On the Equalization of Sin

In conversations about LGBT* individuals in the Church, a common tactic used to “soften” the hurtful statement that gay people are sinners for being gay is to equalize sin. (If you are a new reader, note: I don’t believe non-heterosexuality is a sin, which is one of many reasons why I find this statement hurtful.) This equalization can take many forms. But the one I hear most commonly — and which is used specifically by my undergraduate senior thesis advisor Jack Crabtree — goes like this:

“[Homosexuality is] just one more manifestation of our rebellion against God, our rebellion against truth, our rebellion against everything good. But it’s just one more manifestation. But, but so is my self-centeredness and so is my pride and so is my self-righteousness and so is all that other garbage in my life. So I’m no better off than they are. We’re all in need of the mercy of God.”

If you think being gay is a sin, or are trying to compassionately wrestle with the question, this sounds good. It sounds like all you’re saying is, “Hey, we’re all sinners! So sure, gay person over there, you’re a sinner — but I’m a sinner, too. So we’re all good, right?”

Earlier today Carina, a member of the Gutenberg College alumni community, argued that this is exactly what Jack is doing. (Which I don’t get, since I specifically said he was doing this. I also pointed out how now he’s doing more than this.) Carina said that Jack’s message “doesn’t sound like putting homosexuality in a group of special sins. This still sounds like someone admitting that we’re all messed up.”  To prove this, Carina used the following quotation from Jack last week:

“I would like to stamp out Pharisee-ism just as surely as I would like to stamp out homosexuality.

We’re all good, right?

No, we’re not all good. You can figure this out instantly by asking gay people, “Does this make you feel any better about yourself?” And unless a gay person already agrees with your original framework (wherein being gay is something that needs to be “stamped out”), they’ll say no. No, it doesn’t make them feel any better.

When someone equalizes sin like this, it is important to note that there are two levels of communication occurring:

First, you reduce the impact of certain sins.

This is the level that appeals to anti-gay Christians. When all sins are equal, sins like “being gay” are on par with sins like lying. No one proposes stoning liars, right? So to say that being gay is no more sinful than lying seems harmless. We can have a group hug among sinners and continue with our day.

But there’s another level of communication, namely:

Second, you enhance the impact of certain sins.

See, when all sins are equal, sins like “being gay” are on par with sins like raping a kid — or murdering human beings by eating them. We are (or should be) horrified, sickened, and repulsed by people who rape and murder. So to say that being gay is no less sinful than rape now seems extraordinarily harmful to gay people. Would we have a group hug with rapists and murderers and continue with our day? Likely not.

Now, maybe you think being gay is as “morally disgusting” as rape or murder (like Jack Crabtree does). If you do, this argument might not faze you. So let’s re-word:

When all sins are equal, sins like 5-year-old kids lying to their dads are on par with sins like those same dads raping their 5-year-old kids.

Not so harmless an analysis anymore, huh?

These conversations we have — conversations about abstract ideas like philosophy and theology — happen in communal contexts. And in those contexts, philosophy and theology are anything but abstract. They have real-life consequences. The people in those conversations — and the people outside them listening in — are impacted by what is said.

When we are in a place of privilege — a place where the conversation remains abstract and doesn’t impact our daily lives — we are at risk of not realizing how hurtful we can be. We think, “Well, I don’t hate or want to hurt gay people, so it’s ok to say I want to ‘stamp out homosexuality,'” and unbeknownst to us — a gay person hears that and thinks, “This person wants to stamp me out.” And you can, after the fact, qualify and explain and excuse what you said ad infinitum. It’s not going to help one bit. Because the sort of language is inherently hateful and hurtful. And no amount of explaining will resolve that fact. Resolution can only be found in realizing why that language is wrong, apologizing for it, and educating yourself on better language choices.

If you don’t believe melisten to the actual impact:

I hardly expected my teacher to call me animalistic, morally disgusting, viscerally repulsive, an abomination, and to create special category of sinner for me along with pedophiles, sadists, and sociopaths (Section IV E)-

Publically, for all the world to see.

My family agrees with him, you know.

I do not believe I have earned this from him.

Sticks and stones, bullshit. Words do hurt. And words from someone you thought you could trust, when they reinforce some of the most painful realities in your life, are extraordinarily hurtful.

The equalization of sin isn’t just harmful to gay people, by the way. Equalization is used to justify the concept of Total Depravity in a way that is also harmful. The previous example of telling children they are just as sinful as adults who rape them isn’t an abstract example. That’s exactly how Total Depravity is explained in many churches around the U.S. We teach children that they are broken, miserable beings who God pours wrath onto because they’re just as broken and miserable as child-killers.

I grew up with that shit. It messes with your mind.

Furthermore, it’s not even biblical. Yes, the Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But it never says everyone has sinned or fallen short in the same ways. It never erases the contextual and personal realities that give clear evidence of the fact that some actions have much more significant and long-term consequences. It never says, “Let the children come to me, but first make sure they know how morally disgusting they are.”

The Bible tells us that coveting another person’s spouse is analogous to adultery in only one manner. It doesn’t tell us that (1) attraction is coveting, (2) coveting has a one-to-one correspondence to physically cheating on your spouse, or (3) coveting another person’s spouse is in any way analogous to any other sin (i.e., rape). There is a precision there that should give us serious pause.  Because that very precision unravels the myth of equalized sin.

There are better ways of having these conversations. We can talk about humanity’s tendency to be less-than-ideal without generalizing, exaggerating, or erasing. Doing so means we can also have these conversations in more compassionate (and more philosophically legitimate) ways.

The first step is to stop talking, move outside of your privileged conversational circle, and actually give the floor and listen to the people you’re talking about.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

10 thoughts on “On the Equalization of Sin

  1. We think, “Well, I don’t hate or want to hurt gay people, so it’s ok to say I want to ‘stamp out homosexuality,’” and unbeknownst to us — a gay person hears that and thinks, “This person wants to stamp me out.”

    Exactly! I found that quote from Crabtree really alarming. Can anyone pretend that violence against homosexuals is not a real thing, and that contributing violent rhetoric to the conversation is morally irresponsible? Either he’s got a deeper hostility toward people in the LGBT community than he’s letting on, or he has a staggering lack of insight about the power of language. Either way – not okay.

  2. Thank you, again, Ryan, for your work to clarify your perspective. I really get behind this statement:

    “These conversations we have — conversations about abstract ideas like philosophy and theology — happen in communal contexts. And in those contexts, philosophy and theology are anything but abstract. They have real-life consequences. The people in those conversations — and the people outside them listening in — are impacted by what is said.”

    There ought to be a sign with those words, perhaps, printed and hung above the speaker during talks about these kinds of issues.

    I would like to strive for clarity when I use terms such as these from you: “I don’t believe non-heterosexuality is a sin, which is one of many reasons why I find this statement hurtful.”

    I wish to strive for clarity, but at the same time I don’t want to slice needlessly into general, current cultural understandings at the risk of rushing others who are processing feelings. Here’s one stab (eek), anyway, at definitions. I personally can say I don’t believe non-heterosexuality is a sin. By that statement I mean I don’t believe someone who recognizes a definition of himself or herself to be non-heterosexual is any more or less a sinner than someone who recognizes himself or herself to be heterosexual. I don’t think any of us is defined, ontologically, by what is nowadays called our sexual orientation.

    This is the point where my American Protestant Christian cultural understanding tells me to say, What matters is what I do with who and what I am. This is true, I believe, so far as it goes, within the cultural understanding I just described. One can “feel gay” or recognize oneself as gay, in this context, as long as one doesn’t act (in terms of having genital sex with someone of the same gender) on this feeling or recognition. This, as I’ve come to understand it, is the basic rule among American Protestant Christians. Or at least it “should” be the rule. But it’s not often defined, even among the people from this background and context. The terms get confused so easily. From a desire to please God, things get said like, “I want to stamp out homosexuality”, and where that should mean, at least in the context, “I want to help the people struggling with their [understood cultural identity of] homosexuality to live without acting against this basic rule”, it comes across to those who listen in as a desire to eradicate homosexual people.

    My kids helped me begin to grapple with this situation, when they pointed out to me that, during their lifetime, Christians have been emphasizing the “problem” of homosexuality (most often in terms of politically fighting gay marriage), while at the same time Christians have been overall accepting of heterosexuals divorcing and living together outside of marriage (which breaks another significant rule in the moral understanding of Christian Protestants in America). They were really struck by this disconnect. Gay people are trying, my kids pointed out, to be loving and build committed connections. And how have heterosexual couples been doing at this? Not so good.

    A 2011 article gives a perspective on the gay marriage issue from an Orthodox Christian writer: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-j-dunn-phd/eastern-orthodox-gay-marriage_b_894982.html. David J. Dunn talks about a difference between sacred and civil marriages. He presents a distinction between what one person recognizes as a miracle (in this case, marriage) and another maybe sees as something different. He doesn’t classify two persons holding different understandings as morally right or wrong for their understandings. He’s really saying people are different for what they do, in the context of their commitments (yes, their existential commitments).

    So if Christ (in this case, Christ as interpreted in reality by an Orthodox Christian) is my commitment, and loving Him is the thing I want to have at the center of my life, I will naturally express myself within that context, and will (hopefully) seek to be loving, and will mess up and will seek to repent. But I won’t worry about stamping out the form of commitment held by someone from another understanding (of goodness, or of Christ, or of other things). I will trust the other person’s journey toward truth to be taking its natural course and will support them (at least allow them to be) right where they’re at in that journey.

  3. To be honest, it greatly bothers me that children are being taught that they are basically evil beings, capable of nothing but evil. The only reason there is anything good in them at all is because of God being in them. It’s basically telling them everything about them is evil, but because a good God lives inside them, that makes it alright. How cruel to teach children that they are evil and terrible without any good that stems from themselves. Even suggesting to them that they’ve done things that are so terrible, the only thing they deserve is to burn in hell in unimaginable torture for all of eternity…why do people think it’s a good idea to teach children these things? I was taught it as a child and I can say, after realizing this whole idea is false, I feel a lot better about myself.

    I find it ironic that Christian fundamentalists will say that teaching children that they are related to monkeys via evolution will destroy their self-esteem by reducing them to some terrible level (and I’ve never quite understood the reason for such disdain toward non-human animals anyway). Yet, they teach children that they deserve to burn in hell forever because of their terrible, evil deeds, and they’re very fortunate that God has decided not to give them what they deserve. For whatever reason, they cannot see that the latter is far more shattering to a self-esteem.

    1. R.L. Stollar – Los Angeles, California – R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.
      R.L. Stollar says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, theexfundie. Yeah, I agree — that teaching really, really bothers me, too. And the guilt and fear that it instills in a person is extraordinarily hard to remove from your mind. Honestly, it might just be impossible for some. Like you, I have realized it is false. But I still struggle with the guilt and fear to this day. I’m not sure I’ll ever be fully rid of it.

      Good point regarding monkeys versus “things deserving to burn in hell.” Sometimes I think about it as monkeys versus dirt. Christian fundamentalists say evolutionists think we come from monkeys and hahahaha, but those some Christian fundamentalists say we came from dirt! …I don’t get it.

  4. Such a good subject, your discussion, Ryan and theexfundie, that I will step in again and say I have come to believe something that may sound very warm fuzzyish. A philosopher I’ve been reading, Vladan Perisic, put it this way: “God’s creating was the confirmation of His being which is nothing else than love itself.” This may fit with both of your expressions of dismay that Christian parents teach “God is love” but also teach that God made us, perhaps (in the differing ways this concept comes across), dirty, slimy, animalistic, etc.

    I know many people who don’t share my belief that God is, that He exists in reality, but I can’t say I’ve met anyone who believes love doesn’t exist. If evil is turning away from love (whether by means of hatred or fear or pride), then that is a choice. If I do things that don’t fit with reality by means of my ignorance (say, as a homeschool parent) – and even if my ignorance is gigantic, regarding what will actually happen in the future and how things happened in the past – but if I remain committed to love, this will eventually, somehow, become evident. But if my overriding choice is to “leave” love, then God will permit that, at the end of time. I will then become truly autonomous from God and will “burn up”, however that may look (fire gives an interesting image). Love will destroy me, just by being itself, if I am committed to leaving it. I will no longer exist. I can’t see how that might look; it’s a complete mystery, but it makes sense. It fits with justice as human beings recognize there must be at some point.

    And I probably didn’t say it so that it makes any sense, so I’m sorry for my incapability.

    1. Hi Deanna! I can only speak for myself, but that argument totally made sense to me. The trouble is I have heard it before.

      I don’t know if this is a concern that Riot and exfundie share. I don’t claim to speak for them.

      But the god we are talking about is supposed to have ordered the slaughter of entire cities/nationalities- including children, who cannot possibly have been guilty of the sins that singled those cities out for special and premature slaughter (being killed in this world instead of merely thrown in hell). In the same passage, Deuteronomy 20, he say that fruit trees can be spared because they’re useful.

      Useful fruit trees rate higher than useless innocent children.

      I have great respect for theologians- but my respect for them is analogous to my respect for Rabbit as an interior decorator, when Pooh was stuck in the tunnel to his house. They make the best of a bad situation.



      But as far as I can see, the situation the theologians are prettifying is actually very bad.

      Jesus himself did not ask people to believe his claim to forgive sins- healing the soul- without giving proof in the material world of his power to heal the body. And yet, genocide (and possibly the torturous death of Jesus) are the proof of God’s character manifest in the material world,

      If the Bible is treated as an accurate history of God’s interaction with humans, I don’t see that we are justified in saying that God is love.

      If the Bible is true, and we are dirty, slimy and animalistic, I would say that God has pretty successfully made us in his image.

      1. Very good response, TheGirl(…). I wanted someone to say it, and I’m glad it’s you, because I’ve been reading your posts, and they remind me to go over carefully again what I have processed in the past regarding these things.

        I also at the same time didn’t want someone to say what you said, because I’m rather timid (relating to Piglet many times). I don’t expect myself to give a good answer. You likely can guess I will say there is no easy answer. I don’t say there’s no easy answer because I’m determined to make a loving God exist no matter what reasonable evidence reveals. (I could be doing that, but of course I don’t believe I am.) I say there’s no easy answer because my reasoning ability as a human is limited, obviously, to what I can observe (or conceptualize). That my reasoning ability has been, all my life, based on quite limited assumptions and blind spots has been coming home to me in a big way the past three years or so.

        People on earth have reasoned certain (varied, differing) ways about the natural lights in our sky, and those ways all started with basic assumptions about the observable “heavens”. Then at a point in history mankind’s view was greatly increased, so that the wonder and mystery of an expanding, immeasurable universe began to be able to be better processed. One result of this was mankind’s increased ability to engage with that universe, locally so far in our solar system, and to imagine flights farther into the reaches of space.

        People have reasoned certain (varied, differing) ways about life and death on earth, and those ways all started with basic assumptions about observable life and death. For humanity, for myself, Life = Good, Death = Bad, because that’s how I experience it. Even when life doesn’t feel good, I know life is good and death is bad. This is healthy to observe, for some reason, and it is expressed by those who recorded those experiences that became known as Scripture. It’s unhealthy, for some reason, to become hardened against the idea of staying alive as good and dying as bad.

        If there is a greatly increased view of how things are in reality regarding life and death, then here is one possible way that might look: death is “merely” the separation of soul from body. It *is* horrible, because mankind was not created to be “scattered” this way, to be separated. Each person was made to be whole. Even more importantly, each person was made to be joined, eventually, to God (mankind to Godkind, if you will).

        But if that separation (“merely” death; not the “second death”) was provided by God as an alternative to destroying mankind utterly, then it might be recognized that God had a plan in mind for rescuing mankind from utter destruction. If the history of reality we know is all about that rescue, then God could have been preparing mankind for it to come about (organically, if you will, yet quite deliberately). If part of that preparation included God having personal dealings with people, then there could have been real conversations between creator and created, along with the more dramatic interaction of actions, some by God via nature or people, some by people that God foretold or commanded. These could involve people being killed by God, being separated soul from body by their own creator (because we recognize that the people carrying out God’s command to kill were innocent of murder; they were following orders at that point), this creator being so far above mankind in understanding, would have seen the happenings to each person, to each child lifted, as it were, from the visible world into the one mankind apparently can’t see while still breathing. No human has that kind of perspective or power, and therefore no human can be innocent of taking another human life by their own initiative.

        Every human sees, eventually, the suffering common to all in this life. I can’t say what compares to the suffering of death, or of just before death, but I’ve heard that the worst thing someone can do to me is “only” to kill me. This implies there are other aspects of reality, beyond what I can see. Perhaps there are earthly sufferings worse than death. I know of a man recently killed in a car crash who died instantly, his spine severed, his other bones intact. Was that even painful? I can’t say. That doesn’t erase the sorrow his loved ones are enduring. But my point is their suffering might be greater than his. It’s mysterious, beyond my grasp.

        What God’s intentions were in history is of course a subject of great debate. Whether or not God is good, is writing a good story, etc., is incredibly important to ponder. Whether or not God has been misunderstood a lot, whether or not God is real. All good to really take on personally, especially in light of what life brings. I don’t blame you or mind if your conclusions are different from mine. There’s so much more we might say in conversation about it (this is barely, from my end, the prelude to the preamble to the introduction), if you ever want to. I do appreciate hearing your views.

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