In these days when it seems everything has become angry polarization, it’s not uncommon to hear someone in the heat of an argument invoke the familiar words of Jesus: “Judge not, so that you are not judged.” These words are probably misapplied as much as anything Jesus ever said.
Jesus’ prohibition against judging has less to do with our academic arguments than it does with how we treat people. The better translation of his words is, “Do not condemn others.” This changes the whole equation, as Jesus doesn’t ban “judgment” in the sense of discernment, making honorable choices, or being an informed person. Rather, Jesus is precluding the use of condemnation against others.
Yet, if you turn to the media, read much of what is printed by Christian publishers, listen to what is repeated in church pulpits, or spend time perusing the Christian blogosphere, it seems the only voice we Christians have is that of a crotchety old man, angry that the neighborhood kids won’t stay off our lawn.
Yes, some of what we say is healthy, principled dissent; but too much of it is an exhaustive collection of condemnation and angry finger-pointing, incensed as we are, at what everyone else is doing wrong. But by Jesus’ own word, the church is not permitted to become this type of condemnation-meting society. We are not called to operate a business of inflicting punishment on others. In fact, we aren’t called to mind others’ business at all.
In my vocation I often come across those who are hostile toward the Christian faith. I try to engage such individuals and learn something from them. What I have learned from people such as these, more often than not, is their exasperation over how we Christians frequently come across as a kind of moral SWAT team.
We intrude into the lives of others filling the air with the ammunition of “ought, should, and must” when we would be better served by turning our energies and attention to our own hearts and examine our own lives, not the lives of others. Dietrich Bonehoeffer said it like this, “Jesus is the only standard by which disciples should live, but he is not a standard we can apply to others. He is a standard we can only apply to ourselves.”
So, when we as Christians get blisteringly angry with those who sin differently than we do, we should remember to mind our business. That business is to love, not to condemn. That business is to begin with the self, for beginning there will keep us busy for a lifetime.
To that end, there is a wonderful story from famed Rabbi Mendel Futerfas, who survived years in the Soviet Gulags of Siberia. In the Gulag, one of the many activities that was prohibited and dealt with harshly was playing cards. Still, some of the inmates managed to smuggle in a deck of cards, and they would play for hours without the guards knowing.
Finally, however, an informant sold the card-playing prisoners out. The guards would storm in with surprise inspections looking for the cards, but could never find them. They checked every inch of the barracks including strip searches of the inmates, but the result was always the same: Nothing. Yet, as soon as the guards left, the cards would reappear and the games continued.
Rabbi Mendel couldn’t understand how this happened, but eventually the card players let him in on their secret. “You see,” they said, “we are professional pickpockets. As soon as the guards enter the barracks, we slip the cards into their pockets. Right before they leave, we slip them back out again. It never occurs to the guards to check their own pockets.”
“Judging” does not prevent us from having and sharing opinions. It doesn’t mean we can’t give a verbal witness to our faith. But it does mean we refuse – absolutely refuse – to condemn others. We leave “room in our hearts for God’s grace,” and that room is made possible by looking in and emptying our own pockets first.