Have you heard something like this before? Who am I kidding, of course you have. Tripp and Tyler missed a real gem of a phrase when they didn’t include it in their YouTube video, Shoot Christians Say.
Yes, we like to lob this seemingly benign phrase around as though it’s harmless when in reality, under the guise of false humility lies a phrase that wreaks of a subtle form of bigotry. I’m Southern and you might as well just begin the phrase with, “Well bless their heart” because we all know what’s really going on here — you want to be clear that you do NOT approve of someone else’s actions but you want everyone to know that your disapproval is not judgmental at all, it’s Christian.
In other words, this has become a favorite phrase to portray ourselves as morally superior to those “other people” who are not like us.
I decided to do a little homework on the phrase to find its root. So let me begin by killing a major misrepresentation — Jesus never, ever said, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” He never said it. Like ever. Add it to the lists that contain other favorite misquotations like, “God helps those who help themselves” and “Everything happens for a reason.” Jesus never said and it’s not found anywhere in the bible.
No, a variation of this phrase can be traced back to Augustine of Hippo (one of my favorite church fathers). In his Letter 211, Augustine is writing to an order of nuns on how to properly discipline members of their community. Ironically enough the vast majority of this letter is a call to a spirit of unity even with those whom you disagree with. But the infamous words can be found here:
“When convicted of the fault, it is her duty to submit to the corrective discipline which may be appointed by the prioress or the prior. If she refuse to submit to this, and does not go away from you of her own accord, let her be expelled from your society. For this is not done cruelly but mercifully, to protect very many from perishing through infection of the plague with which one has been stricken. Moreover, what I have now said in regard to abstaining from wanton looks should be carefully observed, with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin, in observing, forbidding, reporting, reproving, and punishing of all other faults”
Keep in mind that Augustine is writing to a group of people who by their own rule, devote their lives to God by living in community with one another and serving and worshiping together. This is not written as some sort of indictment against humanity as a whole.
A later use of the term comes from Gandhi in his 1929 autobiography. Interestingly enough this is the same Gandhi who also said, “I like your Christ but not your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Like Augustine, Gandhi is leading with the chin of grace by imploring us to love those who even do wrong — which sounds very similar to words Jesus spoke about loving your enemies and even those who persecute you.
I watched an amazingly convicting video last week featuring Rev. Tony Campolo talking about this nasty little phrase. In the video, Campolo reminded us of the real words of Jesus: “Love the sinner and hate your own sin. And when you correct the sin in your own life, then you can start hating the sin of your neighbor.” Campolo reminds us that when we truly get to know each other — beyond the labels and bumper stickers — we find a certain spiritual connectedness. We may or may not “approve” of everything we find in one another, but that won’t matter so much when we are connected in such a meaningful way.
Then there’s little meme with a quote from Christian singer/songwriter/comedian Mark Lowry:
See here’s the thing, you can’t “love a sinner” without getting to know the person. But you can hate the sin without ever knowing the person. So if we don’t really know a person but we do think you know about their sin, then we’re just trying to find a “bless their heart” way of saying we don’t approve of whatever it is we think their sin is. That way the real guilt remains on the other person and not on our judgmental view of that person. It’s a phrase that gives us the right to declare what’s right and wrong with the world without ever having to invest in the lives of another person and especially a person who might be different from us. It’s a phrase that gives us permission to guard ourselves against encountering the grace and humanity in others and thus preserving our own sense of superiority.
I guess you could say it’s a phrase that let’s us do very little that Jesus actually told us to do.