It would be easy to blame the media for the ugly misuse of sayings and phrases these days. With the oracle Google as close as most of our cell phones, we assume that if we hear something from our favorite info feed it must be true—freeing us from taking responsibility for thinking before we repeat. Since it is so easy to check the veracity and etymology of almost everything, we presume our favorite talking-head surely has. Thus the mindless regurgitation of clusters of words out of context and out of sync with reality seems to be all the rage. This leads me to believe that I have (d)evolved into an “Annoyed at Stupid Sayings Time Bomb” set to explode at 51 years old. That is to say, I’m likely to go off next time I hear my most hated aphorism, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
The context in which I’m hearing “Hate the sin, love the sinner” today is mostly around homosexuality—and perhaps this is ramping up due to it being an election year when hot-button topics are being fellated for the crescendo of a sound bite. The obvious interpretation of this maxim is that homosexuality is a sin and sin is to be hated. The phrase, not the context, comes from St. Augustine’s letter 211 (a.c.e. 424) in which he wrote, “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum,” which translates roughly as "With love for mankind and hatred of sins." In this letter Augustine rebukes the Nuns of the Monastery, of which his sister had been prioress, for certain turbulent manifestations of dissatisfaction with her successor and lays down general rules for their guidance. The quote has also been attributed to Gandhi, where it is found in his biography. I did not come across any ready scholarly biblical reference for the phrase.
My sensitivity to this phrase comes in no small part from raising a lesbian stepdaughter. When she was in her early teens I noticed she was not developing emotionally like her two sisters. She wasn’t ahead or behind—more like she was developing in parallel to them. She was not delighted with the feminine aspects of herself and was more comfortable running around with me in outfits that emulated my blue-collar ethic than in ones that mirrored her mom’s womanlier affect. She was curious about how people were attracted to each other and about alternative ways of thinking and being. By the time she was in high school, she had read every book on my philosophy bookshelf, was more comfortable with her hair short, and chose to hide her body behind looser clothing. Conspicuously, she didn’t have crushes on guys like her sisters did.
What became obvious to me was that my step-kid was not “choosing” to be different. She desperately wanted to know why she was somewhat off off-center compared to the other kids in her adolescent experiences. Most gay people with whom I’ve spoken about their sexuality have said that they, too, had wondered why they were so different—until they discovered others who were different like they were. This child who I raised, who used to cry when the other kids made fun of her for something she couldn’t help, has nothing wrong with her. This is how she is. She is also one of the kindest people I have ever known, is often funnier than is prudent, has an esthetic sense that would make anyone smile, and happens to be a lesbian. So to “hate the sin” that is the homosexuality with which my stepdaughter identifies, is to hate my stepdaughter. My child, who has done nothing in this life to be hated for and has grown into a fine young woman, is targeted by this phrase.
“Hate the sin, love the sinner” is passive-aggressive camouflage, providing a cozy, thought-free place to hide rather than coming right out and saying your belief system chooses to hate people like my kid. I write “chooses” because the references used to back up hating my daughter’s “sin” are surgically excised from scripture—conveniently ignoring the surrounding “sins” that are inconvenient to avoid in everyday life. Thus, the argument that homosexuality is sin usually comes with a scriptural reference. I am one of many who do not share faith with people who subscribe to a religious canon. To judge other people’s sin by what is considered a holy scripture carries no weight with me. I do not have the emotional or cultural attachment to scripture that allows me to use it as a barometer to measure anything.
But all religious and interpretive issues aside, there is an emotional reaction to that saying that is as real to me as the faith is to others. It feels like condemnation and an admission of hatred for someone I hold dear—for many of the people in my life I hold dear. The transparent bubble wrap of scriptural reference doesn’t soften the offensive blow to my psyche every time I hear “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” It is piercing dissonance because most people who spout “Hate the sin, love the sinner” are unaware of what they are doing to the people around them who know what they really mean, even if the purveyors of the saying do not. Everybody is surrounded by shades of grey of homosexuality. Whether it is the guy who delivers the water or the woman who fits your kids with braces—you do not know. Most of those who have risen above the self-loathing that “Hate the sin, love the sinner” perpetuates will not let on that you are doing the equivalent of getting right up in their face and telling them to die in a fire. Most will show you the grace and courtesy you are not affording them—because they know you do not understand that homosexuals are your sons and daughters, and fathers and mothers—that some of those who preach intolerance the loudest are suppressing their own homosexuality.
And as I move farther into life I’ve shared with people who choose partners of their own gender, I see them as being grateful for the progress made in their lifetimes. Many of them have lost the need to hate those who hate them. I find their presence centering because they have lived through everything from attempts on their lives to the constant soft-core pornography, of which “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is no small part. And they have done it without needing to tell those who hate them to die in a fire.
I anxiously await my evolution to the enlightened place that many who have suffered this insult directly have reached.