Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin: How a Bad Idea Becomes Canon

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin: How a Bad Idea Becomes Canon December 8, 2015

We’ve been talking about system design lately.

A system is a method of creating solutions to problems in order to meet an organization’s goals, to put it loosely. (Here’s a more in-depth definition.) Last time we talked about the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin,” which many Christians use as justification for the way they treat the people they don’t approve of. It’s one of the most glaring examples of a place where Christian system design goes hideously wrong–but this certainly isn’t the only place where a bad system can be observed.

That sound you just heard was me noping right the heck out of there--even while admiring the sheer orderliness of the system on display. (Credit: Kabacchi, CC license.) An elaborate interchange in Tokyo.
That sound you just heard was me noping right the heck out of there–even while admiring the sheer orderliness of the system on display. (Credit: Kabacchi, CC license.) An elaborate interchange in Tokyo.

Christians might enjoy thinking that their churches and denominations are buttressed by a deity, but there is nothing supernatural about how their most treasured religious ideas have evolved. Hierarchical religious structures are meant to create unity and provide leaders more control over followers. Doctrines, oaths, and covenants unify religious expression and provide a way of signaling membership. The more codified, powerful, and rigid a religion becomes, the more important its systems become to adherents–and the greater the risks and penalties for defying those systems. No god is required to understand any of it. That’s not a bad thing; it’d be far worse for Christians if their claims were true, given how disastrous “love the sinner, hate the sin” is as a system.

Bread and Circuses.

It’s astonishing to consider how a mantra that runs so hilariously, tragically counter to Christianity’s mission statements could ever have become one of Christians’ dominant strategies for interacting with the world outside their bubble, but here we are.

I don’t think the phrase’s popularity happened on purpose. I doubt anybody sat down and said, “Gosh, let’s make up a strategy that will actively hurt our religion, drive people away from it, and destroy our credibility.” More likely, the design happened organically and by fits and starts, the same way any routine does in the hands of a gifted speaker or performing artist.

Such performers can tell what flies and what doesn’t in their audiences. Most of them have a specific target audience they’re shooting for–whether it’s Joyce Meyer burbling about how women should behave, Eddie Murphy doing stand-up at a comedy club, or Tim Minchin singing about the Catholic pedophilia scandal. They’ll try something new, and if it gets no reaction or a bad reaction then they’ll drop it as a dud. If it gets a great reaction or there seems to be some potential there, then the artist will keep that material and hone it to make it more effective the next time it’s performed. This approach works well in venues like performance art or comedy, where the artist receives real feedback right away.

In religion, however, there’s a bit more going on than just whether or not the audience is reacting as desired. That reaction is supposed to galvanize the audience into doing something tangible in the real world–and is supposed to inform how they see the world around themselves and how they treat other people in it. In that situation, the truth matters. The audience must be both entertained and accurately informed. Without accurate information, the real-world actions being encouraged are very likely to be in error.

If a chemistry teacher at a high school constantly made factual mistakes but was hugely entertaining, parents (and let’s be fair–probably students too) would be understandably up in arms about the idea of entertaining students at the expense of teaching them real science. It does those students no service at all to entertain them but send them into the world armed with erroneous ideas about chemistry.

In the same way, a politician can get crowds whipped into a frenzy, but if it’s done with dishonesty, the results can be disastrous. We’re seeing this exact situation happen with one political party in the United States right now, with politicians telling such outrageous and baldfaced lies that some of their audience are getting so inflamed with rage and misogyny that they are committing truly reprehensible crimes in response to the misinformation they’ve absorbed.

But a certain number of people don’t care if a politician or preacher lies or speaks in error as long as that speaker tells them what they want to hear, hates who they hate, promises to illegally enshrine into law the overreach they want enshrined into law, and wants to oppress, bully, and dehumanize the same people they want to hurt. As long as the speaker bears in mind the principles of getting an idea enshrined into canon, the flocks will happily play along.

The Three Requirements for Making a False Teaching Part of a System.

1. The new idea must fit in with teachings the group already generally accepts.

In the case of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” the idea encompasses a number of teachings embraced by fundagelical Christians:

* Non-believers don’t always know what’s best for themselves, but Christians always do.
* Sure, Christians must be loving, but love isn’t always pleasant for the target (see: fundagelicals’ totally misunderstood conceptualization of “tough love”).
* Christians are better people than non-Christians are, so a Christian-dominated society is automatically a better, safer, and happier society than a secular one is.
* Christians are qualified and obligated to judge and control other people.
* A society not controlled by Christian Designated Adults will collapse into chaos, crime, violence, and lawlessness.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” doesn’t conflict with a single one of those teachings. If anything, the phrase gives fundagelicals all the permission they need to keep doing exactly what they are doing–and to avoid even seeing the many ways that their behavior backfires by driving people even further away from their religion.

2. It has to tell the audience something it really wants to hear–and avoid saying anything it doesn’t.

For all Christians’ love of imagining themselves as the put-upon underdogs in their own stories, they don’t put up very well with people telling them stuff they don’t want to hear. It’s one of their most important rules: any Christian who tries to tell the tribe, “Hey, y’all, let’s not be assholes-for-Jesus anymore because this is seriously alienating the people we say we want to convert” will get immediately dogpiled by legions of angry Christians who are happy to provide dozens of reasons why they cannot possibly stop being assholes-for-Jesus.

Some of the cruelest and nastiest communications such a voice-in-the-wilderness will ever receive will come directly from their own tribemates, because the tribe can’t have someone speaking up in dissent to their most treasured teachings. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is, again, part of a woven nest of other teachings that all need to be dismantled. Without that dismantling, there is no way possible to simply remove one part of the tangle and expect the rest of the tribe to be totally fine with losing that permission slip. Christians who genuinely believe that their behavior is loving (when it isn’t) or that they are uniquely qualified to judge other people by dint of their faith (when they’re not) won’t see the problem being laid before them.

But let Kirk Cameron tell his fellow Christians that atheists do too totally believe in Jesus but deny their deep-down secret belief, because how else could atheists possibly be so angry at the Christian god, and the audience will go wild because he is feeding into all of those other beliefs they hold.

It’s not hard at all to find tons of Christians who are well aware that their peers’ favorite rationalization isn’t loving at all, Christians who totally reject the whole idea of hating anything about their neighbors, judging people, or interfering with other people’s lives. I found one blog post that was very sweetly written trying to tell Christians that this tactic is “not pointing anyone to Jesus,” and it’s pretty par for the course for dissenters. He was, of course, dogpiled as I describe in his comments; it’s sad to see so many people so fixated on being hateful.

Unfortunately, these saner voices are not the ones carrying the conversation for most fundagelicals.

Instead of listening to the people telling them that their message is not loving at all, Christians listen to the ones telling them what they really want to hear: that it’s wonderfully Christlike and loving to mistreat, judge, control, and bully people.

And the worst part of all is that they seriously think that “loving the sinner and hating the sin” is going to achieve their official goal of converting people. That’s where the third element of a bad system design comes into play:

3. The idea must be immune to fact-checking or outside corrective measures.

We’ve talked many times before about how impervious to objective verification much of Christianity is. Wise Christians steer well clear of making any assertions at all about how their religion factors into reality. But their less wise peers make all kinds of supernatural claims that simply don’t hold up to even casual examination.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is one of those claims. Christians claim that this is the trendy new way to show “sinners” love in a way that is divinely-inspired and Christlike and which will inspire the lucky sinners on the receiving end of it to convert–or at least behave themselves by complying with Christians’ demands, which is just as good.

But it doesn’t.

To most of the people on the receiving end of it, the phrase feels a lot like Christians are cutting a few words out of the equation and heading straight for hating the sinner.

It’s not like we haven’t been telling Christians for decades that their chosen rationalization doesn’t feel loving to us. It’s not like we haven’t been telling them that we do not feel inspired to join their tribe because of their shows of sanctimonious disapproval. They know that we deeply resent their attempts to control our lives and insert their meddling hands into our business. They know that we don’t believe for one second that Christians must be allowed this control over the rest of us in the name of “religious liberty” or whatever self-delusion they’ll embrace next. They hear this pushback every single day from the exact people they claim they most want to influence.

But–and this is very telling–they don’t drop the idea.

They say they dearly want to persuade people. They say that every single thing they do is, ultimately, about convincing people to join them. They piously proclaim at all opportunities that they want to save every single person on the planet from their “loving” god’s wrath. If I thought for one second that this was really their aim, I’d be simply mind-boggled at the sheer money, effort, and time they have poured into their efforts to “win souls for Jesus.” For thousands of years, Christians have, according to their official propaganda, been toiling toward this end. If they aren’t working toward this goal, then there’s no point at all to their entire religion’s existence.

All that said, for some reason they are singularly focused on doing stuff that actively repels both non-believers and their more loving adherents.

That’s because there are two more beliefs from the first section that we must examine:

* When dogma and reality collide, dogma wins.

That means that when a course of action seems disastrously ill-advised but fits in with all the other teachings Christians have embraced, they must continue to do that action even though it seems like the worst idea in the world. In fact they must double down on the action and do it even more, even harder, even more often! Either it’ll start working eventually, or else it won’t ever work but that’s what Jesus wants so Christians can’t possibly stop doing it lest they anger him through disobedience.

My own Pentecostal denomination taught this mindset to me 25 years ago, and today I see the same ideas informing Christians’ actions today in all sorts of situations (such as abstinence-only mis-education, which even its “prophet” admits doesn’t work to prevent teens from having sex).

It doesn’t matter in the least if Christians’ victims push back against ill-treatment, though:

* Because “sinners” are so mired in sin and so blind to their own degraded condition, they cannot be trusted to correctly evaluate anything–even their own opinions and thoughts. Christians must evaluate sinners’ opinions and thoughts for them because only they can see the situation clearly enough to handle this important task.

You will search far and wide to find a fundagelical who embraces “love the sinner, hate the sin” but rejects this rather insulting linchpin of the entire mindset. If you’ve ever had a Christian accuse you of lying about a personal opinion or story you’ve just shared or try to dictate your thoughts or opinions for you, this teaching is why they do it. They are taught to think that non-believers don’t have the faintest idea what’s right or wrong because they aren’t informed by the Holy Spirit. So if a non-Christian pushes back against something a Christian does, to the Christian that means the Christian is doing something right–something that should be repeated with vigor.

Nothing’s been left to chance here.

Fundagelical Christians have created a system whereby only they are allowed to evaluate people’s conditions and thoughts and to judge their lives, then completely stripped those people’s input from consideration, and then given themselves full permission to trample all over the exact people whose opinions they no longer desire, value, or think they need. They’ve created a system that grants them full permission to hurt others, relabels what they’re doing as “love” to make it more palatable, and then silences or ignores anyone who tries to tell them it’s not actually loving at all.

And then they are totally shocked, dismayed, or even outraged when the people they have emotionally manhandled like this reject their overtures. It’s almost funny that they seem so frantic to stop their religion’s downward slide into irrelevance. To anybody with eyes to see, their strategy as it stands now couldn’t possibly produce anything but the result it has wreaked.

For all their efforts to stop that downward slide, until they start seriously examining and dismantling the buttressing beliefs that make “love the sinner, hate the sin” even possible, nothing’s going to change for them.

I don’t even think they want anything to change, either. Christians who idolize this phrase certainly behave like they think it is far more important to guard their imagined right to judge and control others than it is to persuade people to join their cause. When presented with clear evidence that their favorite saying is completely, totally counterproductive, their solution is to keep using the saying and to try to find some way to silence or override the people telling them that it doesn’t accomplish what they say they most want to accomplish in the whole wide world.

It’s hard to miss that kind of double messaging. We’ll talk about how someone can manage the trick next time. See you Thursday!

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