In defense of “Loving the sinner, hating the sin”

The phrase “love the sinner and hate the sin” has been a pretty standard part of Christian morality for a long time.  The exact phrase does not appear in the Bible, though it seems an apt summary of a number of Biblical passages (Romans 12:9, Jude 1:23, Matthew 6:14-15, Psalm 97:10, Matter 5:43-44, etc). Augustine is credited with coining the phrase, and its influence has spread far beyond Christianity (Ghandi, for example, used the phrase).  The idea is that it is not incompatible to judge deeds as wrong while also valuing the person who committed those deeds.

But “love the sinner and hate the sin” has fallen on hard times.  If you google the phrase, you will find dozens of articles arguing we should stop saying it.  James Madison University distributes to its students a speech guide which lists “love the sinner, hate the sin” as one of “35 dumb things well-intentioned people say”.  It would seem that “woke” people don’t use the phrase (sorry Ghandi).

The debate over this phrase reminds me of a panel discussion on gay marriage I participated in a few years ago.  After making orthodox arguments about sexual morality, a representative from another church began her remarks by saying, “I guess my church is different because we welcome everyone.”

The implication here was clear — if you pass judgment on the actions of others, you cannot be welcoming and loving of them.  Hating the sin means hating the sinner too.

I think that is plainly false.  But it is a very common point of view these days, so even though distinguishing between the judgment of deeds and the dignity of persons was pretty obvious to everyone until 10 minutes ago, perhaps today it is worth a brief exploration.

For my purposes here, I want to step away from the particular issue in the panel discussion (which had to do with sexual morality).  My purpose here is instead to establish a general principle about moral judgment and the dignity of persons.

Let’s consider some particular cases.  It is wrong to lie.  Lying is destructive of trust and community and is a way of using other people to your own ends.  Greed is a vice, because it is impairs the flourishing of our social nature.  If I catch one of my children lying or being greedy, moral instruction will follow.  I hope it is obvious that I do not “hate” my child when she does something wrong.  Quite to the contrary, it is because I love her that I offer moral correction.  This is a very important point: the moral correction is an act of love because she is engaging in actions that will frustrate her own capacity to flourish and to be happy.  And so “hating the sin” does not mean that one does not love the sinner.  In fact, “hating the sin” is an act of love for the sinner.

Of course one needs to use great prudence when they seek to correct moral error in others.  First of all, we should be mindful of the beam in our own eye before fussing over the speck in the eye of another.  And even when we do offer moral correction to others, one should prudently gauge a number of factors.  How close of a relationship do I have with the person?  What kind of moral instruction is likely to edify instead of close the person off?  etc.  And is my moral correction for their sake (an act of love) or is it for my own power and self-aggrandizement?

And we should never tire of remembering and reminding that every person deserves to be treated with dignity because every person has intrinsic and inviolable dignity in virtue of the kind of thing they are and in virtue of being children of God, made in His image and likeness.  So whether a person is guilty of telling a white lie or guilty of murder, that person has intrinsic value and dignity.

But loving other people and recognizing their intrinsic dignity cannot mean that we no longer make moral judgments about deeds.  Loving others means willing their good for their sake.  If your child or dear friend is engaging in actions that are contrary to their own flourishing and happiness, prudently offering moral correction is an act of love – a way of manifesting that you are willing their own good.  If what we meant by “loving” or “accepting” or “welcoming” others is that we would never make any judgments about their actions, that would mean we would abandon all moral language and would abandon others (and indeed ourselves) to lives of vice and unhappiness.

So loving the murderer does not mean we condone murder.  Loving the covetous man does not mean we license covetousness.  In fact, just to the contrary – loving the covetous man might mean that we save him by “snatching him from the fire” (Jude 1:23).

To say otherwise is to smuggle in relativism.  Those who reject “loving the sinner and hating the sin” are insinuating that to pass moral judgment is to be “intolerant” or “rigid”.  There are no objective truths, live and let live.  Saying someone is doing something “viceful” is akin to devaluing their personhood.  This is how we – in our age of identity politics – increasingly speak.

But this is madness.  Of course I should pass moral judgment and provide moral instruction when I see my daughter being violent to her sister.  And I should pass moral judgment and provide moral instruction because I love her.  The point is basic to virtue ethics.  Vice cannot make you happy.  Viceful actions and a viceful character frustrate your capacity to flourish as a human person and prevent you from being really happy.

It would do us a great deal of good if we could move past this impulse to think that whenever someone makes a judgment about the uprightness of something, they are “hating” the persons engaged in that action.  Of course we can debate which actions are really viceful or sinful.  Intelligent people might disagree about whether or not action X frustrates human flourishing or contributes to it.  That is well and good.  But a condition for the possibility of a sincere debate on those questions is that we do not begin by assuming that passing moral judgment on actions entails “hating” the other person.

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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4 Responses to In defense of “Loving the sinner, hating the sin”

  1. Jack Darrington says:

    I have been thinking a lot about this phrase lately. Thanks for writing about it. I might have to come find you and chat with you about it.

    Jack Darrington ________________________________

  2. Christian Lippert says:

    An apt and timely post. Thank you for sharing .

  3. Scott Heninger says:

    Wow, excellently put! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Luke says:

    Nice work Harrison, I agree; it is one of the most loving things you can do to love the sinner and hate the sin. Sin brings no true happiness, the more others can help us weed it out the better. As you pointed out, discernment and skill are necessary in order to inflict minimal damage to the person. Like surgery, lack of skill or focus here can create a situation that harms the person and does no damage to the sin at all. It takes the practice of all the virtues from a good father, true friend, loving husband to do it well; and even then it is only the repentance of the sinner himself and the forgiveness of God that wins the day.

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