Judging Righteous Judgment, Part 2: a long-overdue post

Six years ago, I started what I thought would be a series of posts about how to judge righteously. One post in and I realized that I didn’t really have much else to say at the time. But I was recently inspired to start thinking about it again when I was informed that “Judge not!” was “the war cry of the great and spacious culture warrior.” You see this sort of thing a lot out in the wilds of the internet, but it got me thinking.

As I mentioned before, our judgment is so bound by our mortality that any attempt at righteous judgment is wanting. Our limited data set and constant self-interest incline us toward bad decisions, both for ourselves and others. Our motes are many, frequently to the point of blinding us. Legal systems exist because societies acknowledge this fact, but, being built by people as short-sighted as we are, they have their limits. God’s perfect judgment eludes us in mortality.

But this doesn’t mean we can avoid judgment. We must make choices every day, including choices regarding how best to interact with others. I said in the last part, “I tend to assume that judgment must necessarily be ad hoc, reliant on a combination of authorized resources, spiritual inspiration, contextual understanding, and more than a little luck.” Let’s go through this and see if it gets us to something approximating righteous judgment.

My first point is that judgment is necessarily ad hoc. We like the idea of the law applying equally to all and it is a foundation of our legal system (even if it doesn’t actually apply in many cases). So, why do I say that righteous judgment is ad hoc, meaning without using a generalized rule or standard for judgment? For two reasons: all are equal before the court of law (and should be), but your judgments are more personal and, therefore, contextual; and, the application of a generalized law or standard can be used to unjustly persecute someone. There are exceptions to every social rule; we shouldn’t be afraid to find them.

My second point is that judgment should be reliant on a combination of things, the first of which is authorized resources. These resources are the standards that a given group acknowledges as authoritative. So the legal code for the legal system; the standard works for making Mormon judgement. Nobody who is a part of those groups can deny the authority of those sources, but they can argue about the relevancy of a given application of law or commandment to their situation. Of course, there are some works that are always going to be bad, even if a group finds it authoritative (the code of the mafia, for instance). But setting that aside, judgment will seem arbitrary if it isn’t grounded in some axia that all involved agree are fundamental to understanding the situation.

The third point is that spiritual inspiration is a necessary part of judgment. People make a big deal about the difference between what is legal and what is moral. Rightly so, because we don’t all subscribe to the same moral system and binding a legal system thereto is unjustly discriminatory. But in your personal judgment, making the moral choice is important. For this, as a Mormon, I suggest that God plays an important role. This isn’t to say that non-Mormons (or even Atheists) are incapable of making moral judgments, but that, for Mormons, God is the ultimate example of the Good. While we are incapable of judging how he judges, asking ourselves if we are treating his children as he would have them treated is a good rule of thumb. It is also a pure expression of the love of God, the first great commandment.

The fourth point is that judgment requires an understanding of context. In the abstract, we might come to the conclusion that “Killing is wrong.” But in the context of self-defense, a soldier on the battlefield, a Nephi standing over a drunken Laban, we might (emphasis on might) come to different conclusion. The history of an interaction, the present status of a relationship, the desire for future interactions all combine to give our judgment meaning, to determine if it is truly just. While abstraction does have a place in the process, the reality of the effects of our choices should be a constant curb on our judgmental excesses.

Finally, we come to luck. That we ever get a judgment correct or even really connect with our fellow humans via the imperfection of language and sensory perception is a little miracle, a bit of grace. We need to acknowledge the role of what we can’t perceive and can’t control in our judgments, whether for good or ill. We must be prepared to revise and repent as new information becomes accessible; to humbly note our inadequacies as we apologize for the injustices we will inevitably condone or perpetrate. There is no actual moral high ground in our interactions; we’re all in the stew. But, should we have the experience of getting it right, consider that a little grace given by the Father. Who are we to deny Him His glory?

So, that is, I think, what one must consider in order to engage in righteous judgment. As the JST goes, “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment.” So doing it right seems to be important, but also something that we need to acknowledge we are going to fail at again and again and then have to repent about it. What it certainly isn’t is making snap-judgments about someone based on a twitter (or other quick) interaction. True judgment requires that we see as He sees, as impossible a commandment as “Be ye therefore perfect,” but a nonetheless binding one. The one thing being truly judges, when we judge, is, after all, ourselves.


  1. I know you’re trying to say something nice or helpful here, John, but it sure sounds like another example of Mormon biblical exegesis of the form, “The Bible doesn’t really mean what it says, instead it means X,” where X might be the exact opposite of what the text states. I just see no warrant for throwing a “righteously” in there to change the meaning.

    Would it be right to change “Thou shalt not kill” to “Thou shalt not kill unrighteously, but kill righteous killing”? The problem is that most Mormons think anything they do is done righteously, so your righteous exception is going to swallow the judge not rule.

  2. Jared Livesey says:

    Let us stipulate that “to judge” means “to evaluate” – to assign others a value, be that value of whatever nature it might be – or “to discriminate” – choosing some over others.

    Joseph said that “to be righteous is to be just and merciful.”

    What does “just” mean in the scriptures?

    What does “merciful” mean in the scriptures?

    What kind of evaluation is both “just” and “merciful?”

    What kind of discrimination is both “just” and “merciful?”

    Could judging righteously be as simple as judging others exactly like we wish others would judge us?

    And how do you wish others would judge you?

  3. Dave B.,
    But we do believe in “righteous killing.” That’s what self-defense is. And of course everyone always thinks that they are the righteous one. I tried to put enough caveats in there, but I’ll add this one as well: Beware the revelation that told you to do what you wanted to do anyways. It probably didn’t come from God.

    “Could judging righteously be as simple as judging others exactly like we wish others would judge us?”
    I don’t know because I want others to judge me with leniency and I want those whom I find wanting to be punished. And, if God does occasionally intervene in earthly affairs, then he must sometimes be lenient and sometimes punish. But I’m bad at judging when he should (especially as it affects me). I’m hesitant to say that there is something like too much mercy, but judging how I’d like to be judged would likely feature insufficient justice and I’m not likely to change my mind about that, no matter how much I progress.

  4. Jared Livesey says:

    “I want others to judge me with leniency[.]”

    Yes, me too. Even if I were guilty I would want to be found innocent, or not be brought up on charges at all. And it seems then that righteous judgement would, for me, be that kind of judgement – to be lenient, or perhaps refuse to return a verdict. Even if I happened to be “morally sure” they were guilty.

    “For with the same judgement you judge, you shall be judged.”

  5. Lack of evidence is another reason some cannot judge righteously. People may be guilty but lack of evidence allows them to remain free. Thank goodness we, as victims, can trust the “All-Seeing Eye”.

  6. <>

    I’m not sure whether it was purposeful, but John didn’t echo the Ten Commandments in his OP like this. No doubt he knows that it’s not “thou shalt not kill” (harag) but “thou shalt not murder,” (ratsach). Ratsach is killing with malice aforethought, predatory killing, illegitimate. But our KJV doesn’t say that. The problem with “The Bible doesn’t really mean what it says” is that “what it says” is not always clear or obvious, whether due to archaic translation like the KJV or other reasons. Let’s not lay this at the feet of “Mormon exegesis,” whatever that is.

  7. GEOFF -AUS says:

    Much judgement seems to be predetermined by our political and religious views. If we think our political views are part of our religious view, and we know our religious view is true, there is not much room for evaluation or common sense.
    Eg. Many mormons vote republican because they are anti abortion I understand. Republicans were in power when abortion became legal and half the time since but it is still legal. When democrats are in abortions reduce because the fund womens healthcare, sex education, and birth control. If abortion were illegal there would still be as many abortions. Why would you vote republican, with the other downsides like increased inequality, to reduce abortion, when it reduces more under democrats?
    After the shooting in NZ, the PM there included the muslim victims, and othered the shooter, there was much love and unity. A good number of Aus mormons judged that all this love towards muslims was not acceptable, and posted reports of muslims (somewhere sometime) hurting/killing christians. Their judgement seemed to be to keep the hate going. We are not using mormon so we can have Christ in the name of the church, but cant recognise love and inclusion of muslims as good.

  8. Dave B,

    As has already been pointed out elsewhere, “judge not” in Matthew cannot mean categorically “never judge, under any circumstance”. Firstly, it’s impractical. You have to make all kinds of judgments on a regular basis. You have to make personal decisions about the kinds of people you do business with, pursue long-term friendships with, etc. Also, certain people have to make judgments about people’s behavior: judges, juries, HR departments, school principals, etc.

    More importantly, the command to judge not is immediately followed by a command to cast out the beam from your own eye so that you can help another cast the mote out of their eye. Further in the same chapter, Jesus tells His disciples how to judge (by their fruits). Then there’s the Gospel of John, which has Jesus teaching, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

    The need to throw in “judge righteously” is created by practicality, the contradiction within Matthew, and the contradiction with the Gospel of John.

  9. Geoff-Aus,

    Abortion was made legal in the United States via judicial fiat. In other words, a handful of men decided to take that issue out of the democratic process. I have no idea where you’re getting your data that abortion reduces under Democrats. I have never seen that association.

  10. It has come to my attention that a similar blog was recently featured at Wheat and Tares. The poaching was unintentional, but there you go.

  11. Ben,
    Thank you for the note on murder vs. killing. I’d forgotten that.

    Impracticality does not disqualify an interpretation. We are to be perfect, after all.

    Geoff and Dsc,
    I really don’t want to talk abortion here. So please don’t.

  12. John C,

    I agree that impracticality doesn’t, on its own, disqualify an interpretation, but I do think it should give us pause and ask if there is another interpretation that makes more sense in the real world. It’s like the legal canon of interpretation that states that, where possible, a law should be construed to avoid absurd results. If a scripture can be interpreted two ways, one of which would be impossible to implement in the real world and conflict with other duties or admonitions from scripture, the other interpretation should be favored.

  13. The dichotomy between “Judge not” in Luke, which the JST leaves unchanged, and “Judge not unrighteously” in the JST of Matthew presents us with a choice: will we use the Matthew JST version to explain away the unchanged instruction in the Luke JST, or will we use the unchanged Luke JST version to limit the seeming loophole offered by the Matthew JST version?

    From my perspective, the Matthew JST version is a concession to the fact judgment may literally be unavoidable sometimes, and a warning that in those situations where it cannot be avoided, we must judge righteously, but it is not free reign to judge anytime we want as long as we can convince ourselves that we’re doing so righteously. The unchanged Luke JST is a warning that it is still wise to avoid judging whenever possible because, as both versions explain, we will be judged by the same standard by which we judge others. It’s not that we are absolutely forbidden from ever judging, it’s that we are warned that judging is dangerous, so the best course is to not judge, and where we can’t avoid it, to do so righteously, as best we can.

  14. Jared Livesey says:

    There are a couple more to take note of.

    Mormon 8:19-20
    19 For behold, the same that judgeth rashly shall be judged rashly again; for according to his works shall his wages be; therefore, he that smiteth shall be smitten again, of the Lord.

    20 Behold what the scripture says—man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay.

    Romans 2:1 Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.

    On the other hand, Moroni 7 is all about righteous judgement, and contains the same warning.

    Moroni 7:18 And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged.

  15. Privilege. Privilege. Privilege.

    Some of us _do_ avoid judgement because we do not have the privilege of choices, resources, or power.

  16. Excellent point, Amy. I didn’t mean just formal judgment here, but you’re correct to bring up the limits we have placed on formal judgment and how that excludes half the population.

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