, whether we’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or straight. Calling someone a sinner based on who they are presumes that one has the power to decide who’s in and who’s out, whose very being can be labeled unacceptable.
I believe that the one who is labeled outsider and judged to be unacceptable gets to say whether they are experiencing love. Hearing this cliché affords no feeling of embrace, affirmation, acceptance and support. It is not love. For gay and transgender people, placating offers of crumbs of kindness are insufficient.
It lets us off too easily. Deeply and truly loving will require us to:
- let go of the fear of difference we may feel,
- embrace those we do not know well or may not fully understand,
- avoid all attempts to change who another is, and
- celebrate the gift of each person in their diversity and uniqueness.
What could we say instead? Perhaps in the moment this cliché comes to mind, we should remember Jesus and the great compassion that he demonstrated repeatedly in the gospels—how he embraced a woman not of his culture, had dinner with those judged as “shady” characters, touched those understood to be untouchable, listened to children, and opened wide his arms to countless others with listening ears.
Recalling Jesus may empower us to say, “I love you as you are.” What a powerful expression of the unconditional love God has shown to us—and it is oh so very nice.