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A friend of mine said she was glad there was no social media when she grew up. Adolescent mistakes have not been photographically captured online forever. Old photos or comments that come to light, frequently get people into serious trouble, even resulting in them losing their job.
In such circumstances there is cultural pressure to swiftly condemn. Is this deserved, or is it publicly virtue-signalling our moral uprightness to bank social credit?
Prof Thaddeus Williams explains that the creed of the 1990s was ‘‘do not judge’’. The only real sin was to call anything ‘‘sin’’. Its anthem was Nirvana’s Come As You Are. “Since then,” he observes, “we have watched a culture that prided itself in its non-judgementalism turn into one of the most judgemental societies in history.” Outrage against perceived infractions is a civic duty. Lack of outrage is itself cause for outrage. Jesus’ “Judge not” has become “judge quickly or you may be judged for not judging.”.This raises questions. What skeletons are in your closet? What mistakes have you made, or might you make? An angry email, a silly prank, an immature mistake, a thoughtless word? Or perhaps saying something that was recently mainstream but is now unacceptable?
Various issues trigger such outbursts. But consider the judgemental climate itself. Williams concludes that the creed ‘‘don’t judge’’ has been replaced with ‘‘Make sweeping moral indictments of people you barely know’’. He suggests this ubiquitous judgementalism is unsustainable, unhealthy, and exhausting.
This severe moral authoritarianism regards failure as without excuse. The underlying belief is that human beings are capable of avoiding all but minor mistakes. People are intrinsically good. Being morally upright is possible and is therefore obligatory.
Those who avoid wrongdoings, or avoid getting caught, are rewarded with enhanced self-righteousness and pride. Those whose failures are exposed are labelled failures and ‘‘weak’’.
However, this account of being human does not square with history or experience. People are kind, generous, caring, and courageous. This is true but not the whole truth. People are also routinely horrible to each other (and to the environment). Slander, gossip, accusing, blaming, selfish lust, greed, jealousy, fighting, bullying and mocking happen in our schools, offices, homes and workplaces daily.
Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer describes our two-sided nature, “Only humans are capable both of war and peace, poetry and pornography, rationality and self-deception, greatness and pettiness, heroism and villainy.”
Mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal bluntly describes people as, “a mass of contradictions ... [and] the glory and scum of the world”. The problem of people behaving badly seems to be deeper than people not trying hard enough. A negative power seems to be at work.
The Christian wisdom tradition affirms we are both intrinsically good and deeply flawed. There is an innate selfishness and corruption that distorts our good God-given nature. None are immune. The Bible calls this sin, a power that weakens our good resolve. Jesus said, “The person who sins is a slave to sin”, and thus is unable to break free. The apostle Paul vividly describes this duality, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.” (Romans, The New Testament).
Sin compromises our cognitive faculties rendering us liable to distorted perception and self-deception. It also desensitises our conscience and hardens our heart. Thus sin is like a disease we cannot cure ourselves.
So then, how should a person respond to observing people’s harmful comments or stupid actions? Rush to condemn? Theologian Jonathan Edwards said universal human sinfulness, “teaches us to think no worse of others than of ourselves”. We are all companions in the same helpless condition. Jesus said, “Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).
Therefore, judgementalism is replaced by compassion. Why? Because I share the same potential for unkindness and selfishness as others. While I can and should condemn actions that are cruel and harmful, I cannot condemn the person whose fundamental nature is like mine.
Christian faith rejects the cultural zeitgeist of strict perfectionism as based on a falsehood. According to Tim Keller, “You are more sinful than you could ever dare imagine, and you are more loved than you could ever dare hope, at the same time.”
History and experience teach us that human nature is mixed. Accepting this is good news for three reasons.
First, it removes any fear of being found to be a sinner, because that truth is already acknowledged. Second, it is a more humane evaluation. Moral standards are not lowered but expectations are adjusted. Compassion replaces judgementalism. Hardened self-righteousness is humbled. Third, the New Testament says “Christ died for our sins”: past, present, and future. Jesus’ atoning death unleashed another power called grace, God’s free gift of love. Grace enables sin’s power to be overpowered. How? Grace transforms our desires so that we want to do the good and gives us the power to do it. Grace can be experientially verified.
The climate of pervasive judgementalism depends upon a flawed account of being human. A true account leads to greater understanding, compassion, and hope.
- Dr Adam Dodds is a pastor at Elim Church Dunedin.