You can loosely divide up Christians in to types in all sorts of ways, but here’s one I’ve noticed recently: where they fall on judging other people.
In fact, I think this applies to everyone, but I say Christians because we have an explicit command from Jesus not to judge others. So what we do about that matters. It throws up problems for us about what that means and how we put it into practice, and we can’t ignore them.
We know in theory that it’s not our place, and that judgmentalism is one of those unfortunate Christian qualities that we’re rightly hated for. We want to avoid it. But we tend to err in one of two directions:
- There’s the ‘anything goes’ route.
It’s often one I use to get myself off the hook when feeling confronted by other Christians, especially the holier than thou types. By equating ‘non-judgementalism’ with an abandonment of moral opinion, we can cast off the chains of all boring, out-dated ideas of appropriate Christian lifestyle and do whatever the hell we like. Drink as much as like, take whatever we life, sleep with whoever we like, blow all our money on whatever we like, even believe whatever we like (I know, really) because hey, who are we to judge each other?! [Note: the only thing that it’s okay to judge people for under this regime is intolerance. That simply will not be tolerated.]
- The other option is the ‘Now, I’m not judging, but…’ route, characterised by, well, thinly veiled judgmentalism.
Much like the old, ‘No offence but…’ prefix to an offensive remark, we take this route when we realise the need to protect ourselves from the accusation of judging others, while simply not being able to avoid sharing our opinion on each others’ choices. As our opinion is obviously the right one, it’s the only loving thing to do to point out their error as often as necessary, to the culprit and anyone else we think could benefit from this cautionary tale. The private glee we take in doing so is an unfortunate side-effect, but it’s got to be done.
Neither are, I don’t think, what Jesus had in mind. Neither are what I can imagine Jesus practising himself. So how do we find a route through, a way to acknowledge the existence of good and bad, justice and injustice, without putting ourselves in the place of God and condemning all those who fall short of our own self-righteous definitions of right and wrong?
The antidote to both is the same: to look ourselves squarely and unflinchingly in the eye.
[Warning: when I said this phrase to my writing buddy, currently sat across the coffee shop table from me, he attempted to do it without the assistance of a mirror, and the resulting facial expression was not pretty.]
It’s the intangible thing we call conscience that makes the ‘anything goes’ option unsustainable for any length of time when we’re honest with ourselves. Though I might not feel any guilt for lots of the things I used to think were morally wrong, I hope that doesn’t mean my conscience is dead altogether. I have to believe there’s such thing as right and wrong in my own and other people’s actions.
My response when someone else tries to question my behaviour is to shoot them down for being judgemental, but when I force myself to be honest with myself, when I stand in front of a mirror and look myself in the eye, I know exactly what I believe is right and what is wrong. There are far fewer grey areas and dilemmas than I’d like to make out. Accepting that doesn’t mean that I need to beat myself and punish myself for my mistakes. But it does mean I can’t hide so easily behind uncertainty and relativism. It gives me little excuse not to make the right choice in future.
When it comes to that thinly veiled judgement of others, the trick is the same. When I’m tempted to react to someone else’s choices with disgust, horror, proud glee or disapproving pity, I need to do that exact same thing. Before I send that ‘you’ll never guess what…’ text, or even pray that gossip-disguised-as-concern prayer for someone ‘struggling’, before I take them aside for a pastoral chat about their lifestyle damaging their Christian witness… I need to stand in front of a mirror.
Whatever it is they’ve said or done, whatever terrible choices they have made or are currently making, I need to look myself squarely in the eye and know that I am either equally culpable or equally capable.
I’m probably equally culpable. If I’m reacting strongly with disapproval, it’s most likely to be the case that I’ve committed the same crime, perhaps in a slightly different guise. I’m probably dealing with my own suppressed guilt by condemning them for the very same thing. This truth is at the heart of what Jesus said about hypocrisy and judgement time and time again:
- Let any one of you who is without (something very much like this) sin throw the first stone.
- Do not judge or you too will be judged (for that time you did just the same).
- First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
But perhaps this time, my judgement feels justified because I’ve actually never done that. And I never would. It’s beyond the line I could ever cross. It’s too far and they need to know it.
Again I need to come back to that mirror, look into my own eye, and see that I am equally capable. If it’s within the realms of possible human behaviour, I’ve got the potential to go there. I am not above anything, nothing is beyond me. We all realise it in different stages: that first time you cross a line you never thought you’d cross, and feel like you’ve become a whole different category of person. One who’s done that. But the truth is we’re all capable. And much as we want to draw our lines in the sand, all we’re doing is setting ourselves up for a bigger shock when we surpass ourselves with bad decisions and stupid mistakes.
Even now, I’d like to think this is only true up to a point. Surely there are acts that you and I could never be capable of. But given the right circumstances, the right pressures, the right motives of desperation or fear or anger or greed… I believe we’re all capable. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment in the 1960s demonstrated how terrifyingly easy it is to have normal people carry out apparently awful acts on another innocent person simply by putting them under authority.
We share a human nature. We share both wonderful and terrible potential. We share capacities and capabilities. Until the day we die, we don’t know what choices we will make and what circumstances will push us to them. What we can do though is have compassion for one another, and work this ‘being human’ thing out together.
The least judgemental people I know are not those who eschew any sense of right and wrong. They’re the ones with whom I’ve shared my biggest mistakes, my darkest thoughts, my deepest longings and my most terrifying potential – only to hear them say, ‘I can understand that.’ Whether it’s because they’ve been there too, or they know themselves well enough to know they very easily could, it’s the people who look unflinchingly at their own humanity who get closest to what Jesus meant.
I could never judge you. I’m just the same.