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When words hurt and hinder

Posted April 18, 2016

One of the things I enjoy about the group of people who make up The Salvation Army’s Moral and Social Issues Council (MASIC) is their willingness to discuss difficult issues with sensitivity and respect for the thoughts and feelings of other members. In the two years I’ve have been involved with MASIC, I’ve heard plenty of laughter, but I’ve never heard raised voices about anything. That is not because we all think the same way. We don’t. We do, however, work with official Salvation Army positions on moral and social issues to try to enhance the way theology and mission complement each other.

Similarly, one of the things I enjoy about being the chair of MASIC is responding to questions and comments from people, whether associated with The Salvation Army or not, who want to engage with the issues MASIC engages with. I can say that everyone engages with sincerity and good faith. But even with sincerity and good faith great care needs to be taken with how we integrate moral viewpoints and mission.

One comment that got me thinking came in response to a War Cry article (22/8/15) on ‘The Bible, the Church and Hospitality’. The topic explored was Christian hospitality in the context of same-sex relationships and the reality that gay and lesbian people have not commonly received hospitality from the church; indeed, it has commonly been the opposite. After reading this article, someone wrote and asked: ‘Does [expressing hospitality to gay and lesbian people] still mean “love the sinner, but hate the sin”?’

This question got me thinking because it’s familiar as a way some Christians work out how to relate to others—particularly members of the GLBTI (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community. The expression has mostly been used with sincerity and in good faith, but even so, I do not believe it is a helpful framework for Christians or Christian mission. One of the goals of The Salvation Army’s engagement with this issue must be to find better language that does not become an unnecessary obstacle to God’s work in people’s lives.

The simple expression ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ originates from a letter written by St Augustine (354–430 AD). Augustine wrote in Latin. In English, his words translate to: ‘with love for mankind and hatred of sins’. The expression was changed slightly in the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, in which he used the words ‘hate the sin and not the sinner’. However, this is only part of Gandhi’s sentence. The full sentence reads: ’Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which though easy enough to understand is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.’ This expression has a number of variations and they all suffer from the weakness Gandhi identified.

The expression was evident around the time the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was being debated in New Zealand in 1985. Until then, homosexual behaviour was a criminal offense punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. The Salvation Army’s submission on the Bill was not supportive of that kind of punitive approach, although it didn’t support decriminalisation either. But it was The Salvation Army’s decision to take on the role of coordinator in a petition opposing the Bill that would become most problematic.

Even in 1985, individual members of The Salvation Army held a wide range of views on homosexuality. And while the decision of Salvation Army leadership to coordinate the petition was, I am sure, done with the best of intentions, it resulted in arguably the most difficult, painful and damaging period of New Zealand Salvation Army history.

As petition coordinator, The Salvation Army accepted donations to assist with the cost of the petition. One donor wrote, ‘Dear Salvationists, I am writing to encourage you all in your stand against not the Homosexual—but Homosexuality!’ This was a person using the framework provided by the expression ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. Even with the best of intentions, the reality is that in taking the approach it did The Salvation Army was responsible for a significant amount of pain and hurt in the GLBTI community (and to some extent within its own ranks). This has resulted in a perception that The Salvation Army has nothing helpful to say to the GLBTI community, and where there is interest from GLBTI people in Christianity, The Salvation Army remains perhaps the last organisation that some would enter to explore this.

My overview is necessarily oversimplified. But the far more complex and nuanced reality does not change the result, which is that our actions in that turbulent time effectively disqualified us from missional engagement with the GLBTI community and from offering them space in the Christian community known as The Salvation Army.

Given this history, credit must go to the territorial commander who authorised a statement issued on the 20th anniversary of the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. The last paragraph of that statement reads: ‘We regret any hurt that may remain from that turbulent time and our present hope is to rebuild bridges of understanding and dialogue between our movement and the gay community. We may not agree on all issues, but we can respect and care for one another despite this.’

This hope was repeated in 2012, in a document released jointly by Rainbow Wellington and The Salvation Army titled ‘Rainbow Wellington and The Salvation Army reach a Rapprochement: A Significant Step Forward’.
Today, as we approach the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Bill (in July 1986), the question remaining for The Salvation Army is: what are we doing now to rebuild bridges of understanding and dialogue with the GLBTI community? 

As we do seek to build these bridges, use of the expression ‘lov the sinner, hate the sin’ is unhelpful and potentially misleading on a number of levels. Firstly, in practice, we have all sorts of difficulty separating a person from what he or she does or says. Even if we could do that effectively, we are at times not that good at actually loving people, including ourselves. Ultimately, though, this expression will be understood by the GLBTI community as indicating that the Christian church is not a safe and hospitable space. It is not a place to truly experience love and grace.

This means that even when these words are used in a sincerely compassionate and well-intentioned way, rather than helping restore relationships with God, we may actually be helping to keep people apart from God. The GLBTI perspective on this expression might best be summed up by the comment that ‘when someone says we should love the sinner but hate the sin, all the GLBTI person can hear is the word “hate”.’

The language we use has the potential to either enhance our mission or compromise it. If an element of that mission is to provide a communal church space within which anybody can experience the ministry and leading of the Holy Spirit and the fellowship of others who also seek to experience Jesus Christ, we need far better language and approaches to frame that mission and make that space.  

Captain Ross Wardle is chair of The Salvation Army’s Moral and Social Issues (Ethics) Council.

Go to www.salvationarmy.org.nz/masic for more information.


by Ross Wardle (c) 'War Cry' magazine 16 April 2016, pp10-11
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.