Posted April 28, 2015
Who am I to Judge?
Perhaps the single, most-often quoted
line from Pope Francis is his response to a question he was asked vis-a-vis the
morality of a particularly-dicey issue. His, infamous-famous reply: Who am I to
Although this remark is often assumed to be flighty and
less-than-serious; it is, in fact, on pretty safe ground. Jesus, it seems, says
basically the same thing. For example, in his conversation with Nicodemus in
John's Gospel, he, in essence, says: I judge no one.
If the Gospel of John is
to be believed, then Jesus judges no one. God judges no one. But that needs to
be put into context. It doesn't mean that there aren't any moral judgments and
that our actions are indifferent to moral scrutiny. There is judgment; except it
doesn't work the way it is fantasized inside the popular mind. According to what
Jesus tells us in John's Gospel, judgment works this way:
God's light, God's
truth, and God's spirit come into the world. We then judge ourselves according
to how we live in the face of them: God's light has come into the world, but we
can choose to live in darkness. That's our decision, our judgment. God's truth
has been revealed, but we can choose to live in falsehood, in lies. That's our
decision, our judgment to make. And God's spirit has come into the world, but we
can prefer to live outside that spirit, in another spirit. That too is our
decision, our judgment. God judges no one. We judge ourselves. Hence we can also
say that God condemns no one, though we can choose to condemn ourselves. And God
punishes no one, but we can choose to punish ourselves. Negative moral judgment
is self-inflicted. Perhaps this seems abstract, but it is not. We know this
existentially, we feel the brand of our own actions inside us. To use just one
example: How we judge ourselves by the Holy Spirit.
God's spirit, the Holy
Spirit, is not something so abstract and slippery that it cannot be pinned down.
St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Galatians, describes the Holy Spirit in terms so
clear that they can only be rendered abstract and ambiguous by some self-serving
rationalization. How does he describe and define the Holy Spirit?
So as to
make things clear he sets up a contrast by first telling us what the Holy Spirit
is not. The spirit of God, he tells us is not the spirit of self-indulgence,
sexual vice, jealousy, rivalry, antagonism, bad temper, quarrels, drunkenness,
or factionalism. Anytime we are cultivating these qualities inside of our lives,
we should not delude ourselves into thinking we are living in God's spirit, no
matter how frequent, sincere, or pious is our religious practice. The Holy
Spirit, he tells us, is the spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and chastity. Only when we are living inside
of these virtues are we living inside God's spirit.
So then, this is how
judgment happens: God's spirit (charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and chastity) has been revealed. We can
choose to live inside the virtues of that spirit or we can choose to live
instead inside their opposites (self-indulgence, sexual vice, rivalry,
antagonism, bad temper, quarrels, drunkenness, and factionalism). One choice
leads to a life with God, the other leads away from God. And that choice is ours
to make; it doesn't come from the outside. We judge ourselves. God judges no
one. God doesn't need to.
When we view things inside this perspective it also
clarifies a number of misunderstandings that cause confusion inside the minds of
believers as well as inside the minds of their critics. How often, for instance,
do we hear this criticism: If God is all-good, all-loving, and all-merciful, how
can God condemn someone to hell for all eternity? A valid question, though not a
particularly reflective one. Why? Because God judges no one; God punishes no
one. God condemns no one to hell. We do these things to ourselves: We judge
ourselves, we punish ourselves, and we put ourselves in various forms of hell
whenever we do choose not to live in the light, the truth, and inside God's
spirit. And that judgment is self-inflicted, that punishment is self-inflicted,
and those fires of hell are self-inflicted.
There are a number of lessons in
this. First, as we have just seen, the fact that God judges no one, helps
clarify our theodicy, that is, it helps deflate all those misunderstandings
surrounding God's mercy and the accusation that an all-merciful God can condemn
someone to eternal hellfire. Beyond this, it is a strong challenge to us to be
less judgmental in our lives, to let the wheat and the darnel sort themselves
out over time, to let light itself judge darkness, to let truth itself judge
falsehood, and to, like Pope Francis, be less quick to offer judgments in God's
name and more prone to say: "Who am I to judge?"