October 25, 2020

“Resisting Condemnation,” Bob Ryder

Luke 6:37-42 Jesus taught his followers, “Don’t hold others to account, and you won’t be held to account. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven. Be generous, and you’ll be treated generously – a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and over-flowing will be poured in your lap. The measure you use dealing with others will be the measure used dealing with you.” He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Won’t they both fall into a ditch? The student isn’t above the teacher, but those who practice will be like their teacher. Why do you look at the speck in your neighbor’s eye but pay no attention to the plank in your own? How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while you’re ignoring the branches covering your face? Don’t be a hypocrite, first clear your own vision, then you’ll see clearly to help your neighbors with the specks in their eyes.”

REFLECTION

Speculate with me about the historical Jesus.  I want to think together about that aspect of his humanity where the teachings about judgement came from. Set aside ideas about Christ for the moment – that’s a different reflection.  For now, be curious about the utterly human Jesus of Nazareth – olive skinned, carpenter’s hands rough with callouses and blisters; calf muscles thick from walking all over Israel. I sometimes imagine traveling back two thousand years in a time machine to find Jesus in the midst of his public ministry. I walk around with him for a while – not as a disciple or a worshipping admirer, but like an embedded reporter. Marcus Borg – one of the prominent Jesus Seminar scholars – sometimes framed his observations in terms of explaining what we would see and hear if there were recordings from Jesus’ time. I’m persuaded one of the strongest impressions we’d take away if we could meet the actual human being for a week, or at least see and hear what he was really doing on a recording, is that he was not given to condemnation.

My educated guess is if we could have this science fiction encounter with the actual guy, we’d experience this non-condemning aspect of his personality as something missing. Human nature is so infused with the tendency to condemn others we’d probably be thrown off a little experiencing someone who just doesn’t do it much.  The trait would seem conspicuous by its absence. It might feel similar to feeling of stumbling when you get to the bottom of a staircase but you thought there was one more step to go. I’ll bet one of the things that made Jesus so compelling and memorable is that he taught himself to approach relationships without that ubiquitous human tendency to find fault in others and flatter oneself in the comparison.

It’s important to understand this teaching isn’t about giving up our sense of right and wrong. We shouldn’t confuse condemnation with evaluation or discernment. Saying “don’t judge” and “don’t condemn” isn’t the same as saying there’s no right or wrong; that everything is relative. We still have an obligation to strive for values and rules that make for a free and fair and abundant life for as many as possible to have. I don’t think Jesus was prescribing a society where crime is tolerated with no consequences. We’re still offended by greed and corruption and injustice and we work to encourage integrity and honesty. But we’re better off doing all that without entertaining ideas about perpetrators being less than human or deserving to suffer. Justice as an effort to promote prosocial behavior, and to reform antisocial behavior is valid and necessary, but we need to pursue justice preserving the dignity of others, even when their behavior is bad.  “Don’t hold others to account, and you won’t be held to account. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.” This is the version of Christianity I admire, the aspect I try to practice.

The reason I find this approach to Christianity so compelling is because condemnation is more tempting lately. It’s more difficult to resist ugly, judgmental attitudes than it used to be – not that it was ever easy, I suppose.  But there are so many invitations to be judgmental now. So many on ramps to finding and condemning others’ hypocrisy for a little taste of smug self-righteousness.

Judgment in this sense is like sugar, sweet for an instant but not at all good for you. Condemnation is like a drug – the more we indulge it the more it makes us mean and miserable. It’s addictive, and it elicits bad behavior in both the person it’s aimed at and the person who does the condemning. Letting ourselves fixate on what others are doing wrong is bad for us. It’s not who we’re supposed to be. When we’ve got charity and kindness and compassion down as reliable habits, then we might have something helpful to share in the conversation. But in the meantime, pointing the accusing finger and scoring points with a “sick burn” is only contributing to the mess.

It occurs to me this issue expressed from another perspective is simply grace. An important ingredient in any mature spirituality is the discipline of treating others with the same dignity and respect we want for ourselves, regardless of their behavior. Being gracious and resisting condemnation isn’t mostly about who someone else is, it’s about who we are. It’s what we practice because we sense it’s for the greater good.

Sometimes news coverage of all the problems our nation is facing is more than we can take, so Susan and I have started reworking our way through the television series “The West Wing.” It’s an optimistic vision of what politics can be like. There’s a lovely scene I invite you to watch from the first season.  The characters in this exchange are White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and a lower level staffer named Karen Larson, who had recently leaked information to a political opponent about Mr. McGarry’s past. It’s a lovely example of non-judgment and forgiveness in action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFh8PoTa-40

This teaching about resisting condemnation isn’t just hypothetical – we need to understand and embrace now more than ever. The tribal culture of judgement and condemnation and self-righteousness and hypocrisy we fallen into – exacerbated by the most cynical voices in the conversation – that instinctive cultivation of grievances is the cancer that’ll devour us if we don’t change our approach.  We need to approach relationships – including political conversations – with as much empathy for those who see things differently as with passion for our values. We’ll never be able to remove the stains of our nation’s worst behavior from history – we can’t go back and rewrite the past. Yet it’s never too late to renounce judgment and condemnation and hypocrisy.  We can’t rewrite the beginning, but we can start again now to write toward a new and better ending. The way to start that new chapter is by rejecting the hatred and self-righteousness that got us where we are. As ever, I thank you for your kind attention. Amen.