Over the past 6 or more years, America has been confronted with a strange kind of love that was given public life through the presidency of Donald J. Trump, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It became commonplace for evangelical Christians, by subtly congratulating ourselves for our righteous lifestyles, to cement the identity of “sin” with the “sinner”.
A strange kind of love:
That strange kind of love was derived less from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and more from a 5th-century mantra of St. Augustine, “With love for mankind and hatred of sins”. We diluted that into the convenient command, “Love the sinner but hate the sin”. Augustine’s grasp of the depravity of human nature seems to have been in need of revision, as certainly is ours. In brief, He who was branded a “friend of sinners” (Matt 9:11) might be inclined to remind us of His words from John 3:19, “And this is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the Light; for their deeds were evil”.
In fact, we may like the sin so much ourselves that we can’t claim to be Christian without cover!
For the American Evangelical, it may simply come down to this: “I so despise the sin, that I refuse to associate in any way with its practitioners or even with any friend of sinners.” Where that leaves Jesus is open for debate.
Deaf ears and blind eyes:
American evangelicalism has historically championed a shifting list of hated sins – dancing, wine, LGTBQ, WOKE, government relief, abortion on demand, foreign aid, other Christian denominations, etc. Evil-minded practitioners are to be loved from a safe distance. That strategy holds limited effectiveness in the hope-raising business, a public agenda of Evangelicals!
Mary Townsend is a Christian writer I recently discovered through Plough Magazine. While subscribing to a divine perspective on the Augustinian mantra, she finds herself unable to reconcile Godly, self-sacrificial love with our amusement in building hate castles. Townsend’s thesis is that Augustine’s “wildly popular maxim” may simply be a convenient way of evading uncomfortable Christian practice through an unbridled hate of the sin.
Potential path to our own transformation:
The more transformative strategy might be for the Christian to examine himself/herself as we find ourselves defining the “sinner” by the “sin-of-the-month” that happens not to be our own stumbling block. That brings us to an interest in the underlying condition that gave birth to the behavior as a way of understanding and identifying not only with the “sinner” but with the focus of our own hypocrisy – OPS (Other People’s Sin). We find, perhaps, that we are not so different from the person of interest and are thereby helped to understand our own weaknesses.
 Townsend, Mary, “Hating Sinners,” Plough Quarterly, No 17, (Autumn 2023): 70-77.