A Youtube video shows Jesus in an old movie. Someone has removed the volume, added a new monologue, and as he goes about selecting disciples the voice of Jesus now says, “Alright. Now it’s time for me to tell you what you’ve done wrong since last time I saw you. Don’t try and hide because I’m Jesus. I will find you. Let’s start with you Peter. You lied to your mother the other day. Andrew you hit your finger with a hammer and said a naughty word. James you laughed at him when he hit his finger. Moving right along. John, you drank too much wine the other night. Not too much, just enough to make me angry. Thomas you know what you did, but I can’t repeat it because I’m Jesus …” And so on.
Many of us will laugh at this video because we recognize that Jesus looks nothing like this. Yet the way Christians often behave, our culture at large might rightly think we embrace this Jesus, wish to follow this Jesus, wish to become more and more like this Jesus because church folk often seem to obsess over the failures of others.
Judgment is an amazingly complicated topic, one I hope to post on a few times in the month to come. On one hand, understanding what the moral life looks like and encouraging others to embrace it can be a great good. On the other hand, Jesus made clear that judging others has no place in the life of his Kingdom (Mt 7). What then is the proper role of analyzing and assessing what is healthy and what is wicked?
Let me address a common misstep.
Fascinating to me is that Jesus’ favorite titles for the devil—both Diabolos and Satanas—mean “the accuser” or “the slanderer”. The Accuser, said Jesus, is the one who has come to steal, kill and destroy. But how? Apparently it is through accusations, through picking out faults and flaws and weaknesses. That is, demonic influence and identity at its most destructive materializes through moral criticism.
Yet how often has the Church decided that judging others was our job? That picking out the ethical failures of those around us was the best way to rescue them? We might ask if that church is actually the body of Christ at all. By such actions, words and fruit, it seems to be following a different master.
More foundational still, the Bible begins with the creation of a world and a garden, with the fashioning of humanity and two trees. One tree in the garden is strangely named the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Not “the tree of sin,” not “the tree of self-destruction”—the Bible writer gives us a lengthier, more descriptive picture of why the tree is poisonous.Apparently, by eating from the forbidden tree one is given the power to assess, to look at others and to look at one’s self, and measure according to a standard—“the knowledge of good and evil.” The fruit of this ancient tree empowers human beings to see what is praiseworthy and despicable in one another. The tree provides a satanic power; those who receive from it can now accuse.
Of course God says, “Don’t eat from this tree.” That is, do not try and judge as only I can judge. On the day you do, “you will surely die.” We know this empirically. Our judgmentalism won’t always tear another person down, but judging others will always turn our own mind and soul to dust (Gen 3.19).
Does this mean ethics isn’t important? Of course not. How we ought to behave, what it means to reflect Jesus, what the best possible life looks like are each vital topics. (Topics we will address in later posts.) Yet many seem to think if we do not expose others’ sins, we are failing our calling. This deadly assumption insists that the world is transformed, not through the power of love, sacrifice, and prayer—but through the power of critique: through the methods of the Accuser and not the methods of the cross.
Isn’t it time to for us to ruthlessly cut out judgment of one another from our sermons, conversations and mindsets? Isn’t it time for us to address personal and social change with long suffering love and when that doesn’t work—doesn’t transform ourselves and those we ought to care for—shouldn’t we try long-suffering love again?
JEFF COOK lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell (Subversive 2015). He pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. You can connect with him at www.everythingnew.org and @jeffvcook.