catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 14 :: 2005.07.15 — 2005.07.28


Regarding judgment

Earlier this year, a friend from our old small group came over to the house and told Vicki, my wife, that she?d been having an affair for the past year.

If you?d asked me to make up a list of people I thought had the potential to be unfaithful to their spouses, this woman wouldn?t have made the top million?she?s smart and funny and tart-tongued, and her life seemed to revolve around her family and church. She home-schooled her children with intensity and zest?she always had a story about the projects or papers they were working on?she taught Sunday School, she was deeply involved with coordinating meals and activities for the youth group. After the 2000 elections, she?d even told me how comforting it was to know that the President was now someone we could count on to be moral and trustworthy.

And yet here she was in my dining room, telling Vicki about how she?d thrown caution to the wind and started a relationship with a man she?d met through her sons? Boy Scout troop, about how unhappy this poor man was with his wife and four children, about how he was her soul-mate and had taken her places sexually she?d never been before, about how her husband had told her he would take her back as long as she promised not to see this guy and how two days after making that promise she was furiously emailing her lover as though nothing had changed. Vicki, with enormous tact and delicacy, told her she was being stupid and encouraged her to focus on her relationship with her husband?it was possible for her to feel the same passion and excitement about the man she was married to. Our friend (to make the story easier to follow I?m going to call her Mary Ellen) reacted as if Vicki?s proposal were science fiction: ?He doesn?t do anything for me.?

A few months later, the pastors at our church held a special meeting to inform the members that Mary Ellen was under church discipline. After attending counseling sessions with her husband, after meetings with the pastors, after a lot of prayer from an underground network of friends, Mary Ellen had decided what she really wanted to do was leave her husband and family to devote herself to this relationship. The pastors said they were trying to follow the Biblical model?after the elders made a number of attempts to change Mary Ellen?s mind, they brought the matter before the church body. Our response, they said, was not to stop loving Mary Ellen or to shun her?instead, they asked that we be in prayer for her and be focused, when we talked to her in the future, on telling her how distressed we were by her decision and how much we wanted her to repent.

As one might expect, the response to this announcement was mixed. Some people thought the church leadership had acted responsibly; others were appalled at the violation of privacy. Some church members worried that making the information public simply gave the church members who were previously unaware of the situation an excuse to gossip and condemn; others worried that if Mary Ellen were to return to her family, she?d be far too embarrassed by the widespread exposure of her indiscretion to remain in the church. There were heated conversations and accusatory fingers thrust in indignant faces and a family or two who took this incident as final confirmation that they needed to find another church. Meanwhile, Mary Ellen apologized to a friend who had found herself devastatingly attracted to a man she wasn?t married to a couple of years ago?Mary Ellen told her she?d secretly judged her when she found out about what she was struggling with, but now she understood.

I offer this story as an example, I suppose, of how difficult it is to avoid being judgmental. It?s easy for people who?ve never been tempted to be adulterous, or who haven?t acted on their various moments of temptation, to judge Mary Ellen; it?s equally easy, from another perspective, to judge the people who judged Mary Ellen, seeing them as frozen and repressive. There?s no end to the fingerpointing we can commit here: let?s judge my pastors and Mary Ellen?s husband to be lurching, patriarchal drones who care nothing about female pleasure and authenticity; let?s point out the hypocrisy of conservative Christians who would have crucified President Clinton for his sexual indiscretions but turn reflective and forgiving when the indiscretions are their own; let?s lay the blame on the liberal media and the permissive Sixties and the individualistic Romantic Movement and the Godless Enlightenment. There?s plenty of judgment to go around.

Most thoughtful Christians feel at least somewhat uneasy when it comes to passing judgment. The best-known, or at least most-quoted, passage in the New Testament in our era must be ?Judge not lest you be judged,? and Jesus seems to have been pretty consistent in telling people they weren?t in the best position to condemn others. He?s even remarkably lenient with the woman who was caught committing adultery, challenging her accusers with what?s become a contemporary clich?: ?He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.? (John 4:8)

On the other hand, I?ve heard countless sermons from people who point out Jesus? earthly ministry didn?t just consist of warning people not to be judgmental and encouraging sinners with free hugs and high fives. He spent a lot of time telling people to ?Go and sin no more,? and anybody who called the Pharisees a brood of vipers probably wouldn?t be on board with the idea that we never have the right to condemn anybody else. The danger in putting too much emphasis on the command to eschew judgment is that we may end up sanctimoniously non-judgmental, and our failure to confront may condemn our brothers and sisters to destruction.

In fact, according to some commentators, the real problem is that our culture has lost a proper appreciation for the virtues of judgment: relativism reigns, outrage has died. Western civilization has been distilled to that one easily-anticipated moment on a mid-nineties talk show when one of the guests on stage looks defiantly at the audience member who?s scolding her for not having any idea who her baby?s daddy might be or for letting her ten-year-old dress like some skanky ho and says, ?You don?t know me! You have no right to judge me!? The trio infernale of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Ricki Lake have stolen our society?s sense of right and wrong, our moral fiber, and it?s up to a brave rebel alliance of radio talk show hosts, pundits, and all three branches of government to set things right.

A quick scan of news channels and blogs might call the theory that the nation is riddled with relativism into question: it sometimes seems, instead, that we?re living in the golden age of judgment, a time when anger and suspicion and accusations flourish. Nor is it simply the righteous conservatives passing judgment on the judgment-free liberals. Despite the statements of the conservative media and our president?s top advisors, most people who question the war in Iraq don?t want to join hands with the terrorists and start a group therapy session?they believe we were led into the war under false pretenses by people who have consistently displayed bad judgment and who have the shabby habit of distorting, concealing, or ignoring any fact that doesn?t make them look good. This sounds like judgment, not relativism.

What most of the people pushing the relativism scare have failed to recognize, I?m afraid, is that, for most people, relativism operates more as a rhetorical trick than as a coherent worldview. The logical relativist conclusionThere?s no real ground for your beliefs, but since there?s no real grounds for mine, we?ll have to agree to disagreeisn?t all that sexy, which is why most so-called relativists gravitated toward the following approach: ?There?s no real ground for your beliefs, and you?re a sexist/racist/colonialist/heterosexist agent of hegemony for holding them.? It only took me a few weeks of grad school to figure there were probably as many judgmental fundamentalist progressives as there were judgmental fundamentalist conservatives.

The sad truth about relativism is that, whatever our political viewpoints or moral commitments, we?re likely to practice it?when it comes to our own crimes, or those of people we like, we?re all pretty much relativists. If people just understood the situation from my perspective, we think, they?d see why what I did really can?t be considered wrong. If Dan Rather or Warren Beatty were found to have abused prescription drugs and obtained them illegally, the conservative echo chamber would be trumpeting moral decay and a dangerous threat to decency, but the revelation of Rush Limbaugh?s addiction was met in conservative circles with expressions of sympathy and concern. Progressive groups were appalled by testimony that Clarence Thomas had made sexual comments and advances toward women he worked with, but they were far more tolerant when similar stories were circulated about Bill Clinton. A famous comedian once said that we?re able to see the speck of dust in somebody else?s eye, but we ignore the tent-pole that?s stuck in our own. That strikes me as the starting point for a working definition of relativism.

The student in my office was a small woman, red-faced and very angry. She?d dropped by to ask if there was any possibility she could pass her class with me, given the number of times she?d been absent, but her ire quickly took over: she didn?t feel motivated to come to class because she hated it so much. From the accusations she made, what she hated most about the class was me: I was an insensitive, judgmental person who verbally abused the students in various unpleasant ways and encouraged a spirit of cynicism and criticism when we workshopped their assignments. When Casey had said she didn?t cry during The Passion of the Christ, I?d told her that maybe she wasn?t really a Christian after all, and when Marty said he didn?t like sad stories, I?d told him that made me think he was a deeply unhappy guy. I?d talked about noticing the words ?Christian School Cheerleaders? on a young woman?s jacket and said I didn?t see anything particularly Christian about cheerleaders; I?d said I thought the Nicholas Sparks novel The Notebook was untrustworthy. When she?d seen the class on the schedule, my student said, she?d thought it would be a fun course to take, but between my bad attitude and the cynicism of her fellow students, that delusion had been killed.

I was tempted to defend myself by lashing out, to tell her she?d had the opportunity to be a resource for the rest of the class throughout the semester, but instead she?d made no comments, positive or negative, on anybody?s work; she?d held herself aloof from virtually everybody, setting herself up as somebody who could perceive their deepest emotions and motivations. What made her think she had the right? And if she thought I was cynical, that only showed she?d never taken classes with my colleagues, many of whom talked about, and even to, their students with barely disguised contempt and mocked their political and religious commitments. Why focus on my relatively minor missteps when there were far more egregious targets walking the campus?

Instead, I tried to respond with something that at least resembled openness and humility. I told her I?d already known most of her fellow students from a class they?d taken with me earlier that year?I felt free to banter and joke with them because we?d already established that they could trust me, that I would never intentionally say anything that would cause them distress. My comment to Casey hadn?t been aimed at her but at evangelicalism?s near-deification of The Passion of the Christ, and my statement to Marty was an absurdist reaction to his exhaustingly sunny disposition. And yet even though I hadn?t consciously intended any harm to these people, I told her, her comments made me realize I?d made a mistake?I shouldn?t have talked to those people in that way in the presence of students with whom I hadn?t established a relationship of trust. I hadn?t been sensitive to her feelings, I said; I should have restrained myself until I?d established that I?m not essentially cynical and cruel. Gingerly, I asked her if she didn?t think she might have leapt to some judgmental conclusions about her fellow classmates, attributing evil motives to what might have been nothing more than playful conversation. ?I?m not a judgmental person,? she said. ?Everything that happened in that class was obvious. I know what I saw.?

I tried to listen more than I talked; I tried not to contradict her or quarrel with her. I?m afraid, however, I was less than judicious when she told me I ought to try to model my interactions with students after Jesus? approach to people: ?Jesus didn?t handle people with kid gloves,? I said. ?He had a prophetic ministry. He called the Pharisees ?white-washed tombs?; he told Peter he was Satan.? She didn?t say so, but her non-verbal reactions as she tried to argue with me said I was even more twisted than she?d thought.

With abashment and dread, I broached the subject of my behavior with Casey and Marty?both said they couldn?t remember any comment I?d made in class that offended them or hurt their feelings. I conveyed their reactions to my accusatory student, but I told her this didn?t mean she was wrong?how often is a student going to tell a teacher an uncomplimentary truth?

I wonder, in retrospect, if I did my student any favors by refraining from turning the judgmental tables on her and letting her know what I thought her comments said about her. Maybe it would have been better for her in the long run if I?d told her she was judgmental and uncharitable and unChristlike, if I?d somehow been able to compel her to take a hard look at herself and realize she was in the wrong. But that?s one of the limits of judgment. We can be absolutely right about the other person, but we don?t have the power to compel anybody to believe the truth. Relativism wins, at least in the short run, because it?s nearly impossible for us to believe that we?re as bad as other people are, that we?re really in need of grace. I can sincerely believe these actions are wrong for other people, but it?s inconceivable that they could really be wrong for me. Maybe my adulterous friend will decide she wants to honor her marriage vows, maybe my judgmental student will come to the realization her view of the members of her class was haughty and unkind, maybe I will be convicted that I need to be a teacher, father, husband, friend who is more tender and less self-involved?what will ultimately bring about these changes will not be judgment or impeccable logic or passion or ire or tears or venting or any pressure brought from the outside. The only movement that can ultimately unleash these changes, if they come at all, is an inner surrender, an abandonment of our protective relativism, an admission that, lovely and righteous as we might be, there?s still much for which we?re called to repent. A miracle.

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