Only God Can Judge (But also, Maybe God Doesn't Judge?)
It makes sense to me that humans judge one another. But what about God? Does God judge?
TRIBALISM MAKES SENSE
Here’s three things that make sense to me:
Humans are, by nature, mistrusting of people who look different, talk different, and—if they get close enough to them—think different.
Seen from an evolutionary perspective, this kind of tribalism has kept our species safe from harm for a really long time. We even have research that suggests that babies, for example, respond differently towards different skin colors in adults. It’s in our DNA to mistrust the Other.
We gravitate toward what appears to members of our own tribe, and away from those of a different tribe.
It also makes sense to me that, not only have our bodies long held the message that “like is safe, and unlike is threat,” but then we’ve cognitively required a rationale for this. We’ve needed a way to explain these feelings of trust/mistrust in us.
And so we’ve come up with all manner of ways to create separation between us/our people, and them, the scary outsiders. But consider this: never in human history does this happen by us putting ourselves in the “Bad Guy” category and them as the “Good Guys.” No, we (and our people) are always going to be the good/safe ones, and the outsiders, the different people, will of course be the bad/unsafe ones.
I’m reminded of the theme from the HBO show, Station Eleven: “To the monsters, we’re the monsters.”
The third thing that makes sense to me is that our ancestors would start to systematize and categorize exactly why it is that our people are good/safe, and the others are not. Not only do we need to assuage our own internal anxiety and be constantly reminded why we’re right and they’re wrong, but we also need to be able to pass it on to our children and our children’s children so that they can be safe as well.
After all, that is the number one goal of every living creature: procreation. More precisely, survival for the sake of procreation, ensuring our genetic pool continues.
So to recap: Humans have evolved to see their own kind as safe, and outsiders as unsafe. We’ve also come up with reasons why this is the case, a kind of mental justification that involves articulating why we are good and why you are not. And finally, we must then codify these findings for posterity. So that we can solidify our position and ensure our species survival.
SOMEHOW, SOME HUMANS DID IT DIFFERENTLY
What’s remarkable, then, is that some humans have, in the midst of all of this, been able to imagine a reality beyond this kind of tribalism. A reality where maybe those people just over that hill aren’t horrible after all? Maybe they’re not evil? Maybe they won’t eat us in our sleep??
That courage—to dream of a different kind of relationship with the Other—is, I think, a miracle. One might even say that it took an act of God to make it happen. To inspire humans to consider trusting those who are different from them.
By the way, I happen to think this was one of the main things that set the ancient Hebrew people apart: their capacity to imagine that people different from them are humans, too, worthy of dignity and honor and respect. When you read, for instance, in the Old Testament about these ancient laws of practicing hospitality and showing care for the stranger, it’s really remarkable. After millions of years of homo sapiens moving in the direction of: our tribe, good… their tribe, bad… you suddenly have people who questioned just how good or useful or true that was!?
I think the word I might use to sum up this phenomenon of tribalism up would be: Judge. Tribalism inherently judges. Whereas the invitation to transcend tribalism, and to connect with those who are different from, does NOT judge.
THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT IN EDEN
I keep coming back to this detail in the story in Genesis about the Garden of Eden. If you recall, the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 were both devised by ancient Israelites as a way to articulate how the God they believed in and worshipped was fundamentally different from the gods of the Babylonians and Egyptians.
But there’s this detail in these poems about a particular Tree that God requests Adam and Eve to steer clear from. Do you remember what the Tree was called?
It was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Now why is that? Why wouldn’t God want his newly minted human beings—supposedly the pinnacle of his creative endeavors—to know the difference between Good and Evil? It seems that might be helpful knowledge, right? I mean today if someone had no concept of right or wrong we typically call them a sociopath. Is that what God wanted from humanity? A civilization of sociopaths?
As I’ve sat with this story over the years I keep coming back to this thought: God gave humans everything in creation to participate in and enjoy and partner with. There was just one thing that God was like, “mmmmm, actually, I’m gonna hold on to that myself. It’s not that I don’t trust you with it… it’s just that, i fear that in your hands, it could be disastrous.”
And that ONE THING that God wanted to keep from us?
The ability to Judge.
The capacity to say, “this thing is right, and this thing is wrong.”
Or, more to the point, “I am right, and you are wrong.”
GOD AND GOD ALONE CAN JUDGE RIGHTLY
I get the feeling that the ancient Israelites, when they were wrestling with who they were and who this God was that liberated them out of Egypt, I get the sense that they knew—deep in their bones—that the highest, most precious aspect of the character of God, is that God and God alone is capable of rightly judging.
Whereas humans like you and me? We only seem to ever cause harm and suffering when we go around deciding who’s right and who’s wrong. Who’s in and who’s out.
Jesus saw how his contemporaries had lost the plot, and had devolved to our base instincts of tribalism. This seemed especially poignant with regards to the Pharisees, who—according to the Gospel accounts, anyway—totally missed the point. They created a version of their religion that was all about who was clean and unclean, pure and impure.
So Jesus taught people, “Don’t judge, or you’ll be judged.” Essentially, if you try and figure out who’s right and wrong and you go around telling people they’re wrong, all you’re doing is revealing just how far you are from real love. As though the Universe itself judges you when you judge others.
Here’s what I think: I think God is Love (the author of 1 John also thought that). And I think that real love, true love, the purest form of capital L Love, does not judge.
Like, at all.
ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE RIGHTLY, BUT IN THE END, GOD DOESN’T
You and I have been taught differently. We’ve been taught that all your life you’re being judged by God. And because you’ve been taught that, you feel guilt and fear.
But freakin’ A, man… guilt and fear do NOT open us up to connection! Neither with God nor with each other. Guilt and fear cause us to close off, to run away, to hide. To go and find fig leaves to cover up our private parts with.
No, God is love, which means that God doesn’t have a judging bone in Their body.
Now, you say, what about all that stuff in the Bible (especially the OT) about God judging people and whatnot? And I guess to that I would just say, if you lived in a world where everyone believed that each tribe had their own gods and goddesses, and every conflict was seen as a war not of just humans but of gods against each other, and if that’s the world you grew up with—all the while entrenched in tribalism and a belief that the world consists of good/safe people and bad/not-safe people—THEN OF COURSE YOU WOULD ALSO ASSUME THAT YOUR GOD IS LIKE THAT, TOO!
I don’t fault our spiritual ancestors at all for thinking that their god, Yahweh, was similar to all the other gods. Similar but different, of course. But to ask of them to have entirely eradicated every single belief or assumption about the world and about the gods? That just feels like a big ask to make. It makes sense to me that they would’ve gotten some things really right (care for the outsider, love the stranger, take care of the orphan and the widow) and some things really wrong (God will smite our enemies; God has awarded us this chunk of land by killing off the previous inhabitants; I’m the king, chosen by God, so I get to have sex with whoever I want).
So yeah, I get it. If people think the Bible is a perfect record of exactly who God is and what God did in history, then all that stuff is super confusing. But that’s not what the Bible is.
No, God is love. And in pure love, there is no judging.
Beloved, there is no God judging you.
Not now, not ever, not later this evening.
And that’s good news, y’all.
Unless, of course, we want to reserve the right to still be able to judge others. Which, of course we do. It feels so good, doesn’t it? Most people can’t accept that God is love, and therefore doesn’t judge us, because that would then mean they, too, would need to drop the whole judging thing. And even though their own Lord and Savior Jesus Christ told them to drop it, it’s really freaking hard.
That’s how I’ll wrap this up. By saying that it makes sense to me that you and I judge others. Of course we do. It’s in our DNA.
But what is also in our DNA, what runs through our very souls, is the Imago Dei. The Image of God. Not only do we possess the ingrained messages of tribalism and judging others, but I think we also carry the stardust of the Creator that can—should we so choose it—empower us to just stop the judging.
To just, stop it.
When we notice ourselves doing it, when we notice ourselves gorging on the sweet, delicious fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we actually have the power within us to just… stop.
To choose another way.
To choose another path.
To choose, love.