Treat Sinners With Love, Not Prejudice

Treat Sinners With Love, Not Prejudice September 28, 2011

The Christian life is meant to be one of humble charity. We all are sinners who have had sins forgiven by Christ. We are called to be merciful to others, to forgive them, to show them love and respect, even as we have been given love and respect by Christ. We should not seek to put ourselves in high positions of authority, to claim some authority over others because we think we are better than them.

Jesus said we should seek to be the servants of all:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25- 28 RSV).

One way so many lord it over others is by unjustly judging them. Such judgment tends to be done out of pride, trying to find a way to elevate oneself in relation to someone else. “Look at that great sinner. Look at what they have done! How dare they think they can get away with it?!” Not only does such judgment lack the mercy which Jesus expects of us, it renders our own penance moot. We have been forgiven great debts. How can we turn around and condemn someone else for their sins? Indeed, we have been forgiven so much that we can find salvation in Christ. The great charity Christ renders unto us is not to be held to and treated as it is something of ours alone, but shared. We must never forget our own sinful condition, our own need for charity. We must not be a hypocrite.

Some might say it is not being a hypocrite for judging others for sins we ourselves do not commit. But we have sinned. As James tells us, we are guilty of breaking the whole of the law. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10 RSV). We are hypocrites when we render condemnation upon others. We are hypocrites when we try to deride others for their sins while ignoring our own sins (forgiven or not). We are not called to lord it over others, but to understand that they, along with us, are sinners, and we need to help each other in charity, shown in a true, loving fashion. When we do not share a weakness with someone else, we must not use that as a reason to feel superior. Instead, we should be reminded where our sins lie and consider how we would feel if people treated us for our sins the way we treated them about theirs. How would we be if people derided us, treated us as outcasts, kicked in the streets and forced to live in poverty, because of our sins? And yet that is often how we treat others.

There is, of course, another kind of hypocrisy which we must avoid: giving excuses for ourselves and for our own laxity in dealing with our own sins while not giving others the same benefit of doubt. Indeed, historically, whole classes of people have had to face this kind of discrimination. Women, for example, have been burdened with greater demands by society, and often receive abuse which they alone suffer if they sin in the same manner as men do. As St. Caesarius of Arles points out, men must be treated the same way women are treated:

Since those we are speaking about want their wives to be chaste, with what kind of a conscience do they commit wicked adultery, thereby asserting that what is not lawful for their wives is perfectly licit for themselves? As though God gave two commandments, one for men and another for women! [1]

In his next sermon, St. Caesarius continues with this theme:

How is it that many men do not blush to take concubines before marriage, and then afterwards dismiss them to claim lawful wives? The argue with themselves that first they seek unjust riches and unfair gains as the result of many calumnies and robbery, but afterwards, contrary to reason, they marry wives who are more noble and richer than themselves. Behold with what evils they blind themselves, since they unhappily desire to serve avarice and passion as well as dissipation.[2]

Women have historically faced this double standard; the Church has often had great saints speak out against it all the while society ignored this call for justice. Thankfully, the call against sexism has in recent times taken root and we have seen an improvement here (though, one can say, it is not entirely eliminated). But it is not just sexism which needs to be eliminated: all double standards which abuse one group or another must be overcome. While it is understandable why unredeemed society will find it more difficult to overcome their own hypocritical double standards, Christians are called to transcend society, to be a light into the world and the salt of the earth. We cannot stand such injustice. Racism, sexism, abuse against people due to their religious beliefs or sexual practices, all of these are unacceptable to the Christian. By recognizing the fundamental human dignity of all, we are not approving sin, but we are approving the person and recognize that the mercy rendered to us requires us to render mercy to everyone else:

Have good will, love all men as yourself, pray for everyone, and desire the same thing for them as for yourself, in order that the angels may proclaim to you: ‘Peace to men of good will.’ Since good will itself is charity, if you wish to possess it the following will be fulfilled in you: ‘Charity covers a multitude of sins.’[3]

If we want our sins to be forgiven, we must possess a charitable heart. It must be loving and benevolent, looking for the welfare of others. It is not going to be troublesome, looking for some excuse to put others down; no, it will look for a way to lift them up. Let us not be hypocrites, looking for one thing for ourselves but not give it to others. Let us render to all love:

If we do this, no strife over earthly possessions, no scandal, no quarrels will be able to separate us from the love of God and of our neighbor. Indeed, how will it be possible for anyone to do wrong if he loves all men as himself with perfect charity? Love all men with your whole heart, and do whatever you wish. Love those who are just because they are good, and pray that they will ever become better. Love also those who are wicked because they are men, and hate the fact that they are evil. [4]

We are not to love evil deeds, but we are to remember the people who do those deeds are people who deserve and need our love, not our condemnation. We, who do not want to be condemned in the eschatological judgment but want God’s gracious love to raise us up despite our sins, must see ourselves treating others with similar love. Anything else is not love, and so not of Christ.

Let us go forth and love, so that we can obtain that which we most seek, God, who is himself love. Let us love, for this is what gives glory to God.

[1] St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 42 in St. Caesarius of Arles Sermons 1 – 50. Trans. Sister Mary Magdeline Mueller, O.S.F. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1956), 210-11.

[2] St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 43 in St. Caesarius of Arles Sermons 1 – 50. Trans. Sister Mary Magdeline Mueller, O.S.F. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1956), 216.

[3] St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 30 in St. Caesarius of Arles Sermons 1 – 50. Trans. Sister Mary Magdeline Mueller, O.S.F. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1956), 151.

[4] St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 35 in St. Caesarius of Arles Sermons 1 – 50. Trans. Sister Mary Magdeline Mueller, O.S.F. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1956), 175.

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  • Very well said, Henry. Thank you.

  • Mark Gordon

    Thanks for this Henry. It is a perfect follow up to my previous post on serving the poor in humility, without judgment. St. John of the Cross wrote “in the evening of our lives we will be judged by how well we have loved.” Amen.

  • I agree with you in a general sense. You love the sinner but hate the sin. The laity also has the obligation to teach others the Truth and to call out and correct those who do not follow the Magisterial teachings properly. We can correct others with being charitable at the same time. We should not do this to feel superior but out of love so that the laity who are confused or ill-informed about this or that teaching understands the teachings of the Church properly. Love with Truth.

    Good post.

    • Liam

      I just listen to where the center of gravity energy for the loving the sinner versus hating the sin rests. It often seems the case that people get more relish from the hating than the loving….

      • I totally get what you are saying Liam, but it could be the case that some people are just frustrated with the Church or bishops allowing certain scandal to occur while (and it may only seem this way) nothing is being done to correct the scandal or scandalous actions, and the length of time which the public scandal is allowed to occur.