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Judge ... not?
The internet seems to be a breeding ground for unsolicited judgment. On the one hand, we are all encouraged to be our truest, most vulnerable selves or, to paraphrase Hemingway, to open up our phones and bleed. On the other hand, expressing our truest selves seems to encourage the basest responses in others. You think recycling is good? Someone else thinks it’s not good enough. You like to watch reality TV? Someone else thinks it’s a complete waste of time and brain power. The things that make personal interactions lovely – a diversity of opinions and interests and experiences – is the thing that makes the internet a literal hell hole.
A key part of the Advanced Training Institute homeschool curriculum my parents used was memorizing the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. By the time I was twelve or so, I could say it all from memory in both English and Koine Greek. Large portions of the Sermon on the Mount still live rent free in my brain. We were encouraged to memorize this as a way to build character. We were told that everything we needed for life was contained in these chapters, so by memorizing it, we were setting ourselves up for life-long success.
The last third of the Sermon on the Mount starts with a verse you’ve probably heard: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1, KJV) It’s a verse that Christians love to lob at anyone who has even the slightest criticism of them or anything they've done, no matter how small. If I ever had a complaint about something or pointed out an inconsistency in something I saw, I would be admonished to “judge not.” The mind-blowing irony, however, is that while I was being told to memorize this verse and to heed what it said, I was simultaneously being taught to judge everything and everyone around me.
I was in Ikea the other day when this verse popped into my head. I saw a family who looked very much like mine: mom and two daughters in long skirts, the dad in a polo with a combover. One of the daughters who was probably about ten watched me as I crossed the cavernous lobby, past the cafe, and towards the escalator. I thought about what she was thinking. Here I was, a woman in my thirties, wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and Birkenstocks with no makeup and a ball cap. To her, I imagine, I was the epitome of a heathen. Whether she looked at me with envy or concern, I will never know. But I recognized that look. It was one I’ve given to others. A look of judgment.
Much of my life has been spent judging others. Judging is a nasty habit that was couched as a virtue. How could I possibly know what good behavior looked like unless I knew what bad behavior looked like? I’d comment on people’s clothing, people’s language, and people’s decisions. And it wasn’t limited to people I thought were non-Christians. After church I’d say to my sister, “did you see how tight Mrs. Smith’s top was?” or “did you see that Trevor had a Bible that wasn’t KJV?” This is what was modeled for me. Once, the septuagenarian woman who had occupied the pew directly behind my family for years, stage whispered to her husband, “Can you believe what girls are wearing to church these days?” She was talking about me. For the record, my dress barely grazed the bottom of my knee caps that day and yet that was a massive no-no.
Old habits die hard. When I left Christian Fundamentalism nearly a decade ago, I thought I had left everything behind, but over the last few weeks I’ve realized that may not be the case. I am quick to judge. I judge frequently and impulsively. The Message translation of the Bible interprets “judge not” as, “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults.” I regret to say that I do this a lot. It’s a finely honed skill that served me at one point – and, I should add, still helps me in my day job. Does it help me on a day-to-day basis? No. It prevents me from being vulnerable. It keeps friends an arms-length away. This is because judgment is more than a means of distinguishing between right and wrong. It’s a defense mechanism. If I can judge you before you judge me, then I have wrested the moral high ground for myself. It makes me feel protected and safe.
I’ve seen a lot of this defensive behavior in the last few days as I’ve watched the responses roll in from Evangelical Christians about the Amazon documentary series “Shiny Happy People”. They’ve said that this is an attack against Christians. They’ve said that they only have the best intentions at heart. The responses to these statements range from “Thank you for speaking the truth” to “I can’t believe these people are so defensive.” The war rages on in the comment threads everywhere. My response is that I would be surprised if Christians weren’t defensive. This is what they have been trained to do. They’ve been trained to be on high-alert for even the slightest condemnation of their faith. It helps them know that they are right. It helps mask any feelings of guilt or shame or doubt. How do I know? I use it the same way.
We all do. We’re all insecure about our beliefs. I can be perfectly certain about my feelings on a film until I read the reviews. Then I’m not so sure. I can hold very strong opinions about literally anything until someone comes along and blows a hole in it. When this happens in person, it’s easy to hash out the details, dig into the nuances of the opinion, and realize that maybe your initial judgment was a little too harsh or that maybe you should have a more generous outlook on life. On the internet, however, it’s just words in a comment thread.
I’m learning that there are far fewer hills to die on than I thought. I’m learning that judgment is not the same as eliciting change. It doesn’t matter how many times I post about how much I disagree with my governor – it won’t make my preferred candidate win the election. I’m learning that my truth is not someone else’s truth and that’s OK. There’s no need to constantly pick on people, jump on their failures, and criticize their faults. It’s easy to do when people offer themselves up so freely for our consumption.
At the end of the movie “Dance, Girl, Dance”, Maureen O'Hara gives an impassioned speech to the audience of a burlesque show where she’s been hired to dance ballet for laughs as prelude for Lucille Ball’s glitzy performance. She says to the audience, “Go on, laugh, get your money's worth. No-one's going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your fifty cents' worth. … What's it for? So you can go home when the show's over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I'm sure they see through you. I'm sure they see through you just like we do!” There’s a truth to that. Something about judging feels, dare I say, good, but it’s a cheap shot. An empty victory.
The weird thing about this whole situation is that I actually agree with the sentiment of Matthew 7:1. The full verse says, “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment.” (Matthew 7:1, MSG) I am often wrong. I often have opinions that tend towards the “holier than thou.” I often say things I don’t mean because I’m afraid to say how I really feel.
I had a tendency to judge that girl in Ikea. My immediate thought was, “I bet she thinks I’m a degenerate. I bet she thinks she’s better than me.” But then I realized that I was doing to her what she could have been doing to me. I realized that maybe she saw me and wished she had a different life. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about what I would actually say to her and have finally settled on something: “There are lots of ways to live. You can be whoever you want to be. I believe in you.”
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