Moral Cowardice and Pagan Hermeneutics

Judging by the frequency of it’s use, I’d guess the verse of Scripture most familiar to Pagans is Jesus’ injunction, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Often this is used to repel zealous Christians who have invaded the Pagan chats to share the good news that we’re all going to Hell. However, I’ve seen it quoted a number of times when there was nary a Christian in sight, merely someone with the audacity to point out the faults of another. It usually succeeds too. Either by shutting up the judgmental person or redirecting the topic of conversation – often to how hypocritical Christians are for not following the teachings of Jesus, or, if I’m there, why Pagans steal moral teachings from other religions instead of quoting the wise sayings of the learned women and men of their own tradition.

It’s unfortunate that this is the most popular piece of Christian moral teaching among Pagans, because while the Bible contains much of value, and many excellent doctrines – this is certainly not one of them. Oh sure, it sounds good. It has a simple, homey quality to it that almost guarantees it’s truthfulness. And no one really likes to be judged. But when you look at what it’s really saying – namely, “I’ll let you slide, if you don’t point out my faults” – it’s basically the worst sort of moral cowardice, clothed in pretty words.

From top to bottom, this is bad advice. “Judge not,” Jesus tells us – despite the fact that elsewhere in the Bible the authors repeatedly make the point that discernment – the ability to tell right from wrong – is the most important, the most uniquely human quality that we possess. Animals have no moral sense. For them, instinct and survival govern all. It falls to man to reflect on actions and discern their moral quality. Only man can look at something that would seem to benefit him, and judge it wrong because it violates his sense of ethics. This moral awareness – that we are not alone, that we function within a society, and that our needs and desires are not more important than those of the other members of our society – reflects the best and noblest within man.

No man is born moral. It is something that develops over time, that he is taught, that he learns by watching as it’s demonstrated, that he acquires through habitual practice. It’s a parent’s duty to instill in their child moral responsibility and discernment. But imagine if a parent followed this bit of advice, and never judged their child. Never told them that it was wrong to hit or steal, never warned them about touching an open flame, never put into them the shame which makes potty training possible. How well do you think this child would get along in the world? Ill-prepared to face both Nature and the society of man – all because its parent failed to judge.

How high would you esteem the able-bodied young man who stood by and watched as an old woman was beaten and raped, without so much as raising his voice to stop it? I don’t think there are words to accurately describe the indignation most of us would feel upon hearing of such a situation. His crime is almost greater than that of the rapist – and yet, what exactly is he guilty of, besides not judging? Part of belonging to a society is accepting the responsibility to judge our neighbors. To condemn their actions and thoughts when they are harmful, to intercede when they will not stop themselves from doing harm. This critique and check goes both ways. We must also be willing to accept chastisement from our neighbors. I know that I am grateful for it. There have been times when I simply went too far. When a joke stopped being funny, when justifiable anger became blind hatred, when the thin line separating right from wrong became blurry, and I crossed it. Thankfully, there have always been people around me willing to offer a gentle word of reproach, who have challenged me to look at it from a different perspective, who asked me, “Are you aware of the consequences of this path?” or who simply said, “Stop it. This is wrong. If you continue, I won’t be your friend any longer.” We need that censure sometimes. If we could do it ourselves, no one would ever do wrong. Who chooses evil, thinking it’s evil? It always seems like a good to them – sometimes a lesser good, but a good nonetheless. It’s the outsider’s perspective we get when someone judges us. That helps us reevaluate the problem. And if we still do it, at least we’re doing it with our eyes open.

Which brings us to the second part of this teaching, “lest ye be judged.” What this is saying is that if you judge, you open yourself up to being judged. Why should one fear that? Why should one hide their faults? If you accept that it’s a fault, you should welcome the chastisement, and openly work on bettering yourself. Hiding it, pretending it doesn’t exist, protecting yourself from embarrassment – allows the sin to take root in you, gives it nourishment and shade in which to grow. One must expose it to the light, and work to weed it out of your heart. This can only be done in the open, and by accepting the judgment of others. The second option – that what the person is judging, you do not feel to be a fault, is not made better by hiding it. If you accept it as a part of yourself, and value it, then don’t hide it. Openly, boldly proclaim it, and tell them that you don’t accept their value judgment. Because that’s an important thing I haven’t mentioned during the course of this. Not everyone’s opinion matters. Yes, you should feel free to let people know when you think they’re doing wrong, and yes, you should be willing to listen when people give you the same advice – but just because it’s said, doesn’t mean that will stop it from happening. The person still chooses whether or not they will do the action or think the thought. Opinions are like assholes, the saying goes: everyone has one. And not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. (Or is that asshole equally fresh?) I’m more inclined to follow the advice of someone I know to be wise, successful, and who has some familiarity with the topic than, say, a complete stranger off the street. (Though one shouldn’t discount them just because they’re a stranger off the street.) And, even though this person has been wise in the past, that doesn’t guarantee that their advice is correct on this matter. After all, Jesus had a good many fine things to say. But he also said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

One thought on “Moral Cowardice and Pagan Hermeneutics

  1. I feel like that one gets quoted out of context really frequently. IIRC, it’s much more about owning one’s own faults instead of nitpicking others to deflect criticism from the ego. That said, I fully agree that too many in the paganoverse (and our overculture) use it to exactly the opposite of that intent- to stifle healthy criticism (and therefore growth) instead of promoting it.

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