11 April 2011

Judging vs. Being Judgmental

5th Week of Lent (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

What's the difference between “making a judgment” and “being judgmental”? In ordinary English usage, we “make judgments” all the time. We judge the distance between cars when driving. We judge the amount of salt we use when cooking. We make a judgment about how much money we can spend this month on books. If making these sorts of judgments makes us judgmental, then we are in some serious trouble. “Being judgmental” is something far more dangerous than just deciding which pair of shoes to wear to work, or whether or not to have another cup of coffee. Ordinarily, we say that someone is “being judgmental” when it becomes clear that he or she is prone to accusing others of sin, collecting evidence against them, pronouncing a guilty verdict, and then demanding a harsh sentence for their sins. We usually say that this self-appointed judge and juror is “being judgmental” even if the person he or she is accusing is obviously guilty of sin. In other words, the fact that the accuser is right about the accused in no way lessens our sense that the accuser is “being judgmental.” We hear all the time that we shouldn't be judgmental, that we shouldn't condemn sinners for their sin, or even say out loud that this or that act is sinful. Our gospel scene this morning would seem to indicate that none of us is virtuous enough to call sin sin; that none of us is nearly holy enough to pass judgment on another. Cast the first stone, you who have no sin!

I'll confess right now: I won't be throwing any stones. But does the fact that I won't be throwing any stones b/c of my sin prevent me from making decisions about whether or not someone else has committed a sin? Let's hope not. I'd be worthless in the confessional and useless as a spiritual director. And not only that but it would be difficult for me to carry out my baptismal duty to seek and execute justice when an injustice threatens God's peace. If we are not careful, we might allow our fear of being called “judgmental” poison our sense of justice by making us indifferent to suffering. How can I condemn the brutal rape and murder of women and children in the Sudan w/o “being judgmental”? How can I call child prostitution sinful if my sense of justice is crippled b/c I fear being thought of as judgmental? If I can't throw stones, how can I seek justice for those who suffer b/c of the sins of others?

Jesus is extraordinarily subtle in his handling of the woman accused of adultery. He sees the whole scene laid out before him very clearly. His enemies are trying to trap him. If he condemns the woman w/o a proper trial, then he stands guilty to violating the Law. If he frees her, he is guilty of violating the Law. What does he do? He chooses not to play the game his enemies have laid before him. Instead, he tests the woman's accusers to see if there is anyone among them worthy of serving as a proper judge, “Cast the first stone, you who have no sin.” No one throws a stone b/c no one wants his or her life examined for worthiness. No one wants to be measured by the standards the Pharisees are using to measure the accused woman. Once all her accusers have fled, Jesus says, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” He doesn't recuse from passing judgment. He doesn't say that she is innocent of sin. Nor does he say that adultery isn't a sin. He judges her act, calls it sinful, and grants her mercy. And this is exactly what we are charged with doing: calling sin sin and then freely granting mercy to the sinners. We do this b/c the standards we use to judge others will be used to judge us. We do this b/c when we are sinned against, we want the sin to be named and condemned. But in order to fulfill our baptismal vows, we must free the sinner with mercy. How else can we make God's mercy known? How else can we hope to stand before the crucified Christ and give him thanks for our freedom from death?

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  1. I always make judgments about people. I am aware that I am usually 100% wrong.

  2. The word judgmental is new to the English language in the late 20th century and had no existence prior to its recent appearance (it is not in my 1964 Websters). I suspect that if you could trace the roots of the word, it comes not from Catholic theology but anti-Christian rhetoric. It is the sort of word which Jaques Ellul (“The Humiliation of the Word”) describes as a “graven image”, a hieroglyphic, a bastardization of language intended to convey an entire emotional response not commensurate with the actual meaning of the word. It is a weaponized word. Turn it back on those who turn it on you.