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From the October, 2000
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To Judge or Not to Judge? by A. J. Conyers

To Judge or Not to Judge?

An Address to Seminary Students on the Forsaken Art of Christian Judgment

by A. J. Conyers

This is not a sermon, but I do have a text. It is a favorite nowadays for reasons that show how little we really understand it: it comforts when it is intended to indict.

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matt. 7:1–5)

For two reasons we have difficulty reading this text. Both have to do with the fact that we inevitably read it as modern people and hardly suspect that there is yet another way to hear these words.

On the one hand, we are conscious of the absolute necessity of making judgments of different kinds in human affairs. So we are shocked by the unyielding tone of “Judge not, that you be not judged.” I have been noticing the lengths to which translators and biblical commentators go when faced with the stark words of Jesus, “Do not judge.” One translator renders it, “Do not judge others unfairly, lest you be judged in a similar way.” Then he places in the notes the warning that “unfairly” does not appear in the Greek.1 Indeed it does not. It remains that stark prohibition: You are not to render judgment.

On the other hand, and for different reasons, modern readers are likely to stop reading after the first three words, or the first two words in Greek, mê krinete, “Judge not.” We take it as a confirmation of the modern conviction that judgment, that is, discerning good from evil in ourselves and in others, is a private matter. It is for us an affair of the heart, one that has to do neither with reason as a public task nor with law as a public articulation of right and wrong, but rather with personal preference and private convictions. We have grounded this ethical nihilism, this privatized morality, in a kind of metaphysical and theological silence that we assume prevails in the realm of moral choice. Ellen DeGeneres said on television some months back, “My God is not a judgmental God. . . . My God does not judge.”

The Minister as Judge

But what shall a well-trained minister do, one who is given the responsibility of saying publicly and persuasively, “This is the way to go. Go this way and not this other and you shall live and not die?” Is it not inevitable that he make judgments? It is not all that a minister does, but it is not the least that a minister does.

Such a task involves us in a vulnerable and to some a foolish occupation because we who are charged with discerning right from wrong are as deeply implicated by what we might say as anyone to whom we might address it.

I recall once in my first full-time work as a pastor that I was approached by a woman named “Alice,” who was, it seemed to me, excessively concerned about community reputation. She had been having some trouble with her teenage son, who had got himself into a scrape with the law and who managed to escape the consequences by joining the army. She was terribly concerned that her son might fall in with the wrong crowd in the army. As it turned out, however, he got acquainted with a group of Christians.

He joined a Bible study group.

He phoned home and said that he had been saved. And his mother thought this was all to the good.

Then she approached me one afternoon after a funeral service. “I’m worried about my son,” she said. “He’s coming home this Christmas.”

“Wonderful,” I said.

“Oh no,” she said. “He wants to come to church and tell everyone about his becoming a Christian.”

I was having trouble understanding why this was a problem. “That’s great,” I said. “We’d love to hear about it.”

“I don’t want him coming home and getting up in the pulpit and making a fool of himself,” she said. “That’s what we pay you for!”

Of course, some take comfort in the idea that they preach foolishness, thinking that is precisely what the Apostle Paul recommended, and that it is the very means of God’s salvation. So much for a seminary education. You don’t need three or four years of toil and trouble for that. In fact, a seminary education puts us in danger of taking some of the edge off our foolishness. Then what will God do? But of course the problem is that they have not read carefully. Paul said, “God decided through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). The careful reader will notice that this says “the foolishness of preaching,” not “the preaching of foolishness.” It is a very little difference in grammar, but a great difference in theology and practice.

We have a similar problem here. The passage only says to “never make judgments” if we abruptly stop reading before the passage has finished the thought. What the passage does say is that there is an irrevocable connection between judging others and the judgment we ourselves receive. The order of judging oneself before judging others is important. First take the log out of your own eye, in order that you might remove the speck that is in your neighbor’s eye. Reading the whole passage, we see that it does not forbid us from judging, or making judgments, but instead counsels us not to judge if we are not willing to stand under judgment, based upon the same standards by which we judge. Far from forbidding moral judgment, it tells us the conditions under which judgment might take place.

The False Interpretation & Its Modern Roots

It is very difficult to say now, “Yes, indeed, we should judge.” Such a sentiment flies in the face of all that seems decent and fair in our day. We make such a strong distinction between the private realm and the public realm. We think that America itself was founded on convictions about individual freedom and private privileges. The political historian Barry Alan Shain disagrees. “[M]ost 18th century Americans cannot be accurately characterized as predominantly individualistic,” he writes, based on extensive investigation. “The vast majority of Americans lived in morally demanding agricultural communities shaped by reformed-Protestant social and moral norms.”2 But the fact is that, for the last three hundred years of Western history, culminating in the eccentricities of this past century, we have honed and intensified our superstitions that certain kinds of thinking must be held as strictly private and not subject to the public scrutiny of moral reason or of theology.

John Locke gave us a nudge in that direction with his doctrine of the private nature of religious thought and the individual ownership of one’s own body. So we have been rolling down that side of the hill ever since, until we have landed in our present muddle, in which public life seems well-nigh impossible. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.” That modernity has ended in such a muddle is now widely accepted. The difference of opinion is over whether postmodernity means we have finally recognized what we have gotten ourselves into, or whether in fact the muddle is what we should celebrate as the “next stage.”

The result of closeting off the “private” realm is that in theology we have begun for some time now to make a distinction between personal ethics and social ethics. It is as if envy, greed, lust, and anger in one’s personal life and with regard to one’s family and friends can all be overlooked so long as one holds the proper convictions about people regarding whom one has only the most tenuous knowledge. The dichotomy between these two makes for a schizophrenic Christian, one who can, for instance, be disloyal to his family yet claim great loyalty to people he does not know, or only knows as an abstract group.

When John Wesley said, “The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness,” he did not intend to say that social religion is more important than personal religion, he was saying precisely that there is no distinction between the two. Personal religion is, in the end, social religion or it is not authentic religion at all. In his day the emphasis was on the private, and in our day a premium is paid for the social. The truth is that neither in his day nor in ours has there ever been a legitimate difference. When Amos is cited as the prophet of social justice, we can know that the corruption of modernity has kept us from seeing what was really Amos’s greatest achievement. He showed clearly that those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” are precisely the same as those who turn a blind eye when “a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that [God’s] holy name is profaned” (Amos 2:7). Those who “afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and who turn aside the needy in the gate” are all the same. Private wickedness and public oppression show the continuity of sin from the private to the public, from the inside out. Amos is not the prophet of “social ethics” (as many have insisted ever since I was in seminary); he is the prophet of undivided ethics.

Amos would not recognize what today is popularly called “being prophetic.” He would find it strange that we mean taking up the cudgels when it comes to dealing with some harmless old people stuck with conservative notions that they do not even understand enough to defend, or confronting the not-so-well educated with “shocking” ideas, then going home with the warm assurance that what you have done is approved by the most enlightened members of society, by your academic mentors, by the beautiful people in Hollywood, by network commentators, and by all the most ambitious of your friends who want to be numbered among the elite and who know how one must sound and what one must approve or disapprove, tolerate or not tolerate to be admitted to the very best circles.

If that is being prophetic, then so much for Elijah in his cave. He lacked the imagination that would have made him both prophetic and widely appreciated at the same time. Something was lacking in his ambition—a bad sign for a serious and professional cleric in any age.

(There is a warning here for you and me. For if those so-called conservatives or fundamentalists are rightly accused of being world-denying Christians who shut themselves off into a cult-like isolation, then those who are called moderate are often rightly accused of being accommodating to the world. So offended are some by the high-handed and ineffective boycott of Disney that they react by defending Disney, Miramax, gay pride days, and the whole bit. That makes them more acceptable to the world, they think. Or does it only make them more irrelevant? But then they are reassured that Jesus said not to judge, not to do, that is, the very thing that makes us human: to reflect upon the right way to go and to distinguish between what is the true goal of human life and what are those sirens that lead us to destruction—all this is what it means to judge.)

Christian Judgment in an Age of “Liberation”

For the reasons I have tried to suggest, we tend to read the prohibition “do not judge” in a peculiarly modern way. In doing so we manage to make it mean precisely the opposite of what it must have meant when it was first uttered. For us—or at least for most of our generation—moral judgment is a private matter. Therefore one person does not presume to make discriminating judgments regarding another person’s actions or character. We can, of course, give the passage this modern reading as long as we don’t take in the whole passage.

But if we should take in the whole passage, I would contend that it means something quite different. Rather than affirming the modern, Lockean notion that moral judgment is a private matter, it is teaching that moral judgment is always an open and public thing, even if we try to exercise it as a private privilege. We cannot judge without being judged. While we hope to exempt ourselves from judgment and see the problem of moral error as something wholly outside ourselves, we cannot do so. Only those who willingly submit to judgment can judge. Only those who have the log taken out of their eye can see clearly to take the speck out of someone else’s eye.

You and I, as brothers and sisters, cannot judge one another, we can only come under judgment together. Judgment is inescapably communal, not inescapably private. It is always among people and never (properly) between people.

This can be expressed in another way. Judgment discriminates between good and evil, not between persons or groups. The evil that plagues us is never found totally outside of us. The Gnostic blindness consisted in the conviction that evil was an alien power that held men and women in bondage and oppressed them. They could not repent; they could only escape. The world itself was an oppressive system. The contention of good with evil takes place in a field of struggle outside of the human being: we are called to struggle against the world, against the system, against those who have power, even against our own bodies. The language of gnosticism always sounds violent because its worldview is always the very essence of violence.

Does the implied dualism sound familiar? Does the language of struggle against an alien oppressor sound contemporary? It should. The language of every form of liberation theology is Manichaean at heart. It is therefore violent in its full implication, not irenic; it is about conflict, not peace. It evokes resentment rather than community, division rather than catholicity. When in Christian theology have there been such clearly defined segments of the human race made responsible for social evil: North Americans as opposed to Latin Americans, men as opposed to women, Europeans as opposed to everyone else?

Of course, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, sin asserts itself unevenly in society, so that the rich have opportunities and temptations that the poor do not; but even so, all sin is recognizably human. To say that it is endemic to North Americans, or Europeans, or males is to not take seriously how deeply rooted all sin is in the human character. To suggest that sin can be redefined as the oppression of one group by another is to suggest that its resolution takes place in a redistribution of power through conflict instead of by a reconciliation of peoples through a radical change of heart.

I say this with the full realization that there is a theological industry of sorts already devoted to the genre of liberation theology. Many hundreds of careers and many millions of dollars have been invested in the literature of liberation. And besides that, the market generated by resentment (especially when those resentments are indeed understandable, if not justified, and when in fact those resentments are stimulated all the more by the appearance of a movement that gives a focus to its vague sense of dissatisfaction and an enemy against which to strike a blow) is almost insatiable.

Some will say, “God bless liberation theology: it reminds us that God sides with the poor!” Of course we can be grateful for this because it is true: God does side with the poor and with the downtrodden. But that’s a little like saying, “God bless gnosticism, it reminds us of the struggle between good and evil, and it reminds us of the temptations of the flesh.” It was never that gnosticism was totally wrong: its danger was that it was almost right. It was wrong in a way that was strategically vital to Christian thinking and Christian living. Like liberation theology, it located the division between good and evil at the wrong place. Shift the locus of that division ever so deftly, so that we conceive of ourselves as struggling against “other people” rather than a tendency within ourselves, as well as in others, and the call of the gospel comes to be no longer a call to repentance, but a jihad, a holy war.

For the community of human beings the approach taken by liberation theology means this: We do not live together under a common moral obligation, but we are separated by diverse interests. If a moral system is only an expression of private or group interest—if it is not at least potentially catholic and universal—then it can never be expressed except by conflict. If on the other hand, to judge one’s neighbor necessarily involves the same judgment against oneself, it is because we live in a common moral universe, one in which judgment involves us all in a common liability and a common goal of human action.

The Judgment That Draws Us Together

The liberation-Manichaean mindset is a thinly veiled attempt to make ourselves exempt from judgment. It is not accidental that gnosticism generally rejected the Old Testament and the Old Testament Creator God, calling him an evil God. If the fault is in the system, then it is not in me; I am not to blame. Then we can spend our moral energies on being indignant about the injustices around us and never be bothered by seeing how much of this injustice lies within us.

In the closing scenes of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Captain Ahab voices the real complaint against his tormentor, the white whale who has now been disclosed as a cipher for God himself, God Almighty, God the transcendent judge. “Who’s to doom,” he shouts, “if the judge himself is dragged to the bar!” C. S. Lewis makes the case explicitly that the course of modern thought has been one that replaces the human being under judgment with the notion that it is “God in the dock” and we who are properly his judges.

The reconstruction of Christian judgment begins with the realization that judgment, and the temperament as well as the wisdom that makes judgment possible, depends upon a willingness to be judged. There is a very old rabbinic saying to the effect that: “If you do not judge yourself, then all things will judge you, every creature becomes a messenger to you from God.”

In very nearly the center of his three-volume Gulag Archipelago, the great Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said this about the most central experience of his life:

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience; how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.3

Returning to the text with which we began, notice that Jesus used the example of the “eye.” What more sensitive organ than the eye! If you are to perform such a service as extracting a speck from your neighbor’s eye, how much more careful, how much more sympathetic, how much more circumspect, if you yourself have first been the patient in such an operation! In this way he taught that there is a judgment that distinguishes us and distances us from others, and this judgment is false and even fatal. On the other hand, there is a judgment that draws us together to the same judgment bar—and to the only just Judge.  

Notes:

1. Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33A (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), pp. 167–168.

2. Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. xvi.

3. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago Two, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 615.


A. J. Conyers (d. 2004) was Professor of Theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, and the author of several books, including The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Spence, 2001).

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