Are judgment and love enemies?
As I was writing this post, I came across this quote.
“What is love? Love is the absence of judgment.” The Dalai Lama
Maybe it depends on what you mean by judgment, or maybe the Dalai Lama and I just disagree.
Judgment is a dirty word in our society. It is one of the most carnal and insensitive acts a human being could perpetrate on another–to judge them. It is one of the two deadly sins Christians most frequently accused of perpetrating–judgment and hypocrisy. It is regularly berated by Christians as they remind us that we are called to love, not judge. It is the trump card tossed at people with whom we’d rather not have a dialogue–“Stop judging me (or them or whatever)!” Accepting the narrative that judgment is antithetical to love and in itself is a vice is deeply problematic.
Our legal system is based on judgment. When a murderer is judged to be guilty and subsequently sentenced we don’t object that the judges are just being judgmental. Parenting is an ongoing exercise in judgement. When my son threw away our trash at the frozen yogurt shop without being asked today, I judged that he was performing a kind act of service and affirmed him for it. When he yells at his sister I judge that he is being unkind and instruct him to adjust his actions, and hopefully his posture toward her. Hiring and firing are direct outcomes of judgment. We inspect a resume and judge a candidate’s personality and fit before deciding to hire. We judge that an employee’s performance is not good enough and we fire them. Is the act of making these judgments wrong (and if it is, isn’t that a judgment?)?
Judgment divorced from love is harmful–at times even abusive. But I don’t know that it is best to call judgment divorced from love judgment. I think it is something else. It’s something Jesus gets at.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
There is a type of judgment that is “unChristian,” but there is also a type of judgment that is essential to following Jesus. What Jesus is denouncing here is twofold. First, it is judgment without self-reflection. It is not that there is no speck in the eye of the other, but that one cannot remove that speck without dealing with the blurred vision being caused by the plank in his own eye. The passage does end with the plank and the speck being removed. The other sense in which judgement is denounced is when judgment is condemning. We should not stand in condemnation over another. When judgment is divorced from love it quickly becomes condemnation. There is no room for us to condemn others.
So judgment of condemnation or without self-reflection is wrong and deeply harmful. Period. Moving on from this point, there is a proper judgment that is wed to love. We can describe this judgment as discernment leading to action. There is no way to read the rest of the Bible and come away thinking what Jesus was getting at in the passage above was that we should not discern the difference between right or wrong and take action based on that judgment. The good of each person and the whole world requires an ability to judge the difference between light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong.
It is fashionable to say that right and wrong are matters of personal fancy, but when the truly reprehensible happens we cannot toe that line. A teacher in our city was just arrested for sexual assault of a student. No one is advocating that the morality of this act is in the eye of the beholder. Right and wrong are only matters of preference until it makes us uncomfortable. No doubt the lines between good and evil are not always clear. Gray areas are real things. But the complexity of virtue and vice does not negate their existence, it only increases the need for wise and loving judgment.
The sacrificial death of Jesus is the pattern of the deepest love–a love that is wed to judgment. It was the judgment that sin and death were destructive and needed to be broken that led Jesus to give his life. In that act of sacrifice he levied judgment against sin (something present in all people and enacted by all people) and loved the world in the deepest way possible. Without judgment this love would not have been necessary. In our culture it may be wise to use the word discernment rather than judgment. However, talking about this issue is important because when people are accused of judgment in our society it is often a discernment that is unfavorable to the sensibilities of another, not a condemnation. And we cannot lose wise discernment (judgment) that leads to action. For the sake of our selves, families, friends, neighborhoods, cities, and the good of the world we must allow judgment and love to remain deeply wedded.