I have been following with interest the recent on-line conversations on the subject of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’
Although it is not a phrase I use I do in many ways sympathize with some of the sentiments I hope it may be trying to express. We should ‘hate’ or deplore sin, just as Jesus did. So the argument comes down to these questions : What is sin? And, what theological data can we use to codify and define sin? I think I would want to start, and even possibly finish, with the 10 Commandments and Jesus’ summation of the law. I accept that for some this is too narrow.
I hope that all Christians hate murder in all its manifestations and whatever its motivations, for to murder is always an expression of hatred of the other. I hope that we would all deplore acts of theft, irrespective of whether they be deemed ‘petty,’ serious or, the consequences of institutional corruption. All forms of sexual crime are to be deplored. Anything that ‘trespasses’ against the rights of others is wrong. Rights should always be used responsibly, less we ‘trespass’ against others. Rights aren’t always necessarily ‘goods’ in and of themselves; they are opportunities and privileges to be used judiciously.
But, one of the problems with the phrase is, I suspect, that it is seldom used self-referentially. We need to ‘hate’ that bit of us that creates false Gods, covets our neighbours assets, undermines our neighbours relationships and, refuses to esteem our parents. The phrase shouldn’t be used solely to judge externalities.
That no-body should be cut off from the love of God is of course one of Christianity’s foremost hopes, that we should love our neighbour is, again of course, central to the practice of our faith. And, ‘who is our neighbour?’
Well according to Kierkegaard (with apologies for the highly gendered language), ‘your neighbour is every man, for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbour, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men. He is your neighbour on the basis of equality with you before God; but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.’
So it would seem obvious that we should love our neighbour, on the basis that the twin dynamics that describe ‘neighbourliness’ are human, or temporal difference and, equality before God.
Good neighbourliness celebrates difference and diversity, for as H. Richard Niebuhr reflected (again, please forgive the gender specific language): ‘Love is reverence; it keeps its distance even as it draws near; it does not seek to absorb the self or want to be absorbed by it; it rejoices in the otherness of the other; it desires the beloved to be what he is and does not seek to refashion him into a replica of the self or to make him a means of the self’s advancement.’
And, when we talk about difference and diversity, what we are really talking about is identity; the you or me that was knit together in the mother’s womb and known before we were even born (to draw on Psalm 139). Diversity, difference and identity, I would want to argue are hugely important. They form the very stuff that is located ‘in Christ.’
So, I worry that ‘in Christ,’ is a phrase open to misuse, and worst still political abuse.
In the comments on social media following the publication of the blogs, the idea was expressed that since our identity is ‘in Christ,’ it isn’t necessary to retain other identity markers. Justin Welby was, rightfully, commended for affirming, following the publication of his family history, that his primary identity was ‘in Christ.’ I too, would want to affirm this. My hope is that not only my identity, but my ultimate destiny is ‘in Christ.’
However this, at least for this Christian, doesn’t mean throwing away all other, maybe temporal, identity markers and, it doesn’t mean encouraging others to do so. What it means, I think, is locating them, even affirming them, ‘in Christ.’
‘In Christ’ is the chalice that holds my history, my destiny and, my reality. I don’t want to throw away my reality and I don’t want to make others conform to it, for if I do, according to Kierkegaard and Niebuhr, I will have ceased to making any movement towards becoming a loving neighbour.
I would like to finish with one story from my own family:
I have a disabled daughter, she is very bright and studying theology at Oxford. (I have asked her permission to refer to her story). Her ‘disability’ is physical. She has been told in Christian circles that she doesn’t need to identify as ‘disabled.’ So here is the question:
‘Do you think that it is able-bodied or disabled bodied Christians who make this observation?’ I don’t really need to answer, do I?
In a conversation about how her disability could be managed in a particular environment a Christian remarked (in my presence) that ‘we are all a little bit brain-damaged since the fall.’ He was trying to be pastoral and reassuring. His motives were good, his theology wasn’t.
The Christian who made this comment is a friend of mine, but he shows no obvious and empirical signs of ‘brain damage!’
My daughter is quite happy to accept that she has some brain damage – indeed brain scans prove it! She is also happy, yes happy, to self define as disabled and, she is happy for others to define her as disabled. But she isn’t happy if it is done with a whiff of superiority, or the suggestion that she should act as though able bodied. How could she, why should she? And if this applies to her, in terms of her identity, then why shouldn’t it apply to others in terms of their identity?
And of course many characteristics define our overall identity, some of them genetic and biological, some of them familial and relational, still others of them ontological. These differences are to be celebrated, not re-calibrated. Loving our neighbour means letting go of all desires to ‘refashion’ them into something that sits better with our own image of what it means to be authentically human.
This does not, of course, mean that anything goes. The 10 commandments and the requirement to love God and neighbour stand. In fact through the reverential respect for such diversity they may be strengthened?
Identity, ‘in Christ’ is multi-dimensional. If we are serious about our identity ‘in Christ,’ we need to identify with and be grounded in our reality and, our neighbour’s reality. If we don’t, or aren’t prepared to, how can we be a good neighbour?
One of the very real issues that the Church has to contend with is how to promote (not simply note or listen to) the minority voice, and to do so reverentially, without patronizing it.
My daughter is comfortable with her body (although for sure, sometimes frustrated by it when it does unpredictable things!) But, her point is simply this: ‘that she was known in the womb, before she was even born.’ She is, who she is, and her identity matters to her. And if we accept the musings of Keierkegaard and Niehbuhr it should matter to others too. In fact it affords her opportunities (she is part of a disabled elite shooting squad). She doesn’t want to be the same as those who think she shouldn’t identify as disabled, and why should she?
My daughter, because of her disability, and the reaction to her disability by normally well-meaning folk, now takes the concept of ‘liberation’ very seriously and works alongside other ‘minority’ (the funny things is when the numbers of such minority groups are added up you get to an awfully big number!) on the ‘liberation council’ in the pursuit of justice and the removal of the ‘yoke’ that binds. Liberation is a hugely important theological motif.
Every single neighbour on the liberation council has some form of identity marker that needs to be visibly maintained, at least for the time being. Her colleagues – or should I say neighbours – proudly represent the LGTBI community, various ethnic communities, the economically disadvantaged community and, so forth.
I am proud of her because I think, through her work, she is expressing real Gospel values. She can only stand in solidarity with others. It is her very distinctiveness that allows her to be a (good) neighbour.
We need to be extremely careful when we use the term ‘in Christ,’ less we cheapen it and, others.
When the phrase ‘in Christ, there is no……’ becomes a reality, then temporal identity markers will have lived beyond their sell by date. Then good neighbourliness and all that follows from it (difference in equality, peace through justice) will have become a lived reality.
Then there will be no need to self-identify in other ways. But until then, there is.
It is in (and through) Christ that our histories are received, are reality is lodged, and our destiny secured. It is in Christ that are sins are forgiven and neighbourliness is expressed. It is in Christ that equality is affirmed and distinctions retained.
‘In Christ’ does not mean throwing away, or seeking to deny, our God-given characteristics and pretending that the story of our lives is somehow unimportant.