Community is hard. Real, actual, loving, close-fitting, elbow-rubbing community is very difficult.
This has become more evident to me over the past few days in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court ruling (Obergefell v. Hodges) that legalized civil marriage for same-sex couples throughout the entire United States of America. I knew intuitively last week that the backlash “would be terrible, and his retribution swift,” to borrow from J.R.R. Tolkien. From my perspective, that retribution has taken the form of pronouncements of God’s wrath upon America for reversing 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition (God must’ve been asleep during the genocide of native peoples or the enslavement of Africans, or maybe God is feeling trigger happy these days) and vapid appeals to Christian love, enjoining the faithful to “love the sinner and hate the sin.”
It is the later that makes community quite difficult, at least for me. I’m not sure where the “love the sinner, hate the sin” narrative came from, but it just does not work for me because, as far as LGBTQ persons are concerned, the “sin” people are hating is part of who we are. It is tantamount someone saying “I love you, but I have a problem with the fact that you’re black [or a woman, or tall).” Hating a person’s race or gender is called discrimination. Couple that with power and you have racism and sexism respectively. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a cop-out, a cover, a cleverly-devised rouse to mask one’s own proclivity to discriminate against that which they do not understand and have perhaps never truly taken the time to know. Imagine this: “I love you, but I hate the fact that you’re black…. but that’s not racist, because not only did God say it was okay, but God hates your blackness too.” I take back what I said earlier. It’s not cleverly-devised. It’s spiritually manipulative. Despite the fact that LGBTQ people have been screaming out loud that we were “born this way,” too many Christians are stuffing their ears with wadded up passages of scripture and preventing true listening from taking place.
I am deeply grateful for the years that I spent in Clinical Pastoral Education, both as an intern with the Church of the Common Ground and as a Resident at Emory University Hospital – Midtown, because both experiences taught me what it was like to listen intently. True listening requires one to divest oneself of all preconceived notions and ideas and commune with another person at the most basic and fundamental level, the “level of the ashtray,” to borrow from Howard Thurman. Whether I was sitting by the bedside of a staunch atheist (who only agreed to my presence in his room because his Roman Catholic wife was there and it made her “feel better”), walking down Trinity Avenue with a woman who had slept on that street the night before as she recounted where she shot-up heroin before she was assaulted by her pimp, or debriefing a doctor after a particularly difficult cardiac arrest situation, I had to see them as empty canvases and give them the ability to paint themselves for me. Relationships and conversations are opportunities. It’s not that you ignore who they are (gender, race, etc.), but you allow the other person the honor of naming what that experience has been like for them.
The problem with the “love the sinner, hate the sin” narrative, particularly as it applies to LGBTQ persons, is that is begins by dishonoring and ignoring us. Before we even sit down, the table is set wrong and the cards are stacked against us. We aren’t given the ability to name for ourselves how beautiful (or tragic, or normal) our lives are and how life-giving (or draining, or normal) our friendships and romantic relationships are. We aren’t allowed to name our connection to (or distance from) God. We aren’t given the agency and power to name our own experience because the lover is always filtering our words through – “but God says…” The “love the sinner, hate the sin” narrative is inherently unequal as it places the lover in the more powerful position because there is something “wrong” with the “sinner.” It says, without saying, that the lover is better than the sinner, even if the lover claims their own sin to be hated because, despite what we say, we do have a hierarchy of sins and despite the fact that “abomination” is used for both same-sex relations and shellfish, no one has ever left Red Lobster feeling particularly bad (unless they have food poisoning or had a particularly bad server).
The highest form of love loves is love for the sake of love because love is its own reward. That’s how C.S. Lewis describes agape love, or the highest form of love (charity). As such, I am calling bullshit on the “love the sinner, hate the sin” narrative. Stop it. Now. It is spiritually violent and, because it attaches preconditions to love, it is unchristian. For too long, LGBTQ persons, seeking to be loved by a society who would rather bash us or passive-aggressively “fix” us or families who will only accept parts of us, have accepted the love-with-preconditions and have engaged in a practice of soul-division. We have adopted the false-narrative that our sexuality is separate from our humanity. We’ve endured having our identity reduced to being called a “lifestyle,” like it’s merely a collection of behaviors. We have allowed ourselves to live in close proximity to dark closets, because some love is better than none at all… right?
People are not a la carte menus or a bag of trail mix. We are combo meals with no substitutions. This is not Burger King and you cannot have it your way. You can’t pick and choose the parts of people you feel comfortable with and leave the other parts of them aside. When it comes to people, it is all or nothing. If there is something about someone that you don’t understand, ask questions and learn. The world is a much more beautiful place when everyone takes time to learn about the world from another person’s perspective instead of walling one’s self off in a self-imposed sarcophagus of self-righteousness and close-minded religion.
Here’s my alternative: instead of “Love the sinner, hate the sin” what if we just “love the sinner, hate the sin?” Sin is an actual thing. This is evident by the brokenness in our world and the darkness in our own hearts, and as active and passive participants in a sin-filled world we are all, by extension (some of us be direct connection), sinners. But the only One who has the authority to call me a sinner chooses instead to call me “friend” and at the cross gave his own mother to be my mother, therefore making me his brother. Through his passion and resurrection, Jesus makes abundantly clear that love may bend, but it is too strong to break. Jesus may have eaten with sinners, but as Micah Murray points out in his 2013 Huffington Post article “Why I Can’t Say ‘Love the Sinner/Hate the Sin’ Anymore,” “They were his friends. People with names. Defined as beloved children of the Creator, not defined by their sins. Icons of God’s image. His brothers and sisters.” He calls each of us friends too. If we’re going to follow him, we might as well follow him.
Community is hard; but, a close-fitting, elbow-rubbing community may be the best school for charity as we each set aside the labels, assumptions, and preconceived notions about another person and see one another for the beautiful human beings we really are.