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January 16, 2014

Question: Is it OK to say ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’?

The epigram in today’s question is a reformulated paraphrase from a 5th century letter of St. Augustine. What he actually wrote was “with love for mankind and hatred of sins.” His sentence has morphed into today’s version or its alternative: “Hate the sin but love the sinner.”

Epigrams often contain paradoxes that confound logic. This saying definitely does that. It’s a wonderful example of the clash of the spiritual ideal and the real world of humans interacting with humans.

Let’s try on three variations of the phrase. Now, would it make sense to say “Hate the sinner and hate the sin”? No, because that advice would be a violation of the universal law of love that commands us to love our enemies — another example of an ideal that is difficult to observe in the real world.

How about “Love the sinner and love the sin?” No, because it would definitely be wrong headed to love the very thing you have defined for yourself as being sinful? How about “Hate the sinner but love the sin?” No, because this proposition is absurd.

No religion in the world commands us to hate our fellow humans, regardless of what they may have done. Today’s epigram asks us to distinguish between persons and things — to dissociate the individual’s behaviour from the person.

Now let’s suppose I am living with a gambling-addicted spouse who has consumed the sum total of our monetary assets, alienated the children and ruined the marriage. The spouse refuses to acknowledge the problem and continues to gamble.

Now I can say to myself: “I hate what my spouse is doing, but I still love him/her.” The neutral position would be the non-judgmental observation: “My spouse is still gambling and has ruined our lives.” But can we realistically ask any human being not to feel something in the face of such abuse? Yes, it is possible, but difficult, to love the sinner but hate the sin.

This does mean, however, that we continue to expose ourselves to abuse. In extreme cases, disassociation from both the person and the sin may be necessary for the maintenance of health and life.  
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen January 16, 2014
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