Spiritual Pollution, Part 1: Is it possible to hate the sin but love the sinner? Maybe not.

In about a month, an article of mine entitled "Spiritual Pollution: The dilemma of sociomoral disgust and the ethic of love" will be appearing in the Journal of Psychology and Theology. The point of the paper deals directly with the issues I have been reflecting on this week, this interface of morality and emotion.

Currently, I'm exhanging letters with Greg Kendall-Ball, an ACU colleague, on the topics involved in the paper (check out http://www.kendallball.net/). What I'm abstracting on Greg's blog, I'd like to walk through more slowly on this blog in a multiple-part series.

Growing up in my small church in Erie, PA, I often heard that, as Christians, we were to "hate the sin but love the sinner." As a catchy aphorism, the formulation isn't bad. It nicely captures two treasured Christian commitments: Holiness and love. But as we observe Christendom, it seems that this formulation frequently fails us. That is, it seems to be very, very hard to balance a fierce commitment to holiness with a call to radically love a broken world. Churches that emphasize maintaining "holiness" seem culturally marginalized, fearful of the world and often despising the people participating in the larger culture. Some of these churches can seem downright hateful. By contrast, "relationship-oriented" churches seem soft on sin, tempering the ethical message of the gospel to "connect" or "reach" a variety of populations. And each church "type" seems suspicious or judgmental of the other.

Why is this? In the following posts I'm going to suggest that this balance between holiness and love is hard to achieve when we structure facets of Kingdom living with the emotion and logic of what is called sociomoral disgust. Looking ahead, I'm going to argue that certian sins, such as sexual sins, and certain aspects of chruch life, such as worship and doctrine, are often structured by a contamination logic, a logic that activates a disgust psychology that creates interpersonal distance and irrational emotions.

I'm going to argue that when sociomoral disgust/contatmination structures the issue it is psychologically IMPOSSIBLE to both loathe the sin and love the sinner. That is a very strong claim and I hope to defend it in coming posts. For a taste of this coming argument, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2001), in her excellent book, "Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, shame and the law" observes:

"Disgust is all about putting the object at a distance and drawing boundaries. It imputes to the object properties that make it no longer a member of the subject's own community or world, a kind of alien species of thing...Thus, throughout history, certain disgust properties—sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness—have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with, indeed projected onto, groups by reference to whom privileged groups seek to define their superior human status."

Thus, as I'll argue, when Christians structure sin categories or Kingdom issues via the psychology of disgust and contamination, those psychological "boundaries" will ultimately undermine our ability to "love the sinner."

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3 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 1: Is it possible to hate the sin but love the sinner? Maybe not.”

  1. I think you see in the case of surgeons or doctors who work with horribly mangled/disfigured patients that it should be perfectly possible to see their condition as a problem, a trouble, something awful, and that feeling being deeply connected to compassion and charity. In the very act of loving someone we may see their faults and hate those faults because our wants are aligned with their needs and desires.

    That said, I do think that Nussbaum is on the right track (though she doesn't have any way of seeing how Christian theology can help her view), that to truly show compassion means to at some point overcome the disgust, like a doctor who has worked with many similar problems, or to identify yourself with the ugly one, like the one who says, "I too am a filthy sinner, I am just like you" which does not eliminate the sin, but does eliminate the shame, which is the first step toward forgiveness/healing.

    Jesus contaminates himself over and over in the Gospels. I wish we could celebrate that, honor that in our churches.

    I wrote a series on my blog about disgust and art in the church. I hope you will take a look at it. (On the list, the "Ecce Homo" series.) fruits of the gourd: 2005

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