Thanks to Romani and Tony for their thoughts (see ‘comments’ on the previous blog).
Of course you are both right in pointing out that there are situations in life where one needs to take a stand and say or do something. Examples that spring to mind might be if I were a German living in Germany in the early 1940’s, watching my Jewish neighbours disappear mysteriously one by one. Another example might be the kinds of subtle and blatant religious persecution going on in Egypt and Sudan and many other places at the moment. In cases of injustice, of the oppression of the poor, neglect of the needy … yes we should definitely not shirk our moral duty to do something.
Even in these situations, where one is morally justified in being criticial, the sins of judgement and pride are never far away. How many people have set out to right a wrong only to end up becoming a wrong themselves? I think there are certain rules one can follow that minimise the dangers of this happening. Please pardon the excessive use of cliches.
Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.
Or as Romani sportingly puts it – play the ball, not the player. Stick to the issue and don’t attack the person. Personal attacks have the very unfortunate side effect of forcing a comparison between the attacker and the attacked, and such comparisons are never good for anyone. They only lead to a sense of self-justification and pride and superiority complexes. If on the other we just stick to the actual issues at hand, there is a far greater chance of ending up with a good outcome. Besides this, personal attacks hardly ever work. Very few people really change anything because someone just told them to.
But for the Grace of God, there Go I…
Even if you do no share the sins you see in others, do not think that’s because you are a specially holy person! If not for God’s protection and care, that could very easily have been you making that mess. If you had lived the life that other person has lived, might you not have done even worse? What is scarier is that today you may be the judge, but tomorrow you may be the criminal yourself. History is replete with examples of normal, good people who, through circumstances, ended up doign abnormally horrible things. Can you really guarantee that will never be you? The Prize winning novel “The Lord of the Flies” by William Golding is a chilling reminder that just beneath our civilised surface lies a wild animal straining to be set free to wreak its havoc. Recommended reading for those who think they are above the sins of others.
Only Poke Your Nose Into Where It Is Warranted
None of us have been appointed sole and sagacious guardians of good for all humanity. We are given responsibility for certain, proscribed areas – parents are responsible for their children; teachers are responsible for their pupils; policemen are responsible for their beats. Within that area of responsiblility, of course you must be proactive in dealing with wrongs and teaching what is right to your charges – it would a sin to neglect that responsibility. But if you notice something wrong that is not within your area of responsibility, it is often wrong and also damaging for you to take it upon yourself to fix it. Just try disciplining someone else’s child and see what I mean! The best course of action in these situations, I think, is to pass on your concerns to the person who is responsible, and leave them to deal with it. I think that’s what we would all like people to do to us, so we should accord the same respect to others. Of course there will be situations where a certain degree of ‘follow-up’ or lobbying is required, but as a general rule, overstepping one’s boundaries does no one any good.
That said, my previous blog was not really considering these kinds of situations as much as looking at the more common situation where one is tempted to be critical of others in a more general sense: things like ciriticising other drivers on the road, or the way your wife folds the washing, or the person on the news who got themselves into terrible credit card debt – that sort of thing.
Here, I think there is a very important distinction to be made between Judging on the one hand and Discernment on the other. In my definition, for the purposes of this discussion, Discernment is where you recognise the difference between right and wrong, simply and objectively, and it pretty much stops there. Judgement takes it one step further and adds a layer of subjective reaction. Generally this takes the form of classifying the person at fault (“What an idiot!”) or comparing oneself favorably aginst the offender (“I’d certainly never be that silly”).
We have to discern – otherwise, ignorantly confusing good with evil, we would fall into many sins: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20) . But we also have to avoid judging others, setting ourselves above them and seeing ourselves as superior to them: “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” (Romans 14:4) Judgement belongs to God and to God alone. We really don’t want to get into a demarcation dispute with Him!
So long as we stick to the purely objective Discernment, we will be reasonably safe, spiritually speaking. Add to Discernment a healthy dose of humility and compassion, and you’ve got a pretty good system going!