Thou Shalt Not Judge

There have been a great number of confrontational interactions between friends and family members online in the last week.  Of course this is nothing new, but I have noticed a pattern that has given me pause.  I was an observer to an exchange between two women in my ward – one an outspoken Democrat, the other equally staunchly a supporter of Trump.  The former made a post wondering if finally Trump supporters would remove their blinders, or admit they were stupid, or admit they supported the insurrection.  It was certainly not conciliatory in tone, but she also did not call out anyone in particular.  The other woman, however, responded as if they entire post had been specifically directed at her.  What followed was a rather acrimonious chain of comments, but what particularly struck me was that the woman who took offense framed her defense entirely around being Christlike.  That the Savior taught us not to judge.  The Savior said love everyone.  She had thought plenty of unkind things about the other side but she never said them.  Trash talking needs to stop if we want unity.  A separate, but similar, exchange included the aphorism “Disagree without being disagreeable.” I want to emphasize that the rest of this post is not specifically about the conversation between women in my ward. This is merely the incident that got me thinking, because I’ve heard these kinds of exchanges before and they trouble me.

This question of what it means to judge someone has really wormed its way into my heart this week.  The premise seems to be that because the Savior warned us not to judge others, we are never allowed to think or speak condemningly of anyone.  There can be no social consequences for what we do or say. That becomes problematic the instant we think of the criminal justice system.  If Christ was asking us to not judge, what business have we saying a murderer should not roam the streets?

I do not think that the Savior meant “never evaluate the actions and words of others.  Never confront others about the way their actions and words have hurt you.  Always trust and associate with people no matter how they treat you.”  At a very base line, I think the phrase “thou shalt not judge” means we should never presume to know the relationship that another person has with God, regardless of how their actions appear.  The comment policy on this blog reflects that – we delete comments that question another person’s righteousness or testimony.  I believe it is wrong to say “you don’t wear garments, you must not have a testimony” or “she cheated on her husband, she must not care about the Commandments.”  Those kinds of judgements are the Lord’s – the state of the soul, the final eternal outcomes… those are not ours to judge.  I think the phrase “thou shalt not judge” means we should, as often as possible, operate from a position of grace. Whenever you can, assume good intentions and that someone is acting in good faith. Give someone the space to change.

I also agree, as far as it goes, with the statement “disagree without being disagreeable.”  But I don’t think it means “never say something that might offend someone else.”  Nephi rebuked his brothers sharply, and they were offended.  He responded

“I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.”  

1 Nephi 16:12

Nephi and his brothers weren’t having a difference of opinion – how best to discipline children, what holiday traditions matter, which fantasy series is the best.  Nephi was explaining to them the vision of the Tree of Life, and that their pattern of behavior was wrong, was hurting people here and now, and would lead generations of people astray.

We should avoid being disagreeable when it comes to matters like watching TV on Sunday afternoon, or breast v. bottle feeding.  But avoiding being disagreeable should not extend to biting our tongues when it comes to warnings of false traditions and reasoning. It is hard to be told you have said or acted in a way that was homophobic, bigoted, racist, insensitive etc.  I know this because on occasion I have had students come to me privately, or told me in their student evaluations, that the way I phrased or approached something was hurtful or insensitive.  It wasn’t my intent, but my intent is not the point.  Like most people, my initial internal reaction is to feel quite defensive.  But having these conversations has helped me to be a better teacher, and my classroom a safer space for everyone.  The burden was not on my students to avoid offending me when they told me the truth.  The burden was on me to recognize my error and repent.  It was disagreeable to hear hard truths, but that was not because my students failed to be “nice.”  I’m grateful my students felt safe enough with me that they could tell me my shortcomings straight out, knowing I wouldn’t respond punitively and I actually cared enough to try to be better.

I know that the readership of this blog is not limited to the United States, nor are American concerns the only ones that matter.  My experience is currently very caught up in the Presidential transition of power, but I think these issues have resonance far beyond this specific context.  I also don’t have answers really, mostly just questions.

  • There have been a great many calls for unity of late, and I of course want unity too.  But how can we be “one” if we don’t agree on what reality is, or what problems are real?  
  • It is possible to be cordial to someone who has hurt you, or who has acted reprehensibly. But is it possible to be unified if there is no repentance?  
  • I know it is my responsibility to forgive everyone, regardless of their repentance, but can I ever be of one heart and one mind with someone who knows they hurt me and they do not care?
  • What do you think it means to judge someone? Is it ever appropriate to judge someone?
  • How can you avoid being disagreeable while still speaking the hard truths? Is avoiding being disagreeable in itself always the best course?  
  • How can we avoid weaponizing the teachings of the Savior in our discussions with other people? How can we avoid using them as excuses for our own choices?

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7 Responses

  1. Shawn says:

    Great summation of not harshly judging, but evaluating. I think there is often a lack of common ground in society, and an increasingly us versus them mentality.

  2. Katie Rich says:

    “But how can we be “one” if we don’t agree on what reality is, or what problems are real?” This is a question I keep circling back to. I don’t know how to bridge this gap with certain people in my life who believe things I think of as disproven conspiracy theories.

  3. Plato's Cave says:

    I believe it was Gordon B. Hinckley, who in a General Conference talk related the lament of an unnamed old geezer something like, “It wasn’t what I didn’t know that messed me up, so much as the things I knew that wasn’t so.”

  4. Laurie says:

    Thanks so much for this. I had been thinking about the LDS injunction to “be one” all day, with some questions. This helps.

  5. Elisa says:

    This reminds me of the really excellent statement put out by Mormon Women for Ethical Government in response to calls for “unity”. Some excerpts:

    “Toxic partisanship that is rooted in enmity and framed in the language of war has shredded our social compact, and this cannot be quickly reversed with performative calls for unity.

    Sincere calls for unity must spring from a determined effort to actively protect our system of government and its underlying values — and must not be used to simply quell dissent or temper righteous indignation arising from the betrayal of those values. Unity will flow from accountability — an honest and open assessment of corruption and a willingness to face truth.

    To those now calling for unity, we plead instead for a return to truth and meaning. We cannot preserve a nation unified around words by using lies or corrupted language. We cannot engage in good faith collaboration with people or groups who cheapen America’s core values by acting with political hypocrisy. We cannot be represented by leaders who would betray the essence of our laws and norms simply to protect personal power and undermine accountability.”

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