Although we’re warned about judging others, we do it anyway, and not once in a while, but always. We’re not very good at it, but that doesn’t stop us. Psychologists like to remind us that we can’t possibly know what’s going on in the lives of most others we judge. Our evidence is weak, our prejudice strong, and still our convictions are unshakable. It doesn’t stop us.
Judgments can be mild, perhaps even affectionate, but more often they’re arrows and verbal hand grenades tossed at each other, causing harm even when none is intended. Jesus cautioned us not to judge others lest we be judged and held accountable for it. Yet we’re not excused from judging. There are critical decisions we must make: judgment of persons, places, conditions and consequences. Each day requires us to make them about the integrity, trustworthiness and abilities of others with whom we live, work, and encounter. We can’t avoid it. Whether or not we must, we also make judgments about people and issues more remote from our daily lives, Some are important because the people and issues are important to the well being of communities and nations; others entertain our emotional needs and desires in good ways and bad.
There are three easy paths to making judgments. One is to be a cynic, suspicious of everyone and everything, certain that every boon comes with a treacherous hook. The second is to be a sentimentalist, naively unaware of threatening conditions and behavior, believing in the best of everybody. Oddly enough, both are gullible, easily manipulated, and constantly make poor decisions with bad consequences. Most of us are neither one nor the other, but wander about in between, sometimes leaning a little this way, sometimes the other. Some relish being knee deep in conflict, others avoid it in any way they can.
The third easy path is zealotry. I’m writing this piece on the Feast of St. Stephen, a young man known to us from the 7th chapter of Acts where his unfettered zeal overriding good judgment ended in death by stoning. His story introduced Saul (Paul) as being driven by an opposite but equally unfettered zeal overriding good judgment. Saul eventually got knocked to the ground by Jesus’ sudden appearance in a blinding light. Sternly lectured by the Lord, his zeal was transformed from a rabid desire to imprison and kill Christians, to teaching and leading them. He learned to fetter his zeal (most of the time) and made better judgements for it.
Balance is the key. It’s the Golden Mean of Pythagorus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the middle way. It’s a way often ridiculed in today’s politically polarized environment as standing for nothing, willing to compromise on everything, a way only the wishy-washy would choose. Yet it’s the way through which better judgments for the greater good are made possible without being torpedoed by cynicism, sentimentality or zealotry. It’s a way marked by an appropriate degree of patience, time for reflection, consideration of options and consequences, and determination to see things through. It’s a way not easily sidetracked by polarizing emotional appeals, but seeks to find ground for workable answers to issues. It’s a way that tries, as best it can, to truly see and understand the other, set aside its own prejudices, and make room for an acceptable range of variation.
Sometimes missed in the gospel record is how much time Jesus took to slow down, reflect and pray; how much time he took to listen carefully to others; and how much effort he put into teaching others to be both “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He established a pattern for others to follow. As Christians who acknowledge his divinity, it is a pattern more than divinely inspired. It’s instruction directly from the Word of God about how we are to think and act when making judgments about persons, places, conditions, and consequences.
Saul, soon to be known as Paul, had to learn that the hard way. As his letters attest, never a sentimentalist but sometimes falling back into cynicism and zealotry, he did the best he could. If we are serious about following Jesus, we too must do the best we can to strike for the Golden Mean. It requires judgment based on reason, a search for and testing of objective truth, a self awareness of our own values, beliefs and prejudices, and submission to God’s Way of Love.
It’s not a quest for perfection. But with Paul as an example, and with compassion for our own weaknesses, we can do better. It is, in my opinion, the only way through which we can help our society emerge from the extreme polarization experienced today.