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Opening Words from Sun. November 3 by Dara Strickland

Here on an autumn night in the sweet orchard smell,
Sitting in a pile of leaves under the starry sky,
Oh what stories we could tell
With this starlight to tell them by.
October night, and you, and paradise,
So lovely and so full of grace,
Above your head, the universe has hung its lights,
And I reach out my hand to touch your face.
I believe in impulse, in all that is green
Believe in the foolish vision that comes true,
Believe that all that is essential is unseen,
And for this lifetime I believe in you.

My name is Dara Strickland, my pronouns are she/her.

That was an excerpt from a poem called “Autumn,” written by Garrison Keillor. It’s one of my favorite poems, especially at this time of year. Like a lot of people here, I was a fan of Garrison Keillor’s work on NPR. I discovered so many poems, really a whole idea of what poetry could be as a living, relevant art, because I heard him read them on Writer’s Almanac. 

Garrison Keillor was also credibly accused of harassing and belittling dozens of people who worked with him, mostly women, because they were women.

We’re living in an incredible moment where people who are coming forward about the abuses of power in the arts are more likely to find allies in their audience. We’ve cancelled Bill Cosby from our current culture. We’ve cancelled Kevin Spacey. 

As an ethical humanist, I struggle with this moment – our core values include both holding up the great achievements of humans, but also holding space for those who seek justice.   

I’ve been a member of the Ethical Society for three months, but I was raised in a very conservative Evangelical christian church. I haven’t identified with those beliefs in over twenty years, but one thing that I’ve found I do miss recently is a phrase I heard a lot growing up: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

The phrase is used as shorthand for an entire knot of theological complications – for how the same people who spend hours every week listening to teachings of love and redemption given to prostitutes and lepers can also set themselves apart from behaviors that they sincerely believe destroy the soul.

In practice, I heard “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” to invalidate the loving (or at least consensual) relationships of unmarried people, especially of queer people.I can’t remember a single time I heard it applied to greed; to cruelty; to selfishness; to abuse of power. 

That, I do not miss.

What I do miss is the philosophical confidence that underlies having a short, direct phrase stand in for such a complex set of concepts. That the tension between ideas can be so central to a system of beliefs that it becomes a core belief in and of itself.

So many of the great achievements in our culture came at a human cost, either directly or through systems of inequality. As ethical humanists, we must not only love the achievement, we must acknowledge the cost – and not just to ourselves, or among ourselves. We must “go into all the world,” as the preachers of my childhood said.    

Perhaps one day we’ll even have our own ethical version of “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.