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Is Judging Always Wrong?

The term “judge” seems to connote different things in different contexts. Legally, we think of the judge as the person who oversees the judicial process, ensuring that the law is followed. We tend to feel pretty good about him. Morally, we often think of judgment as something suspicious, that we’d best tend to our own affairs rather than sticking our noses into everyone else’s business, judging them. Prudentially, we think of judgment as a character quality, a person of sound judgment being capable of making the wise choices in tough situations. Philosophically and scientifically, we think of judgment as the capacity to distinguish truth from error, something pretty important if we intend our planes to stay in the air! So, is judgment good or bad? Should we judge or not? Why does Jesus condemn it, in one of the most oft-quoted verses of the Bible in contemporary America? And what does he mean when he does condemn it?

We might begin by asking what the object of judgment is. Exactly what is being judged? In a legal case the criminal is being judged, his criminal conduct in particular. Since this is a case of justice, we think this is reasonable. So, it would strike us as very odd if Jesus were saying that criminals ought not to be judged. Similarly, in philosophy and the sciences we judge ideas. John Stuart Mill talks about the importance of taking our ideas and casting them into the arena of argument to see which of them stand the test of criticism. Either ideas are true or they are false. We either possess good reason to believe them or we don’t. We have to judge ideas in order to assess whether our views are true or false by the best information we possess. It’s hard to see what argument could be brought to bear to say otherwise, since any such argument would itself be a judgment, wouldn’t it? It’s curious, too, that the people condemning judgment in these cases are themselves judging! Moreover, Jesus himself constantly contrasts truth and error, requiring us to accept the one and reject the other. How are we to do that if we cannot freely and soberly judge the reasons for and against each side of a dispute?

Let’s turn then to the moral cases, because the infamous Matthew 7 warning against judgment apparently isn’t directed at philosophy or the sciences or the judicial system. But the moral case is complicated because in every action there is both what was done—the deed—as well as who did it—the perpetrator. You’ll sometimes hear the refrain that we Catholics condemn the sin but not the sinner. Because moral truth is real, some human behavior is evil. We accordingly must teach the truth about morality, a judgment about deeds. Jesus himself did this constantly, as did the prophets of old, as did the New Testament apostles. So, the charge that we should not judge one another is clearly not a prohibition on asserting moral truths.

The only remaining alternative, then, is that Jesus is concerned not with people judging deeds but instead with people judging people. And here his words find their real bite, don’t they? When bad deeds are done, there is at least one person doing them, a person we tend to blame. Now, the person who committed bad actions did really commit bad deeds. But what comes next? That is the question. How do we treat the bad-deed-doer? Our impulse is to condemn him, berate him, blame him, despise him, and warn everyone else about him! There may be times when some of those reactions are appropriate. Jesus warned his listeners about the Pharisees’ bad behavior, after all.

So, where is our moral danger, the risk of becoming the kind of judger that Jesus cautions us against? You’ll remember that Jesus follows up the line about not judging with the similarly famous one about removing the log out of your own eye before you try to pull the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Here the real issue is hypocrisy. We are much better at seeing the faults in others than ourselves. Socrates, too, speaks to this issue when he identifies what he thinks is the central quality of justice: minding your own business. When we stick our noses into other people’s business, we rarely see the whole picture. We don’t see their true motives, and we easily magnify faults out of proportion to what they really are.

What happens when people judge us like this? It frustrates us when someone who has no real idea of what is going on nevertheless jumps to a conclusion based on inaccurate or even misinformation, taking it upon themselves to act as judge. So much grief ensues from these kinds of intrusions that Socrates urges us that harmony between persons would occur if we’d just stick to what we do best. George Washington made a similar point about foreign policy, famously urging Americans not to involve themselves in entangling alliances with foreigners, because as outsiders, we never really understand foreign problems from the inside, and it’s far too easy to end up serving one set of nefarious interests against another. Our nice intentions become food for manipulators.

But Jesus means more than what either Socrates or George Washington had in mind, because his point isn’t merely that we should mind our own business, but rather that our own business is itself in trouble. Remember the condition that Jesus places on our judgment: judge not that you be not judged. The Biblical principle is that we are condemned by the very standard that we impose on others, just as we are forgiven to the degree that we forgive others. So, before throwing stones at my neighbor, I’d best look to myself. Am I involved in exactly the vice that I’m seeing in him? If I accuse him of dishonesty in this little area, am I myself dishonest in a larger one? If I accuse him of indecency, am I also indecent in ways I’ve not even considered? I cannot change my neighbor, but I can change myself. And before I go condemning my neighbor, I should look to my own life. I see all the vices in my neighbor but all the virtues in myself. I wonder what his perspective is . . .

When I confront my own failings first, however, something remarkable happens to my vision of my neighbor. For all true reform of character is the formation of charity within. Only love heals vice. But love also affects my perception of others. Inner change effects outer change. It’s just not possible to condemn my neighbor when I love him. I can certainly see his failing, but love reaches into that failure and offers redemption. Isn’t this what Jesus did for us? Don’t the Scriptures tell us that Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world but to redeem it, for it was already condemned? Then, as we imitate his life, our view of our neighbor changes from a target of our rage to a lost sheep in need of our love—so important to Jesus that he gave his life for just that one little lamb. And that reveals the real problem with the judger: he’s not willing to give his life or anything else for his neighbor. He simply wants to exult in his neighbor’s failure. This is why we despise judgment as a species of pride. We call this hypocrisy. And we all hate it . . . in others. But we must learn to identify and hate this very hypocrisy far more in ourselves.

And so, we begin to see Jesus’ real meaning: you cannot condemn your neighbor if you have first taken the beam out of your own eye. For once you see clearly, you see your neighbor the way Jesus sees him, as the patient in need of the physician. To judge is already to have missed charity.

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