Love the sinner, hate the sin

Oft used as an excuse for why it’s OK to hate on LGBT people when you’re a supposedly loving Christian, this phrase sounds scriptural – possibly Jesus? Maybe Paul?

No. In fact it’s a paraphrase of Letter 211 by Augustine of Hippo, ex-Manichean, opponent of Pelagius, author the doctrine of Original Sin plus lots of amazing, early theological writing. Augustine is one of the Fathers of the Church. 

The letter in question, dated 423CE, is addressed to nuns of a certain monastery and lays out rules of behaviour. Augustine’s sister had been the head of this house and the sisters wrote to him to complain about her successor. Augustine’s having none of it. 

In a section regarding what to do if one of the sisters starts attracting the attention of men due to her “wanton glances”, Augustine advises, 

When convicted of the fault, it is her duty to submit to the corrective discipline which may be appointed by the prioress or the prior. If she refuse to submit to this, and does not go away from you of her own accord, let her be expelled from your society. For this is not done cruelly but mercifully, to protect very many from perishing through infection of the plague with which one has been stricken. 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. 

 The common phrasing however is not Augustine’s, it’s Ghandi’s. In his 1929 autobiography he wrote, 

Man and his deed are two distinct things. Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked always deserves respect or pity as the case may be. ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practised, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.
This ahimsa is the basis of the search for truth. I am realizing every day that the search is in vain unless it is founded on ahimsa as the basis. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself. For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.

The reason this phrase is so frequently employed is, I suspect, because it seems to excuse (despite Ghandi’s warnings or Augustine’s very careful framing) the very ordinary activities of judgement and criticism so beloved of the pious. 

Unfortunately for some pious Christians, Jesus was pretty clear on this matter of judging other people, for example, 

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 

Matthew 7:1-3 

 … though there is a lot more. 

Jesus and a long tradition of saints and monastics following him agree – we ought to pay precise and exquisite attention to how we miss the mark ourselves, and considerably less attention to the failings of our neighbours. 

To die to one’s neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not to pay attention to anyone else, wondering whether they are good or bad. Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour.

This is what dying to one’s neighbour means: Do not rail against anyone, but rather say: “God knows each one.” Do not agree with him who slanders his neighbour.

This is what it means not to judge: Do not have hostile feelings towards anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour.

This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought: “Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace, is for ever, by the grace of God with Word. Amen.”

Abba Moses, Sayings of the Desert Fathers 

Circling back to Augustine and the original context of this saying, he is talking to women who have committed themselves to the strictest spiritual discipline and for whom the behaviour he describes indicates an enormous rift in that commitment. His advice is carefully framed as springing from the care and compassion of one sister for another, 

For the truth rather is, that you are not guiltless if by keeping silence you allow sisters to perish, whom you may correct by giving information of their faults. For if your sister had a wound on her person which she wished to conceal through fear of the surgeon’s lance, would it not be cruel if you kept silence about it, and true compassion if you made it known? How much more, then, are you bound to make known her sin, that she may not suffer more fatally from a neglected spiritual wound. 

In that spirit, please accept this meagre offering intended to point out that judging each other is really not leading anywhere good. It’s not what Christ taught and it keeps us away from the reality he pointed us to. So stop. Saint John, as usual, says it best, 

God is love. Whoever dwells in love dwells in God, and God in them. 

– 1 John 4:16

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s