Monday, May 25, 2009

The kid felt calling Hitler evil was too judgmental.....

So, at the Harry Potter party (see May 18 blog), there was a kid who had difficulty with my calling Hitler evil. I was comparing the Dark Lord, Voldemort, to the great villains of history and this 11-year old (a Jewish boy, I think), said that calling Hitler evil was “judging him” and we didn’t have a right to do that.

Only in the suburbs.....or perhaps in academia. I managed to remain calm. I find it hard to imagine the people I know in the storefront church in Newark who put up with random violence, drug dealers preying on their kids, and so on, would find it so easy “not to judge.” Or the good citizens of Baghdad whose relatives just died in the car bomb attack. Or the survivors of the holocaust.

Mind you, I’m as allergic to judgmentalism as any other modern, right-thinking liberal. "Open mind, open heart" has been a major motif in my teaching for almost 40 years. But when a young Jewish kid has reservations about calling Hitler evil you’ve got to wonder if things haven’t gone a bit too far.

I’m surrounded by this sort of hesitation a lot: we mustn’t judge others, we must understand all and forgive all, it’s not up to us to judge, God accepts us just as we are, and so on. More and more, this seems a bit lopsided—a string of noble-sounding half-truths, ideals that ignore one half of reality.

“Judging” and making an assessment

There’s a big difference between judging as a matter of making an assessment and judgmentalism and arrogant condemnation.

The universe is actually quite good at “judging,” though we don’t usually call it that. Reality “judges” that if I step off a high cliff (unless I am Cayote in one of those Road Runner cartoons) I will be a goner. The Mississippi River “judges” that if we build our cities along its banks, they’ll get flooded from time to time. Human nature “judges” that for most people, betrayal of an important trust makes trust difficult in the future. Damage to relationships is real. Seems to be the way we’re made.

This “not judging” business seems like truly fuzzy speech. Just as “loose lips sink ships” (an old World War II slogan), fuzzy speech clouds clear thinking, not just for the brainy but for ordinary folks. Surely there’s a difference between being censorious, judgmental, and harsh in our estimation of others and the necessary business of making estimations about people and situations, and assessments of the effect of behavior on others.

“It’s not up to us to judge” is true enough if we’re talking about ultimate judgment, which is the province of God alone, “unto whom all hearts are open, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Who knows what was going on in the mind of Hitler? What demons of childhood haunted him? What brain defect warped his view of reality? What 11-year old Jewish boy taunted him in a schoolyard or on the street? Still, the death of 13 million people, and an extermination campaign against Jews, Gypsies, and Gays seems, well, a bit “evil” to me. Sure, he was “doing his own thing” superbly well, but if that’s not evil, I don’t know what is.

The Buddhists talk about right judgment, and so does Jesus: “Judge not by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). In order to do this, to quote an old bromide, we must “walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins.” And if we can’t, our judgments (call them assessments if that makes you more comfortable) have to be functional and provisional, not ultimate. Jesus is warning us off ultimate judgments, I must assume, when the says “Judge not that you may not be judged.” Be he himself did a good bit of judging: of character, of the way the wind was blowing, of the corruption of the unjust leaders, and so on.

Real-life example? Well, I am not to be trusted, I’m here to tell you, to deliver a message to my office if you give it to me at the end of a class or lecture. I’m likely to forget it. People have been known to stuff checks or notes into the side pocket of my briefcase in the conviction this will insure their delivery to my office staff. Not good judgment. But if you tell me a confidence, you can be sure I will respect its privacy. I can be trusted to do that. Even then, I wouldn’t want you to go beyond a functional judgment into ultimacy. Who knows what I might do if Dick Cheney kidnapped me and subjected me to waterboarding?

Accepted just as I am, yes; but then?

As to God accepting us “just as we are,” it’s a good start, but a dubious ending. I cut my teeth on singing, and believing, “just as I am, thou will receive/ wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve.” It meant a lot, and got a big assist from Paul Tillich’s “accept the fact that you are accepted.” A good start. But where do you go from there?

My wife accepts me, mostly, “just as I am,” but that didn’t stop her from demanding that I take responsibility for my repeated depressions (biochemical, it turned out), or my outbursts of intense anger (mostly a thing of the past). We both accepted each other “for better for worse” and have tried to minimize the worse. Why? The relationship goes better that way, and no “I have no right to judge you” is going to make our mistakes with each other really OK unless we seek to set them right. That takes honest, mutual disclosure of our judgments about all that hinders the growth of our love.

So, what about this? “God accepts us all, just as we are, for God is love. All are welcome, regardless who who they are or what they’ve done. But this love for us is so great it will not allow us to hide forever from the good that can to come forth more fully in us. In the circle of God’s acceptance, no one can remain forever unchanged, remain "just as they are" when they enter that forcefield of Ultimate understanding, no matter how long it may take them to realize there's more good potential in them than they know.

So what about Hitler, ultimately? That, of course, would be beyond my heavenly clearance level to judge.


  1. Bob:

    Another thoughtful, thought-provoking post. It promptedd me to recall the too-quick forgiveness of the 9/11 terrorists in one congregation I witnessed. "I forgive them!" the man said. "I forgive the terrorists!" There seemed to be a general consensus of approval judging by nodding heads.

    My take? It wasn't his to forgive. You have to be harmed by the act to be in a position to forgive. He hadn't been armed as far as I could see. He hadn't lost a wife or child in the attack on the Twin Towers. So he was in no position to forgive.

    I wonder if judging isn't similar in that a person needs to be on the receiving end of the "evil" thing to be in a position to judge. Just a thought.

    As for Hitler (or Satan for that matter) you hit the nail on the head when you raised the question, "How'd he get that way?" Biblically speaking, no one is just flat evil - for that way leads to an absolute dualism. This means that even Satan "got that way" somehow.

    It also means, IMO, that God's judgment must (?) aim at restoration. Mere punishment - even endless torture - will not do.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Mack Harrell
    West Orange, NJ

  2. Bob:

    One other thing... characterizing natural disasters (e.g., floods, etc.) as "judgments" as you suggest eviscerates the concept of its moral content - particularly since the good seem to be swept away equally with the evil!

    And while mass murder on a holocaust scale surely qualifies as an evil act if anything does, does that make the man evil per se?