To judge or not to judge: not much of a question

Justice_scales

I recently noticed a web article on Facebook which explains, in essence, that idea of “Love the sinner, hate the sin” isn’t a good way for Christian to approach such things. Instead, we are supposed to love our neighbor, and hate our own sin.

Now, surely hating our own sins is a good idea. And certainly loving our neighbors is part of the Christian call.

It is not surprising that this approach is superficially appealing. It speaks to the primary “sin” or zeitgeist of the modern, liberal (in the traditional sense of the term, not the politicized variety), secular west. And, that is this: tolerance is the great good, and the only sin that is unpardonable is the sin of intolerance. (I have written about this in detail here.)

Problem #1: Moral Confusion

For starters, though, if this doctrine was really implemented, it leads to moral confusion, if not outright moral paralysis.

If we are only allowed to recognize our own sins, then we become mute in the face of the great evils of the world. I had nothing to do with the murder of six million Jews—thus, under the dictates of “ignore others’ sins,” I’m not either supposed to or required to abhor and resist things like the Holocaust. But, that is absurd.

A double standard?

Now, I’m sure that the author or advocates of this theory don’t really believe the Holocaust or ISIS, or the kidnappings by Boko Haran, or Mao’s murder of millions by famine or Stalin’s in the gulag were of no moral moment; or that we shouldn’t denounce, resist, and even fight and die against such sins and evils.

They simply apply their ideas inconsistently. Thus, they see no irony in denouncing those who notice sin in others—because after all, wouldn’t it then inappropriate for them to point to my supposed sin in recognizing sin in others? Should they be preaching this doctrine at all, save in the chambers of their own hearts? It is logically inconsistent.

But, this doctrine is useful—and thus attractive—if one wishes to silence people who speak against sins that one wants left uncriticized—be it unwarranted divorce, or abortion, or homosexual acts, or whatever.

To speak against these acts is to be intolerant (the great secular sin, remember). So, this “don’t notice others’ sins” claim is a clever method of trying a bit of religious ju-jitsu against the Christian. But, it isn’t likely to be invoked when we are confronted with the sins or evils that the liberal secularist wants to eradicate: like homophobia, or racism, or sexism, or “intolerance.” Those will continue, one suspects, to be fair game for identification. They might even be decried, and those judged guilty of the same might even be persecuted or shamed into silence.

But, either ignoring great evil or selectively focusing only on a certain select class of sins isn’t this doctrine’s only weakness.

Problem #2: Personal evils

Perhaps even more troubling is how this idea eviscerates one of the great beauties and powers of Christianity—the idea that God can liberate us from the effects of others’ sins upon us. This applies not just to the massive, industrial-scale evils of genocide and terror discussed above. It applies to the searing personal ones as well.

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? (Matthew 18:21)

Under the proffered doctrine, one might expect Jesus to say something like, “Peter, you shouldn’t be noticing the sin at all. Hate your own sins, my man.”

But, that isn’t what Jesus says. Instead, he says:

Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:22)

The very idea of forgiveness, the whole doctrine itself, presupposes two things:

  1. The existence and genuine reality of sin and evil; and
  2. The recognition and identification of that sin and evil by the Christian, and the necessity to react to it in a way that will be spiritually helpful, rather than damaging.

But bluntly, one cannot forgive what one does not spot. (I have written elsewhere of the difficulties people encounter when urged to “forgive” before they have counted the cost of a sin upon them.)

Here again, I suspect the author and advocates are not really taking their doctrine fully and seriously. Are we really to tell a victim of rape, or child abuse, or physical violence that they are not to even notice that they have been deeply wounded, violated, and sinned against? One hopes not.

Is someone violates my trust, am I not to have it register? If a sin causes me sorrow, am I to deny the reality of my tears? The beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–12) presuppose the recognition that one has been sinned against—and yet Jesus offers freedom from that. He does not, however, start by a denial that such suffering has occurred, or an insistence that we not notice it. (That, if anything, seems more Buddhist than Christian.)

Only among our own, or up the power structure?

Another related idea is that Jesus only intends a critique of his own religion or people, and then only of what we might call “the power elite.”

This likewise isn’t true. Jesus was quite happy to call Jews to account for sin. He did not reserve that right to himself; he clearly instructed his followers to reject the teachings and acts of others (e.g., Matthew 7:6; 16:6; Mark 8:15), which certainly implies that one will notice, assess, and then reject.

But, he was likewise willing to critique pagans (e.g., Matthew 6:7; 18:17; 20:25).

Other Biblical data

Besides the gospels, there’s a great deal of other data that shows that this stance simply isn’t Christian or biblical in any meaningful sense.

At the very beginning of the Christian era, Peter speaks to a large crowd. Presumably he’s putting into practice something of what he learned from Jesus. And his very first remarks address sin:

Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:

Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain… (Acts 2:22–23)

Shouldn’t Peter just be forgiving and loving them? Apparently not—he is confronting them with their sinful behavior, and even labels it “wicked.”

But, in a key and more profound sense, Peter is forgiving and loving them. It would be unloving not to speak the truth—to ignore or wink at their sin. And, he is pointing them to the source of forgiveness. His own forgiveness matters little for them (though it matters for Peter, of course). They need God’s forgiveness, and so Peter’s invocation of their sin is prelude to an offer to help solve it.

Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.

Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:36–38)

Now, to be sure, they can accept or reject the offer. But, Peter seems duty-bound to make it. And, that offer presupposes the existence of sin. It makes no sense to offer someone the atonement and redemption of Christ if one is unaware that one is a sinner. Notice that some in the crowd “were pricked in their heart”—they had not known (or faced up to) their sin, until Peter called them on it. And, Peter went on at length, saying “Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” In other words, he indicted all of sin. Far from never mentioning sin and simply spreading love blossoms around, Peter mentioned everyone’s sin.

He returns to this theme repeatedly:

But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses….And now, brethren, I [know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. (Acts 3:14–17)

Notice that Peter is not simply calling the power elite to task—he calls everyone, the lowly Jews up to “your rulers.”

Peter later calls Ananias and Sapphira out for lying to the Lord (Acts 5).

Stephen, the first martyr, is pretty clear about sin (Acts 7:40, 51–53) and gets killed for it.

And, don’t get me started on Paul’s writings, or we’ll be here all night.

“Judge not”

It is common, of course, to invoke Jesus’ command to “Judge not, that ye be not judged” in these circumstances. Yet, as we have seen, Jesus at times seems to have encouraged his followers to do some judging, of both ideas and behavior. Furthermore, he encouraged us to follow his example—and the early Christians did so.

Those who invoke this trope tend to ignore (if they know) that elsewhere Jesus explicitly says, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). So, there are contexts and ways in which judgment must be undertaken.

Judge not and judging righteously

So, how might we reconcile these ideas? We are both not to judge, and yet to judge. Was Jesus really that inconsistent? The early Christians did not think so.

I think the best treatment is by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Judge Not and Judging.”

I strongly recommend you consult the entire thing. I offer, in conclusion, only a few highlights:

We must, of course, make judgments every day in the exercise of our moral agency, but we must be careful that our judgments of people are intermediate and not final. Thus, our Savior’s teachings contain many commandments we cannot keep without making intermediate judgments of people: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6); ‘Beware of false prophets….Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:15-16); and ‘Go ye out from among he wicked’ (D&C 38:42).

We all make judgments in choosing our friends, in choosing how we will spend our time and our money, and, of course, in choosing an eternal companion. Some of these intermediate judgments are surely among those the Savior referred to when he taught that ‘the weightier matters of the law’ include judgment (Matthew 23:23).

I will let Elder Oaks conclude, and again encourage the reader to consult his far better treatment of the issues we’ve raised here:

Let us consider some principles or ingredients that lead to a ‘righteous judgment.’

First of all, a righteous judgment must, by definition, be intermediate. It will refrain from declaring that a person has been assured of exaltation or from dismissing a person as being irrevocably bound for hellfire. It will refrain from declaring that a person has forfeited all opportunity for exaltation or even all opportunity for a useful role in the work of the Lord. The gospel is a gospel of hope, and none of us is authorized to deny the power of the Atonement to bring about a cleansing of individual sins, forgiveness, and a reformation of life on appropriate conditions.

Second, a righteous judgment will be guided by the Spirit of the Lord, not by anger, revenge, jealousy, or self-interest….

Third, to be righteous, an intermediate judgment must be within our stewardship. We should not presume to exercise and act upon judgments that are outside our personal responsibilities….

A fourth principle of a righteous intermediate judgment of a person is that we should, if possible, refrain from judging until we have adequate knowledge of the facts.…

A fifth principle of a righteous intermediate judgment is that whenever possible we will refrain from judging people and only judge situations. This is essential whenever we attempt to act upon different standards than those of others with whom we must associate–at home, at work, or in the community. We can set and act upon high standards for ourselves or our homes without condemning those who do otherwise….

A final ingredient or principle of a righteous judgment is that it will apply righteous standards. If we apply unrighteous standards, our judgment will be unrighteous. By falling short of righteous standards, we place ourselves in jeopardy of being judged by incorrect or unrighteous standards ourselves. The fundamental scripture on the whole subject of not judging contains this warning: ‘For with what judgment je judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again’ (Matthew 7:2; see also 3 Nephi 14:2)….

A standard can be unrighteous because it is too harsh–the consequences are too severe for the gravity of the wrong and the needs of the wrongdoer…. [1]

Conclusion

Can and do people—including and especially Christians—judge unrighteously? Of course.

But, the mere presence of a judgment is not sufficient evidence that such unrighteous judgment has occurred. To make that judgment, ironically, requires the same approach as any judgment. It requires judging.

So, we all must and will make such judgments. We might as well be honest with ourselves that we are making them.

It is either that, moral nihilism, or self-deception.

Jesus hadn’t much patience with the last two options—you might even say he judged them as wanting.

Endnotes

========

[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “Judge Not and Judging,” address given at BYU on 1 March 1998, reproduced in Brigham Young University 1997–98 Speeches; all citations here are from this address unless otherwise noted.