Passing Judgment

An earnest seeker greeted his friend—an older, more worldly guy—with a question: Do you have any philosophy by which you live your life? Some set of beliefs you’ve picked up over your lifetime?

The friend responds: Don’t judge. Don’t brag. Don’t worry. And greet everyone you know like it’s the first time you’ve seen them in ten years.

The seeker is impressed. Wow! Where’d you learn all that?!

To which his friend replies: From my dog.

Well yes. The dialog continues. Your dog may be a guru.

And to that, the older guy concludes Yeah, and if she founds a church, I’ll join it. [from a Pearls Before Swine comic by Stephan Pastis]

Who wouldn’t want a church like that? No judgment. No stress. No big egos, just warm, unconditional welcome all the time. Ruff, ruff!

The comedy works, I think, because we assume that description is in direct contrast to the actual church. For whatever reason (and we know the reason, don’t we?) the Church is viewed by many (from the outside, but also from its own members) as a lifestyle court, complete with prosecuting attorney, judge and jury.

We have commandments, creeds, and religious expectations backed by two thousand years of practice. We are skilled at identifying sins based both on what you do and what you don’t do. Our worship even includes a “prayer of confession” because we just know you’ve messed up… every week.

Not surprisingly, this tends to deter folks from walking through our doors. It reinforces the idea that God only loves “acceptable” people, ones who have said the right words and do the right things. People who believe. A judgmental attitude also cultivates contention within the community by insisting on a single standard for belief and practice. You can’t just do things your way or any way; you gotta do it God’s way. And we know the truth about that!

Despite what you may have heard from popular media, this is not a new challenge for the faith community. For while it’s true that where two or three are gathered, God is present. . . . it’s also true that there are different perspectives, diverse understanding, and absolute confidence that I’m right, and you’re wrong. We humans have been passing judgment on each other for a long time.

Our text was prompted by a controversy emerging in the early church. Many new Christians had been raised Jewish and observed kosher dietary laws. When they became followers of Jesus, some felt no need to continue these regulations; others saw their new faith as an extension of Judaism and continued to abide by them.

Believers were deeply divided, and hostile and disdainful of those with whom they disagreed. The affirmation of “food laws” or “food liberation” was elevated to an article of faith. I know it’s hard to imagine, as we would never pass judgment on such small matters, would we?

The apostle Paul added his perspective in the reading from his letter to the Romans, chapter fourteen, verses one through twelve. Listen for God’s Word to the church then…..and now. [ROMANS 14:1-12]

I blame it on being a second child. You know, the one who always has to play catch-up with the firstborn. Very early on, I developed a keen sense of competition; no, it was more than that. It was a deep-seated need to win, to come out on top, to prevail over others.

This quality worked well for Scrabble games; not so much for life. There’s a very thin line between overcoming your fellow Scrabble opponents with brilliant plays and seeking to win over your thought opponents by compelling arguments. I have come to understand that the very worst strategy for helping people change is to beat them in an argument. It doesn’t work. If anything, it moves them into defense mode and more deeply entrenches them in their viewpoint. Not to mention the hurt feelings, anger and bluster, and potential for real harm.

The apostle is gentle in rebuffing this approach. Don’t do it, he counsels—-and here he is echoing Jesus’ very clear directive: Do not judge so that you may not be judged [Matthew 7:1].

Yet the apostle also acknowledges each personal perspective and urges everyone to affirm one’s truth. Know your mind, consider the reasons for your view, and stand your ground. If he’d stopped there, I think we’d be stuck in the hostile divisions that characterize life in these times.

We don’t have to look far for an example. Consider our nation’s controversies over reproductive choice. (and even the way I’ve identified the controversy is controversial; another person of equal faith and goodwill might have called it our nation’s controversy over abortion). Pro-choice— women’s rights as moral agents to make informed healthcare decisions, including access to medically-safe abortion services VERSUS Pro-life—the State’s interest in safeguarding the rights of developing fetal life. It’s fair to say that almost no one is neutral on this matter and identifies with one position or the other (to greater or lesser degrees, perhaps).

Further, each perspective holds that view as a moral and societal good—and, for people of faith, a spiritual good. We look at the “other” and question how they could possibly be so wrong. Each camp claiming its truth as truly true (and passing judgment on all other camps as wrong, ill-informed, even morally bankrupt, and mean-spirited to boot). Little wonder we can do no more than talk “at” each other rather than engaging in respectful dialog.

But thank God, the apostle didn’t stop with an affirmation of individual perspective. He invited those good people of faith (and us!) to a larger view, a perspective grounded in the reality of God’s love and the grace that flows from that love. Even more important than our individual opinions—no matter how confidently held—-is our membership in God’s family, the beloved community of siblings, sisters, and brothers. There’s something better than being right. It’s being connected in love that allows us to acknowledge differences without passing judgment. That is, we love one another first and foremost and approach one another not to convince them of our “correct” perspective but to seek understanding of theirs.

Can I, who so prizes winning, set that aside in favor of kind conversation with others that seeks to learn more and understand more with a goal of strengthening the relationship, not convert or convince of my position?

The apostle Paul thought so. He apparently thought beloved community could be cultivated with imperfect people who disagree about all kinds of things, even important things. He reminded them that God’s love is for all the people, which calls us to something more than silent judgment or inward derision but wholehearted goodwill.

There’s a kind of humility in that. We are not perfect. We are human and capable of empathy, patience, receiving new insight, and even admitting we are wrong or that our knowledge is incomplete.

I know it can happen because it happened to me. That example of struggle with reproductive choice? It was the subject of my doctoral dissertation: to research and develop a model for conversation in the church about these matters. I read books and articles from all sides. I interviewed dozens of folks to understand what informed their conviction. I beta-tested my first attempts and got feedback that my methods were still too weighted toward my personal views; I was still trying to win others over. I found myself frustrated and frankly doubtful that such a methodology existed.

I didn’t yet have the wisdom of Jonathan Haidt, whose thoughtful book, The Righteous Mind, begins with the truth that we’re all self-righteous hypocrites at times. His careful analysis of how humans make decisions led him to conclude that moral reasoning is more emotional and intuitive than it is logical. People don’t change their minds because you give them a sounder reason to do so (aka “beat them”). Their openness increases when they personally felt heard and seen. . . . and when they hear stories.

At the height of my frustration, a friend suggested something similar. Tell the stories of women facing an unplanned pregnancy, women who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest, of women whose pregnancy threatened their health, mental health, or even their lives; the stories of doctors treating sepsis from back alley abortions.

Tell the stories of families who adopted children whose mothers couldn’t raise them, of women who regretted an abortion decision. I went back to my drafts and included storytelling in each session. The stated goal of the resource wasn’t to change anyone’s mind but to understand one another’s position and be able to explain it to the other’s satisfaction. Then, could it be possible for the group to choose one action addressing the issue they could engage in together?

To my utter amazement, the addition of authentic stories made a difference. Understanding and trust grew among participants to the point that some were even able to share their own abortion experiences without fear of judgment. I think this learning became helpful again when the church began advocating for LGBTQ rights, and I think it can serve us well as we approach a particularly troubling and divisive national election season. Heck, as we approach the challenges of developing a faithful and financially sound budget!

I’ve tried to practice its truth in pastoral leadership continually, though I know I fail frequently. Honestly, friends, that’s the main reason we have a prayer of confession every week: not to pass judgment on ourselves but to remind ourselves of the Love that holds us unconditionally and, in the naming of our flaws and failures, strengthens us to love again.

A young adult author whose work I admire, Courtney Stevens, suggests that we shouldn’t judge others because we never have the whole picture. If you met Noah after the flood, she writes in one book, you’d think, “Oh, that brave, faith-filled, visionary man.” You meet him before, and you’re like, “What a nut job.” [Stevens, The June Boys]

Let’s take a hard pass on judgment as a human enterprise and leave it to Dog—er, I mean God, whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting, who loves us always and forever. Amen.