On the difference between judgment and discernment: A response to Mark Sandlin, Part II

Over two and a half months ago, I began a series of posts in response to a blog post by Mark Sandlin (a liberal PC(USA) pastor) titled “At What Point Do We Get to Say Parts of Christianity Are No Longer Christian?”  Yes, this is the second in that series.  I truly did not intend to take that long to get back to this; life and other topics intervened.  I’m quite sure I’ll have the third up much more quickly than that, since I’ve already started working on it.  For now, though, go read Sandlin’s post and the first part of my response; I’ll still be here when you get back.

If you’ve done that, then I can take my positive comments on Sandlin’s post as read and go from there.  This is important because my first critical observation is actually implicit in my praise of his work.  Sandlin frames his subject in terms of judgment, and frets that identifying and calling out people who are using Christianity rather than practicing it (the distinction is his, and it’s a good one) is “judgmental” and “mean.”  My response, by contrast, is framed in terms of discernment, which is related but significantly different.  I believe there’s a category error lurking at the heart of Sandlin’s argument; it’s a subtle one, but important nonetheless.

Judgment comes down from above, from a position of moral superiority.  That’s why in a courtroom, the judge sits well above the floor and looks down on everyone else:  the physical position is a concrete symbol of the position of moral superiority accorded to the judge by law and custom.  It’s by that assumed moral superiority as the representative and voice of the law that the judge is empowered to pronounce others guilty and decree their proper punishment.

Discernment comes from level ground, from a position of general equality.  That’s why the witness stand is below the judge, putting witnesses roughly eye-to-eye with whoever might be standing in front of them.  That said, for much of any given trial, the most important person in the room is not the judge.  The most important people are the witnesses who tell the court what they saw and heard.  If a witness points to the defendant and says, “He killed her.  I saw him do it,” the witness isn’t judging the defendant to be a murderer.  Rather, the witness is discerning that the defendant committed murder.  Of course, it must then be determined whether the witness’s discernment is correct.  This is the question for any of us, in two parts.  First, are our perceptions accurate?  Are we seeing things as they actually are?  Second, if we conclude that our perceptions are in fact accurate, are we interpreting them correctly?  Do we actually understand what we’re seeing, and is our understanding true?

What Sandlin is talking about isn’t a matter of judgment, it’s a matter of discernment.  To look at someone who claims to be a Christian and say, “That person isn’t a Christian,” though it might make that person quite unhappy, isn’t to judge them.  There’s no judgment pronounced on that person at all, whether for being who they are or for saying and doing what they do—no verdict, and no sentence.  All we’re doing is expressing our understanding that what that person says and does, and how that person lives, doesn’t fit into the category “Christian.”  That doesn’t mean we’re calling them a bad person.  If anything, it’s the other way around:  if we think someone is a bad person, that’s the reason we might conclude that person isn’t a Christian, not the conclusion we draw from deciding that person isn’t a Christian.  It’s just a matter of correctly identifying and interpreting whatever it is we’re seeing, and being willing to look at a spade and call it a spade, not a bloody shovel.

There’s nothing either judgmental or mean about describing a person correctly (though we can certainly do so in mean and judgmental tones).  People often don’t like it if you reflect them accurately to themselves—after all, most of us would prefer to believe we’re better people than we actually are, and some folks have a lot of emotional and material capital invested in convincing themselves and everyone around them that they are.  Shine the light of truth through their pretense and deception, and they’re going to get mad and call you a great lot of names, including “judgmental,” “mean,” and “unloving.”  That doesn’t mean any of those names are true.  It just means they think those names are the most effective ones they can use to shame, guilt-trip, or otherwise punish you into turning off the light.

To clarify one point, I’m not saying that those on whom we might shine the light of truth will actually recognize it as such, or realize that what we’re doing is exposing pretense and deception.  They probably won’t.  They’ll probably be completely sincere in their belief that we are in fact being judgmental, mean, and unloving, because they will most likely have convinced themselves that the deception is the reality.  In our culture as it now is, they will quite likely have their sense of identity all tied up with that deception, and will feel any challenge to it as an existential threat to their deepest selves.  That doesn’t mean they’re right, on any of these points.  All it really means is that the gospel of John still applies:

This is the judgment:  the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.  But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.


Photo © 2013 Takashi Hososhima.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Posted in Church and ministry, Religion and theology, Scripture.

Leave a Reply