catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 14 :: 2005.07.15 — 2005.07.28


Judge your neighbor as yourself?

The orange ball deflected off the wicket as I heard it. ?Get your ass in here.? The low growl was speaking to the two boys?maybe three and five years old?who were waving goodbye to their visiting aunt and cousin pulling out of the driveway. ?I said get?.your ass?in here?now.? The deliberate annunciation of these words was ice down my spine and all of my opponents, croquet mallets in hand, straightened a bit. While I cannot speak for my companions I felt the smallest tingle in my fingers as I contemplated the potential weapon I held in my palm, not for my next shot across our makeshift course hidden under the trees, but for use in a good pummeling for the adult apparently contemplating the appropriate punishment for his two sons who allowed their goodbyes to linger the slightest bit too long and who was oblivious to our eavesdropping ears not more than 20 yards away. Despite our disgust, we did nothing in response to what we witnessed?as many-a-person of many-a faith choose not to. I did however, casually but intentionally, take three steps backwards so that my whole self, no longer hidden by the blossoming Granny Smith branches, could be seen as an observer to whatever might be the next act of discipline for the parent whose voice fell amidst our game like torrential rain on a wedding party, our simultaneous judgment and apathy resting in proverbial puddles around our feet.

The uncertainty of the place and time for judgment among all people, but most certainly among those allied with the Christian tradition is one of the many unpalatable contradictions which continue to neuter the faith as a story which speaks to contemporary reality. Why would anyone want to join a group that can?t move itself to action in the face of a truly unjust deed for fear of appearing ?judgmental,? but who have little trouble reminding the world that their sexual orientation, liberality and position on abortion are shooting them like a stone from a slingshot to the flames of damnation? The lack of conversation and discernment on this issue is comical at best and frighteningly and divisively dangerous at worst.

Perhaps the difference, a mentor once pointed out, between judgment and judgmentalism is very close to the distinction between authoritative and authoritarian. We have, from the Pharisees to our post-Postmodern church communities confused the terms so severely that we cannot sort through the generalities of synonymous definition to distinctly independent meanings. Rather, the broad concept of judgment is blurred into a foggy mass of confusion regarding what we give, what we receive, how or to what we should hold ourselves or others accountable and what example we should follow to figure it all out. ?Judge not, lest ye be judged,? said the ever wise Jesus. Perfect. But then John?s seemingly moldy bread vision in Revelation promises the basic point, ?You?re going to be judged alright. Don?t even worry about that, you little?? Ah! We wonder if we should start judging right away so as to define ourselves by what we don?t do and who we?re not like. We cannot help but question if a still better choice might be to lay claim to a comfortable fence post and plead the Fifth so we can meet our Maker with a judgment-free conscience. Or maybe we are unsure if our eternal judgment is really going to be handed out fair and square, so we opt to take over the job?in all of our expertise?on behalf of the Unknown?at least for certain subjects that don?t put our fun-loving, easy going, devoutly religious reputations on the line.

Whatever the case, the fear of our own inadequacies, the guilt we toss upon others who need to mend their ways to our version of righteous ?rightness? and the ambiguities of the divinely inspired Word seem to have woven the threads of our faith so crookedly as to leave us tied up in a straightjacket of our own design. Yet in our bible bound bewilderment we may just find a key for learning how to deal with one another, entering into the text with the same manner we enter into relationship with our fellow humans. But herein lies the problem. Too often we do not come to the text ready and willing to judge it and, inevitably, to be judged by it. Why is it that we, unlike so many of our past and current Jewish brothers and sisters, are unable to enter into the Word expecting and even demanding something from its depth that is relevant to suffering, injustice, comfort, guilt, joy, responsibility and pleasure? Do we approach the writers and their words as we would any piece of influential literature?with a critical eye, holding the writing up to experience, believability and consistency?or are we seasonally content to suspend reality, intelligence, common sense, science, to push aside our experience and silence the questions that arise with difficult readings? How can it be that so many faithful Christians can come away from the Biblical text fully ready to judge certain people and events for a perceived affront to biblical precepts when they cannot give themselves permission to judge the rich and tangled tapestry of the text itself when it affronts our human experience? Could it be that we honor the text, not by treating it as an infallible book of authoritarian mysticism in a category all its own, but by demanding that it speak to our present day, that it stand against the scrutiny of modern day humanity, current language and culture, its questions and turmoil, the presence of paradox and the unanswerable quandaries that invade our existence on every side? It is in this willingness to actively judge and engage the text that the story comes alive in new and creative ways. And as the circle comes round back to us, we find our own selves engaged and changed by the text as well, alive and new in the compelling and authoritative wisdom rooted in a complex human and divine drama.

And so much the same for our judgment of the world around us. We judge because we must. It is in our configuration as children of a creator to discern, to second-guess, to self-regulate and live according to an ethical conscience and inquisitiveness which distinguish us from other creaturely beings. We judge because there are mysterious parts of us, just like the characters within our tradition, that recognize the boundaries between what we ought to do in a given situation, what we experience and what is most expedient to achieve our ends and desires. We judge the crossing of these boundaries and the breach of that discernment, not because we ourselves are on the side of purity, but because we often skirt just along the borders ourselves and perhaps more often than we?d like to admit, dive completely over. So as I sheepishly reflected on my subtle decision to step from the cover of the fruit tree to my neighbor?s line of vision as he privately threatened his two children, I reasoned that it might actually have been a very faithful response, however insignificant an action it may have originally seemed. In fact, a surprising parallel sprang to mind, reminding me that it was not because I was better or more self-controlled than the man who was swearing at his kids that I decided to step from beneath the branches. On the contrary, I thought of the many similar moments with my voice raised at my husband or siblings whom I am guardian of?whether in self-righteous fervor, nasty ultimatums or irrational expletive?when my cat Indy performed the very same service and reflection for me. As my voice climbed in volume, her furry shape would appear with an ever-increasing meow, accompanied by frantic jumping from floor to chair to table or bed, until my spell of self-indulgent fury was broken, replaced with the feline reminder that I am heard, that my yelling is disruptive and disconcerting and that the desire to achieve an end or make a point has once again blinded me to my own predisposition to misuse my power, to manipulate honest discussion with impatience and belittling and to violate the mutuality of my relationships.

Indy?s meows, just like my presence in front of our neighbor and just like our disappointment and disillusionment with the biblical text is a reminder of our humanity. It is not condemnation but an opportunity for recognition and growth. It is a light shed on inconsistencies and just as I would like to pummel my neighbor with a mallet for his and the bible writers for theirs, I imagine that the Creator of the Universe, as well as my cat, would sometimes like to pummel me for my own. I heard of a man who once said that he could not wait for his own Judgment. ?Why?? people would ask in disbelief. ?Because I will get to see myself with utter clarity through the eyes of God.? His notion of judgment did not hold the fear and guilt of one being condemned, but rather the hope and healing of one being revealed in fullness. Thus, we can and must read the tale of the Christ anew, seeing that in our story and in our human community we are called to see and be seen, even in moments of inconsistency. We are asked, not to become fully divine?suspending our judgment and experience?but to immerse ourselves into the complex nature of full humanity and into the gift of recognizing that which is still in need of shaping as Jesus? compelling but short life demonstrates again and again both in the lives of others he encounters and in his own. In our story and tradition, in our neighbors and in our deepest selves, we have the distinct role of wrestling further into the cyclical challenge of our limitations, finding the courage to respond to the inconsistencies of others even as we are made perennially aware of our own, and cultivating a transformative faith which can believe in the persistent grace of judgment which promises the transcendence of the entire world, the redemption of every broken ill worthy of a croquet mallet?s wrath or a cat?s cry and the affirmation of dignity within our very selves as ever-evolving children of God.

My thanks to mwf for creative conversation and new insights into this issue among one of life’s many questions. bd.

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