Balancing Acts – Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

tom b

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.

by Tom Beutel

“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

John 8:11 (NRSV)

While the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” does not actually appear in the Bible, it is a commonly expressed sentiment within the Christian community. The saying is attributed to St. Augustine, included in a letter c. 424 as “With love for mankind and hatred for sins.” Biblical support includes passages such as Romans 5:8, “ But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” in which God demonstrates his love despite people’s sin.

The idea of loving the sinner and hating the sin would seem to be foundational to any idea of peacemaking. In almost any situation that one can imagine involving peacemaking it is assumed that there is wrong that exists and which must be corrected: a government or leader or group is oppressing others; an army is killing enemies; the rich are prospering at the expense of the poor.

Here I fall back, as I often do, on the idea of peace as it is presented by Perry Yoder in Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice & Peace. The Old Testament word for peace, Shalom, and its New Testament Greek equivalent eirene denote more than the absence of violence; they describe wholeness and well-being, “things as they ought to be,” healthy, right relationships between people and God, themselves, others and the creation.

Peacemaking thus inherently involves discerning situations or behaviors that are not as they ought to be, where well-being of some is not present because of the actions of others (or even because of their own actions). Peacemaking then acts to bring about change, relieving those who are suffering. It seeks to do this without harming those who are causing the situation, even seeking their true well-being, loving them. This is what is meant by loving one’s enemies.

But notice what is implied. To say that things are not “as they ought to be,” that there are “enemies,” that is those who seek to deprive others of well-being, is to say that some behaviors are wrong while others are right. It is to say that some behaviors are sinful. As peacemakers attempt to rectify situations which are not “as they ought to be” while still loving those who cause them is to hate the sin and love the sinner.

Peacemaking goes beyond calming things down, beyond “keeping the lid on;” it is more than a “cease-fire.” To simply “get along” without recognizing wrong behaviors does not result in true peace. The Old Testament prophets frequently railed against such behaviors, calling out those false prophets who declared peace when there was no peace.  For example,

My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations …     Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Ezekiel 13:9a-10 (NRSV)

The implication of this scripture is that something is not right (a wall), but that it is being portrayed as things being right (whitewashed), in fact as “peace.” But, says God, there is no peace, the people are being misled.

We may be entering a time, in fact are already in that time, where peacemaking as we understand it will be very difficult, because it will be impossible to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” We are already in at least the beginnings of what some call the postmodern age. It is a time characterized by disillusionment in modernism, the age of reason and science which have failed to deliver solutions to humanity’s problems. This disillusionment has spread into a general distrust of all authority: government, education, science, parents, the church, etc.

This postmodern age is one in which there is no absolute truth, only stories constructed by individuals and groups out of their own experiences and desires. And, all stories are equally valid. Because stories are personal, it is not possible in the postmodern age to separate sin from sinner. To reject a particular behavior or belief is to reject the person exhibiting that behavior or belief. It is not possible to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It is not possible to say, as Jesus did in John 8:11, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” We must either reject the person as well as the behavior, or we must accept the behavior as well as the person.

The very idea of peacemaking is founded on the recognition that some beliefs and behaviors are right and others are wrong; there are behaviors that deny well-being, while other behaviors promote well-being. We, as peacemakers, need to be able to tell the difference if we are to truly make peace.

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