Judging Not?

I have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount at church, and soon I will be getting to one of those veses that some people use as a weapon, and others act like it is not there. Some people seem to think that the verse supports a sort of radical “let it be” perspective. On the other side, some seem to have become so skilled at “explaining” the verse that it seems like they have explained it into non-existence.

As always, I try to find a middle position between two untenable extremes, but that hardly answers things. Two obvious (I think) points are:

  • Judging can be hypocritical, since we often are tempted to judge while pretending that we are above being judged.
  • Judging can commonly be wrong since we tend to be incompetent to judge well. We can see the beautiful whitewash on the sepulchre, but see nothing beneath the thin layer of color.

Recently, however, I noticed another issue. My wife and I like to watch crime dramas and reality crime shows (judges us at your own peril). There were two recent cases that were shown on reality crime that got me thinking. The first was a wife and mother in Texas (I believe). She was a church-going woman, and noted as a fine upstanding Christian and fervent in her Bible reading. Oh sure there were quirks that made one wonder about her integrity, but overall, highly regarded. She was eventually charged and convicted of poisoning several people who were close to her.

The other was a pastor from Pennsylvania. He was a popular preacher and expositor of the word. Yet he was a chronic womanizer, and killed two of his wives.

What was perhaps most problematic was they were able to kill multiple times because they were seen as such unlikely killers.

This got me thinking. We often think of judging as an activity of condemnation. But in these two cases, the problem was that they were judged favorable for having the trappings of being “good Christians.” It seems to me that if this form of judging is just as wrong as the other. And since Jesus went out of His way to point out that we often fail to see the evil or emptiness in people’s hearts because of an external piety (whited sepulchres again), I think it is fair to say that Jesus was at least as concerned with this second form of judging as the first.

So while I still struggle with how best to live a life of “judging not,” I am pretty sure that avoiding the temptation to judge unfavorably is no worse than to judge favorably.

 

 

Christians and 21st Century Tribalism

“Tribalism” is a great word that has become bandied about in recent days. There are different definitions:

a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social group, so that you support them whatever they do      (Cambridge Dictionary)

loyalties that people feel towards particular social groups and to the way these loyalties affect their behaviour and their attitudes towards others.  (Collins Dictionary)

loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group  (Merriam-Webster website)

Drawing these things together one may say that:

Tribalism involves loyalty to one group that demonstrates itself in strongly positive feelings for that group, negative feelings or animosity for groups seen to be in competition, and behavior that serves as an outlet for those feelings.

Thus, tribalism is based on emotions and these emotions trigger behavior that may not make sense except in terms of such emotions. Consider the following situation. Suppose John is a member of the “Blue Team.” And as such sees himself as opposed to the “Green Team” and all members of that group.  (If you know your Byzantine history, you may recognize these groups.) Consider the following situations and the tribalistic responses.

  • Blues have power and good things happen?  John credits the Blues.
  • Blues have power and bad things happen?  John excuses Blues (bad things happen despite their best efforts) and/or blames the Greens for undermining the work of the Blues.
  • Greens have power and good things happen? John credits Blues in their minority role, and/or disconnects the good from the activities of the Greens.
  • Greens have power and bad things happen? John blames the Greens.
  • Blues do things that are good? John sees the actions as evidence of Blues’ inherent virtue.
  • Blues do things that are bad? John sees them as “necessary,” to overcome the evils of the Greens.
  • Greens do things that are good? John recognizes that they were done of evil or self-serving motives by the Greens.
  • Greens do bad things? John sees that as evidence of the Greens’ inherent lack of virtue.

This sort of behavior has been around, perhaps, back to Babel. It is human nature. I would like to think that people find this sort of behavior to be a bit humorous. I would like to think that people who see others showing such knee-jerk responses on FB or other forms of social and public media to be rather… “funny.” But I am not so sure. Some seem to take this stuff seriously. Many of my friends seem to not see the inconsistencies — “not get the joke.”

Frankly, I don’t care all that much whether people take it seriously or not. Fanatical tribalism has been with us for a long, long time. There will always be some people who will react like John described above, because their focus is on power. They fear what it would be like not to have power… or to remain without power.

But what about us as Christians. Is that how we are supposed to act?

Well, in the Bible, there seems to be a general rejection of this form of tribalism. In the Hebrew Bible, this may not be as evident. The prophets could be quite brutal in their castigation of the surrounding nations. However, the prophets of Israel were at least as hard on their own people. Arguably they were more harsh with their words for their own people. They would complain about the immorality, corruption, idolatry of the “chosen people.” Why not focus more consistently on how much worse were the surrounding peoples? I believe itImage result for us versus them was because their focus was not on “tribalism,” promoting the IMAGE that Israel is better than everyone else. Rather, they were seeking to encourage Israel to be better, more holy, in FACT.

In the New Testament, this form of encouragement is far more clear. Very little time is spent in the New Testament to talk about how bad the Greeks and the Romans were. Yet if the NT writers were so inclined it would pretty easy to point out the many many moral flaws. of the peoples that Christians interacted with. And this would be even easier since Christians were a persecuted bunch— a people without power. Rather the writers appear to spend much more time attempting to follow the guidance of Jesus.

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.  For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.    (Matthew 7:1-5.  HCSB)

There is a whole industry of Bible scholars and ethicists who argue as to how to apply this passage. But, it seems to reject the foundational principles of toxic tribalism at least on an individual level. It seems, additionally, that the Apostles took the principles of Christ to a level of community as well. They focused on the call to righteous behavior of the body of Christ, rather than try to lift up the community by emphasizing the flaws of outsiders.

There does seem to be one exception. Jesus really went after the Scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel writers recorded so many strong words against the Pharisees that in the church, the term became a byword. There were occasional examples of Jesus having a more positive relationship with this group (such as Nicodemus), but the general tone was adversarial. In recent decades study of the writings of the rabbinical community of the 1st century has created considerable controversy. It was found that the Pharisees often were quite in agreement with Jesus on many issues. This has led some to believe that the Gospel writers were disconnected from the events of the life of Christ. After all, if they were eyewitnesses or had direct access to such witnesses, surely they would have seen the Pharisees in a much more positive light. Others also have questioned regarding Paul. His writings seem to provide an image that is harsher than reality. Perhaps Paul was never actually a Pharisee.

To me, the above issues are resolved if one rejects tribalism as a presumptive behavior. If one rejects it, then the Pharisees were seen more as partners. They share a common devotion to God and to His revelation. So Jesus was quite strong in His words of challenge to them. He was much less harsh with the Sadducees, with whom He had less in common, and even less harsh with other groups with whom He had less commonality.

Of course, in church history, things began to change. The change started with the Apologists in the 2nd century.  Aristides, for example, compared Christians to other groups such as Greeks, Pagans, and Jews. He showed Christians in a very positive light to the other groups. However, the purpose was neither primarily to “feel good about ourselves,” nor to tear down other groups. Rather, it was to show that Christians are good citizens of the Roman Empire and do not need to be persecuted. However, over the centuries, power politics began to dominate, and has continued to today.

So as Christians today, what should we do… when it comes to our relationships in the arenas of government and religion.

If our call is to behave in line with power politics, than tribalistic behavior is appropriate. We whitewash our own failures, and the failures of those we judge to be friends, and attack consistently the failures of others, and question their motives. This is the behavior of many cults— and many Christians as well.

If our call is to follow Christ, we focus on righteousness and on our own failures. We spend less focus on specks in the eyes of others. In fact, we may even applaud the virtues of others. This is a tougher path since we are not focusing on power in a human sense, but on being conformed to Christ. It means not putting our understanding of what is right through the filter of “are they for us or against us.”

 

 

Missiological Implications of “Judging Not”

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the same measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

People with little knowledge of the Bible, often know these verses… these words of

Missiologist, Paul Hiebert

Christ. Some take the statement in a radical sense… never judge, never evaluate, never critique. Only the dead can (and should) exist this way. Some interpret the passage in an antinomian (anti-law) fashion. However, the lawless are as likely to be judgmental as anyone else, and to charge someone with being judgmental is, likewise, to be judgmental. Some seem to accept the passage as a bit of Christian “kharma.” If you judge expect to be judged. Neither one appears to find the concept of grace that is embedded in the passage.

Instead of dwelling on a hermeneutical understanding of the passage, I would like to look to look at a few missiological implications of not being judgmental.

A. One possible way of looking at this passage is that judgment should be delayed. After all, evaluation has to happen on some level. We don’t really have an option to not judge on some level at least, but we have the choice of judging from a position of knowledge or ignorance.

Critical contextualization is a term from Paul Hiebert that requires first studying a culture carefully, and sympathetically, before making judgments regarding what parts of the culture are beneficial and what parts are destructive. Sharing the gospel of Christ in a culture is more likely to be successful if it has been critically contextualized.

Additionally, trends over the last few decades have moved missionaries away from being experts/teachers to being learners. Effective learning again requires a certain withholding of judgment. As counselor John Bradshaw said (quoting others as well), once you are sure you are right about something, you cease to be creative and cease to learn.

B. Another possible way of looking at this passage is that one needs to recognize one’s limitations. Since we are limited by time, space, knowledge, and wisdom, it is appropriate to be slow to judge. After all, Benjamin Bloom defined the ability to evaluate/judge as the highest level of attainment in understanding.

It is becoming better understood that in a postmodern environment, truth and judment are not as valued as experience and “the quest.”: Some are bothered by this, but commonly this is because the training of Christians has often been built around a modernist perspective. However, since faith in the Bible is built on a level of doubt and lived out experientially, one might argue that a more effective way to share the faith is through joining people in their quest. This is similar to the findings in counseling where it is found that being a “wounded healer” is a powerful symbol to providing appropriate care. Perhaps Christians would be better witnesses if they focus on their own humanity with its limitations rather than embracing divinity with its claims of perfection.

 

Related to this is the growning understanding that dialogue (respectful listening to and sharing of beliefs) is more effective in many environments over proclamation and apologetics. While one does not necessarily have to suspend judgment to do dialogue, it does help to be open to listen respectfully… open to learning something new.

C. A third way of looking at this passage is that there are some things that we should really never judge. Sure, we can judge whether we like peanut butter and jelly over bologna and mustard, or not. However, perhaps there are things we simply should never judge.

A challenge often found in evangelical circles is determing who is saved. Curiously, the Bible doesn’t really tell us, but tells us how to judge ourselves, regarding our relationship with God. Perhaps we should not judge this. Paul Hiebert, again, provides insight in this area as well with is work on bounded versus center sets. Instead of going over that again, it would be better just to get to the conclusion… one should focus more on pointing people towards Christ. It actually makes sense. If they are not a believer, you point them to Christ. If they are a new believer, you point them to Christ. If they are committed Christians, you point them to Christ.

I personally believe that one does not need to embrace one single clear understanding of this passage regarding judgment. After all, withholding judgment regarding how to interpret this passage appears to agree with the spirit of the passage. Wrestling with a passage, while being slow to certainty, leaves one open to learn… and learning is good.