It is widely known nowadays that religious adherence is on the decline in the United States. Recent studies have shown that more and more people – something like 20% – claim no religious preference at all. Christianity, both mainline protestant and evangelical varieties, is especially in decline.(1) The perception of Christianity by those outside the faith is too often negative. One of the biggest critiques against our faith is that Christianity is perceived as a judgmental religion and its followers are perceived a judgmental people. “To be judgmental is to point out something that is wrong in someone else’s life, making the person feel put down, excluded, and marginalized.”(2) In a study of young adults, the Barna group found that as many as 87% of non-Christians aged 16-29 believed that Christianity is judgmental.(3) What’s more, in the Barna study, more than 50% of Christians between the ages of 16-29 also believe that Christianity is judgmental.(4) The fact that young people both inside and outside of the church agree suggests to me that this judgmentalism may be more than just an image problem. Are present-day Christians judgmental? Should we be?
The truth is, there is a place for judgment in our lives, and we know it. There are even professionals whom we expect to give judgments when appropriate, and I do not only mean judges and juries. When Eric and I were getting ready to marry, I had been through a rough two years. I had been depressed and frankly not a very easy person to get along with. Eric suffered the brunt of my distress. We dutifully went for our premarital counseling, and I was taken aback when the counselor basically told us, “You guys are fine.” “Fine?” I thought, “I’m not fine! I’m a wreck.” Now, I did not want him to tell me that I should not marry Eric, but I needed a little bit of judgment, and I knew it. I needed him to help me confront the problems I was having. Instead, he brushed them off. He withheld judgment, but I did not feel loved; I felt insignificant.
We all have this idea that we should go to the doctor once a year for a check-up. Imagine that in the intervening year between check-ups you had given up exercise, sunscreen, and vegetables and taken up smoking. When you got to the doctor’s office, you might expect to have your doctor say you have done something wrong. If your doctor does not offer some judgment, I might suggest that you find another doctor!
The prophet Amos, whom we encounter in today’s Old Testament reading, is also a sort of professional “judgment-maker.” In the Bible, prophets are regarded as the ones who bring the perspective of God to bear on worldly events. During Amos’ day, Israel was in a time of significant peace, prosperity, and stability. The people assumed that their material prosperity and national security was a sign that they had pleased the Lord, who in turn blessed the nation. The guild of prophets and the priest towed the line and proclaimed only good news in the king’s court.
When Amos first arrived in Bethel, he seemed like a good fit. He denounced all of Israel’s enemy neighbors for their wrongdoings (Amos 1:1-2:3). I can hear the people cheering as he listed the transgressions of Edom and Moab. But suddenly Amos begins railing against Israel! “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6-7). The priests, Amos accuses, use the tithes given by the people to line their own beds and fill their own bellies with wine (2:8). The king, Amos says, has desecrated the role of the nazirite – like a monk – and forbidden the prophets from speaking the truth. This injustice, Amos declares, will lead to the exile of Israel from its home.
If present-day Christianity is judgmental, as it is perceived to be, perhaps that is because we read about prophets like Amos and determine that God is, in fact, judgmental. If present-day Christians judge others, is that because we believe that God is also judging them – and us? Are we right?
Perhaps the most well-known verse from Amos was quoted by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).(5) Amos did not judge Israel because he liked making people mad or disturbing the peace. He did not judge Israel for the sheer sake of punishment or to make them feel “put down, excluded, or marginalized.” Amos judges Israel because God has given Amos eyes to see what others either cannot or will not see: that the peace and prosperity of Israel is built on injustice toward the poor and abuse of religious power. The purpose of God’s judgment in Amos is not destruction or even punishment but justice and wholeness for the entire community.
Where God issues judgment, it is never, never for the purpose of destruction or condemnation. Perhaps no verse captures this better than John 3:17, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Or in the words of The Message, “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point and accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” We say every Sunday that Jesus Christ “shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” What we experience in this judge, Jesus Christ, is not one who “rewards some and punishes others; he is the one who creates order and restores what has been destroyed.”(6) In his judgment we find not our destruction, but the casting away of our sin and the healing of our humanity. In his judgment, we are restored so that we become the people we were created to be (apokatastasis). Think, for example, of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). It was only after Jesus intervened for her and saved her life that he sent her away with these words: “Neither do I condemn you. Now go, and sin no more.” Like a counselor who confronts self-destructive behavior or a doctor who denounces an unhealthy lifestyle, God in Christ is constantly seeking the healing of his people as individuals and as a community.
Judgment may indeed have a place in our redemption, but judgmentalism never does. If you have been on the receiving end of judgmentalism that puts down, excludes, or marginalized, then you need to know that this attitude is not of God. God desires nothing other than to make you whole and invite you to sit at the table in his kingdom. If you have found yourself dishing out condemnation, then you, too, need to know that this attitude is not of God. Judgment is strictly for healing and building up, not tearing down, excluding, or manipulating others into our image.
One woman, Jonalyn, tells a story of her struggle with condemnation and judgmentalism, both given and received. Engaged in the details of wedding planning, she ripped into her fiancé, Dale, one afternoon for his failure to complete the tasks on his wedding to-do list. “How dare you drop the ball? Don’t you know that now I’ll have to spend my afternoon picking up after you?” After her assault, she expected to be scolded. Instead, in a moment of deep compassion, Dale looked at his bride-to-be and asked her, “Is that how you talk to yourself?” It was a healing judgment that brought to light all of Jonalyn’s self-condemnation that was destroying her soul. Jonalyn “couldn’t extend grace because [her] own reserve was so low.” Dale “still married me,” she writes, “not to rescue me, but to join me in this journey into abundant life.”
The mark of true Christian community is not that we judge others to condemn them, and not even to rescue them – after all, salvation is Christ’s job, not ours. The mark and meaning of Christian community is that we are journeying together into abundant life. God did not send the prophet Amos to condemn Israel, but to bring justice and lead Israel deeper into God’s good intent for all people. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save us from our own sin – aren’t we so aware of all the sin that threatens to destroy us – so that we could live into the people we were created to be, people made in the image of God. May we, the body of Christ, ground our faith not in a judgmental God, but in a God who heals his people and does justice in the world. For the future of the church on earth, may that God be the one to whom our whole lives witness – as individuals and as a community of faith. Amen.
(1)‘Nones’ on the Rise by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. October 9, 2012. <http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx>
(2)David Kinnaman. unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why it Matters. Kindle Edition, p.182
(5)See the text of Letter from a Birmingham Jail at <http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html>
(6)Karl Barth. Dogmatics in Outline. (New York: Harper & Row, 1959) p.135.