Eons ago in internet time, I wrote a post about the inevitability (and possible positives) of human discrimination. Whatever you may think of our origins, humans dominate the planet because of our superior pattern-recognition skills. Often these skills lead us to conclude things like “garbage spontaneously generates maggots”, but occasionally we come up with Newtonian laws and so forth. Discrimination is a necessary step in any rational inquiry. We have to determine which solutions to pursue, which beliefs to leave unquestioned, and the rationale behind both. It has made us pretty powerful, but, like all powers, it is frequently misused.
There is nothing interesting or new in the above, except this: we so easily identify others’ misuse of discrimination and justify our own use of it, that it calls into question the idea of righteous judgement entirely. But it must exist. Even if humans are incapable of righteous judgement, God will separate us at the judgement bar, which is the ultimate discrimination. His ways are not our ways, but is there any way that we can better emulate him in judgement? I don’t know, but I think it is worthwhile to make the attempt. What we find will be determined by what we are looking for, so first we must set a goal. In this case, I’ve chosen definition as the initial goal. What, exactly, is righteous judgement?
The phrase itself comes from Joseph Smith’s revelatory paraphrase of the admonition in Matthew 7:1. The text, as translated in the King James Version, reads, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The chapter that follows is a treatise on judgement. The Joseph Smith translation of the verse is, “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment.” The JST also notes that this is directed to his disciples (rather than the regular people listening), but I’m going to set aside hierarchical concerns for now, because judgement is a human universal. That said, it is interesting to note that this particular biblical text (refracted through Joseph’s translation), removes judgement from the purview of most people, perhaps acknowledging how bad we are at it.
So, what is righteous judgement? Initially, we might say something like, “To judge as God would judge.” But that is an impossible task. We don’t know enough, and aren’t compassionate or just enough to accomplish that. However, our lack doesn’t entirely rule it out. After all, we all feel capable of loving another, even though we are not capable of loving as God does. So perhaps the definition should be “To judge as closely to how God would judge as possible.”
Thus our next question, “How would God judge?” If we accept that our human notions of right and wrong are limited by our culture, immediate situation, notions of the future, and a thousand thousand other factors, conscious and unconscious, then we accept the fact that simply following our ideas of what a person should do in a situation will not enlighten us as to what God would do. So we take a look at whatever information we have received from God directly or that we believe other people have received from God, looking for clues about how God would judge (applying, I should add, our awesome pattern-recognition skills). We forage in scripture, media, rumor, and prayer, looking for evidence that will point to how God wills. You might be tempted to see this as a measure of sycophancy or self-justification, but I prefer to think of it as something like love and admiration. If we love and admire our Father in Heaven, then we seek to live in a manner that demonstrates our love by emulating Him. But to emulate, you have to scour the available material, like an adolescent going through Tiger Beat, looking for every detail that we might adopt in our adoration.
As incredible pattern-recognition machines and, therefore, natural-born discriminators, one of the patterns that we more easily discern is “us” vs. “them.” We seem to enjoy searching for beliefs, characteristics, and qualities that allow us to group people into categories. As I argued long ago, we often do this to save time. So if, for instance, I recognize you as a fellow Latter-day Saint (perhaps by noting the outline of your garments, your Utah license plate, and your “Mormons for Obama” bumper sticker), I will be much more likely to joke with you about high councilor speakers than otherwise. And God has spoken in times past about broad groups. Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Philistines, and the State of Illinois have all, at one time or another, enjoyed blanket condemnation by people speaking, as they say, on behalf of the Lord. Or, setting aside cultural or geographic origins, there is a lengthy list of behaviors that have been declared sinful by the Lord. We don’t doubt that doing things that go against God’s will estrange us from Him. Who wants that? Who would condone it?
If we can identify behaviors or other factors that distinguish the estranged from the beloved, we feel like we can guarantee a place by God’s side. So separating ourselves from those who engage in estranging behaviors and clearly articulating those estranging behaviors could be a relatively straightforward means for engaging in righteous judgement. Again, however, we discover God operating by criteria that are not apparent. He downplays and disparages our abilities to discern what exactly an estranging behavior is and frequently spends time or calls prophets from amongst the estranged. If we are to “judge as closely to how God would judge as possible,” the criteria we can use appears to be inadequate and the criteria God uses appears to be inaccessible. We simply may be incapable of judging as God would.
Maybe we miss the point entirely by injecting ourselves into the commandment. If we will be judged by the judgement we mete out, perhaps we shouldn’t apply our own inadequate judgement at all. The key to judging righteously could be to allow the spirit of discernment or the Holy Ghost to whisper to you, allowing you to see as God sees and, thereby, judge His judgement. Unfortunately, the promptings of the Spirit are frequently difficult to separate from the promptings of our own little hearts, especially when they may align. We often look for permission to do our own will, rather than sincerely seeking the Lord’s.
In the end, it may be that judging righteously is as impossible as being perfect. It could easily be the sort of commandment that is meant more to remind us of our inadequacies, rather than develop us into superjudges. I tend to assume that judgement must necessarily be ad hoc, reliant on a combination of authorized resources, spiritual inspiration, contextual understanding, and more than a little luck. But more on that next time. For now, what do you believe judging righteously consists of or looks like?