Is judging only okay for reality t.v.?

“Judge not, and you will not be judged.” It’s one of the most commonly quoted verses from the Bible. Many people use this verse as a first line of defense when accused of wrongdoing. It is also a favorite stone thrown by those outside the Church to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. “Didn’t Jesus say not to judge people?”

A couple of years before I went into grad school, a book was written called UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. This book was huge and many of the statistics from that book circulated widely in churches and seminaries across the country. It’s based on research done among non-Christian millennials and one of the main findings was that about 90% of millennials view Christians as “judgmental.” Given the prohibition against judging issued by Jesus, this would mean most people view Christians as hypocrites, because nothing says “biblical expert” like quoting one saying of Jesus out of context.

Given these findings, it’s pretty important that both Christians and non-Christians understand what Jesus means when he says “judge not.” The key is recognizing that the word “judge” is used in two different ways in the New Testament, much like it still is today. Sometimes “judge” is used to mean “judge between things,” to differentiate, or discern, to make a decision concerning someone or something. In this case, we judge between right and wrong, good and evil, righteous and unrighteous.

This kind of judgement, was in discernment, is not what Jesus is forbidding. In fact throughout the Bible, we are commanded to discern. In the same chapter of Luke 6 and in the very same discourse as the famous “judge not” statement, Jesus talks about having the discernment to see the difference between good people and evil people (Luke 6:43-45). He compares them to trees. Good trees, he says, produce good fruit and bad trees produce bad fruit. The call to differentiate good from evil is to judge, to discern, correctly. To further the point, followers of Jesus are called to be so discerning that we are “as wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16).

This is where Christians get into trouble in our overly-tolerant and increasingly diverse culture. When a Christian labels something as “wrong” or “evil” we are often declared as being judgmental and out of step with Jesus. I do find it ironic and humorous that to pronounce someone as a hypocrite is to, in fact, also make a judgement.

Certainly, sometimes this is the case, but very often the accusation is the result of a society and a people that no longer understand the difference between discernment and condemnation.

F.F. Bruce, a New Testament scholar, explains the linguistic dilemma this way:

“Judgment is an ambiguous word, in Greek as in English: it may mean exercising a proper discernment, or it may mean sitting in judgment on people (or even condemning them).”

It is this second definition, to condemn, that Jesus forbids and he makes that clear when the whole sentence in Luke 6 is read: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.” Jesus is making a statement using a common rabbinic tool of his time, make the same statement twice, but alter it slightly for emphasis.

He’s calling us to not condemn people, to not pass final judgment and declare them irretrievably guilty. This is an incredibly important idea if you understand the context in which Jesus was speaking. The entire society of his day was built on the notion that some people were acceptable and others were not. And the way you defined yourself, your identity and place in the world, was by comparing and contrasting yourself with others.

So, for example, in the time of the New Testament Jews saw themselves as inherently better or more acceptable to God then non-Jews. They commonly referred to anyone not Jewish as “dogs.” Many Romans had equally dismissive views of the Jews, and these judgments were not limited to the communities of other races. Rich people were seen as more blessed and acceptable to God than poor people. The healthy were seen as righteous, and those with diseases or disabilities were judged to be sinners receiving their due.

It is this kind of judgment that Jesus says is absolutely wrong. When we judge and condemn someone we are declaring that they have no value or worth,  that they do not matter to us or God.

We do this still today, mainly as a means of elevating ourselves. The more people pushed below us, the higher in value we must be. Greg Boyd captures the problem of judging really well. He says: “You can’t love and judge at the same time,” because “It’s impossible to ascribe unsurpassable worth to others when you’re using others to ascribe worth to yourself.”

This is the problem Jesus is addressing, that the idea that our worth requires someone else’s condemnation.

Of course this wasn’t just a problem in from during the life of Christ. Consider what Martin Luther King Jr. said in one of his sermons. He describes why segregation, a form of exclusion and judgment, is so wrong:

“Segregation is not only inconvenient-that isn’t what makes it wrong. Segregation is not only sociologically untenable-that isn’t what makes it wrong. Segregation is not only politically and economically unsound-that is not what makes it wrong. Ultimately, segregation is morally wrong and sinful…It’s wrong because it substitutes an ‘I-It’ relationship for the ‘I-Thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.”

Judgment causes us to see the other not as a person, but as a thing, as less human and therefore less valuable. Once we do that to a person, or a group of people, we rob them of the divine image given to all of mankind by the Father in Creation; it opens the door to all kinds of terrible evil: segregation, injustice, abuse, even genocide. Jesus is warning us about excluding anyone, or seeing ourselves or our group as inherently better than any other. We may disagree and discern another person or group to be wrong, but when that discernment causes us to value another person or group less, then we’ve crossed the line into judgment, condemnation, and exclusion.

Obviously there are, and always will be, people and groups that we disagree with theologically, socially, or politically. However, we seem to venture from discernment into judgment so easily today. In present political conversations, or in descriptions of other faiths and nationalities, we quickly move to write off “those people” as less valuable. We exclude them from the status that we feel privileged alone to occupy.

This seems to be the accepted posture on many political television and radio programs. Sometimes television personalities speak about “liberals” as if they’re demonic. Of course many “liberal” blogs caricature “conservatives” in equally disturbing ways. If you have strong political views, that’s just fine. Defend your views, disagree with others, engage on the level of ideas, but when we start to condemn those who disagree with our politics, when we see them as intrinsically inferior, we enter dangerous and distinctly unChrist-like territory.

When we see other people as wrong, not just about what they believe, but in their core identity as people, then it’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t have to love them; we don’t have to serve them; we don’t have to respect them. This exclusion and condemnation of others fuels so much of what’s broken in our world today. It’s what convinces one group to kill another; or one person to abuse another.

Yet Jesus says, not so with you, not among my people. The Christian is never to judge, never condemn, never exclude, never to see anyone as without value or dignity-even the person we disagree with most. To quote Greg Boyd again, “The Christian’s job is to agree with God that every person you meet was worth Jesus dying for.” We cannot ascribe that kind of value and dignity to a person and condemn them as worthless at the same time. It’s just not possible.

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