I (like many LGBTQ+ people) hate the phrase: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Christians have used the phrase in recent years to clarify that they do not, for example, hate gay people, just gay sex. But the ways in which gay sex has been “hated” has often involved language that is shaming and unhelpful, unwittingly attacking the person, as well as “the act.” And it’s self-defeating. Hating something is often not the most effective way to get rid of it, especially in the arena of human sexuality.
LGBTQ+ people have also objected to the ways in which the phrase casts us as “sinner.” The shaming and harmful pathos of that objectionable phrase is rightly condemned. Unfortunately, we queer people sometimes fail to apply this condemnation to the ways in which we engage with other “sinners.”
I see this often in the identification of the “homophobe,” whether by queer persons online or elsewhere. The identification of a “homophobe” is the identification of a “sinner,” because homophobia is, categorically, a sin. To publicly call out another’s homophobia is to publicly call out another’s sin. It is often to place a judgment on the moral acts of another and to, in some way, identify that other with those acts, especially when we go beyond calling out homophobia and identify someone as homophobe, when we go beyond the characterization of acts and into the characterization of persons.
I suspect that this is one reason why Linn Marie Tonstad in her Queer Theology doesn’t spend much time focusing on sins, either of homophobes or homosexuals. Her move away from apologetics and towards theology perhaps necessitates a move towards irrelevance of the homophobe. Indeed, I wonder about the extent to which her focus on a positive theology leaves space for the identification of the homophobe, or even use of the word. She does say that queer people, like all people, are sinners. And sin should matter to Christians. But when the queer person rises up to theology, the sins of others, including the sin of homophobia, perhaps take on decreasing significance.
Of course, coming to this decreased significance involves much more than simply not caring. Sin has effects. Sin harms. And it is perfectly human to say “ouch” when we are harmed. (I sometimes wonder about the extent to which queer rage or our mimetic condemnations of others come out of our conditioned inability to say “ouch” when we should.) Even Christ has a sensory (human) response to his sufferings. But, while Christ is perfectly comfortable with identifying a “den of vipers,” this is not his primary response to the sinfulness of the world. His response is the compassion of the divine. It is yeast brought in and responding to a world of flour, leavening, rather than destroying, it.
There is a paradoxical strength in the Socratic position that it is better to suffer evil than to commit it. Under this position, the persons that homophobes hurt the most with their homophobia are themselves. And while the queer community is indeed harmed, in ways that merit acknowledgement, we should be vigilant, lest the response to this harm involve the adoption of the homophobe’s tactics. If “love the sinner, but hate the sin” is an objectionable tactic under the guise of charity, then “you’re a homophobe, just shut up” is likewise an objectionable tactic under the guise of justice (an even lesser virtue). The homophobe should shut up, just as the sinner should stop sinning. But both of these responses fail by not realizing that what the homophobe/sinner often needs is a turning of the mind (a conversion) that is really out of our control. Focusing on their homophobia can draw us into it like a black hole, reconstituting our own spiritual lives and distracting us from our own attempts at godliness. It makes us like them. (Not to mention that telling homophones to “shut up” often results in them doing the opposite.)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we need to focus on how we owe graciousness to our neighbors who have been homophobic. We don’t just owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves. We should turn away from judgemental name-calling as our mode of discourse, because we deserve better. We deserve better than to receive it, and we deserve better than to give it.
It has been wrong for gay persons to have had scrutinizing spotlights shone on our attempts to live out our vocations to love. And now that many of us have had the opportunity to hold onto spotlights ourselves (whether through Twitter accounts or otherwise), I’m not sure that we do Christianity justice by taking those spotlights and shining them just as blindingly on others for their sinfulness. Light is good and necessary. But perhaps we can turn down the brightness just a bit, or use it more discerningly and in less overly condemnatory ways. When the light is too bright, it serves to blind, rather than to help people see. When we are the ones shining the light, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether we are doing one or the other.
I recognize there is something awkward in the way I have framed much of this discussion. I wonder whether I am right to speak of “homophobes,” and not just of “homophobia.” I also worry about the extent to which I am criticizing people for calling out others… by calling them out. I’ve created binaries here which perhaps should be questioned. And, of course, I am critiquing practices in which I myself have taken part at times, and may take part in again. But nonetheless, I hope that we can all find a way towards greater graciousness, and that the light shone on sin and casting it out may be God’s and not our own.
Finally, I recognize there may be ways in which straight cisgender Christians will try to co-opt these arguments, as a way to silence their LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. If you are a straight cis Christian and feel the inclination to do this, please note that this piece is not for you. Don’t act like the slave-driver who interprets Ephesians 6 to justify abhorrent practices and, in doing so, makes a mockery of Christianity. Paul did not write to justify your slavery, but to protect and encourage the slaves who, as of that time, had no perceivable path out of their condition. And even if someone points out your homophobia uncharitably, you still need to deal with your homophobia.
This post was not intended to silence queer people, but to encourage. The condemnations critiqued above often fail in saying too little. I’d argue that queer Christians should say more.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.