Sunday, July 18, 2010

On Judgment

A very wise man once said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." He knew the all-too-human tendency for us to judge each other, to pigeonhole people, to fit them into a box full of labels and preconceived notions, and to rank them above us or below us on the "worthiness to live" scale.

It's like the old joke about what two men think of each other when they first meet. In that split second before they smile and extend their hands to greet each other, in that very instant, they're thinking to themselves, "Yeah, I can take him."

(I don't even want to joke about what women think of each other when they first meet.)

The wise man followed his admonition with this observation: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

To illustrate this principle, allow me to paraphrase George Carlin. Carlin says that there are two kinds of drivers on the road: morons and jerks. A moron is anybody who drives slower than you. A jerk is anybody who drives faster than you.

The interesting thing about the morons and the jerks, according to the paraphrased Carlin, is this: in the eyes of all the morons, you're a jerk. And in the eyes of all the jerks, you're a moron.

Therefore, we ought to take the wise man's counsel to heart and not judge anybody, right? There are a couple of problems with that. First, humans are rational beings, and we are constantly weighing and evaluating everything around us. Second, we have to make judgments simply to survive in this world. For example, we teach our children to choose their friends wisely. We choose our own friends wisely (or not so wisely). We decide whether it's better to get drunk with friends or to stay dry and sober. We elect our political leaders. We decide which charities will receive our contributions.

Finally, and most critically, we are sometimes required by law or by fellowship to sit in judgment of our fellow humans. This is something that can never be taken lightly, because when we sit in judgment of others, we also sit in judgment of ourselves. When we hear a recitation of the faults and indiscretions of another, it causes us, rather than recoiling in disgust or revulsion, to examine ourselves for our own tendencies towards those same faults and indiscretions. In the end, no matter whether we condemn or pardon those we are required to judge, we sit condemned by our own consciences for our weaknesses.

And when judgment is rendered and sentence is passed, we murmur the ageless proverb, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

Those who are anxious or willing (or hasty) to call down the judgment of God or Lady Justice on the heads of their fellow beings, to holler "Off with their heads!" must be ready and willing to accept their own portion of that judgment in payment for their own indiscretions. If they are not, then they stand doubly condemned by their errors and their hypocrisy.

Those of us who believe in a God who judges us according to our works and/or the desires of our hearts, who hope that He will treat us mercifully in our weaknesses and our errors, had better be willing to extend that same hand of mercy to our fellow travelers in their moments of error or weakness. I don't believe in karma per se as a religious or spiritual principle, but as a fundamental law of nature, I'd say that there's something there. What Christians call the Law of the Harvest ("whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap") comes close to it. The judgments that we render have a funny way of being reflected back on us, sometimes immediately and sometimes years down the road.

I'm not saying that laws are irrelevant and that there's no such thing as crime. Nor am I suggesting that we should roll over and let thieves pick us clean. Some principles of right and wrong are absolute. For example, cold-blooded murder for its own sake has been a universal crime for millenia. Wrongs must be righted. Villains and monsters must be uncovered and removed from society. We must shield our children from abuse and depravity until they are strong enough to handle it on their own. The influence of justice, like the influence of gravity, can be temporarily avoided but will always prevail in the end.

But as human beings, put here on this rock we call Earth to test ourselves and prepare (we hope) for something better, we will come a lot closer to that "something better" when we endeavor to lift each other up more than we pull each other down. I think we all get a little closer to perfection when, rather than fall upon our fellows with the swift sword of justice, we defer that justice (when permissible) to Him whose right it is to judge, and instead extend to them the arms of mercy and fellowship.

Most of those who surround us are trying just as hard as we are to be successful, not just on the physical or material plane, but on the spiritual plane as well (however you want to define "spiritual", and whatever word you want to substitute for it). We gain a lot by showing the same love and mercy to our fellow travelers that we hope will be shown to us when we need it most.

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