“I may hate the sin, but never the sinner.”
I first encountered that quote many years ago while reading Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense, and it has stuck with me ever since, upsetting me in a way a throwaway line in an obscure book rarely does.**
How can one separate the sin and the sinner, I wondered.
Just read the history books, studded with crimes committed on such a grand scale that you question how we could possibly be an evolved, enlightened species.
Or watch the news, and see the just-as-horrific, but much more intimate, personal acts of violence and cruelty happening right now, right down your block, acts which you are ultimately just as powerless to stop as those in the history books.
With all the evil menacing the world, how can one allow for such a distinction between sin and sinner? Surely, they are both worthy of our scorn and anger and – if there is justice in this world – our punishment …
A couple of months ago, I was watching Bob Costas interview Jerry Sandusky, the ex-Penn State coach accused of committing terrible sexual atrocities against numerous young boys who had been entrusted to his care. The coach was trying to assert his innocence, but it was an incredibly damning performance, full of odd pauses, incongruous justifications, and frankly, sheer lunacy. In my mind, he was guilty of something, and if only a fraction of the alleged crimes were true, then this was clearly a very evil man, deserving certainly of our hatred, not to mention of the harshest punishment imaginable that a civilized society can dole out.
But upon reflection, I realized something important: I couldn’t relate to this guy at all. The things he allegedly did, the way he was trying to explain himself, his entire thought process, it was all completely foreign to me. How could I possibly understand him? I wasn’t attracted to little boys. I couldn’t go around committing acts of tremendous brutality on innocent kids, and then find ways to justify my actions. And then I thought of another quote (also widely misattributed to the Bible):
‘There but for the grace of God, go I”
I mean, what if, for whatever reason – whether because of a genetic predisposition or something that happened during my childhood (or both, which appears to often be the case with true pedophiles) – I was only attracted to little children.
How awful and how difficult would it be to have to go through life constantly denying a key part of one’s essence and the pleasure associated with sexual satisfaction? Would I be willing to resist the temptation to act on my illicit desires? Probably so, but only because my conscience wouldn’t allow me to hurt others, even if for my own benefit, a trait I attribute to the extremely constructive nurturing I’ve received … something which Sandusky almost certainly did not have.
So I saw the situation in a new light. I was fortunate to have a strong, normal upbringing, showered with love, instilled with high morals and values, taught the power of self-esteem and the difference between right and wrong. Just as importantly, I was wired to accept all those lessons and internalize them – to do and be (mostly) good.
Sandusky, on the other hand, clearly has faulty wiring. Assuming he is guilty, he was cursed with an abnormality, a disease, which I was blessed to not have. He also likely had a destructive childhood, or at least destructive events within his childhood, that made it too hard for him to avoid the disastrous consequences of his disease and/or made it too easy for him to justify those consequences.
The same can be said for the vast majority – if not all – of the people who commit similar atrocities. That’s not to say we should forgive these people; certainly that is a difficult thing to ask, especially if we or our loved ones have been personally victimized by such evil deeds. Nor does it mean we should be lenient in our treatment of those people. If anything, this mindset may call for harsher punishments: If genetics is the root cause of evil, then redemption and rehabilitation are virtually impossible; and if nurturing is to blame, the best modern medicine and psychiatry has to offer won’t likely accomplish much either.
No, we may not forgive or show mercy, but we can perhaps understand evil in a more constructive light.
I was recently reading an article in New York magazine about Levi Aron, the Hasidic Jew who kidnapped, murdered and – in a subsequent panic – dismembered an 8-year-old boy in a crime that generated a great deal of local publicity for its grisly nature and unusual circumstances. At the end of the piece, the distraught father of the boy is cursing Aron, and a fellow Hasid is trying to comfort the dad with a passage from the Talmud.
“I told him he shouldn’t hate,” the man said, “because God is in everything.”
I’m not a religious man, so I don’t know about God’s relationship with evil – if He is responsible for the awful atrocities that permeate our world, then he is not worth my faith or devotion. But I do agree that hate isn’t the appropriate emotion for dealing with evil men.
No, Darrow had it right. You can hate the sin, but you should pity the sinner.
Pity the sinner, and be thankful that you are not one of them.
**Many folks, myself included, believe the quote or one like it was something Jesus said in the Christian bible, but it’s actually a paraphrase of something written in a letter written by St. Augustine – Ghandi also referred to it in his autobiography.