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, Matthew 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 respect 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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Stations of the Cross during Lent

For those interested, there will be a Stations of the Cross devotion every Friday during Lent at the St Jerome Newman Center at noon.  (So every Friday beginning this Friday the 16th and continuing through Good Friday on March 30th).  As in past years, we will be using the method of Saint Francis, so this is a very old (13th century) and traditional devotional prayer.  We provide booklets, so it is easy to follow along.

For those unfamiliar, the Stations of the Cross (Via Dolorosa or Way of Sorrow) are an ancient Christian devotion.  In the early church, some would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to walk from Jerusalem to various holy sites.  The Franciscans officially developed the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem in the 15th century, winding through Jerusalem for nine stations and ending with five stations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

By the 4th century you begin to see something resembling the Stations of the Cross in monasteries and churches in Europe.  These devotions in churches were accelerated as it become more difficult and dangerous to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, and by the late 16th century the fourteen stations were common in almost all Catholic Churches.  Today, every Catholic Church in the world will have the 14 stations (in stained glass or icons).

The stations are a mix of Passion events taken from scripture and tradition, beginning with Jesus being condemned to death through his crucifixion, death, and burial.  Through the prayers, we can meditate on and be brought close to the suffering and death of Christ.


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Calling all Spelling Enthusiasts!

If you are looking for something to do on a Monday night in Cache Valley, I suggest attending the Unified Charter School Spelling Bee.  Gripping and tense spelling action and a good time to be had by all.  (Honestly, spelling bees are fun if tense affairs).  Tonight (Monday February 5), 6pm at Thomas Edison Charter School South Campus.  25 of the valley’s best middle school spellers will square off.  This is an official Scripps National Spelling Bee qualifying event, so the winner will get an all expense paid trip to Washington D.C. to compete in the national bee (as seen on espn networks).

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Congrats to some USU philosophy students!

I am pleased to note that three USU philosophy students made the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Leadership Class of 2017: Millie Tullis, Jonathon Toronto, and David Bradley Zynda.  To have 3 USU students in the class of 150 national student leaders is pretty impressive, especially when one sees the list of students and institutions (a great number of them are from Ivies, Stanford, U Chicago, and top flight private liberal arts colleges).

  For those unfamiliar with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI):  Two years ago we founded an ISI  society here at USU (the CS Lewis Society).  ISI is an outfit committed to developing principled and intellectually serious leadership.  Its primary focus is engaging students in the great books tradition along with providing them leadership training.  It has a conservative bent, but is non-partisan.  There are many notable alumni in law, politics, journalism, academia, and business, including Justices Scalia, Alito, and Gorsuch, Peter Thiel (founder of paypal), Ross Douthat (NYTimes columnist), Harvey Mansfield (well known Harvard professor), etc etc etc.
  We get funding each year to support student book clubs.  For those who struggle at USU to find intellectual life, this is just the ticket – fun, social, but intellectually serious conversations over very good books and free food.  In addition, ISI students can apply to attend regional and national conferences, which are filled with reading, lectures, and great conversation (ISI pays for everything, from flight and hotel to food and expenses, and these are typically held at pretty tony establishments).  Aside from being interesting, these conferences give students a chance to network with academic, political, and business leaders from around the country.
  If you are interested in learning more about ISI, please contact Professor Kleiner at
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Philosophy Club Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion: Are students snowflakes?

Erica Holberg, Charlie Huenemann, and Harrison Kleiner will be presenting. The basic question has to do with the tension between the value we place on free speech on college campuses and how that value can sometimes collide with the interest of students and others to not be exposed to ideas they find offensive.

Thursday, 11/30, 4 p.m., HH 322

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Monastery closing

The sun has set on an important place in the Catholic world for Utahns.  Holy Trinity Monastery in Huntsville UT has seen the last of her monks leave.  The writing has been on the wall for some time, but it remains very sad.  I enjoyed the priests and brothers there, having spent dozens of nights at the monastery over the last decade or so at retreats.  It was (and will remain, for some period of time) a place to pray the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (the “Latin Mass”). And they had a wonderful bookstore.  But most importantly it was a place of prayer, of quiet, of holy men dedicating their whole selves to contemplation of God, to work, and to the self-discipline and edification that follows from living by the Rule of St Benedict.  My life was greatly enriched by spending time there.

God speed to all of the men who lived and served at the Holy Trinity Monastery.  You, and your place, will be greatly missed.

Click here to see a touching video about the monetary and its closure.

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On unwritten rules

For Tour de France lovers, I wanted to chime in on the debate over Aru attacking Froome on the mechanical.  For those who have no idea what I am talking about, here is a brief summary of the situation:

There is an unwritten rule in professional cycling to never attack a rival on bad luck (like a mechanical failure on a bike).  But the other day Fabio Aru attacked Tour leader Chris Froome on a mechanical, though up the road he held up after other riders – especially Dan Martin and Richie Porte – told him to wait for Froome to catch up.  This reignited a long simmering debate about the validity of these unwritten “gentleman’s” rules.

This tweet went somewhat viral on cycling sites:

— Tour de France 1913: “Oooh, don’t attack Eugène Christophe while he’s in the blacksmiths!” —

If you don’t know the history, in the old days of the Tour riders were not allowed any outside help.  Christophe was leading the Tour when his fork broke.  He had to walk miles to the nearest town, then had to find a blacksmith shop where he could fix his own bike.  No one waited at the blacksmith shop for him to finish his work, and he ended up losing hours on the day and lost the Tour.

The point of this side of the debate is that the old unwritten rules that say you should never attack a rival on bad luck (a mechanical, a no fault crash) should be ignored because they are not evenly applied.  After all, on the descent after Froome’s mechanical, Froome did not hold up to wait for Dan Martin on the crash.  And commentator Bob Roll argued that it is racing so all bets are off anyway. Cyclists are there to win, so teams should take every chance they can to make time on rivals.  All is fair in love and war, as they say.

Others note that these unwritten rules can be abused.  Team Sky abused the unwritten rules last year.  A Sky rider had a mechanical just before Mount Ventoux.  As he pulled back to the team car, Froome (in yellow) told the peloton he needed a “nature break”.  The peloton held up for Froome, and it allowed his Sky teammate to catch back up.  All of this ambiguity suggest to folks like Bob Roll that we should simply forget the gentleman’s rules.

I grant that the unwritten customs are imperfect, so I cede all of those points to Bob Roll and others on his side of this debate.  But for all that, I still think Aru was wrong to attack and I still support the unwritten rules. I note the abuses, and frankly think Team Sky did abuse the rules last year.  But to that I say that the peloton should punish them.  And arguably Froome and the leaders should have waited for Dan Martin to catch up after a crash on the descent, just as Lance Armstrong waited for rival Jan Ullrich on a crash (a gracious gesture which Ullrich returned when Lance crashed a few years later).  Froome’s failure to do so ought to result in the peloton doing him no favors in the race.

And there is an interesting philosophical point to be made in all of this.  Imperfect rules are better than no rules at all.  Those unwritten rules are part of what make civilization possible, not only in the peloton but in society.  Most of our customs are handed down and if you poke at them enough, you will see they are not entirely rational and not entirely fair.  But they are better than nothing, better than an “anything goes” attitude.

The political theorist Edmund Burke makes just this argument about the importance of tradition.  He uses it to distinguish between the French and American revolutions.  The French Revolution was more radical.  It destroyed everything of the old regime and tried to create something entirely new.  The American Revolution was, on the other hand, more of a reform than a revolution.  We kept much of the English common law tradition intact, for example.  It is why the American project has been more successful: it kept traditions – however imperfect – alive.  We might think, as the French did, that we can produce something that works from scratch.  But really we cannot.  Human life is too variable, you just cannot invent a system that can deal with all the contingencies and accidents of human life.  So better to rely on time worn conventions which, however imperfect, have been worked out over generations and manage to hold society together.

So I still support the unwritten rules and think it would be a terrible shame if this younger generation of riders dispenses with them.

Posted in Polis (politics, culture), Sports | 6 Comments