Can you love the sinner and hate the sin? Several years ago, I wrote a letter answering that question with an emphatic no. Nearly three years and countless conversations later, I’ve changed my mind, and am writing again today with a new answer: Maybe you can. But even if you could, it wouldn’t matter, and I wouldn’t care. We need to look beyond intentions and assess outcomes, and the outcomes of a non-affirming theology are fundamentally harmful.
Some background: I came out the summer before entering college. Buzzing with a gap year’s worth of practicing vulnerability, I sheepishly approached my parents and broke the news. Though the announcement was hardly news to my parents, it was a grueling one for me. I grew up in the white, Christian suburbs of Buffalo, where heterosexuality was the only and obvious mode of existence, and homophobia the implicit, and often quite explicit, norm. So, it was risky business to shatter lifelong expectations, ones that had been drilled into me by years of assurances that relatives were already praying for the woman I’d one day marry.
Mixing faith and sexuality in the wake of coming out was difficult. I wasn’t ready to give up my faith, and in fact wanted to press deeper into the foundational lessons of love I had taken from it, but I was also determined to start living authentically. Building a theology of love must occur alongside dismantling theologies of hate, and I had spent my life internalizing homophobic theology — which meant there was quite a bit of unraveling to be done.
Divorcing myself from the fear of everlasting torment as the price for seeking love was a frightening enterprise. How do you unlearn years’ worth of teaching that eternal punishment is coming your way? As I waded through the unfamiliar waters of potential self-acceptance, I was continually confronted with the terrifying possibility of getting it wrong. What if I decided it was okay to be gay, only to find out on ‘Judgment Day’ that I had miscalculated? What if Hell really was waiting, ready to snap me up and never let go?
(To be clear, I’m not particularly concerned with or interested in Hell at this point — in fact, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe my God has cordoned off part of creation for the eternal torture of the majority of humankind. There are some other things I don’t believe in or support that might ruffle some feathers as well — e.g., gender, prisons, and capitalism — but that’s not important right now.)
After several years of sifting through different lines of Christian thought on sexuality, speaking with Christian friends of many stripes, and anxiously reading books about Christian sexuality, I published an open letter to my non-open-and-affirming (“non-OAA” — Christianese for “believes romantic relationships must be confined to one man and one woman”) friends and family. It was my reckoning after 18 years of closeted life — a tell-all that ended with an admonition to those who proclaimed to love me while simultaneously creating the conditions for my pain.
The basic thesis of that letter was this: you can’t love the sinner and hate the sin, as so many claim to, when it comes to sexuality. To the love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin-ers, I wrote:
“You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. You don’t get to maintain the conviction that I am wrong in seeking love while simultaneously telling me that you’re so sorry that I feel pain; your very conviction is the cause of my pain. Directly and indirectly. So if you’re going to continue believing what you believe, then accept that this belief has consequences, and that those consequences include inviting this pain into reality.”
The main pushback I received to my letter was predictable: “You can love the sinner and hate the sin, as evidenced by all the other areas in our lives where we do so! I’m telling you I love you, and theologically condemning same-gender relationships doesn’t necessarily make me homophobic or hateful.”
These conversations sparked a revelation — whether you can love the sinner while hating the sin is the wrong question. It cedes the important ground of results, ignoring harm caused and instead opting to see the world only through the eyes of the person causing harm. Can you love the sinner while hating the sin? Maybe you can. I can’t tell you how you feel. I can’t tell you that you don’t think you love me.
But here’s what I can tell you: as long as you cling to this theology, I won’t ever feel loved by you. And I don’t think you should evaluate your lovingness only by intent, deciding one time what it means to love, and never readjusting based on the outcomes of your actions. So as long as you condemn those who don’t love the same way you do, I will call you homophobic — even if you’re the nicest homophobe who has ever walked the Earth. Let me explain.
What is Homophobia? Who’s Homophobic?
There are two variations of a central question that I want to probe: 1) Does believing that same-gender relationships are sinful make one homophobic? and 2) Does one’s belief that same-gender relationships are sinful preclude the possibility of meaningful, loving relationship with a gay person?
First, a note on who we’re talking about here:
Amongst those who theologically condemn queerness, there are generally two schools of thought. One school — let’s call it Type 1 — says that being attracted to someone of the same gender is, in itself, sinful. Type 1 Christians generally deny the existence of queerness as anything more than an especially perverted and essentially temporary temptation, and thus suggest prayer and Jesus to help one overcome. Type 1 Christians — or at least Type 1 churches — will be extinct within a couple decades, as the ‘born this way’ movement achieves orthodoxy and it is increasingly politically inviable to suggest otherwise.
The second, more “progressive” and increasingly mainstream school of thought — we’ll call it Type 2 — holds that an attraction to someone of the same gender isn’t, in itself, the problem; instead, sin comes in when someone “acts on it.” In this understanding, gay people are generally rebranded as those who ‘live with same-sex attraction’ — a way to assure ourselves that our identity does not and should not lie in any part in our sexuality. In the Type 2 understanding, even if one ‘has same-sex desires,’ that’s merely evidence of our fallen nature as human beings, and is simply one more lifelong temptation (we all have them, don’t we?) that we must resist in order to be right with God.
Type 2 Christianity sprang from the stories of those such as Wesley Hill and Christopher Yuan — testimonies that confirm the permanency of same-gender desires while demonstrating that these desires can be subsumed by a desire for God. In other words, testimonies that created the possibility of a ‘good’ gay Christian — one that (as a product of sin) has the desires, but (as a product of holiness) refuses to act on them, choosing celibacy instead. Straight Christians cling to celibate gays in the same way that Republicans cling to Black conservatives, eager to wield their stories as proof of how the marginalized can and should conform to dominant norms.
(Ironically, though Type 2 Christians claim to simply be ‘following the Bible’ in holding to their theology, most don’t realize that the Type 2 theology is actually only a couple decades old. It was a major theological shift to change from ‘the desire is sinful’ to ‘acting on it is sinful’ — meaning that Christians who think they are adhering to centuries-old Biblical teaching are actually some of the earliest proponents of a new theological stance toward queer people.)
While those who seek to love to sinner while hating the sin span Type 1 and Type 2 Christians, they are increasingly located in the second camp.
Are they homophobic?
I have no interest in debating whether Type 1 Christians are homophobic — to call those who actively deny a group’s existence homophobic is a rather boring, uncontroversial claim, and most Type 1 Christians aren’t particularly trying to avoid the homophobic label.
I am interested, however, in unearthing the homophobia that lurks beneath the surface for many Type 2ers by teasing out the contradictions behind the love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin mentality. I’m interested in those who believe themselves to be well-intended, who truly think they are acting in a loving way towards their queer siblings.
Let’s use the best-case scenario of the Type 2 Christian. I’ll call him Mike. A friendly and well-intended man, Mike believes that no one should be ridiculed for their romantic attractions, and that many Christians are often unacceptably mean or degrading toward gay people. Mike is friends with multiple gay people, and has called out others for making what might be considered classically homophobic remarks — things like “that’s so gay!” Mike wants gay Christians to feel comfortable in Christian settings. In fact, though Mike is an unwavering Type 2 Christian, he sometimes holds his beliefs with a twinge of sadness; indeed, Mike does not want to hurt gay people — he simply sees no one around this fundamental (if only decades old) religious belief.
Is Mike homophobic? Some might say no — Mike does not actively degrade or speak negatively to gay people. In fact, it seems that Mike is doing his best to minimize any harms that stem from his beliefs. Whether Mike is homophobic or not, it seems, will come down to how we define homophobia. So let’s do so.
There is often a presumption that to be homophobic (or racist, or sexist, etc.), one must say homophobic (or racist, or sexist, etc.) things. The idea that one has to be actively be “mean” to a gay person in order to be homophobic falls in line with the U.S.’s general stance toward discrimination, bigotry, and especially racism. In general in the U.S., the court of public opinion judges bigotry according to intent and level of vitriol. Was the person trying to be mean? Do they hold their beliefs in order to negatively impact another? Were they attempting to hurt someone’s feelings, or to make life harder for someone because of that person’s identity? Were they using hateful, rude, or degrading words? Do they make it a point in their life not to associate with the people who are supposedly the subject of their ire? These questions point to a very narrow framing of bigotry, one in which homophobia (or racism, or sexism, etc.) is intent-driven — the product of cause-and-effect sequence wherein one person intends to harm another, and takes some action to realize this intent. That’s one definition.
Here’s how I see homophobia:
I don’t look at homophobia (or bigotry in any form) as determined by intentions; I look at results. At the end of the day, I’m either affirmed as wholly me, or told that I am less than, and required to assimilate through partial self-destruction. I’m either welcome or I’m not. And though you might think “Well, I’m welcoming you! I’m telling you you’re welcome and that I love you,” it’s not the welcomer who decides whether someone is welcome. To be welcomed is a state of being that is experienced by someone; it cannot be transferred from one to another by sheer willpower.
Let me give you a couple examples of how I’m not welcomed when I know someone believes that I am sinful for loving who I love, and why as a result, I will never feel loved by someone of such a theology. I’ll return to Mike, our Type 2 Christian, our best-case-scenario of a homophobic person.
Mike can say nice things to me, tell me he’s happy to see me at church, be nice to my face, and stick up for me behind my back. But I ultimately know that Mike does not and will never truly support me. I know that I can’t approach Mike to discuss a problem I’m having with my boyfriend; I can’t talk about the cute guy who might be into me or the (more accurately) boy who doesn’t seem that into me; I can’t ask what he thinks about me and my husband adopting kids; my (very hypothetical) boyfriend and I can’t, with any comfort, go on a double date with Mike and his girlfriend. And what if Mike was not my friend but rather my parent? How can I go to my parent with questions about my love life when I know there is only one possible answer: don’t have one.
And before you pretend like these things are mere inconveniences, consider the centrality of love-seeking to daily life. Spend a day listening to just how many references there are to marriage, relationships, children, and romantic love, and you’ll see just how undeniably these things structure our lives. They are the foundation for many of our daily interactions.
When I’m sitting in a Church that I know is not open-and-affirming, everything is filtered through the lens of how that church thinks I’m sinful, how part of me is undeniably and irreversibly wrong — and, though we say “we’re all sinners!”, it’s no secret that this is a different kind of sinfulness than encountered in your average sinner. This is not a sin for which you can ask forgiveness and move on as if nothing happened, with all forgiven. It persists. It lingers. For queer people, to reject our “sinfulness” is to inflict self-harm, to cut off possibility of relationships, to pretend that we never wanted to love at all. To mutilate ourselves.
Do those things sound like Jesus’ plan for us? Jesus wants to lead us to abundant life — which is why, when we move away from sin and toward Jesus, we experience fuller life. When queer people are forced to move away from and deny their sexuality, they experience despair. Shame. Pain. Hopelessness. In some cases, death.
Do intentions matter in the encounters I describe above with Mike, whether he’s a friend or a parent? They can certainly soften the blow. They might make the difference between a kid getting kicked out of their home and remaining in a painful if not homeless situation, or between committing suicide and continuing to live in slight misery. But I’m not interested in calling something homophobia only when it results in the worst possible outcomes.
Homophobia creates shame, that thing that Christianity tells us we’re not supposed to feel anymore. But for those not at the top of society, like me — a well-educated, economically stable, cisgender white man — it does far worse. It erodes life possibilities, harming people in the short and long run, communicating that there is something other and shameful about them. For those who are intersectionally disadvantaged, sitting at the crosshairs of racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, and more, homophobia kills.
There was a time that I said “it’s impossible to love the sinner and hate the sin.” Now, I’m less interested in that distinction. I can’t be sure of the feelings that someone has for me, and if you say you love me, I’ll believe that you believe that you love me. But I can tell you this: as long as you hate my “sin,” I’ll never feel loved by you. And I would urge you not to think about love as merely a feeling or emotion, but rather an act, a way of living and being that affirms and restores and heals and builds.
If you’re a friend of mine, and you don’t affirm queer relationships, chances are I still love you. We’ll likely be able to have good conversations, be nice to each other, laugh and have a good time, and likely even have some very meaningful conversations. But I can’t say that I will ever, as long as you hold this belief, feel fully loved by you. If I can’t really come to you with anything, do we have the kind of deep friendship that is based in mutual, unconditional love? If your beliefs are part of the reason I’ve had to spend the last five years of my life trying to unpack and undo the shame I accumulated during the previous eighteen, can we really have a deep, lasting, abiding friendship? No matter how you slice it, you’re Mike, which means you can never be one of my go-to people.
So can you love the sinner and hate the sin? Maybe. I don’t know or particularly care. But what I do know is this: you need to look past your intentions and assess your outcomes. And as long as you continue to use sexuality as a marker of difference, people will continue to live in shame, to feel unwelcome, to be forced out of homes. People will continue to die. People will continue to live in condemnation, not freedom.
And didn’t Jesus come to bring freedom?