Neil O’Farrell believes we should take the simple phrase “who am I to judge” and use it as a mantra for better living.
Who am I to judge? With that simple question, Pope Francis let the air out of a toxic balloon that had threatened to pop over decades concerning the issue of gay Roman catholic clergy. Perhaps he set a new tenor for other denominations and society at large. We can only hope. He took the gay priest wars, intensely waged by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, in other denominations, and in societies, and made them inconsequential.
Of course the other news was that leaning into an aisle between two rows of seats, Pope Francis gave a long, impromptu press conference on all manner of issues, without aides whispering in his ears that he needed to be careful. Popes don’t give press conferences; Francis did. Here is an image of a good and brave man, even though I know that I’m not going to agree with all he thinks and has to say. So what? (Would that he had said, “Who am I to judge?” on the subject of female ordination.)
Who am I to judge? It wasn’t just about gay priests that he gave such a breathtaking observation. He gave all of us a lesson on how to live life without issuing values-laden edits, spur of the moment, on almost anything and everything. I know that my Twitter feed has more than its share of snark. I have to confess that it is a secret delight sometimes to find the perfect cutting words hurled at those with whom I disagree. I need to reassess my own behavior, because …
… really, who am I to judge?
My mother is an invalid. The TV runs in her house constantly as a kind of white noise to help keep her stimulated. At first, it included Judge Judy. Judge Judy makes a reported $38 million a year. But as time has gone on, more and more knock-offs have materialized on TV so that you can watch judge shows seemingly interminably. I’m surprised that when people hear the bailiff intone “all rise,” that we don’t stand up from our couches and Barco-Loungers.
Who am I to judge? Jesus and other mythic leaders taught that judgment was the Lord’s. We hear it as an admonition, but it’s really permission to let ourselves off the hook. I have a couple of colleagues who are judges. Even though they have the law as their foundation, there are many tough calls that hover unmoving in the middle of gray areas. Their judgments profoundly affect people’s lives. They make their decisions, but many of them break their own hearts because they are not cruel people. They have feelings for others, and the law doesn’t have much heart sometimes.
How do we judge? Let me count the ways. We judge how our neighbor keeps his yard. We judge our bosses. We judge our spouses and our children, and often, not graciously. Politicians: we surely judge politicians. Basic cable is full of an endless stream of judgment. Of course, politicians, seeking air time, pronounce provocative judgments endlessly, giving fodder to the judgmental newscasts that breathlessly report their every word.
How we so easily judge, without invitation, God-given right, or even much expertise. This week, the story has been whether a Muslim can write a book about Jesus. The interview and its aftermath have bled hours of judgment. The controversy has put the author’s book at the top of the Amazon book list.
The question is why we’re so judgmental. Part of it may be that we’re hard-wired for combat, but modern society doesn’t allow us to club all the people with whom we disagree. Judgment is a type of club. As in the case of Judge Judy, there is lots of money to be made. The closest reason to the truth is that we think it makes us feel superior and knowledgeable. We want to be seen as smart, and we think a sneer and a harsh word makes us look smart.
Consider that last sentence, the two parts of it. How on earth can we put those two independent clauses together and think that we have exemplified logic and wisdom? Looking smart is an aspiration. Getting to wisdom through a sneer and harsh language—well, on the face of it, that seems a very long, even impossible stretch. We do it anyway. Some of us fill the air around us with so much poisoned mustard gas, we really aren’t safe to be around.
Go back to my point about letting ourselves off the hook. So, my neighbor doesn’t cut his grass as often as I do and he doesn’t edge his sidewalks. That does not make him a bad man, and who are we to cast aspersions? It’s it enough for us to tend our own garden, and let that hapless neighbor alone? We should know that lawn care is a significant cause for pollution. Our beautiful green turf is harming the environment, and yet we’re so proud of ourselves.
The judgments we foist on our families should really be front and center of our self-examination. There is a picture recently put on Facebook of our family from long ago. One of my brothers and I have long hair. I know my father hated it, and never got used to it. He was a good man. He was a busy man. He was a community leader. He was a compassionate, accomplished dentist. What did he get from his vexation about our hair? And now forty years later, doesn’t it all seem absurd?
The abortion wars are heating up again, but didn’t we sort of solve that issue decades ago? The majority of Americans feel that abortions should be, as is observed, legal, safe, and rare. No matter. For many, woman who is prochoice is in league with the devil, no matter what went into her decision. No two ways about it. We’ve judged.
History is replete with ghastly judgments. Wars, inquisitions, holocausts, crusades—all of it covers humanity with shame. The Twentieth Century was the bloodiest of all time, with the death toll from war and whim in the hundreds of thousands. All for what? Lame, heartless judgments.
Go ahead. Repeat as a mantra, who am I to judge? Post it on your refrigerator door and your medicine cabinet mirror. Carry it as a reminder in your wallet or purse. Be known as someone who is good, as having probity and patience. Put the tube of snark away, and give your family a break. You will be a sterling example to the community. Maybe your example will turn down the heat all around a few notches. Your blood pressure will fall. And you can enjoy a good book, sitting on the front porch at dusk, and affirm your love for your family and all of humanity because you know that humans are human, and they make forgivable mistakes.
Not a single good can come from a harsh, precipitous judgment. If the pope can say it, so can you. Who are you to judge?