“Love the sinner, hate the sin” – I can’t emphasize enough how my whole body cringes when I hear that statement.  It’s well intentioned, that you can be sure of, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, we “church-folk” have no idea how degrading that statement is from someone standing on the “outside”.  Not to mention, the harsh reality of what we really mean.  Let me state what we really mean when we say it:

“I love you, I really do.  So much so that I want to fix you!  I know a God who can make you all better.  When you’re better, then we can REALLY be friends!  I won’t have to keep my distance any longer because you’ll be just like ME!”

Whoa nelly! Just put yourself in the person’s shoes receiving that and join me in my shudder.  Do you see what we’re creating?  “Us” and “not us”.  “Clean” and “not clean”.  “Saved” and “damned”…. and to be honest, I don’t think Jesus is cool with it.

Then I read my buddy Margot Starbuck’s book, “Permission Granted – and other thoughts on living graciously among sinners and saints”.  Amazing read, folks.  Every page, my heart leaped out a big YES!  I felt like someone else on the planet sees how demented it is to alienate those who the church feels is “lost” or “outside”.   I’ve wrestled with this endlessly, because when I read about Jesus in the Gospels I don’t see a man who kept “sinners” at a distance.  I see Jesus at their homes, attending their parties, and loving being around them.  This is exactly what got him in trouble with the religious people of his time.

I am going to quote my friend Margot from her book because it has many amazing nuggets.  To highlight a couple:

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” (Anne Lamott)  On the contrary, you can bet your walking in the footsteps of Jesus if you walk in kindness.  Margot states brilliantly, “‘It’s not you we judge and condemn, it’s your behavior‘- has not drawn any hearts towards the Father who welcomes the prodigal, the adulterer, and the lost before they (or we) ever clean up their acts.”  Margot hits the nail of the problem on the head when she states, “many of us religious care more about behavior modification than we do about spiritual transformation.”

That’ll preach.

“Frankly, this messy business of loving those who’ve been identified as Special Sinners requires a good measure of godly courage because it is far more concerned for the heart of the other than it is with the image of self”.  That’s what it boils down to isn’t it?  It’s not about the “sinner”, it’s about our image – us wanting to appear put together and right.  Maybe the real courage comes from taking off this prideful mask and getting to know these “special sinners” as Margot puts it.  I can tell you first hand, you’re in for a wonderful surprise.  They are extraordinarily delightful.

“God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4)  Interesting that this verse comes right after Romans 1, used by many to condemn the Gay and Lesbian Community.  Sounds like we may need to pay attention better.

Perhaps we could take a moment to discover the sin of exclusion mentioned in Margot’s book.  This one hit me personally.  All of a sudden my “amen’s” had to pause to look inward.  Quoting Miroslav Volf (try saying that with a Russian accent) from his book “Exclusion and Embrace”, he states: “Although it’s not at the root of all sins, exclusion permeates many of the sins we commit against our neighbours.  Conceiving sin as the practice of exclusion names as sin what often passes as virtue, especially in religious circles.”

This exclusion he speaks of is manifested in us every time we refer to someone outside our religious circle as an “other”.  I recently had a hard lesson in this “other-ness”.  I teach hip hop in schools and had decided to film one of the schools for a compassion project I was working on.  The aim of the film was to show these young people who had come from hard backgrounds such as learning disabilities, behaviour disorders, and poverty, overcoming their opposition and being free.   I admitted in the film that I had judged them.  I was very proud of my inspirational film that would tell the story of these young people I came to love.  However, that warm-fuzzy feeling quickly left when I got a phone call from the principal who watched my film and was horrified at how I had labelled the kids in his school.  This caring principal saw my film in a whole different light.  Instead of inspiring and encouraging, all he heard was, “other”.  Although this was not my intention, his words revealed to me how easy it is to speak “other” without even realizing it.  He was gracious and forgiving to my heart felt apology.  I hung up the phone and shook, broken by this experience.  As hard as it was, it taught me a valuable lesson in how we communicate.

Church circles using “other” types of words to describe those on the “outside” of their religious practices need new language that says, “Welcome” – because in the end, isn’t this what we all want?  We want to love, we want to embrace and be like the One we follow.  We just have no blinkin’ clue how to.

Well, the good news is Margot’s book is a refreshing “how”.  If you are dissatisfied with all I have described, then you need to get your hands on this book and walk with Margot on a journey of how to live graciously.  It’s a brilliant read. You can check out her book here.

In the meantime, if you’re ever in doubt: walk in kindness and mercy.  It can’t hurt.

If you’re concerned with what to do with sin, I did a follow up post you can read here.