Crossing the T

Life at the intersection of Church and Trans with Rev. Allyson Robinson

The questionable ethics of “love the sinner, hate the sin”

“We have seen Satan, and he is us!”

Writing at EthicsDaily.com yesterday, Dr. Miguel A. de la Torre (director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology) reaches that conclusion after a concise deconstruction of traditional responses to the Problem of Evil and the development of the concept of Satan:

The early shapers of sacred text found themselves in the position of having to protect God from accusations of being the source of evil. As it became less acceptable to have aspects of God represented in evil elements or events, independent evil figures had to be birthed. If Satan did not exist, then they had to create one so as to vindicate God.

One problem with their strategy is that the texts often place responsibility for human suffering squarely in God’s lap. De la Torre notes the story of Job, the case of Saul, and the words of Amos (“Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?“) as evidence. This is why systematic theologians have to walk such a fine line when they describe Satan. Attribute too much power to him, and you weaken your monotheism; too little, and you risk making God responsible for acts otherwise considered evil.

But there are other, more practical problems with our traditional conception of Satan as well, as de la Torre points out. (Emphasis here is mine.)

Here then is the ethical concern: seeing Satan in the other. It cannot be denied that evil was, and continues to be, committed. But to reduce the other to a representative of evil justifies cruelties and atrocities to be committed by those engaged in the battle to save humans from Satan’s corruption. No evil ever dreamed up by Satan or his demons can outdo the atrocities committed by good, decent people attempting to purge such evil forces from this world.

Hence de la Torre’s conclusion: “We have seen Satan, and he is us.” We unwittingly do evil when we see other community members as evil’s source and deal with them accordingly.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians regularly face this kind of treatment from their brothers and sisters in Christ. A mother and father force a gay child into a harmful reparative therapy program against his will. A family gives a lesbian aunt the “silent treatment” for years. A church ejects a long-time member who chooses to transition from one gender to another. This is what “love the sinner, hate the sin” has tended to look like.

Like the traditional theological conception of Satan, the doctrine of “love the sinner, hate the sin” forces adherents to walk a fine line. Stray too much toward love, and you risk enabling behavior you see as sinful. Stray too much toward hate, and you risk… Well, what, exactly? Most Christians, I think, instinctively sense that hate is dangerous, but would be hard pressed to say why. God hates, according to the texts at least, and Christians are instructed to hate (Romans 12:9 being the most general example). But the problem we recognize intuitively lies in hating the wrong things or hating for the wrong reason. Here the texts are often ambiguous, and that’s where the danger is.

This ambiguity means that Christians will err in their application of this doctrine, and so we’re forced to make some calculated decisions to minimize the error. Unfortunately, many seem inclined to err on the side of purity, and as a result, LGBT people are excommunicated from churches, ejected from families, and made to submit to exorcisms or rehabilitation programs. But the hypocrisy of erring on the side of purity is obvious–as both Testaments proclaim, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” When we reprimand some for alleged impurity without recognizing impurity in ourselves, we show our ethic to be arbitrary and self-serving. This hypocrisy is increasingly off-putting to those outside the church, and the LGBT people who are forced to endure it often leave the church and their faith behind, never to return. Above all, God’s feelings about hypocrisy are clear: “Woe to you.” Eight times, “Woe to you.”

So then why do we choose to err on the side of purity rather than on the side of inclusiveness and welcome? Perhaps, when God asks us that question one day, we can say, “The Devil made us do it.” It would go better for us, I think, if we remembered that Romans 12:9, the verse that instructs us to hate what is evil, prefaces that instruction with these words: “Let love be without hypocrisy.”

(Image courtesy gapingvoid).

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2 Comments»

  Joyce wrote @

Satan is always more interesting than God for a whole host of authors and filmmakers. Why? I think you’ve got it right, Allyson: because he’s a lot like us. I know hundreds of people with little bits of jealousy and malice and pettiness and vindictiveness and ambition and soaring self-importance. . . and not a single person with God-like qualities.

What makes Satan really interesting for authors like Milton is not necessarily his “evil-ness,” but that he’s ambitious. His crime? Not “I don’t believe,” but “I will not serve” (Non Serviam).

Sometimes, at least in popular culture, the only way to establish the existence of philosophy of a god is to flesh out your satan because God is everything Satan is not. Which always seems a bit of a cop-out — I’d love to see a God character who’s complex, ambitious, smart, schooled and yet zen-like, playful, loving without being smarmy. In short, someone we can kind of relate to — if Albert Einstein is asking too much, then someone like Bob Newhart. Alanis Morrisett’s God in *Dogma* only hints at the kind of character one can create (Milton wouldn’t dream of humanizing his God), and the Jesuses of Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell or Last Temptation of Christ try really hard to humanize the deity.

I have no idea if there’s a god, but I know full well that I live in a society with people who believe there’s a god. And that’s why this discussion of acceptance, tolerance, and love matters, Allyson, because these beliefs are turned into actions and laws. Theologically, if there’s a risk of humanizing God, of making Him seem less than perfect and good, and if that risk is felt as dangerous in undercutting belief and faith (a debatable claim, of course), the risks of holier-than-thou and love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin attitudes and actions levied upon gender- and sex- and belief-variant people are far greater, and thus it is worth re-examining our concepts of good and evil and hate and love for the sakes of our fellow citizen-sinners.

  Amelie wrote @

Oh my gosh Alyssia, you have no idea how much I needed to read this post. *hugs* Thanks for presenting this so clearly and soundly.


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