“But our quest is to be perfectly loving, rather than the perfect rule enforcers. When we look at ourselves, we should be looking for ways that our love can be improved upon. When we look at other people, we should be looking for ways that they are lovely.” –Morgan Guyton.
So lately I’ve been reading this remarkable book called “How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity,” by Morgan Guyton. When I saw that it came recommended by Rachel Held Evans, Diana Butler Bass, and Brian McLaren, I had to check it out. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in awhile, but I’m almost done with it and I’ll post more about it when I review it here for the blog.
For now though, I want to talk about a specific chapter in his book, and indeed a specific quote. The quote I highlighted above comes from his chapter on “Solidarity, not Sanctimony,” and is on page 109 of his book. The chapter is all about how we respond to sin, which, let’s face it, is front and center in the discussion of American Christianity today. How Christians respond to “sin” is constantly making headlines. A couple of things that come to mind are the Westboro Baptist Church and their absolutely hideous protests at funerals and over LGBTQ rights, and one can also think of the current “debate” on transgender rights, including where these people get to use the bathroom. I don’t think that it would put too fine a point on it to say that the overarching “Christian” response by these groups that oppose things like LGBTQ rights is “sanctimonious.”
But to really get where Guyton is going here, we need to see how he defines sin. To people of a more sanctimonious mindset, sin is “breaking the rules.” Many of these folks view these rules as concepts explicitly outlined in Scripture. However, as Guyton points out, sin isn’t always as black and white as this mindset likes to make it out to be. Take the story of The Good Samaritan as found in Luke 10: 25-37. In this parable, a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by robbers and left for dead on the road. Both a priest and a Levite (of the priestly tribe) pass the man by and do nothing. Later a Samaritan (a culture much reviled by the Jews) passed the man and helped him to an inn and paid for his care. Obviously the Samaritan is the one who did God’s will by helping the man, but consider the priest and the Levite. It was quite possible that the man was dying or dead, and it was against the Law of Moses for them to come into contact with a dead body. Had they done so they would have become ceremonially unclean and would have to go through elaborate, drawn out purification rituals before they could continue their service in the Temple or other religious duties. So in the mind of these men, they were just “following the rules.” However, was it sanctimonious for them to put their ritual cleanliness and personal piety over the life of the victim of the attack? You be the judge.
Guyton suggests another view of sin. Some Christians will act in solidarity with others instead of sanctimony. To these folks, sin isn’t the breaking of rules, but the failure to love. I love this definition. Brian McLaren similarly talks about sin as the failure to grow, and I think these definitions work in harmony. For these people it would be sin to pass that person on the road by, no matter what the consequences, religiously or otherwise. Perhaps it’s a greater dishonor to God to not show love to one of his children than to break some rule laid out in the law. Hmm, really? That sounds kind of “radical.”
But let’s look at what Jesus does. In his book, Guyton highlights a couple of different stories. One of them is from Luke 7: 36-50 where Jesus is dining at the home of a Pharisee as the guest of honor. During the meal, a woman enters and causes a stir. She is probably not someone that Simon the Pharisee wanted anywhere near his guest of honor. The ESV calls her a “woman of the city, a sinner” (vs 37). This kind of makes it sound like perhaps she was a prostitute. Anyway, she strides right up to Jesus and gives him a foot bath with some oil, her tears, and her hair. As Guyton points out, this was a major faux pas. In that culture, a woman’s hair was an erotic symbol, and this woman runs her hair all over Jesus’ feet and kisses them. She seems to be literally “making out” with Jesus’ foot right there at the table, how scandalous!
Simon keeps his mouth shut, but I’m sure the look on his face betrayed his thoughts. He wondered to himself why Jesus, who was supposedly a prophet, didn’t know that this woman was a sinner and send her away. Jesus, of course, picks up on this and puts the smack-down on Simon. He scolds Simon for not having someone to wash his feet (traditionally something that a good host would do) and for not offering Jesus the honor of a kiss (which might have been, as Guyton points out, like extra credit.) This woman was doing both for Jesus. Jesus points out that as she had shown great love, her sin had been forgiven, but that some other people who haven’t shown love might have some work to do. That was plainly directed at Simon. So Jesus showed solidarity with the sinner in the face of the sanctimonious religious leader. Should that be an object lesson for us?
Probably, but we miss the point here if we allow ourselves to become sanctimonious toward Simon because of his attitude. Guyton points out that we are still to show love to oppressors. Not that it means we should not stand up to them, but that we must still treat them as people who can be brought to God through His grace the same as we have. Guyton cites the story of Zacchaeus here. We need to show love to everyone. Man, does that include showing love to folks like Donald Trump? You know what, I think it does, as much as it makes my stomach churn to think so.
This brings us back to the quote that I began this post with. Our job, our quest as Christians is to love others. When we are aware of sin, we should be aware of our own sin and how to combat it and make ourselves more loving to ourselves and others. When we deal with others our response shouldn’t be to look for their sin, but it should be to look for things that are lovely about them.
We have a gay couple in our church. They are married and committed to a wonderful, lasting relationship. It’s lovely. They’ve also adopted a child and are intensely focused on bringing up that child in a loving environment and in the light of Christ. It’s lovely. It would be easy for some to be sanctimonious about their “sinful” lifestyle, and some have. But being that way not only blinds them to beautiful things going on in that relationship but it blinds them to their own inability to love as well. Personally, I refuse to define that relationship as “sinful.” To me God is honored just as much in a loving, committed marriage between two gay people as he is in a marriage between two straight people. I choose to stand in solidarity with them and hopefully love can even win through for the people who judge them, that is my prayer.
The verse in the picture from 1 Peter speaks an important truth. Love covers a multitude of sins. Oh if so many more Christians would heed that verse and it’s admonition to keep on loving each other constantly. We could truly make a huge difference in this world if we strove to love more perfectly instead of seeking to enforce rules perfectly
Please check out Guyton’s book. This is only a discussion of one part of one chapter. There is so much more, and it’s a great perspective on modern Christianity. You can also check out his blog here.