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Go ahead, use good judgment: love is all well and good, but Jean Bethke Elshtain argues that we should be more diligent about judging--fairly and wisely--both situations and people. After all, God does it.

THOMAS JEFFERSON trembled for his nation when he reflected that God was just. Abraham Lincoln saw the American Civil War as visited upon his country by a just God's punishment for the sin of slavery. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus the Christ, is a God who is the judge of the nations, a God who marks what we do and why we do it, a God who will, in time, judge us all.

This God of judgment is conspicuously absent in much contemporary discourse. Indeed, judging is in bad odor among us. Therapeutic culture has replaced judgment with validation of feelings. In many schools, grades have been replaced by well-meant nostrums about whether a child is maturing appropriately or needs more "validation."

But God does not retrain from judgment. It would seem to follow that those among us who trace their lineage to the Old Testament and their salvation to the New Testament have preserved some notion of God as the font of justice, the judge of us all. We are well advised to think again. For many Christians, the God of love has almost wholly replaced the God of justice, the God, therefore, who judges.

Many among us can remember all too well, to be sure, a vision of a harsh God of judgment who triumphed over the God of love and mercy. But this isn't Christian--any more than featuring exclusively a God of love is. A God who judges the nations was turned into a God who urges us to eat our peas and to mind our manners. Those raised on such a God trembled less because God was just than because God could somehow see or know every unkind thought. This surely was not balanced, and it sent many devout children, once they became adults, fleeing in the opposite direction as they left the church entirely or fell into the lap of an exclusive God of love.

No doubt there are complex historic, cultural, and theological reasons for this shift. Within 19th-century liberal theology in America, talk of evil and sin was diminished and discussion of social structures substituted. Calling attention to injustice was an important task. But along the way something vital to Christian belief was weakened, if not lost altogether.

I was struck, for example, during the Clinton scandals that those of us who found something a bit wanting in the president's behavior--that, indeed, President Clinton demonstrated remarkably poor judgment and a lack of respect for his office in consorting with an immature intern in the Oval Office--were accused of being judgmental. God loves sinners, we were told, and we should all assist the president (so argued an ethics professor and pastor I debated) in his "quest for maturity" by not judging his behavior.

IN THE MINDS OF MANY NOWADAYS, JUDGING EQUATES TO harsh judgmentalism--the old moralistic vision I criticized earlier. This conflation leads some to believe that judging requires a punitive approach to human life. Judging is also equated to various "isms" and "phobias." A blanket condemnation of judging--itself a judgment, of course--affords no criteria according to which we can criticize judging badly and affirm what it means to judge well.

Our self-respect, after all, is tied up with our ability to assess our own behavior, to make judgments about it. The self-respect of others is at stake as well. Refusing to judge implies that we find the person whose behavior we refuse to criticize to he less than a fully moral agent. Even children hate it when they realize that an adult who is playing a game with them is going easy on them, letting them win rather than seeking a fair outcome, or judgment, to the game.

There are those who hold that the behavior of the 9/11 terrorists must be understood by going to "root causes" Despite the fact that every effort to correlate terrorism to poverty and despair has failed, such efforts persist. Too often, in proliferating all the alleged "causes" of terrorism, analysts slide into apologists. That is, one shifts from looking at extenuating circumstances, or context, to reciting exculpatory conditions.

This no doubt well-intentioned effort to understand bespeaks an underlying cultural condescension. We hold terrorists to a different moral standard from the one deployed when we evaluate our own. The vast majority of the world's Muslims, including those whose circumstances are often difficult, do not resort to terrorism. In refusing to judge harshly those who do, we fail to pay tribute to those who reject the random slaughter of innocents.

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt liked to say that "politics is not the nursery." By this she meant that politics is an arena within which tough judgments must be rendered. We do not want irresolute leaders who refuse to judge. For this would mean that they are incapable of fulfilling the vocation of politics itself.

Responsible parenting, too, requires a parent to assess a child's behavior at all points on the pathway to adulthood. Judging behavior and attempting to understand it are not, as some would have it, mutually exclusive. Choosing the route of irresponsibility--"Well, who am I to judge?"--likely stems from moral weakness rather than from appropriate humility.

Judging involves trying to call things by their right names, including the use of powerful words like evil and sinful. Judging embraces the difficult recognition that what Arendt called "an enormously enlarged empathy" does not in itself suffice to sustain the capacity for critical thinking we call judging. Arendt had little use for those who treated adults as if they were children by spoon-feeding them palatable"truths"--really fictions--rather than helping them to confront the harder truths of life and politics. She worried that we were in danger of losing the faculty of judgment that consists in "thinking the particular" and, through a concrete act of assessment, reaching for more general conclusions and truths.

Those of us of a certain age can probably recall at least one teacher who wanted to be our friend; he or she didn't want to judge. It was "personally painful" (in the words of one professor) to "evaluate students and give grades." The professor in question told everyone at the beginning of class that they were going to receive either as or A minuses, so everybody could just relax and get on with it.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that students had no respect for this particular teacher. His course was considered a joke, a "gut course" Students never had to do much of anything. They were supposed to air how they "felt" about a text or an argument rather than making a judgment about it--discussing how they thought, in other words.

THE CHRIST[AN IMAGINATION MUST BE NURTURED BY A JUST God who also forgives. When we hear only about a God of love, we lose any sense that God does indeed want us to be directed toward the good, toward the right kinds of loving. When we sin and seek God's forgiveness, it is not automatic; it is not a "get home free" card. God expects certain things from us in return. God's love for us may be unconditional, as is the love of a parent for a child. But that does not mean that God's mercy and forgiveness are automatic. Seeking forgiveness without seriousness of purpose about repentance and making amends is a sin.

British moral philosopher Mary Midgley, in her book Can't We Make Moral Judgments? (St. Martin's Press), scores the contemporary search for nonjudgmentalism in all things, including politics. She writes that moral judgment of "some kind" is a "necessary element to our thinking". Judging makes it possible for us to"find our way through a whole forest of possibilities."

Faced with Jesus' warning "Judge not lest you be judged," Midgley insists that Jesus is not taking aim at our moral faculty of judgment but instead criticizing vindictiveness. For Midgley, Jesus' point is a subtle one: We should judge fairly, for we cannot possibly avoid judging altogether. It is a distorted misunderstanding of the force of Jesus' words that so many Christians nowadays believe they are obliged never to render judgment and always to be "understanding" and "sensitive."

As law professor Stephen Carter has argued, "We must never lose the capacity for judgment.... We are not automatons. To understand all may indeed be to forgive all, but no civilization can survive when the capacity for understanding is allowed to supersede the capacity for judgment. Otherwise, at the end of the line lies a pile of garbage."

When we judge well, we resist the tug of being punitive even as we affirm the moral norm of rendering a fair assessment.

Tough words for the morally tough-minded, that is to say, for moral adults who appreciate that judgments must be made and who pray that they will judge fairly, wisely, and well.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN,professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago and author of the forthcoming book Just War Against Terror (Basic Books).
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Title Annotation:sounding board
Author:Elshtain, Jean Bethke
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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