From Judgement You Should Not Refrain

Today is the Feast of Incoherent Piety, a moveable feast that occurs on the first Sunday after a priest or pastor gets the itch to say something fine and heretical. This itch is normally brought on by a reading that invites distortion, and of all of the distortable readings, the story of the Woman taken in Adultery is one of the most inviting.

I was this morning treated to a model of Incoherent Piety, in which a withering critique of the men who clamored to stone the adulteress was used to illustrate an alleged Christian duty to refrain from all judgment. This was spiced by some gratuitous judgments of men who have a taste for pornography and men who force their girlfriends and wives to procure abortions.  In fact, to this crabbed old man, the lesson appeared to be that Christians have a duty especially to refrain from all judgment of women.

Where the cavemen who wrote that old apple-in-the-garden canard taught us to ask cherchez la femme, the oh-so-gentle pastors of our enlightened times teach that a woman does not sin unless a man drives her to it. That women crowd the pews of the churches of these pastors is, I suspect, both a cause and a consequence of this sexist bias.

But the great incoherent piety of this morning’s homily was the assertion that Christians have a duty to refrain from all judgment. The story of the Woman Taken in Adultery obviously disputes this by asserting that every individual is under judgment, and that there is no safety in the midst of a self-righteous mob.  When Jesus stoops and writes in the dirt, his gesture tells the people in the mob that they should judge themselves first.

Jesus is telling them that the road to righteousness lies through the valley of self-criticism and personal reform, and not through virtue-signaling persecution of scapegoats and sacrificial victims.

This is, needless to say, a massive and unsparing judgment.

And you will note, as our priest did not, that Jesus judges adultery when he tells the woman to go and “sin no more.” Indeed, in saying this, he also judges that the woman is a moral agent capable of doing just this. She is not essentially or irredeemably an adulteress, and thus is not to be “condemned,” written off, or stoned to death as such.  But she is a sinner, just a sinner who can be saved.  When Jesus straightens up and addresses her, his words tell the woman that her guilt need not end in despair.

The road to personal righteous is open even to an adulteress, although she may decline to take it or fail to reach its end.

This is also a massive and unsparing judgment.

* * * * *

If a Christian has this alleged duty to refrain from all judgments, he is necessarily exempt from any other duties, for there can be no duty to act where there is no judgment of worth and deserts.

I had, for instance, no duty to make my way to the church this morning, or to attend to the words of the priest, if I could not judge that this line of conduct is more worthy than, say, cavorting in a bed of sin with some tavern wench.

I likewise have no duty to help my fellow man if I cannot judge him worthy of pity and in need of my help.

Indeed, if I refrained from all judgment, I would have no motive to do anything at all!

For a man who is perfectly non-judgmental must also be perfectly apathetic.  He will have anesthetized his will, and will therefore look upon every eventuality with perfect equanimity and indifference.  If a scapegoating mob wishes to stone an adulteress, who is he to judge them? And if this scapegoating mob should turn and brandish its stones in his face, the non-judgmental man can only shrug, for he cannot say that an ignominious and painful death is less desirable than other alternative.

But from judgment you should not refrain.  Your Christian duty is to rectify your will, not anesthetize it.  Your duty is to judge justly, to temper your judgments with mercy, and to judge your neighbor only after you have judged yourself.

To ask for anything more is just incoherent piety.

19 thoughts on “From Judgement You Should Not Refrain

  1. I don’t know exactly what the motivation is for this judgement of judgement you speak of, but I think at least in part it is fear. We should fear judgement of course, but if we are so afraid of judgement here on earth, even at our own hands, that we refuse to judge or be judged, then the final judgement isn’t going to be pretty.

    A good meditation on the final judgement that highlights the proper attitude and disposition of a Christian is one I found told in Cassian’s conferences. One of the Abbas was relaying the story of a very holy conobite who had for many many years kept strict fasting, vigils, works of charity, etc. on his deathbed, God allowed the judgement to begin early. Other monks saw him turning left and right to answer demons they couldn’t see against accusations they were making against this holy man. To one he replied “yes I did that, but I fasted fasted for many years for that.” “Of that I am guilty, but I kept vigils” etc. finally, a demon accused him of something and he said “alas, I have no answer. I am guilty, and I can only entrust myself to the mercy of God!” He died immediately after.

    I suspect that most of us have done far more evil and far less penance than that man, and yet he had a holy fear of judgement and an even greater confidence in the mercy of God because he was able to judge and be judged here on earth (the life of a cenobite).

  2. Perhaps the motive is fear, although this would have to be a repressed fear that is coming out in a sublimated form. I think the motive is probably the desire to be kind, and that this rests on a conviction that sin doesn’t much matter in the long run. People nowadays believe that consequences attend smoking or a bad diet, and they are highly judgmental of people persist in either behavior, but they look upon sin with the indulgent eye of a Universalist. They assume that Heaven is very large, the entrance exam is easy, and there is no need to urge anyone to prepare for that exam.

    • Universalists effectively imply God to be monstrous by pointlessly putting humans through the torments of this world when He could merely have put us all in Heaven to begin with.

      • That’s a good point. I’ve long felt that mortal life is pointless under the universalist description, but I had never considered that it was evil. But universalism is just democratic religion, so I suppose the evil shouldn’t surprise me.

  3. Pingback: From Judgement You Should Not Refrain | Reaction Times

  4. I would say that the motive is a desire to seem kind rather than be so.

    Take do not judge to its logical conclusion and it means there is no difference between God and the devil. Christianity is all about judgement, good judgement, that is.

    • Absolutely. I am really troubled by the way this false doctrine has been foisted on decent, trusting Christians. Many that I know are convinced that they must be constantly on guard, lest they become censorious Puritans, and start to burn witches. The truth is that these people are already extremely diffident, tolerant and mild. It is very hard to convince these people that not burning a witch is just as judgmental as burning a witch. The effect of the false doctrine is to anesthetize the personal conscience and deliver the poor soul to the zeitgeist.

  5. Should we not make a distinction between judgement and final condemnation? In the Gospel reading I heard (and the priest’s sermon upon it was, thankfully, orthodox), Our Lord told the adulteress, “neither do I condemn you”, but his follow-up, “go and sin no more” was definitely a judgement that, on this occasion, she had sinned.

    • That would be my reading of it. Condemnation here means final damnation. As they say in American baseball, three strikes and you’re out. Calling a strike is judgment. Calling “you’re out” is condemnation.

  6. I suppose all scripture (and all teaching of any kind, for that matter) is “distortable,” as you call it. I’ve personally dealt with this particular issue many times before, and invariably, or, almost invariably, the problem is that those who distort the intended lesson to mean one is not to judge bad behavior as, well, bad behavior and all that that implies, is that these persons somehow fail to pick up on what Paul Harvey might have described as “the rest of the story.” In this case, and as you rightly point out, “the rest of the story” is the part where Christ tells the accused to “go and sin no more.” Context is everything, so to speak; and as we all know all too well, ‘a text taken out of context is a pretext.’ In this particular instance, your Priest should know better, and probably does, speaking of judging evil for what it truly is.

    • I think many passages are open to more than one reading. As you say, the obvious distortions ignore some of the textual evidence. They also tend to reflect the zeitgeist or to serve the self-interest of the distorter.

  7. The homily I heard on this reading would have been outstanding had its delivery not been so garbled. I’m blessed that my old, widely-loved, heterodox pastor has retired, and his replacements are much better while also being much less charismatic and generally talented.
    Our new(ish) pastor preached on Hell in, if I recall correctly, his second homily, going on a rant about how extremely painful being there is. Presumably, he was corrected by the bishop after a while since he only preached on Hell a couple more times before stopping, apparently for good.

    The parochial vicar gave the homily at the Mass I attended. He was trying, I think, to give JMSmith’s interpretation of the reading: contrasting just punishment tempered with mercy on the one hand with moral-panic-induced scapegoating on the other hand. Furthermore, he made the obvious choice of contemporary example, racism, pointing out the deranged, hysterical, witch-burning insanity that particular accusation always brings with it.

    One thing that troubles me about this reading is the fact that the adulteress was not punished. She was guilty of breaking a just law. Is the idea that, if accusations of X turn the judge and jury into a psychotic rabble, then the best thing is just to stop trying to punish X until everyone calms down, even if you find someone undoubtedly guilty of X? Or is the whole story one of these hyperboles with which Our Lord seems so often to express Himself?

    Circling back on the Oprah interpretation, it really is hard for a modern to fail to see that interpretation in this reading. It just jumps off the page at you. Presumably, it would not have jumped off the page at a Late Antiquity, Eastern Med person.

    • Yes, one wonders where the woman’s cuckolded husband was in all this. But I’d say the answer to your question is that God has a power to pardon that men do not.

  8. Prelates shouldn’t judge people who want to enforce immigration laws. Remember the woman taken in the act of adultery…

  9. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 04/14/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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