Monday, January 23, 2012

To Moralize or Not To Moralize: Contemporary Reflections on a Saying of Jesus

"Do not judge so that you will not be judged." 
     ~Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 7:1)
This famous Gospel logion popped into my head this past weekend when I contemplated Newt Gingrich's staggering 12 percentage point romp over Mitt Romney in Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary. Even more staggering to me was the consideration that 44 percent of "evangelical" Christians—the same percentage that had voted for Baptist minister Mike Huckabee four years earlier—had voted for Gingrich.
On the face of it this is a puzzling phenomenon. How can self-described "values voters" throw such overwhelming support behind a thrice-married candidate whose two previous marriages met their demise because of long-term infidelities on his part? Aren't these the same voters who supposedly reviled the still-married Bill Clinton for his various dalliances?
Of course, the rationale, as always, lies in the Christian concept of forgiveness. It is commonplace (no matter how problematic) for evangelical Christians to view themselves simply as "forgiven sinners," seeing in the notion of forgiveness their only difference from those sinners-at-large outside the confines of the church. Thus many have apparently been willing to turn their gaze away from Gingrich's past and hope against hope that the leopard has indeed changed his spots (Jer 13:23) and that his repentance validates his "values" candidacy.
This urge to forgive, and the corresponding credulity regarding religious claims, remain, to be sure, selective, limited to those politicians who share the "conservative" political views of the religious right. Their swiftness to embrace Gingrich contrasts starkly with their previous skepticism regarding Clintonian repentance. Likewise, the thrice-married Gingrich is considered more "family friendly" than President Obama, whose apparently exemplary family life is ignored as irrelevant. Such selective moral judgments not only open them to the charge of hypocrisy of the rankest sort, but also raise a trenchant question: Have these "evangelicals" conformed their political views to their religion, or have they adapted their religion to their politics? To put it more simply, what is prior, being a Christian or a conservative?
If there is one thing that, in particular, bothers me about Gingrich's candidacy from a Christian perspective, it is this: His self-righteous moralizing fails to take into account the seriousness of his very public moral lapses. Indeed, as the New York Times opined last week, Gingrich, try as he may, has been "unable to escape the toxic combination of infidelity and sermonizing." Here is a man who, in the midst of a six-year adulterous affair, led impeachment hearings against President Clinton because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal—and still cannot see the hypocrisy involved in this. Here is a man who, in the midst of this affair, one day after allegedly asking his then-wife for permission to engage in an open marriage, delivered a moralistic speech entitled "The Demise of American Culture."  This is a man who, when asked by debate moderator John King about his former wife's allegations, denounced the very relevant question as irrelevant and was applauded by the spiritually tone-deaf South Carolina audience.
This is where Jesus' famous saying becomes very relevant indeed. Many in the wider culture have taken Jesus' prohibition, "Do not judge," absolutely, in service of a wider agenda to promote tolerance and discourage judgmentalism. Notwithstanding the public benefits tolerance (or toleration) brings, Jesus cannot here be advocating the suspension of one's critical faculties in evaluating others, let alone any type of moral relativism. This is evident, above all, from the context, in which Jesus warns his followers against giving "what is holy" to "dogs" and "pearls" to "pigs" (Matt 7:6). This warning is meant to dissuade disciples from expending fruitless energy in proclaiming the kingdom message to people who have hardened themselves in rejection of it. The relevant point, however, is that moral discernment is necessary in evaluating whether or not people are, by hypocatastasis, "dogs" and "pigs."
The verb "judge" must therefore be understood in the related sense of censorious condemnation. If so, Jesus' point becomes stark and clear: Do not set yourself up as a moral guardian and critic of others, so that you won't be condemned by God at the final judgment. Ultimate judgment is, you see, the prerogative of God alone, and it is unbefitting for a future object of this judgment to arrogate that prerogative.
The reason such condemnation would be forthcoming is elaborated in verse 2, where Jesus grounds his warning by revealing the standard of God's judgment: "For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive."  He continues in verses 3-5 by telling the delightfully humorous illustration of a person who notices a splinter in his brother's eye while being blissfully oblivious to the log protruding from his own eye.
Self-delusion is as endemic to fallen human nature as is self-importance. It is human nature, after all, to rationalize away one's faults and to see faults in others we ignore in ourselves. And it is also human nature, for those with public ambitions, to present themselves as paragons of virtue whether or (usually) not they fit the bill. Jesus demands what is inimical to human nature, namely, that we deal ruthlessly with our own protruding logs and cease setting up ourselves as moral watchdogs over others. If we fail to heed his demand, we thus expose ourselves to the terrifying scenario of judgment according to the very standards we have set for others. And this is not a scenario in which we can win.
Indeed, those who are cognizant of having been forgiven for their multiple protruding logs will not set themselves up as judges over others. The reason? In a word, humility. The realization of grace and mercy received invariably will color one's attitude toward others, for the simple reason that mercy bestowed is not earned mercy. Those who have been forgiven by God must, and will, forgive. Likewise, those who have been shown mercy must, and will, do likewise. Self-righteous, narcissistic grandiosity will not be the stance of one who understands God's grace.
Jesus himself, in one of his most striking beatitudes, says it best: "Blessed are the merciful, for it is they who will be shown mercy" (Matt 5:7). May we who claim the name of Christ resist the urge to moralize in the humble recognition that we are what we are by the grace of God alone.

1 comment:

  1. I remain staunchly conservative but roll my eyes in wonder for the reasons you state. How can we claim the moral high ground against Clinton's "indiscretions" then turn around so that the blind eye won't see the twice (thrice?) over infidelity of this Republican candidate. I have written off Romney as the white Mormon Obama and have done the same with Gingrich for the reasons stated, which leaves me with what???---
    fo' mo'bama. even so, come.... BTW I have been forgiven much!