I have recently been reading the writings and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had heard a few of his speeches and read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but that was about it. King writes about the importance of nonviolence as a means of resistance, and says many compelling things about this philosophy. One statement that really struck me was in “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” written in 1957. King says about those who adhere to nonviolence that they “rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the evil that he does.”
King, of course, is talking about segregation and its supporters as the “evil deed” and the people perpetrating it. It is a noble and admirable aspiration, to find a way to love people who sought to oppress King and his fellow African-Americans simply because of their skin color. Indeed, I would be surprised to find anyone who would take issue with King’s goal of loving the segregationists while hating and working against segregation. It seems congruent with Jesus’ injunction, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
King’s statement sounds very similar, however, to phrases used by some modern Christians who profess to “love the sinner, but hate the sin” when it comes to issues like sexuality. When it comes to this version of the statement, I have heard plenty of objections. “It’s an excuse for being mean to people who don’t behave the way they want.” “It’s not possible to love someone while hating how they act or think.” “That’s the easy way out.”
So what is the difference? In part, it’s that we pretty much all agree with King that segregation is evil, while there is a definite lack of consensus on whether certain expressions of sexuality are sinful. More importantly, it has to do with how the other person is described. King writes that he must love “the person who does the evil deed,” while the modern paraphrase instructs us to love “the sinner.”
“The person who does the evil deed” or “the sinner.”
One recognizes that there is a person behind the deed, while the other defines the person solely by the deed. One grants the possibility of separation between the person and sin, while the other does not.
If these are our two choices, it seems clear to me that we are obliged to take the choice that leaves the other person with hope and the possibility of reconciliation. We are obliged to hate evil and sin, yes, but we are also obliged to love other people, whatever their sin might be, and see them as our neighbors, as fellow children of God.