This week, Muslim parents in Toronto told their daughters not to walk home from school alone, for fear they would be harassed, or worse. A mosque was set on fire in Peterborough, onehour after a group of families celebrating a birthday party had left. A woman in a Hijab was attacked on an Ottawa city street. The man believed to be the ringleader of the attacks in Paris was killed in a raid – his family greeted his death with relief. Across social media, there were calls to close the borders to the Syrian refugees. Some of that debate was reasoned, too much of it was undeniably racist.
What is the truth we hear in the midst of this action and reaction?
Does David offer it to us? In the first reading, he goes from talking about ruling justly, to condemning the godless, as “thorns thrown away,” as one to be consumed in a pit of fire.
Even Jesus uses absolutes in the gospel: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
That sounds pretty extreme doesn’t it? You agree with me, or you are dead to me. You follow me, or you are lost. This week, especially, I am struck with a deep uneasy feeling about quick judgments and easy absolutes.
As modern Christians, we must be discerning of the truth. And that includes the faith journey we follow in scripture. Picking a line here and there is the favored practice of extreme views, because it makes no room for nuance, or complexity: it’s just the way things are. But as Jesus made clear time and again, the way is often uncertain, the path is often varied, the people walking it are individuals. There are absolutes that we do not bend: the murder of innocents, slamming our door on those in need. But to ensure we have discerned the truth, we have to accept complexity.
And what gets in the way of that discernment? Perhaps, first and foremost, it would be judgment. There are actions we must be quick to condemn, hasten to judge: acts of violence, and retributions. Perhaps, if we held our focus, and stopped there. But we don’t. And suddenly, Canadian citizens of a different faith are being sweepingly judged. Suddenly, we are thinking of closing the door on desperate families whose lives have been destroyed by the same extremism that has shaken our faith in each other.
It takes practice not to be judgmental. To clear your head of sweeping assumptions, and negative criticisms. Start by being honest: who have we judged lately? Be honest, who have we decided has made a mistake, or a bad choice, or been careless or foolish? And ask this next: do we really know their story?
Last week I read about a study that was done, testing whether kids who were raised in religious environments were more moral than those not. Let’s set aside the inherent judgment right there, the presumption that people of faith are collectively perfect, or somehow better than everyone else. But if you think that religious education, in and of itself, is a guarantee of moral behavior, the study showed otherwise: in the experiment, researchers took a group of young children, gave some a bunch of stamps, and let them know that the other kids weren’t getting any. The kids who didn’t identify as religious – presumably, the Godless one that David is scorning – were slightly more likely than the kids raised by religious parents to share their stamps. This study is not the final word: other experiments have shown the opposite, that going to church does make you more generous, more likely to give to charity. Maybe the experiment was flawed. But that’s the world, it’s complex.
Another finding was actually much more worrisome than the stamps. When asked about moral behavior, the Muslim and Christian kids were more clear about right and wrong – but they were also more harsh in the punishments they suggested for those who did wrong. Now, this should give all of us pause. We are all responsible for the younger members of our congregation, who are even now practicing a Christmas pageant about love and hope: are we making sure that, in all the lessons we teach, they are not learning the lesson of judgment?
For that is one rabbit hole, we so easily fall into. I would argue the link to religion is particularly tenuous: if kids are learning to judge, it’s probably from the adults around them. We set the example, when we are not gracious to difference, when we gossip, when we reach negative conclusions on little information. We all do it. We are not perfect.
But if our faith is translating into judgment, then we have not been listening to our sacred text. And more importantly, we have not been listening to God.
For the ultimate the truth, that Jesus declares to us is this: Love one another. The core lessons of the gospel – to be tolerant of difference, slow to judge, open to change, quick to defend those in need – are the truths that Jesus wants us to focus on. And those truths are universal.
If judgment leads us off the right path, what takes us there. I think it is two main conditions: when someone’s choice challenges our own life decision, we are prone to judge. And when we are afraid, we quell that fear by finding someone to blame, and we fall into judgment.
Consider the first condition for judgment: we are, in essence, transferring our own doubts about our decisions onto someone else, to avoid thinking hard about them. Judging prevents us from seeing the true picture of a persons life. Rarely do we tackle the right question: where is my judgment coming from? What is does it say about my own life?
The second root of judgment is fear. In last week’s gospel, Jesus foreshadowed the history to come of war and conflict. But what he was really saying is that it is, during dark times, too easy to fall for absolutes, to grow fearful of strangers and intolerant of others, to see falsehoods as the truth. We only need to look back in recent history. Prejudice doesn’t thrive in peaceful, prosperous times; it grows when we feel threatened. This is perhaps the most pernicious kind of judgment: when we begin to use group-speak, when repeat myths until they become facts.
To be clear, many of the people I know, struggle hard to resist these absolutes. (I also know a few who do not.) That struggle is not something to be ashamed of – we are human, and as many times as we sit here each Sunday, as many Bible verses we memorize – we will not be perfect. We will always struggle with what is good about our character and what is bad.
There is not much we can do for Paris, other than send our support online. But there is something we can do on the ground, for the 25,000 refugees that will soon be coming to live in this country with us. With luck, that will mean doing something concrete – donating time or money to make their transition easier, to make their welcome feel assured. And we can also be mindful of what we say, in social circles and among our friends, words that go beyond a reasoned debate about how to move a lot of people safely and quickly across the world, to sweeping judgments about who they are, who they might be.
We know who they are, for we have done this before. They are families in need. And we have room to spare. And I am pretty sure I heard a story like that somewhere else. Let us not wait for our children to perform it this Christmas, for us to remember. Amen