Reconsidering “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”: An Interview with Ethicist Eric Reitan

I never thought I’d have anything favorable to say about a book that presents a defense of “love the sinner, hate the sin” as a viable ethic of love for Christians. But, then, I hadn’t yet read Eric Reitan’s latest book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic.

That phrase has been the source of much pain in my life, and the lives of many LGBT people. The phrase is hurled at us, like a grenade, by friends, family members and strangers alike as we are making that journey to come to terms with our sexual orientation and gender identity. For me, the words always stung, because I never could quite figure out how anyone could separate something that was integral to my nature – my sexual orientation – and my physical person.

To me it’s like saying I love left-handers but hate their left-handedness – which also, oddly enough, was once seen as a sin by many Bible believers, but has since been relegated to the theological dust heap. Go figure.

But, Reitan asserts that he is convinced that the “‘love the sinner/hate the sin’ precept is one of the most fundamental guiding principles of the Christian life.” At this point, I was wondering if I had been duped into reading an anti-gay screed, but Reitan is very careful in his argument in support of this old trope, and makes a Herculean effort to redefine and reclaim it as aspirational for all Christians, even the LGBT ones. What makes the difference is the lens Reitan uses to examine the phrase, as well as other topics such as same-sex marriage, in his book.


Candace Chellew-Hodge: In this book, your central theme is what you call the “Christian love ethic.” What do you mean by that?

Eric Reitan: There’s more than one way to approach Christian ethics but one important way is to see the love command as a fundamental moral principal, to see allegiance to the love command as the starting point of ethical reflection.

What I mean by the love ethic is an ethic which takes the love command as having a status as a fundamental moral principal for the moral life. The love command has two prongs to it, but I argue that they converge rather than diverge. The two prongs are, “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” and the other is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

When Jesus was asked what was the fundamental commandment, that’s the answer he gave. These prongs converge in the sense that loving God is best understood as conforming our will, or giving ourselves over to God and if God’s love is a loving will, it expresses itself in loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We become channels through which God’s love enters the world in the form of neighbor love. And the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves takes the status of the fundamental obligation that shapes moral life.

In addition to Jesus identifying the love command as fundamental, Paul puts all the commandments of relating to one another under the umbrella of loving your neighbor. And then we have that remarkable passage in 1 John where God is identified with love. If love is of the very essence of God, the defining essence of God, even, then living in a way that aligns us with the divine would mean living in a way that is in conformity with that divine essence which is love. That’s how I understand the love ethic in a nutshell.

In the book, you use that ethic to measure everything else, whether it’s same-sex marriage or “love the sinner, hate the sin,” and more. How do you see that playing out? 

For me, I started by studying Martin Luther King’s method of nonviolent direct action. King really emphasized as the heart of his method of nonviolence the separation of the person from the injustice they are committing. We must stand firm against the injustice without hating the person. We must find a way to love the person while saying, no, firmly and strongly to the wrongs that they do.

The “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra has been invoked in ways that are very unhelpful, especially in relation to LGBT issues. I think there has been this easy assumption that what we call a sin creates no difficulties for loving our neighbor as ourselves. I don’t think that works because it seems that what “love the sinner, hate the sin” means is that if something is in fact sinful that means that it is destructive both to the person who is sinning and to our human relations—and potentially to others and our relationship with God.

Then, as such, if something really is a sin then saying no to it, condemning it with feeling is going to be part of loving them. But, if something isn’t actually a sin then condemning it with feeling may not be part of loving them.

As a matter of fact, I think that the “love the sinner, hate the sin” dictum can be employed as a tool for testing whether or not something really is a sin.

If treating something like a sin poses impediments to loving a person then, since you can always love the sinner while hating what really is a sin, that’s evidence that what you’re treating as a sin really isn’t a sin!

For example, if you take the use of insulin to be a sin, can you, in the grip of that conviction and acting as if it’s true, love your diabetic neighbor as you should? It seems to me the answer is no. Even if you might have loving motives during your diabetic neighbor, what you actually do in relation to your diabetic neighbor because of your conviction that taking insulin is a sin, you’ll act in ways that will be detrimental to your diabetic neighbor’s welfare.

That is therefore evidence that you’ve got it wrong about the sinfulness of insulin. Because, it is always possible to love sinners while hating what really is a sin. But, since you can’t effectively and properly love your diabetic neighbor while hating the use of insulin, it follows that insulin can’t be a sin.

I try to turn the tables on this invocation of “love the sinner…” as a way to show critics of same-sex relationships and marriage that they’re being unloving. If you can’t love LGBT neighbors while categorically condemning their most intimate, meaningful relationships it follows that their most intimate, meaningful relationships are not sinful. That’s the move I want to make there.

Yes, there’s real value to this “love the sinner” notion, but we need to use it carefully if we’re going to avoid turning it into a slogan we use to protect ourselves from criticism that we have fallen short with respect to love.

That reminds me of Walter Wink, who said that our fight is against powers and principalities. Same with King, who didn’t see the people acting in what he considered evil ways as bad people, but people caught up in the corrupt and racist structures. Perhaps there’s a way to see those against homosexuality as caught up in a homophobic system. Am I on the right track?

Those who are opposed to same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships who then try to hide behind “love the sinner, hate the sin” to protect themselves from the claim that they’re being unloving, if we throw out the mantra, rather than saying they’re misusing it, then we’re losing out on an important tool for responding in a Christian way to them.

Instead we take the perspective of King. There’s a difference between the persons who are caught up in an unjust system and unjust ideologies and who are doing what strikes them from within that framework as the right thing.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” enables us to say, I love you as a child of God, a fellow human being, even as I reject, with feeling, this practice of marginalizing LGBT persons and invoking the Bible as weapon to put them down. Even if I hate all of that, I can still love you, the person who is the agent of these forces of evil. It’s essential in trying to make real progress in these polarizing conflicts that we separate the people from the problem. We must find ways to express and show love for the enemy even as they espouse and perpetuate things that we think are not only wrong or evil but deeply damaging to ourselves and people that we love.

If anti-LGBT people took the same attitude, couldn’t they see LGBT supporters as caught up in an evil system of libertinism or modernity?

Yes, and they do! They say, “Of course, we love these LGBT people and their allies, but they’re caught up in this system of evil.” We need to wrestle with the question of how do you decide what is evil, what is unjust? There my answer is: the starting point is compassionate attention to the people affected by the choices we make.

That seems to be the starting point of love.

The first thing that the good Samaritan does on that Jericho road is to pay attention to the robbery victim. He acknowledges their humanity and walks over to their side of the road to see the extent of their injuries and is open to responding to that from a place of compassion and empathy. That is the starting point of living out the love ethic. If we’re going to decide which ideologies and social structures are unjust and damaging, I think we need to do so through the eyes of that sort of compassionate attention.

But there are certain ways of using scripture that interfere with that. There are ways of using scripture where it becomes a way of silencing, of putting on blinders, or plugging up our ears with Bible verses. It’s not just the Bible that is invoked in this way as an impediment to that first act of love. I think natural law theory is used in a similar way, and I address this in the book.

My ultimate point is that if we start with compassionate attention to our LGBT neighbors rather than theorizing about what the natural order looks like we’re going to reach very different conclusions.

If we start with this theory that we impose upon our neighbors but we’re not paying compassionate attention to the neighbors to really discern how the imposition of that theory affects them then we are prioritizing allegiance to that theory over neighbor love. The theory then becomes something we’re using to blind ourselves.

The recent Nashville Statement seems to fit that definition of starting with a theory and not worrying about how it effects the targets of those words. What’s your opinion of this statement?

If you’re going to make authoritative pronouncements on matters that tangibly impact the lives of human beings, you have the credibility and authority to do that only if you are paying deep and sustained attention to those whose lives are being impacted.

They don’t have the authority to make these pronouncements because they clearly have not paid deep, sustained compassionate attention to the ways in which their words tangibly impact the lives of LGBT persons. They are just applying a human theory about what the Bible teaches and they don’t distinguish their theory and the real will and word of God—so if you disagree with them, in essence you’re disagreeing with God. Which is a way to protect yourself from challenge and criticism but it’s not very honest.

They might benefit from meditating on the concept of humility and the danger of hubris.

It’s hard for LGBT people to trust anti-LGBT people. You say that it’s not about winning the argument. Instead you’re trying to get to the point of dialogue, not just debate. I’ve been in many face-to-face (and internet) battles with anti-LGBT people and we often feel that the other side isn’t there for the dialogue, but to “win” the argument. 

What I’m talking about is a path forward if the circumstances are right. But there needs to be a measure of self-protection and self-love and a recognition, especially online. I’m trying, with my book, to help to lay the groundwork so this kind of positive dialogue becomes a real possibility.

I find it fascinating that, in the book, you view Kim Davis through this Christian ethic lens and come to her defense in some ways in an effort to help readers understand where she was coming from according to her particular strain of Christianity.

I don’t support the position that she took. I can’t know Kim Davis’ heart, but one way of understanding her is as a woman who had a very volatile life and found a certain stability and sense of meaning and purpose in this brand of Christianity that came into her life.

Out of allegiance to that she couldn’t do what this saving force in her life told her was wrong. I can appreciate that perspective even if I disagree with it, and can empathize with it even if I think the view is that she is acting on is ultimately harmful. This is more of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” thing that I was trying to bring to bear.

Whom do you hope to reach with this book?

I do hope that there will be some conservative Christian readers who will not be convinced that they were wrong, but perhaps be convinced that to love their LGBT neighbor they need to really seek them out, ask them questions, and be present as a listener with no intent to preach to them.

I think it’s more likely that persons who are on the fence, who don’t know what to think, who have grown up in a conservative community but they have gay friends but are not sure what to say to those gay friends, they feel bad about saying what they should say according to their community but they think that what their community is teaching them is the will of God.

So, they will come out saying that “I clearly cannot decide this question that impacts the lives of these people I know in such tangible ways without listening to their stories, breaking bread with them and talking about what these teachings have meant for their lives.” I really hope that I will reach some people like that.

I hope also that there are allies who will find the book valuable in other ways or will give it to their conservative friends and relatives. Maybe the book can serve to open up the conversation that was frozen before.

As an ally, I think those who belong to marginalized communities, when an ally says, “I hear you, I’m standing with you,” that can be important and valuable and can be uplifting. An almost 300-page long book is a rather long way of saying that, but I do hope that it does communicate that for some people as well.