Monday, September 21, 2009

Judge not?

PeaceBang, whose regular blog is on long-term hiatus, has a thought-provoking comment today on her public Facebook page questioning Jesus's famous admonition to "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Doesn't Jesus in fact judge all the time? she asks.

Of course, we religious liberals tend to love that particular biblical verse and delightfully fling it at the narrow minded on the religious right.

In fact, though, I think Jesus meant exactly what he said was attributed to him. The remark is of a piece with "Turn the other cheek," "do not stop him from taking your tunic, also," "go with him two miles" and "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

It's also of a piece with the First Principle of Unitarian Universalism: Recognizing the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person. As I had occasion to be reminded yesterday in my own church, this is a far more demanding and even potentially confrontational principle than it would seem at first.

Now I do understand where PB is coming from on this. Judgment from time to time seems essential to a well-ordered community. Taken at face value, "Judge not" could be seen as a prescription for passivity. But Jesus clearly was not passive, and the example he sets in the Gospels is, I think, only superficially one of passivity. I don't think "judge not" is the same as "don't hold another accountable." (Indeed, I think accountability is part of respecting the other's inherent worth and dignity.)

I also understand (as Brock and Parker argue, in Saving Paradise and elsewhere) that such verses can be misused to condone collaboration in one's own oppression -- and that they should not be.

Yet, if we really do believe in Universal Salvation as our Universalist forebears did, then we, too -- and, we evidently believe, Jesus -- are essentially saying that salvation ultimately transcends judgment.

"Judge not..." is in fact a far more demanding prescription than it seems at first blush -- and I think that's exactly what it is supposed to be. What I glean from "Judge not..." and from the other verses I've cited above, as well as from a radical respect for the First Principle, is the importance of humility, refraining from presumption about others' motives or attitudes, and, most of all, that it is as important to listen to those with whom we disagree as it is to stand up and insist on what we know is right. And this is part of what I believe is the Real Kingdom of God.

For instance, as practiced by groups like this one.

I'm indebted to ogre's comment that puts the original "Judge not..." command more completely in its original context.

Separately, PB is now suggesting her original comment was meant in irony or sarcasm. I'm afraid I don't really follow that, but ...

Update #2
Well, not PB but a commenter offers an explanation of the "irony" element, which is along the same lines as ogre's well-taken comment here.


  1. Fragmentary citations--biblical sound bites are always suspect. Context, context is everything.

    If you stick to Matt 7:1 alone, then Prov 31:9 ("Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.") really becomes a problem. And Luke 7:43 is even a bigger problem ('Jesus commended Simon, "Thou hast rightly judged."') since wehave there Jesus commending Simon for judging.

    Context? Matt 7:2 "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" -- which is also recounted in Mk 4:24 ("And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear. With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you; and unto you that hear shall more be given.")

    Shorter, modern English;

    You'll be measured by the measure you use. You'll be held to the standard you judge by.

    So pay attention...

    It's also important to remember that the gospel use of the term hypocrite is not quite the modern one--it suggests that the accused is merely a poser, an actor. The modern nuance has become harsher, probably because of the Biblical use of the term.

  2. For most of the 19th century, there was quite a debate among Universalists between a majority "restorationist" party who believed that God's love and justice ensured the eventual reconciliation of all souls before the end of time, but also that redemption still required a cleansing "just retribution for sin" before such reconciliation could be achieved, and a minority "death and glory" party who believed the gates of heaven would be open to everyone immediately upon death regardless of anything wrongly done or believed in this life. So you are not being strictly accurate to say that our Universalist forebears believed that "salvation ultimately transcends judgment".

    I imagine that most restorationist Universalists would agree with C. S. Lewis' 20th-century remarks about purgatory:

    Would it not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know' - 'Even so, sir.'

    I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don't think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more.... The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.

    My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist's chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am 'coming round',' a voice will say, 'Rinse your mouth out with this.' This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But ... it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.

    Universalists of both parties would have said it is not too early to begin working toward our own ultimate reconciliation in this life. The sooner we stop resisting the power of divine love and begin instead aligning ourselves with it, the sooner our own process of reconciliation can be completed. That, and not "cheap grace", was the Universalist gospel. What Jesus was saying with his "judge not" aphorism was consistent with this -- we should be much more concerned with correcting our own faults than correcting those of others.

  3. A fair point, fausto. (I certainly was aware of the Universalist belief in a "just retribution" for sin, but it was not top of mind when I was composing the post, so I thank you for reminding me.) In retrospect, I'm struggling with whether "transcends" was really the word I was looking for. As for your conclusion, I think we are in near-complete agreement.


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