Hate the Sin, Demonize the Sinner?

Shameless self-promotion alert: a post I wrote for First Things’ blog “On the Square” about the recent vote within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. on the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians prompted me to reflect on a point that I could not include because of space constraints.

One of the responses from a joyous Presbyterian to the news that gays and lesbians could now be ordained in the PCUSA (though the constitutional process forward is anything but clear) was to the effect that homosexuals could be regarded as normal, or better as moral. Instead of regarding homosexuality as inherently perverted, the recent presbytery votes indicated, to this happy observer, that mainline Presbyterians are more willing than before to see that within the spectrum of homosexuality are standards that run the gamut from virtue to sexual license. In other words, a gay man can be part of a committed relationship and faithful to his partner, or he can live like most young men – gay or straight. The important consideration, accordingly, is not the sexual practice or orientation per se but whether a person pursues these acts modestly and responsibly.

I appreciate this distinction, especially since fans of The Wire are forced to confront a similar ethical dilemma in countless of the series’ characters. Jimmy McNulty doesn’t follow the chain of command within the police force but he is really trying to bring criminals to justice. Omar steals from drug lords but he has an honor code that only allows him to retaliate for just reasons. Avon Barksdale makes millions of dollars in dealing drugs and destroys many lives but is a man committed to his family (and only gives up family members for justifiable reasons).

In other words, the reality of the fall is that sinners are human beings and they do wicked things even while they retain the image of God in ways that endear them to friends, family, and writers.
This also means that sinners are not monsters. “Monster” was the word I heard repeatedly on CNN when the perky evening news anchor (I never once found her attractive, really!) interviewed various officials about the significance of Mr. Laden’s death. She kept referring to Mr. Laden as a “monster.”

This way of demonizing evil helps may help to make better sense of how ordinary people can commit such heinous acts. If we can simply chalk them up as deranged or as inhuman then we have a ready explanation for their wickedness and don’t have to reflect upon the extent of the fall.

But such demonization also shelters us from recognizing the sinfulness that afflicts each and everyone one of us. If only monsters commit wicked acts, and if I am not a monster, then I must not be so bad after all. Whew!

In reality, sin does not turn human beings into monsters. Some of the most evil figures in human history such as Adolf Hitler were real people with feelings, loyalties, reason, and virtues (see Downfall). In which case, the standard for sin is not the degree to which a person is a human being or a monster, but whether his or her acts conforms to the law of God.

Plenty of gays and lesbians are great people or characters (think Omar), and many are likely involved in very caring, faithful, and committed relationships. But none of this excuses the nature of homosexuality, nor avoids what the Bible (in the case of the PCUSA) reveals about sexual relations.

Should Regeneration Make Christians Wiser?

One week after Mr. Laden’s death, different websites are taking the pulse of readers to see what they think. Two that came my way by way of email were polls conducted by Christianity Today and the History News Network. I have to say that judging the polls simply on the basis of their questions, the folks without (or with hidden) religious conviction come closer to ascertaining the significance of Mr. Laden’s death than the folks who are born-again.

Here is CT’s set of questions:

What is your reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden? (check all that apply)

I am thrilled he is dead.

Justice is served.

I am less excited than I thought I would be.

I am concerned about the overly jubilant reactions.

I wish he had been brought to trial.

There are still evil people in the world.

Something else

This is how HNN framed their poll:

In the late 1990s Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States. In 2001 he ordered the 9/11 attack. Now he’s dead. What impact will his death have?

Question 1: How big an event is this?
Marks the end of terrorism against us.
Marks the beginning of the end.
Won’t have much of an impact.

Question 2:
Are you worried about a retaliatory attack?
Worried a lot.
Worried a little.
Not worried at all.

Question 3:
Show pictures of his corpse to prove he’s dead?

Question 4:
This will unite us again.
For a short while at least.
For a long while.
Not much at all.

Question 5:
Obama deserves credit for bin Laden’s death.
Not sure.

Question 6:
This will help Obama win in 2012
Not Sure.

Given evangelicalism’s dependence on the conversion experience, I should not be surprised that Christianity Today asked so many questions about its readers’ feelings. But what on earth does a Christian’s reaction to Mr. Laden’s death have to do with the terrorist organization he funded and ran, or with the peace and security of this world’s societies? As for this event’s theological significance, perhaps the pollsters at Christianity Today could have assessed evangelical beliefs about hell and universalism by posing questions about Mr. Laden in the light of Rob Bell’s new book.