I had a dream last night in which I was counseling a woman, perhaps a little bit younger than me, who had struggled with addiction much of her adult life. Eventually she began to turn her life around and became involved in a small church. Unfortunately, she still would act out from time to time, and this impacted her religious life when, at a church picnic, she engaged in a sexual encounter with another member of the church — a married man.
As she told me this story, she mentioned that as a new member of the church, she had an assigned friend — sort of a sponsor or “big sister” — who reacted with anger and shaming when she learned of the indiscretion. After I heard the entire story, I said to her, “I’m not sure how useful it is to pass judgment on how immoral your actions may have been; rather we should simply discern how your choices are, or are not, the most loving for all concerned.”
I woke up and the dream has stayed with me. It has no bearing on anything that has “really” happened to me, although certainly during my Pagan years I had plenty of friends who engaged in all sorts of sexual activity that would make your average churchgoing Christian’s toes curl. I think this is more likely related to a conversation I had with a monk the other day about Catholic identity as an adult convert. He emphasized over and over again that “we are the church,” meaning that it is a mistake to think only of clergy or the hierarchy when thinking of the church: that the church consists of all the people who gather together, not just those who do it full-time.
We are the church. And we have no idea what to do when members of our ranks engage in acting-out behavior, especially such behavior as directly or indirectly hurts other people. Far be it from me to condone adultery or other forms of sexual malfeasance. But when I consider the dynamics of my dream, I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. He saves her from being stoned by challenging her accusers to let only a sinless person cast the first stone, and one by one they leave. Finally he tenderly ministers to the frightened woman, reminding her that it would be a good idea not to put herself in that position again.
Absent from both my dream, and the Jesus story, is any mention of the man involved. How often are we inconsistent in handing out our judgment, zeroing in on someone who is vulnerable, or lacks social standing, and making them scapegoats for all our collective sins?
We are commanded by Christ not to judge one another. Meanwhile, if we do not maintain some sort of collective boundary-setting that distinguishes healthy/okay behavior from other actions that are not healthy and not okay, only chaos will ensue. Somewhere between judgment and chaos is the place of Christian sensibility, where we can begin to address the great sins of our time: and I’m not just talking about who’s in bed with who. I’m also talking about who’s judging who, who’s abusing who, who’s oppressing who, who is trashing the environment, who is getting wealthy at the expense of others, who is curtailing the life and freedom of others on the basis of their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual identity, who is destroying their own lives or the lives of others with drugs or other unhealthy substances. And on and on the list goes.
It’s all really quite overwhelming, which is why I suppose Jesus was far more interested in us working on the sticks in our own eyes rather than the splinters in each others’. Perhaps the best way to move out of judgment and into loving discernment is to begin doing so with our own selves.