When Judging is a Virtue

G.K. Chesterton once remarked that one of the principal disasters of the breakup of Christendom was not that it loosed Christian sins on the world, but that it loosed far more dangerous Christian virtues. For it is virtue, untethered from the governance of God and running amok which can do vastly more damage, since it is convinced of its own rectitude all the while it lays waste and destroys.

A case in point is the Christian virtue of forbearance, summed up in the famous text, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” For countless people in our culture, this is imagined to be the only thing ever uttered by Jesus of Nazareth and the only religious text in the world which remains out of the ruins of Western Civilization.

This was brought home to me in a conversation I had with a highly placed official at a major American university about 10 years ago. The man, in addition to being a Vice President at the university, was by training a physiologist specializing in hypothermia. It had come to his attention that the Nazis had conducted hypothermia experiments on prisoners at Dachau. The experiments consisted of submerging men, women and children in freezing water until they died and then doing autopsies on them to see what killed them. I had an opportunity to look at some of the documentation he had gathered on the experiments and remarked to him how ghastly and horrific this cruelty was. His reply: “Well, that’s your perspective. But who are we to judge? They thought they were doing the right thing.”

This rhetoric is used so often and taken so for granted that people scarcely pause to take a breath after saying it. It is imagined to be the perfect trump to all discussions which veer dangerously toward morality or the notion of sin. Yet as my university friend shows by his spectacular moral obtuseness, there is something to be said in answer to this idiotic mantra. The answer is, “We are sons and daughters of the Most High God, charged with defending the dignity of the human person in the face of tyranny and bound by our Lord Jesus Christ himself to discern what is so and act accordingly. That is who we are.”

Postmodernism gasps at the thought. But the reality of life is that we not only do judge ideas and people, we must judge them. This is exactly what our Lord commands us to do when he says, “By their fruits you shall know them.” This is exactly what people who have not spent years in a university unlearning common sense do when they declare Dachau an anteroom of Hell. Such judging is not sinister but is the only thing that keeps us sane.

“To judge”, then, has two aspects not very well distinguished in English. The first is, “to discern what is.” Not only is that not sinful, it is absolutely required of us as Christians. (“Be wise as serpents,” says our Lord. Which is to say, “Be shrewd. Size up people, ideas and situations and assess them for what they are.”) Only the second aspect of “judge” is forbidden. That is, once you have discerned what is so and formulated a judgement of the truth of a situation, don’t forget that you are a sinner too and, above all, don’t forsake the duty to love. In short, make right judgements, but refer all such judgements to God, who sees not the part, but the whole of things. The opposite of this second aspect of “judge” is not “pretend we’re all saying the same thing” or “pretend the evil person means well.” The opposite of this sense of “judge” is “love.” What we are not to do is condemn people (especially people who are really wrong and guilty of grave sin). Rather, we are to seek the good of everyone, even of those whom we must sometimes rightly fight against (like the architects of Dachau).

This is not really new to our experience. What is new (in our culture) is the idea that judging (in the first sense) is permissible and even commanded by Christ. Yet commanded it is, and where the command is ignored we find the imbecility of those who are incapable of saying whether or not Dachau was wrong. But where the command is heeded we find, not puritanical prigs ready to burn witches, but sane men and women who can discern what is so and act on that discernment. Those who can make sane judgements are not fool enough to imagine they are avenging angels nor cretins incapable of speaking out against an act of genocide lest they be “judgmental.” They are rather, fully human and able to act with justice, courage, mercy and even love.

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