Judging Others--Judging Ourselves


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

November 5, 2017

Text: Luke 6: 39-45

      Walking on the streets of Newark, it is difficult not to make snap judgments. On the corner of Broad and Court, there is the older man I see on occasion asking people for money. He is always polite and respectful, thanks any person who gives him anything, no matter how small. There’s another man who stands just a few doorways down who is not so polite and once I even heard him shout obscenities at someone who had passed him by without giving him even a nickel or dime.

      When I see these people I always wonder how they managed to get into such desperate straits. Was it drugs or alcohol? The loss of a job or a family member? Is the panhandler simply so damaged emotionally that he or she cannot get enough together, so to speak, to put his or her life in order? I always wonder and try not to judge them because I don’t know what got people into such situations?

       From the time we are young we are taught to judge. In fact, judgment is considered to be an important part of critical thinking. We are taught to judge right from wrong, good from evil, and even stupid from smart. Most of our judgments are about something outside ourselves but some are internal as well. We judge from appearances. Who can forget that incredible video when a frumpy Susan Boyle comes out and then opens her mouth to sing?

       In my other life as a lawyer, I am put in the position of judging others every day. Primarily I am concerned whether a person is telling me the truth. How do you know that the claimed event occurred? When we lawyers make those kinds of judgments, much depends on our own personal per-spective of an issue, our knowledge of country conditions, and, at times, our own response to events that have occurred in our own lives in the past.

      One writer has commented that often our judgment of others is little more than an extension of how we judge ourselves; moreover, the self-judgment is so ingrained that we often do not even notice it.

       In this morning’s reading Jesus was pointed talking about how we human beings judge others by different standards than we judge ourselves. We often judge others by standards more or even less severe than we judge ourselves. Some of the disparity comes from the way we were taught to think of judgment.

       Many of us here, having been raised Baptists or Congregationalists, are in the Calvinist tradition ; that is, if you think about it, God is a God of judgment, only a bit mitigated by the love of Jesus. And, in spite of the fact that our rational minds really may not believe in Cotton Mather’s sinners dangling like the spider, for many of us there is a deep fear of judgment.

       As Gene Robinson, the Emeritus Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire comments: “It’s funny, isn’t it? That you can preach a judgmental and vengeful and angry God and nobody will mind. But you start preaching a God that is too accepting, too forgiving, too merciful, too kind . . . and you are in trouble.” Now Robinson, of course, was talking about God accepting human beings in their infinite variety including sexual orientation or gender identity, but that comment applies across the board.

       In spite of our best intentions, we often judge others by how we judge ourselves. We’ll excuse our own behavior because we consider the underlying factors about ourselves that we understand allowing us to excuse something that we would not excuse in another. However, in the parable Jesus tells us we cannot take this approach, that we cannot just look for the speck in our neighbor’s eye and ignore the log in our own.

       And we all have logs in our own eyes. I can hear it in my own mind when I silently judge another’s musical taste or lack of it, television viewing habits, or any number of choices regarding the lives of others. I sometimes wonder if those kinds of judgments influence other, more serious, judgments I make about people.

      This is not to say that we should not judge the actions of others, especially if they are hurtful or destructive. For instance, we should not and cannot stand idly by when we see bigotry and hate being spewed out of the mouths of our national leaders. There we must speak and be open to the hurt such speech causes. This is quite different from the speck and log analogies used by Jesus in the parable.

       We cannot just be silent when people use terrible events as a cover for their own underlying prejudices. This past week’s attack in New York City is a case in point. The radical-ization of one Uzbek admitted to the United States as part of the diversity lottery should not cancel out the entire system established by Congress to increase diversity in the United States immigration system.

        Sometimes when we judge others we actually display the same behavior that we dislike in others. I know that this is clearly an issue for me. I get flustered and upset when something doesn’t function correctly on my computer. I know it’s because I don’t understand how to fix something. I really hate it when others get as flustered over something they don’t understand which I do and I get short with people in those situations. That’s clearly a log in my eye.

       Sometimes I wonder why I mutter and even raise my voice at myself when certain things happen. Looking back, I realize that the underlying cause is more than my basic ineptitude on certain things. It’s really that I hate being dependent on others to help me get through a function, a briefing, a day.

       As I judge myself, I sometimes think that I should be able to function without certain kinds of assistance. I find myself thinking “any idiot”–the idiot, of course, is me–should be able to do this. Perhaps at the base of all of our judgments about others is the fact that we have difficulty relying on others and honestly believe that we are individual automatons and can do it by ourselves.

       It’s that old internalized Calvinist feeling ingrained in us that we ought to be able to do it by ourselves. Of course, in our more rational moments, we realize that’s not the way the world works. That’s really not the way that human beings function. Even–perhaps especially–in our prehistoric age, we needed others–just to simply survive.

       But removing the specks from our own eyes requires that we bind ourselves to others. We all need that supportive assistance that allows us to even see the specks in our own eyes. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam writes about the destructiveness of going it alone. We expect success to be tied to our ability to create success.

        On Thursday morning as I was working out at the local Y, the television was turned on to a sports channel. Now, quite frankly, I have about as much interest in sports as do my cats. But that morning, the interview was with Geno Auriemma, the Italian-born basketball coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. He was asked about Breanna Stewart’s disclosure of her own experience of being sexually molested, and he talked about the importance of community support the team was giving her.

       That issue, of course, has dominated our news since the disclosure regarding Harvey Weinstein. All kinds of people have been named as perpetrators and predators. One could say the President should not feel alone either.

        In fact, the sheer enormity of these disclosures should encourage, if not push, us to examine our attitudes towards power and its abuses, for that is what these disclosures represent–an abuse of power. And Jesus spoke about such abuses during his ministry. He recognized and called to task the abuses of power by the religious and political leadership of his time.

        The abuse of power goes well beyond the issues raised by the revelations of the past few weeks. The abuse of power permeates our national leadership in other ways as well. This past week the EPA director notified more than half of its scientific advisors that their terms would not be renewed and suspended more than 200 advisory panels over the question of climate change. The new projected director of NASA decried the most recent report regarding the melting of the Greenland ice shelf. This is abuse of power of the worst sort: refusing to look at facts because of ideological blindness.

        As Jesus is quoted here: when the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the pit. And we are heading into a pit of know nothing scientific darkness that could rival the trial of Galileo. Sed movet, he muttered as he left the room, and no matter how the ideological idiots at the top may try to diminish scientific input, sed movet.

       We are in a time when the blind are leading the blind, not to mention the fact that we are ignoring our logs of racism, sexism, and narrow minded-thinking to preach to other countries regarding their specks. It is not a good time.

However, we do not need to go it alone. We can move beyond our old internalized Calvinism and work for community building and support to not only counter the ideologues in charge of our Nation, but we can develop informed and progressive religious discourse. We can make the church relevant again in a way it has not been for many years. It will take work. It will mean looking seriously at how we judge ourselves as well as others, but with God’s help, it is possible.

       Let us pray: Creator of our minds and hearts, bring us to a place where we can create a supportive community for acceptance and tolerance, knowledge and understanding, and, above all, for the kingdom of peace and justice Jesus came to create. In his name we pray. Amen.