Judge Ye!

March 5, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


I've got two sermons in me that are kind of joined at the hip, and one you'll be hearing today and the other you' ll be hearing next week. Today's is our official last sermon in the series on Spiritual Stumbling Blocks, but it has really developed in my mind in conversation with next week's on Sin and the UU First Principle. I couldn't pry apart the ideas of moral failings and judgment very neatly – there's so much juicy stuff in there – so we'll just keep wrassling with it with you for one more week.

For now, though, I've promised to dig into the spiritual problem of judgment with you, especially under the concern of "being judgmental." This is one of the big no-no's nowadays among religious liberals: you cannot be judgmental. That' s for the other guys. We don' t do that. Remember that a religious liberal is one who is open to multiple sources of wisdom, and above all, a religious liberal is someone who engages in interpreting their Scriptures and their tradition, as opposed to saying, "This is what the authorities say on this or that issue, and that' s God's Truth." It is possible to belong to an orthodox religious tradition and be a religious liberal – some of you were religious liberals long before you found your way to this liberal religious tradition. You questioned doctrine, you interpreted what you were told in the light of your own experience.

So to be a religious liberal is the opposite of being a religious fundamentalist, where you read or hear a version of the Truth that has been handed down to you, and you do not interpret it, as that would be considered highly disrespectful and maybe even blasphemous. To be a religious liberal is to say, always, "we've got to keep interpreting, because human understanding changes so much through time, its our responsibility to reconsider those things we thought were rockbound truths in the light of new understanding and knowledge."

Do you all have a good working definition of "religious liberal" by now?

You understand that it's not so much a question of denomination, it's a question of how people approach the "how to" of finding religious meaning.

I am a religious liberal whose tradition encourages me to be flexible in my search for truth and meaning. I am as far from being a fundamentalist as you can get. But… I am a judging religious liberal, which I like to think is slightly different from being a judgmental religious liberal. To be a judging, discerning religious liberal means, to me, to believe in a standard of ethical behavior that we can all agree to regardless of our religious persuasion, and to believe in the community's obligation to live by it, and to hold each other accountable to it.

If you are nodding your heads to yourselves and thinking, "Well, that seems sensible," I want to say, I know it sounds sensible to you. The fact that you understand this basic idea is one of your great strengths as a congregation. When congregations do not hold this mutual understanding, things can get truly insane.

Have you ever been in a family setting or a social setting or belonged to an organization where it seemed there where no standards except personal freedom, and no one seemed to agree on basic boundaries, and whenever anyone pointed out that someone was being inappropriate there were instant cries of "censorship" and "authoritarianism!" and "judgment!" and "hierarchy!"

Me, too. And it was just as bad as being in an environment that was constricting and controlling, where no one was allowed to disagree or think an independent thought, or to interpret truth from a new perspective.

But if you listen to religious liberals talk about what they most cherish in their spiritual lives, and what they most abhor, they will almost always talk about freedom as something they most cherish, and as authority as something they most abhor. And along with authority, they tend to have very bad opinion of "judgment."

Why? I think it may well be an aspect of our current culture wars, where we see ultra-conservative believers passing judgment on the acceptability of whole groups of people: homosexuals or Muslims or this broad category known as "evil-doers" and abortion rights activists and working mothers and atheists, to name a few. This kind of judgmentalism makes our skin crawl because it is infused with incredible self-righteousness. It's ugly and it offends our souls to be told, "There's Truth out there, and you people are just rebelling against it!" I don't know about you, but when I'm in the presence of this kind of judgmental arrogance, I get so angry I can hardly think of what to say.

But one thing I can do, and it's a very popular thing for UUs to do – even those who don't generally go around quoting the Bible – I will pull out that one handy quote from the Book of Matthew, where Jesus says, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Among Unitarian Universalists, this is definitely Jesus' Greatest Hit, and we like especially to use it when we're up against religious judgment from conservative Christians. This is not to say that every time we come up against unkind judgmentalism it's going to be from a conservative Christian person or perspective. Lord, no. Life isn't even nearly that simple, and as you well know, anyone can be judgmental. Some of my worst run-ins have been with judgmental Unitarian Universalists, actually, and all kinds of supposedly progressive people. I've also exchanged harsh judgment with Jews and Congregationalists and atheists and pagans and Episcopalians. Just to make that clear.

But getting back to Jesus' greatest hit, there's nothing wrong with throwing that quote out when things get hot in a religious debate. It really is the essence of Jesus' teaching – he not only said it, he lived it. I just wish we didn't stop there with that admonishment to "judge not, lest ye be judged!" I wish we weren't so afraid of using our judgment to declare some ideas, behaviors and beliefs as unhealthy, inappropriate and unacceptable from a religious perspective. We do it all the time from a political perspective, yet when it comes to naming something wrong or bad from a religious perspective, we walk on eggshells. We won't do it. Because of this, UUs and other religious liberals get accused of practicing moral relativism, which is a serious accusation. Do we have morals, or do we not? Or are those morals always contingent on situational ethics? Is one person's unpardonable crime pardonable when someone else commits it? On what basis do you decide? Are we so devoted to peace, love and understanding that we will not and cannot call out inappropriate behaviors when we see them, from the full authority of our religious understanding?

What is our religious understanding, anyway? Let me give you a few of our own greatest hits, from the authority of our own tradition. One, we have always claimed that there is a benevolent purpose at the heart of creation, and that we are partners with that purpose. Two, we claim that the most important working characteristics of humankind are that we are morally improvable beings, that we are radically equal, and that we are each possessing of inherent worth and dignity. Third, we claim that freedom of conscience is a sacred attribute of the human which should never be violated. There are other claims, but these are just a few.

With these glorious faith claims every bit ours to affirm in the world, why do we still hesitate to make judgments from our own theological understanding?

I think there are two reasons : the first is that we've been led to believe that our religious tradition can be best described as "you can believe anything you want." This isn't true, of course. We can't believe anything we want. We are encouraged to engage in a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning," which means more than just sitting around having feelings and opinions and making them into our religious beliefs.

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning should take us into an encounter with the great thinkers and philosophers of our tradition, with the wisdom of world religions, with a study of Scriptures and of history, and with a serious commitment to congregational life, that is, the truths that we discover by living together in a covenanted religious community. There is so much wisdom and authority to be found together, today.

I want to emphasize this especially for our newer friends and members who may be wondering where we get our religious authority, and to you, I point you to the very front of your hymnal, which contains the covenant between member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. First you will see the Seven Principles, the first of which we will examine in some depth next week. Beneath that, you see the section which explains the six sources of our faith. I hope you will acquaint yourselves with them, and draw guidance and support from them. They are such a rich legacy.

We live in a sharp, critical world where information and ideas and truths (or as Stephen Colbert likes to call it, "truthiness") is always coming at us in a steady, constant stream. We must be unafraid to judge the incoming stream of ideas as worthy or unworthy, or else we risk soaking in all these competing claims in such a way that will make us dizzy and soul-sick, with a sense that there is no mooring, there is no foundation, there are no grounds upon which we may reject philosophies that sound good and (and may meet our ego needs), there is no safe harbor within which to focus our spiritual efforts and our character formation. Without the ability to judge wisely, well and firmly, we can be like children in a candy store, and fill ourselves with a lot of junk that can make us sick.

The ability to judge comes hard to religious liberals. Since we're not instructed how to do it, we may make the mistake of not doing it at all. My hope is that none of us feel that this tradition leaves us so empty-handed that we must go shopping for spiritual guidance in the bookstore or the coffee shop, being exposed to one spiritual fad or popular guru after the next, with no working tools by which we may discern their worthiness as guiding principles in our lives.

Our commitment to walking in the world as tolerant, respectful and compassionate people means that we should certainly guard against the kind of surface judgment that Jesus cautions against. ("Hey! Don't be throwing that stone at that woman unless you've got no failings in your own life!") That doesn't mean, however, that it is never appropriate to make value judgments at all. I said earlier that we hesitate to do this for two reasons: the first is that we hesitate to make religious claims as Unitarian Universalists.

The second is that we're afraid to be seen as not nice, or worse yet, as unloving.

But my friends, there is such a thing as being too tolerant, and it is often not until a destructive person or idea has held sway over our lives or communities for too long and caused terrible damage, that we awake and realize its time to use our powers of discernment. There comes a time in every life when we learn, "sometimes ye better judge!"

Some years ago I had a roommate who was, let's say, less than considerate, who shared a one-bathroom house with me and three other roommates. One New Year's Eve weekend, Michele invited five of his friends to spend four nights at our house, all without asking the rest of us for permission. I was really angry at this infestation of French Canadians but for the first two nights tried to hold my tongue as they ran roughshod over the house, smoked their heads off despite all our pleas to smoke on the porch, hogged the bathroom, slammed the doors into the wee hours of the morning and in other ways made our lives miserable. I was trying to be loving, and non-judgmental, and hospitable. By the third day I was exhausted and angry and all of my friendly efforts to ask for quiet and cooperation had been totally ignored.

I came into the kitchen and found the five guests draped all over the kitchen eating every bit of my food. Well, that was it. I lit into them: What makes you think you can take over this house and keep everyone up all night and lock yourselves in the bathroom when I need to get to church, and now to eat all my food?

The boys looked at me with utter contempt and continued to eat. They began to talk amongst themselves, assuming that I could not speak French. They were wrong! I could indeed understand what they were saying. I could understand that they were sitting in my kitchen, eating my food, and insulting me!

That was it. I said, "I want you all out of this house within one hour. And I mean gone. If you're not gone I'm going to call the cops. You have plenty of money. I'm going to call a cab and you can go check into a hotel. You're not welcome here."

What do you think they said? They were appalled that I, a minister, would be so judgmental. That was the word they used – I haven't forgotten it! It was as if they knew what I most feared to be called. They were really playing me. One of them said to me, "I thought you were a minister. I thought you were supposed to love people." And I said, "You know what? I do love you, as a human being. If you needed my help, if you were hurt in any way and needed support, I would be there for you. But you don't need my help, you're all exploiting my hospitality (and my roommate's), you're inconsiderate slobs, you've filled the house with noise and smoke and wet towels, and now you've eaten all my food and insulted me. I do love you… and I want you out of here."

It was a defining moment. Because when I said, "I do love you as a human being," I meant it. I wasn't just being cute or defensive or playing word games. In pronouncing judgment on these horrible houseguests' behaviors, I wasn't pronouncing judgment on them as human beings, and I really bore them no ill-will. What I was doing was learning the difference between extending hospitality and being a doormat. It seems like an insignificant little anecdote, but I have remembered that moment again and again in subsequent years when I have had to make hard decisions about what's permissible in "my" house. It was upsetting, but very liberating, to set the limit, to name something as unacceptable, and to know that I could be a loving person even while being a judging person.

What is permissible in your house? What is forbidden in your house? …considering that your house is not only your dwelling place, but your body, your soul, your community, and the larger "house" of our planet?

How do you discern what is welcome in your house, and what is not? I hope that you will look to our tradition to discern those things -- that you will avail yourselves not only of the wisdom of the free-thinking men and women who are our foremothers and forefathers, but that you will enter into discernment with your brothers and sisters in faith today, in order to find the goodness, the truth, the beauty and yes, even the love… in judging wisely and well.