Last time we talked, I mentioned that violent extremism is exactly what forced-birther rhetoric is meant to produce, despite their insistence that they’re in it to “save lives.” Now we’re going to talk a little bit more about what I meant by the failure of Christian system design.
There are a great many discrepancies between the goals Christians say they want to achieve, the ones they actually appear to want to achieve, and the ones they actually are achieving. These discrepancies form disconnects where their line of reasoning breaks down and their stated vs. actual vs. achieved goals can be observed.
Yep, today we’re going to talk about one of Christians’ all-time favorite mantras:
Love the sinner, hate the sin.
It was a saying that was gaining ground back in the 80s when I converted to Pentecostalism. The idea was that Christians should always hate and fight against “sin,” a term that meant “behaviors we solidly disapproved of.” We thought we should do everything in our power to stop other people from sinning and that we had a divinely-mandated responsibility to interfere in this way.
Our responsibility might manifest as glares, lectures, ostracizing, shunning, or gaining political or even physical power over that person to forcibly stop him or her from “sinning.” Almost always, the behavior we disapproved of was sexual in nature, but we weren’t sex-obsessed evangelicals–we were saving souls! They’d thank us when we were all in Heaven–and maybe even on Earth once they realized just how much better their lives were now that they were living good clean “godly” lives.
If we couldn’t get genuine cooperation from our targets, then we’d take grudging compliance. We’d always been that way, but now we had a way of doing it while convinced we were being very loving to our victims–a way that seemed blessed by Jesus himself.
Little wonder the phrase took off the way it did.
The saying at the center of the trendy way to practice sanctimonious Christian control-lust does not appear in the Bible. Its roots go way back, though it didn’t hit Christians’ popular imagination until recently. One finds few, if any references to the saying in Google Books’ search engine before the 1950s, but by the 1970s and 1980s, the idea exploded in popularity. Now it is frequently deployed against gay people, a uniquely-Christian sort of “I’m not racist, but…” disavowal of prejudice.
In essence, it means: “I don’t hate these people–I love them! I only want to carve away the parts of them I don’t like and force them to comply with my ideas of morality to make them more acceptable to King Me–er, I mean, to Jesus.”
But this facade has a crack in it.
Like most Protestants today do, my church also believed that “works” (that’s Christianese for “complying with Christian leaders’ demands”) wouldn’t get anyone into Heaven. People had to firmly believe in and love what we conceptualized as Jesus, or else nothing they did mattered. So forcing people to live according to our demands didn’t seem very productive.
Worse, the people subjected to this “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra didn’t come out of it feeling loved. They didn’t even come out of it feeling drawn closer toward the “Good News.” They wanted even less to do with Christianity after being treated to some of our “Christian love” than they would have if we’d just left them alone.
And worse still, nothing we objected to actually seemed like it made people’s lives any better or worse than Christianity did. There was only so long I could believe my peers’ sanctimonious declarations that my perception might seem accurate about “worldly” people seeming happier than Christians did on average, but this was a false happiness brought about by demons tricking people into thinking they were happy so they didn’t see any reason to convert–an idea that I saw parroted later in God’s Not Dead.*
If we didn’t pester and try to interfere with people doing stuff we didn’t like, then we’d be “condoning sin” by “allowing” it to happen–as if we had the right or the ability or the duty to stop other people from exercising their wills and rights. Either way, anything in the world was better than “condoning sin.” If we condoned a sin, then we’d be just as responsible for it as the person who actually did it–somehow. And of course, only we could tell what was sinful and what wasn’t. I mean, they sure couldn’t figure that out for themselves.
All of this had to happen because we’d been told by Jesus to go out and judge the shit out of our neighbors.
Actually, we’d been told specifically not to judge anyone by, apparently, Jesus himself. In fact, the Great Commandment is to “love your neighbor,” not “love your neighbor but force him to behave the way you think he should behave.” Even back then, I began to notice that a lot of people in my religion sure thought that’s what it said. They were totally convinced that the Great Commandment was overridden by the story of Jesus telling the woman taken in adultery to “go and sin no more,” forgetting two things: First, that he specifically said he wasn’t condemning her, and second, that none of us were actually Jesus Christ, for fuck’s sake, so just because he got to tell people to “go and sin no more,” we were under a strict command not to fucking judge people.
Funny how so many Christians totally ignore the direct command about something they really don’t want to obey (don’t judge others), so they can concentrate on warping and distorting a tale told about their Savior to make it into a permission slip letting them do what they really wanted to do anyway (judging others). They’ve designed a system that lets them do what they really want, while saying that their system is meant to do something entirely different. The results they’re getting aren’t the results they say they want, but Christians do seem to be getting exactly the results they really do want because there’s no possible way they could get anything else out of this intrinsically flawed system other than what they’re getting.
All we have to do to see the disconnect here is to look at what their system is actually doing and compare that to what they say the system should be doing.
What is the system meant to produce?
I don’t think most Christians actually have the faintest idea why they must try to control others and disapprove at them. It’s just axiomatic among them by now that they must. So when we talk of the goals of this tactic, bear in mind that some extrapolation has to be done.
These are the two major reasons for “loving the sinner and hating the sin” that I’ve teased out of Christian sermons, conversations, and writings:
* It’s supposed to make non-compliant people feel “convicted.” That’s Christianese for a sort of guilt thought to be inspired by their god, a guilt which leads to “repentance,” which means apologies and an effort to change. “Loving the sinner and hating the sin” is supposed to make sinners realize they’re doing something wrong, because slews of people still don’t know about fundagelicals’ simple, universal message of hatred, class warfare, sex-negativity, misogyny-as-the-bonus-plan, repression, disapproval, and exclusion. If Christians don’t disapprove at people and try to stop them from “sinning,” then they’ll just keep sinning in ignorance and probably get even worse, which apparently pisses Jesus off extra.
* It’s supposed to make other people feel “washed” in the crystal-clear pure love of Jesus. Because nothing says “this is something you need in your life” like arrogant, guilt-tripping, sanctimonious assholes condescending at you and trying to judge and control your life.
There are some other reasons Christians do it, of course.
One of those reasons is entirely to Christians’ own benefit. By forcing others to behave the way Christians think they should behave, they’re positive that they’ll make our whole society safer, since obviously the stuff they disapprove of is stuff that makes all of society unsafe and terrifying. Gay rights and legalized abortion will eventually get their god up off his ass to smite everyone. Women’s rights–well, why else is crime so bad but all those single mothers popping out all those babies out of wedlock because of all that unapproved sex they insist on having? Civil rights for minorities–don’t they understand that everyone was happier when they understood their place? If Christians don’t act to stop all this sin, then society will descend into barbarism! But once they gain control over everyone’s lives, then society will be perfect again just like it was in the 1950s.
And gee whillikers, Beav, who wouldn’t like that?
It’s painful to see genuinely decent, loving Christians come up against this doctrine and have to figure out how to show “hatred” of sin while still being loving toward their family and friends. On the one hand, they know what love is, but on the other, their religion seems to be requiring them to behave in a way that is harshly judgmental and condemnatory.
For what it’s worth, I do feel sympathy for the Christians who are struggling with how to comply with this doctrine. They don’t even realize that the system they’ve bought into doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, that it will never do what they’re told it will do, and that it’s not even particularly designed to do what they think it does.
Yes, but what is the system actually doing?
The simple reality is that “hating the sin” is not accomplishing any of Christians’ goals. It doesn’t result in people feeling the “love of Jesus.” It doesn’t even result in a change in behavior. I’ve never heard of anybody who changed significantly as a result of Christian disapproval. Nor have I ever heard of someone who converted as a result of their sin being “hated” enough by a fundagelical who displayed this redefined “love”. Worse, society is moving further and further away from the Christian Right’s dystopian ideals of sexism, racism, classism, and rigidity. The people unfortunate enough to receive this treatment are driven even further away from Christianity as a result of the practice of this phrase, and generally people feel hated and condemned by the Christians trying to practice it.
Members of the clergy, very likely thanks to their increasingly outrageous overreach, scandals, excesses, and outbursts, are running lower and lower in public esteem than they ever have been–currently 46% approval rating and dropping more every year. And, of course, people are rejecting the religion in greater numbers every single year. They join their sheep in this dwindling esteem. Between now and 2050, an estimated 106 million people worldwide are expected to leave the religion–while only 40 million are expected to join it.
It’s hard not to wonder how these numbers fit in with an overwhelming perception on the part of non-Christians that Christians as a group are hugely judgmental and hypocritical.
If changing hearts or behavior are indeed Christians’ goals in “loving the sinner but hating the sin,” then the whole system is a catastrophic failure.
So we have to look at what it is accomplishing for them.
When Christians disapprove at someone and get rebuffed, look at their reaction. They expected it, didn’t they? They knew they’d be rebuffed. But they do it anyway, and they keep doing it. They’re not even close to realizing that the tactic is in fact a failure, much less anywhere near examining why it’s backfiring so much, much less amending their philosophy.
That’s because it’s feeding them in a different way. It’s giving them something that they might not even recognize they needed or wanted, but something tremendously important nonetheless. And that’s what makes them feel like they’re succeeding so much that they can’t tell they’re actually failing. They are succeeding–just not at what they say they want to succeed at.
By being the brave little soldiers “standing in the gap,” they get to feel like the righteous underdogs fighting against the serried legions of darkness. They get to feel like the heroes in the movie playing in their own heads. And of course Jesus Power will bring them victory in the end–sooner or later–vindicating them utterly.
By demanding compliance from others, the Christians making this demand get to feel powerful. There isn’t much that a control freak likes more than getting control over people who really don’t want to be controlled. This power is both their entitlement and their burden; it’s soooo harrrrd to be the deciders for everybody else. Every single time a pastor thunders from the pulpit that Christians “can’t allow” people to misbehave, he reinforces the idea that Christians actually can or should disallow anything.
By disapproving of particular groups of people, Christians mark a boundary between their in-group and the out-group of non-believers. “We’re like this–but our enemies are like that,” they tell themselves. This polarized separation was very important to my church back then, and it’s even more important now. There must be a very clear difference between them and us.
By prioritizing particular behaviors over others, Christians get to feel morally superior. They like to single out certain sins as especially grievous to their god. You won’t see them “hating” the sin of gluttony or pride. They may say that all people are sinners and that all sin is equally odious in their god’s eyes, but it’s hard to miss that some sins are way more equal than others. They draw a line between “sins that are tacitly acceptable” and “sins that are in no way ever acceptable,” and they stand safe and sound on their side of that line.
By holding themselves out as the judge, jury, and executioner of their chosen out-group, Christians prevent themselves from getting too chummy with “the enemy.” The character of Jesus, as conceptualized by most Christians, is about relationships (ignore the stuff in the actual Bible–they sure do), but “hating the sin” is about severing and preventing those relationships from flourishing. There’s nothing “loving” about how they dehumanize and vilify the people they’ve decided are sinners.
So “hating sin” is really a win-win. If their efforts to control others succeed, then hooray! The country will totally become Christian again and Everything Will All Go Back To The Way It Was. Or at least people will stop misbehaving around them and they’ll regain their easy dominance and superior place in society. Either one is fine.
But when all of their efforts fail, as indeed they do more and more often nowadays, Christians get to feel self-pity on a scale that outsiders have difficulty even imagining. Only in America, a country that enshrines freedom of religion into law and prevents Christians from experiencing any kind of abuse or marginalization for their beliefs, could a dominant majority of believers in a major world religion feel like they are a persecuted minority whenever they are denied the power they mistakently feel is rightfully theirs to wield against others.
Don’t worry about the people who relish this phrase and most eagerly practice it when they give in to this self-pity.
They’re getting exactly the rewards they want.
Next time we’ll be talking about one way Christians have insulated themselves from seeing how dismally this strategy of theirs is failing. See you soon!
* This was seriously something people said–and say. You’ve likely heard the same thing out of Creationists: that Satan hid all the dinosaur bones to trick scientists–though I once heard one say that the Christian god did it to make scientists work together, because that’s totally his signature move, helping humans collaborate and all.