Who Are We To Judge?
the Rev. Edmund Robinson
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
July 15, 2018
A dear friend who is not a member here asked me yesterday what I was preaching on today. I said simply I was preaching on judgment. She stopped and swallowed hard. She then said quietly, that is about the second most bothersome thing in my life.
It is bothersome to me, too. I hold on to the judgments I’ve made about people in my past though I know I should let them go. It’s no coincidence that the words judge, grudge and drudge all rhyme and all represent something that can stand in the way of happiness.
Jesus said, judge not that you be not judged. How do we handle judging others and being judged ourselves? How do we handle the private judgements we make in our own minds, and those we express to others? How do we differentiate a judgment that a person is not a very good violin player from one that he is not a good person?
Can you see yourself in this story? You are sitting in a room in a public place, and a stranger walks in the door and there is something about his or her appearance that you sets you off. Maybe he’s wearing a polka dot top with striped pants, or a man bun. Maybe she has garish tattoos spilling out of a blouse that’s three sizes too small. Or a tongue stud.
You might say “yuck” to yourself, but nothing out loud; secretly you’re so glad this isn’t anyone you’re going to have to deal with. And then it turns out this is the person you came to see, who’s interviewing you for the job or about to give you a medical exam. Surprise!
Judge not that you not be judged. Whoever wrote the Gospels liked to put these reciprocal obligations in the mouth of Jesus. Last week we talked about the reciprocal obligations of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer; forgive us as we forgive others. Now we have the related warning that if you judge, you will be judged.
In a way, each of these is nothing more than a specific instance of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. If you recognize the humanity of the other, you will treat him or her in the way you would want him or her to treat you.
The act of judging, even in secret, sets us apart from the person judged. And if our judgment of the other person is negative, we’re essentially setting ourselves up a little above the person judged.
Most of us, however, have learned the basic survival tactic of not giving voice to every judgment which enters our mind. Not all of us. Amid the latest diplomatic debacle of our President, I have finally put my finger on the reason why I react so viscerally to what our he says: he is both all judgment and no judgment. All judgement in his relation to the things he comments on, and no judgment about how and when and before whom he offers those comments.
Almost everything he says is judgmental; if there are subjects about which he has no opinion, he doesn’t discuss them. Have you noticed this? Everything is either first rate, the best, or it’s a disaster. There is no middle ground.
Yet he does not observe the most basic rules of when and where to deliver these pronouncements. It is not polite, to say the least, to criticize the British Prime Minister when you are a guest at her house. And you don’t get to wiggle out of it by denying the press accounts. It does not win you friends to attend the NATO meeting only to trash NATO and praise the Russian autocrat whom many NATO members see, with good reason, as the biggest threat to their existence.
And yet I am not here to chide the President but to try to understand this thing called judgment. Most of us have some sense about what judgments pass our lips and what are reserved for the privacy of our own minds.
For there is a good meaning of the word judgment. We might say a person is of sound judgment; that means she understands what is what, and can speak and act within the boundaries expected within the community for someone in her situation. Judgment in this sense is a matter of discernment, of learning the facts of a matter, making an investigation, turning it over in one’s mind, getting the opinions of others, before reaching a conclusion. It is the discipline of keeping an open mind until all the facts are in, and being willing to change one’s mind when new facts are learned.
Our word for judgment is kin to words from which we get our words crisis and critical. Forming judgments is an essential part of thought. We normally form judgments as we think something over, though we don’t have to express them and we can always revise them.
Everyone wants to have good judgment, in this sense, but nobody wants to be thought of as judgmental. Being judgmental is being closed-minded, impervious to new evidence, unwilling to consider other points of view or shooting from the hip.
Now, every judgment we make whether expressed or not has the potential to be toxic and harmful. For judgment in any context inevitably takes its coloration from two contexts where it regularly does have drastic consequences: law and religion. In law, a judgment is the final word of a court on a matter in dispute. In a criminal case, it can be anything from an acquittal to a death sentence. In a civil case, it can range from a finding that the defendant was not responsible for any damages to an award of millions of dollars. The Order of Service has an image of a pair of hands sticking out through jail bars, representing a prisoner serving a sentence. The judgment of the court determines how the prisoner is going to spend his days.
In religion, of course, judgment can be even harsher, determining whether a soul is going to heaven or hell. The last judgment as described several places in the Bible and depicted by many artists, is the time that a final destination is chosen for all the humans who have ever lived. Of course, the idea of that sorting assumes a God who is willing to send people to eternal torment in Hell, which is definitely not the God of Universalism.
Those are the big-J judgments. All the little judgments we make in the course of our lives have echoes of these drastic judgments in the legal and religious systems. If we come backstage after the musical performance and tell our favorite singer that his voice was a little off, he may feel like we have just thrown him down to hell. It is a fine art to give someone the benefit of your honest opinion without seeming to cast them into outer darkness.
In the course of my lifetime, thinking people have gradually become aware of the massive injustices which have been perpetrated in the past against people of color, the native inhabitants of America and other places of the world, women, LBGTQ people, foreigners and others who were deemed different. These may have started way back in history, but the inequality persists into the present day. We have radically adjusted not only our thinking but how we express our thinking. There are a thousand songs and jokes I learned in my childhood that cannot be sung or told today for very good reasons.
In a similar way, we have learned not to be too quick to express opinions, for there may be someone whose sensitivities we only dimly appreciate who might be offended. Those who chafe at these restrictions put them under the name political correctness. Others of us just call them common courtesy in a society trying to live up to its ideals of fairness.
Up until November of 2016, I would have said this voluntary caution in expressing judgments was a society-wide consensus in American culture if not global culture. However, political developments since then have shown how flagrant disregard of these considerations of courtesy wins approval and even votes in some corners of the electorate.
And it’s not just the popping out of raw racism, xenophobia, homophobia, patriarchy that is the problem. Almost every time we express a judgment, we are erecting some kind of wall between people. We are saying in effect that there is a moral difference between them and us. By our judgments, we define the circle of social acceptance.
Jesus in the reading I did earlier talks about taking the beam out of your own eye before trying to take the speck out of your neighbor’s, and he uses the word hypocrite. In his day, this Greek word was commonly used for an actor, a person who spoke from behind a mask, thus a deceiver. A person who condemns others for conduct which he himself engages in is a hypocrite. A discerning judgment starts from self-awareness, from humility. Who am I to judge?
This is classically illustrated by the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. It is in the Gospel of John; the story goes that the Jewish leaders brought before Jesus a woman who had committed adultery. They realized that Jesus’ popularity had sapped their authority with the people, and so were looking for a way to get Jesus to disavow Jewish law so they could attack him as a heretic. They had with them a married woman who had been caught in the act of adultery; they reminded Jesus that the law of Moses said that the penalty for adultery was stoning to death. What did Jesus say to that?
In the account, Jesus first ignores the question and bends down to write something in the dirt on the ground. When the Pharisees repeated the question, Jesus stood up and said to the assembled crowd, “let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” He then bent down again and wrote on the ground. But no one came forward with the first stone, and gradually the crowd slunk away. Jesus straightened up and said to the woman, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?” The woman replied, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “then neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”
In this parable, Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of the crowd. Adultery might have been a lot less common in those days than it is now, but the odds are great that in a crowd of any substantial size there are a few who would be guilty of adultery. Jesus’ actions invites them to look into their own hearts, to say, who am I to judge?
It was a brilliant teaching moment. Jesus did not have to disavow the Law of Moses, but he clearly demonstrated how it led to consequences none of them could stomach. They who had ben guilty of adultery and similar offenses would be responsible for the death of a woman.
The question, “who are we to judge?” resonated down through the ages from this moment. Humility, self knowledge, is the antidote to judgmentalism. When we can include ourselves within the scope of our view, we might see that the moral boundary between us and the people we’re judging is not so bright as we think.
Now let me turn from Jesus to Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi, the 13th-Century Persian mystic poet; he writes
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.”
Rumi’s field is a place beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing. The question immediately arises, is there such a place? Is there a place in the universe where the concepts of rightness and wrongness don’t apply? Does our morality occupy the entire are of the universe?
My first instinct is to say if there is such a place, I don’t want to go there. It’s like the Wild West in the movies I watched in my childhood. Where there is no law governed by the normal processes of government, the law of the jungle prevails, and might makes right. The outlaws terrorize the good citizens of the territory until the new sheriff comes to town to restore law and order. There’s nothing romantic about living in fear of the worst elements of society.
Yet that perspective is limited. There certainly are places in the universe which are beyond human law and morality, because they are beyond any human influence. I am talking about the world of nature.
Human morality, human law, the concept of moral right and wrong, is an invention of the human mind and, on a system-wide basis, of human culture. Humans, in turn, are a species of naked ape on a small planet in a corner of one galaxy. The black snake eats the newly-hatched cowbirds from the nest not because the snake is evil, but because that’s what snakes do. Who are we to judge? The second law of thermodynamics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, Darwin’s theory of spontaneous variation and natural selection – these are neither good nor bad in themselves, but morally neutral ways of understanding what we can see with our senses happening in nature.
The existence of Rumi’s field, even if only as a concept, gives us a valuable insight: we often have a choice in a given situation to treat an issue as a moral one or not. It is not mandated that we always wear our moral glasses.
There are certainly occasions for judgment, for discerning that wrongdoing is occurring and to do what we can, say what we can, to prevent or resist it. But there are also occasions for acceptance, or for suspension of judgment.
Judgment is a way of differentiating people, of erecting walls and drawing lines. That has its uses. But the line you draw to keep another person out may one day be used to keep you out. The judgment you level on another can come back and bite you.
Can we make it a spiritual quest to expand Rumi’s field within our own minds? The field is beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, it is beyond judgment. That is the place where Rumi says we can meet. That is the place where we can put judgment aside. “When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.” Can you understand in your gut that the ties which bind us to each other as fellow humans, fellow children of God if that phrase means anything to you, are stronger and more permanent that any walls which might be erected by your judgment? Our separateness, our vaunted individuality is in the end an illusion; what is real is our connectedness. What I am trying to say here is that if we want to rise above judgments, we must feel our common source.
Last week I spoke on forgiveness, and one of you said in the talkback that the most important person to forgive was yourself. I couldn’t agree more, and I’d say the same goes for judgment. In the wee hours of the night, my overworked conscience convenes a secret court to try the issue whether I have lived up to the standards I have set for myself. I want to jump bail. I want to throw myself, and each of you lovely people, on the mercy of this court. Let us plead insanity. Let us plead the lure of a careless summer day on Cape Cod. Let us plead love.
Matthew 7 Sermon on the Mount
1 Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.”