The shooting in Baton Rouge this morning leaves me heartsick. As of this writing, three police officers have been killed and several more injured. This event is one more bloodstain in a parade of recent confrontations between police and the communities they are tasked with protecting. Our media-driven dialogue on race relations and policing has become so ossified with assumptions and caricatures that few of the factions have stopped to recognize the humanity of the people that oppose them. There are white demagogues who castigate blacks as lawless and refuse to see the bias and heightened danger that black citizens have encountered when they are pulled over. There are black offenders who target officers and feed a subculture that views those in the uniform as monolithically racist and aggressive.
Neither of the extremes is willing to do what Jesus did: turn away from judgment.
Matthew 7:1—“Judge not, that you be not judged” (NKJV)—is probably the Bible verse most familiar to non-Christians. The command, I believe, is often misinterpreted as Jesus’s embrace of a trendy libertinism, his endorsement of any behavior that doesn’t visibly harm other people. That view contradicts the scriptural Jesus—the Jesus of John 4 who rebukes a woman for cohabiting outside of marriage, the Jesus of Luke 19 who drives traders and merchants from the temple. We cannot profess to read the Bible honestly and think that the Christ who affirmed the Ten Commandments (Luke 18:20) would say there is no real right or wrong.
Yet we hear Jesus say he was not sent to “condemn the world” (John 3:17) or to “destroy men’s lives” (Luke 9:56). In John 8:3-11, he forgives in public a woman who has committed adultery and convicts her accusers of their own sin.
Jesus does what few do—he adopts a frank, nuanced openness about the truth; he expresses it with love and a total lack of rejection; he meets people as individuals, not members of a shadowy multitude called “them.”
The Greek word used for “judge” in Matthew 7:1 is krinó, which means to determine the just fate of another human being. It can refer to a verdict in a courtroom. In other words, it means to replace God with you as the judge.
The full passage, which describes our sinful flaws as both a “speck” and a “plank” in the eye, clarifies that Jesus is not ordering us to believe that others’ actions are always good. Instead, he is directing us to a new approach, a position of self-awareness about our own mistakes and shortcomings, so that we might “see clearly to remove the speck from [our] brother’s eye” (7:5). This call to dialogue is based on humility and the recognition of a complicated world created by our fallen nature, a world in which none of us are blameless in all our dealings.
Jesus tells us that unless we “become as little children” (Mt. 18:3), we don’t have a heart for God. That’s because young children are untainted by the world’s prejudices (read: pre-judgments). It’s also because God, in the form of Jesus on the cross, has already received the judgment against our evils so that we can live in his presence and love him without fear of the rejection we have all earned. We must show a similar leniency to others.
The violence of the last few weeks is not simple. It’s knotted with anger and grief and politics, coarsened by stereotype and the desire for retribution. But we can’t let outrage lead us to indict an entire community or profession for the wrongs of individuals. I hope we will forgo condemning others for the choices of a few. I hope we will choose love because of the love already demonstrated toward us.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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