The Problem with “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”

June 30, 2015

It’s a phrase I’ve  heard repeatedly in recent weeks from conservative Christians: “I disapprove of gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean I hate gay people. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s a useful rhetorical position to take because evidence of its authenticity can only be found in the heart of the person using it.

I used the phrase often when I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, during the heights of the AIDS scare. My father was (is) a small-town fundamentalist preacher who insisted the dreaded “Gay Disease” was a plague sent from God to punish homosexuals for their sins. When it was discovered that AIDS was not restricted to the gay community, he broadened the scope of God’s wrath to include adulterers, communists, fornicators, pornographers, feminists, and Democrats. There were enough sins in America to go around.

At the time, I had never met a gay person. Actually, let me rephrase that: at the time, I had never met an openly gay person. Surely there were men and women in my hometown who preferred their own gender, but they would never have admitted as much. I don’t believe any physical harm would have come to them, but they certainly would have been socially shunned, and in a town of 2,000, that can be personally and financially devastating. There were rumors, of course. Why did two male bachelors own the only video-rental store in town? What was up with the women’s volleyball coach? But these were questions whispered behind closed doors.

So I never had to look someone in the eye when I said that I loved them but hated their sin. I never had to explain how that dichotomy worked. It was philosophical exercise at best, and one the rest of my community agreed with. It fit perfectly with my beliefs as a Christian. Jesus loved everyone, but he did not tolerate every action. He socialized with thieves, prostitutes, and tax collectors, but he did not condone their behavior. I was following his example. Every sin was an abomination in the eyes of God.

But homosexuality was different. I would have never admitted this at the time, but it repulsed me in a way that, say, stealing or lying did not. Even murder. When I was in high school, the local newspaper reported a stabbing in a nearby town. The perpetrator was a man I’d met once, an uncle of a friend. He was sent to prison, and although it shocked me to know that he had stuck a knife in another man during a bar fight, I found it easy to pray for his forgiveness. He didn’t seem like a bad guy.

But homosexuality…that was where I drew the line. It was unforgivable. Why? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew the reason had to do with sex.

Sex was a problem I struggled with, the primary source of sin in my life. I wasn’t having sex, of course–I firmly believed in abstinence until marriage–but I was thinking about it constantly, and that was the same thing. I was sinning in my heart. And not just once or twice. In school, in church, at the dinner table, during basketball practice, at the grocery store, in the shower. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew nothing about sex. My father had removed me from the only Sex Ed class our high school offered because he said he’d already given me all the education I needed on the topic: don’t do it. I didn’t consider sex a biological imperative, I didn’t know about hormones, that it was physically impossible for me to stop wanting sex. It was a test, and I kept failing. I wasn’t supposed to masturbate, so instead of actually touching myself (which would have been a conscious transgression) I humped things. All kinds of things. Pillows, couch cushions, car seats, chairs, tables. I would rub up against just about anything. It sounds funny now, but at the time it was not. I developed rashes and infections. My groin burned constantly. Still, I would not use my hand. After climax, I was devastated. Every time. I had broken God’s laws. I cried. Not crocodile tears. This the real thing: head bowed, rocking back and forth, clenched fists, snot everywhere. Sometimes I would slap myself in the face or pinch myself on the leg so hard it bruised the skin. There was something wrong with me. I needed to be punished. I knew that sex was a beautiful thing inside the confines of marriage, but it was a dirty thing inside my own fantasies. I struggled to understand how that worked. I prayed for forgiveness. I promised never to do it again. But of course, in the end I was not strong enough to uphold that promise. I let God down. I sinned. I was a sinner.

Homosexuals disgusted. me. This was a form of sex I was allowed to openly despise. They were gross. They were unnatural. I focused all of my own self-loathing on them. I called them “homos” and “faggots” and “fags” and “dykes.” Not in church, of course. Just in my head and sometimes in school. In church, I called them “sinners” and I prayed that they would be healed by God’s love. But even though everyone in the church claimed to love gay people, I could tell by the looks on their faces it took a special kind of effort. These people were disgusting. These people were an abomination. This sin was worse than the others. And somehow the idea that they could love one another was even worse than the idea of them having sex. How dare they claim to have deep, lasting, committed relationships. How dare they claim to be like us.

I have never been able to figure out why I was so repulsed by gay people–the issues are buried deep in the slippery waters of the subconscious–but I do know it had something to do with my own self-loathing and sexual dysfunctions. I feared the very idea of them. Their existence was a direct assault on my faith and my definition of self. These feelings felt right at the time. Intuitive. Natural.

I was a homophobe. There’s no justification for it. It wasn’t the totality of who I was, but it was a part of me.

Things started to change when I went to college. Not right away, but gradually. I met openly gay people for the first time, people I never would have guessed were gay, people who were so very…normal. I asked questions. I had conversations. I made friends. I discovered it was impossible to love the sinner and hate the sin. There was no sinner. There was no sin. There was a person. I could no longer reduce someone’s existence to a bumper sticker. It took a long time. I’m still dealing with the weedy roots of my homophobia today. It was planted when I was young, and it runs deep.

Not all Christians understand my experience. I have friends and family who have always supported the gay community, others who have discovered paths of acceptance within their faith. There’s hope in the younger generation.

But there are many more who still believe they can divide people into neat compartments, that they can love someone while simultaneously despising a core aspect of that person. It’s impossible. You can’t keep hate separate from love. It will find a way to get out. Despite all the pop songs, love is not as strong as we want it to be. The hate will win. For the most part, these are good people. I don’t share their faith anymore or many of their political views, but I know they are kind, caring, funny, giving, weird, happy, wonderful human beings. I have eaten pie with them. I have watched The Princess Bride with them. I have listened to Johnny Cash with them. They volunteer at homeless shelters and bake casseroles for the elderly. They go to their children’s t-ball games. They curl up under blankets on rainy days with giant bowls of popcorn. They are good.

But the thought of two men getting married fills them with anger. They see pictures of a wedding, and they cannot contain their rage. They post awful things on social media and then do incoherent philosophical somersaults to justify themselves. They cannot see the recent Supreme Court decision as a long overdue civil rights victory that upholds the core fundamentals of freedom that this country was founded upon. They probably don’t understand why they are so angry. I know I never did. It’s the hate they tried to separate from the love. It cannot be contained. It has no logic. It has no reason. It is the true sin.

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One Response to “The Problem with “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin””

  1. leegooden Says:

    Excellent! Well put and well written Dale. I also went through a fundamentalist born again Christain stage in my life. I remember those feelings. I remember them well.


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