God judges Adam, William Blake

On Tuesday I was in town doing some shopping, and there was a man with a microphone telling us to turn to Jesus if we want to get to the other side when we die. When I got home my next job was to start preparing Sunday’s sermon, and the lectionary gave me the Parable of the Unjust Judge.

Like the chap with the microphone, that parable symbolises popular perceptions of Christianity only too well. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says ‘Do not judge’, but in many people’s minds God is, above all else, a judge. Is it true, and does it matter?

I take it that God is greater than we can know, but our images of God can serve as behaviour models. If we associate God with condemning and punishing, we are likely to feel condemning and punishing are good to do. Conversely, if we feel a desire to do these things, believing God does them too provides encouragement.

Personally I don’t agree. The God who created us the way we are cannot be totally shocked at the way we have turned out. Condemning and punishing would make better sense if one god made us and another disapproved, but mainstream Christianity has always thought in terms of the one God creating us as planned. Nevertheless I think there is a role for judging, a kind of judging which we are right to do, and I presume God does it too.

One kind of judging is the decision-making we do all the time. You make a judgement whether to have cereals or toast for breakfast. But this is trivial. What seems significant is the moral part. Should I park on the double yellow lines? I’ll only be in the shop for a couple of minutes unless the queue is longer than usual. There are no traffic wardens around and I probably won’t hold up the traffic. Back in the car I drive on a short way, but some lunatic has parked on the double yellow lines, is blocking the traffic, is a flaming nuisance and shouldn’t be allowed on the road.

So over and above practical decision-making we often face moral decisions. Characteristically, moral pressure arises in the tension between individual self-interest and the common good: some things are morally wrong even though it suit us to do them. Moral judging is most useful when deciding what we ourselves should do. After we have done a thing we may also reflect on whether we did the right thing, and that can help us think about what we may do in the future.

Unfortunately, moral judging is most popular when it is most useless: when passing judgement on what other people have done. Our newspapers and television programmes make it clear that the British public have an almost limitless appetite for knowing about other people’s crimes and their punishments. The desire to condemn can be very strong. Psychologists study it. The overall pattern seems to be that the more ill at ease we are with our own selves, the greater the desire to condemn other people as even worse. In this way moral judgement, although in itself a constructive part of decision-making, gets associated with the destructive process of heaping blame onto other people. The idea of being judgemental becomes a negative concept, something we don’t like in other people.

When we pass negative judgement on others and condemn them, we excuse ourselves. I wax lyrical about about how appalled I am at the disgusting inexcusable thing you did, because this temporarily helps me escape from my deeper feelings of disgust at myself for things I have done. If in my mind I heap condemnations on my next door neighbour there are practical implications: I have to relate to that neighbour somehow. It’s a lot easier to heap my condemnations onto somebody I only ever see on a television screen; that way I shall never come face to face with the negative effects of my own condemning.

It also works at a social level. A culture can be more or less inclined to pick on minorities and condemn them. For people in positions of power – business leaders and governments – having scapegoats to condemn is a useful distraction from their own failings. They can tell us that the problems we face are not their fault; they are the fault of those other people, immigrants taking our jobs or whoever.

In some cases the unpopular minorities have indeed committed crimes. But it is one thing to say they were crimes, and should not have been committed; it is another for a whole society to be so fascinated by them, and so eager to know about the punishments, that they get reported in detail on the news programmes.

This is the kind of judging that is better left undone. However it seems to me that there remains the kind that should be done. We are all faced with situations where we can choose between self-interest and the common good. By the choices we make we contribute our own little bit to making the world what it is. We all have our own bit of responsibility. This is the kind of judging which I believe we are right to do. It’s not about punishment, or even having negative feelings about other people. It’s about how to make the world a better place.