Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner

Sigh. I miss Jerry Falwell. Of all the fundamentalist loudmouths and rabble-rousers, he was the one I most loved to hate. He was absolutely dependable. Whatever the topic or context he was reliably sanctimonious, unctuous, bigoted, and utterly detestable. Other soldiers in the army of the night were just as obnoxious, like Jimmy Swaggart (“I have sinned against you.”), but they tended to be so dumb that they were more comical than offensive. I used to laugh out loud when Swaggart would point to the TV camera and directly address all of us “evil-lutionists,” and “seck-u-lar humanists” and tell us how we were bound for “hay-ull.” Falwell, however, was clever. When interviewed by, say, Ted Koppel, he was always too slick to be pinned down. For instance, when Koppel or someone asked him how Christians could claim to be showing charity when they hated gay people, he replied that Christians did not hate homosexuals. They loved the sinner while hating the sin.

One often hears fundagelicals voicing some version of the “hate the sin, love the sinner” mantra. How much credence should we give such pronouncements? To me, it was clear that Falwell’s statement was nauseating hypocrisy. Obviously, on the contrary, Falwell loved the sin and hated the sinner. He loved the “sin” because it have him a clear conscience to hate the “sinner.” His true feelings were absolutely transparent when his words dripped with contempt for gay people. I wondered how he would react if I turned the tables and said something like this: “Rev. Falwell, I think your beliefs are a sick joke and the God you worship is a moral monster. I despise everything you stand for. But, rest assured, I love you.” Would he have bought it?

Is it possible to hate the sin and love the sinner? Sure, in some cases. If your kid steals something, you will still love your kid while hating what he did. But what if the “sin” is not something like lying or stealing but a deep personality trait, something the person regards as fundamental to his or her identity, something like one’s sexuality? Is it possible to love someone while regarding his or her sexual nature as sick, depraved, and disgusting? Well, again, maybe in some cases, but what if the person embraces that sexual nature that you despise and even proudly identifies with it and insists that others accept it? Fundamentalists make it very clear that they regard homosexuality as just as bad as pedophilia or bestiality. Would they claim to love the brazen, unapologetic pedophile? If they did, would anyone but another fundamentalist believe them?

More to the point, when you hear someone attacking your sexuality, supposing that you unapologetically embrace it, are you not justified in hearing it as an attack on you? Whatever your sexuality, somebody will not like it, even if you are a completely boring, vanilla, non-kinky heterosexual. I recently read a review by Peter Debruge of Variety of the new movie The Shallows. The Shallows stars bikini-clad Blake Lively and a very large, very truculent CGI great white shark (I am a sucker for shark movies). In his review, Debruge decries the camera’s treatment of Ms. Lively:

“The camera is right there at bust level when she strips off her shirt to reveal a fluorescent orange bikini, and it shamelessly accentuates her curves as she paddles out to meet her fate, as if begging us to question which is more predatory: the shark or the lecherous gaze…”

Whoa! Is Debruge saying that if we shamelessly admire Ms. Lively’s curves we are being as offensively predatory as the shark?!? Now, I am old, but I am not dead. Even if I make it to 103, I imagine that I will still admire a young woman’s curves. (I reject the offensive term “dirty old man.” “Senescent sensualist” is correct.) In other words, it seems to me that Debruge is not attacking sexism but sexuality, mine and billions of others’.

The point is simply that when you perceive someone as rejecting your sexuality, it feels like a hostile act. Fundamentalists can go on as much as they like about loving the “sinner,” but they should hardly be surprised if the “sinner” does not perceive it as love.