The story of Steve Jobs’ last day at church highlights a number of issues, one of which is judging. Judging is a bad word in our culture today. The last thing you want to be known as is “judgmental”. This is not a new thing. Many religious warn against judging. Jesus in fact commands is followers not to judge and warns that the measure they use to judge others will be used by God against themselves. The Bible consistently warns people not to judge but to leave the judging up to God.
Why are we told not to judge? Because we are poor judges, full of biases and motives. The command to not judge is in fact for our own good. Our judgments alienate us from God and from others and often makes us self-righteous.
Part of our difficulty, however, is that the common usage of the word “judge” or “judgment” is imprecise. On one hand we are told not to judge. On the other hand we are also implicitly commanded to make all kinds of judgments about all kinds of things. Jesus is always teaching people and challenging them to discern, to evaluate, to see through the conventional wisdom around them to try to see things the way God, the judge of the universe sees them.
One way to try to resolve this conundrum is to be free to judge things, ideas, cultures, behaviors, etc. without judging people. It doesn’t take long to realize that this is much more difficult than it sounds. People themselves are all bound up with their ideas, behaviors, preferences, cultures and commitments. People have something we call an identity and our identities are sticky. If we love football we BECOME a football fan. Very often, very naturally, very implicitly, the things we love, the things we do, the things we enjoy, the things we aspire to become part of our identities and we make them part of our selves.
There are two aspects to judging people: the impact that arriving at a judgment about something has on ourselves, and the experience the other has when we make a judgment about something they’ve taken into their identity. This is hard to describe but we all experience it. Maybe an example will help.
Let’s imagine that I believe it is wrong to have a million dollars in the bank when there are people starving in Africa. This is a judgment that I have embraced, and to one degree or another this judgment might take up residence in my identity. I am now a person that has a commitment to this idea. What it might means is that if I find myself in possession of a million dollars? Then I should give a chunk of that money away for starving people in Africa and in the process reinforce this piece of my identity and probably feel quite good about myself.
Now let’s imagine that I meet you, get to know you, hang out with you, only to discover that you have a million dollars in the bank and are feeling under no compulsion to divest yourself of this money on behalf of the starving children of Africa. At this point we have the makings of a problem, one that might threaten our relationship, and if issues of power, culture and coercion get involved we might have a very volatile conflict.
I might first attempt to convince you that you SHOULD divest yourself of this money on behalf of the starving in Africa and you might decline. You might declare that you want to keep the money for yourself or perhaps you’d rather use the money to help struggling artists express themselves in Manhattan. Struggling artists need help too and you would hope that others with a million dollars should take care of the children in Africa. I might press the point that starvation presents a greater need than self-expression, but you remain unconvinced.
Given the impasse I now have to figure out what to do with the judgment I feel towards you. Will it cause me to want to divorce myself from this relationship? You will have to figure out what to do with the judgment you feel coming from me, will you want to flee?
However noble my feelings about starvation in Africa may be you may be upset and offended at my judgment of you and your behavior. You might decide to simply not let it bother you and go on in the relationship as if the different didn’t exist, but if I keep bringing it up you might decide you no longer want to be around me because I won’t let it alone. That or you might decide to not be around me because my judgment has not seeped into your perception of my identity. I’m not a “judgmental person” in your book and you don’t want to be the kind of person who is friends with judgmental people.
It doesn’t take much to realize, however, that in making your decision to break off relations with me because of my judgmental behavior you yourself have succumbed to what you dislike in me. Now we are both “judgmental” but it is likely neither of us feels ourselves to be such.
Judgment always has two sides and it is not always easily mediated.
Many today will simply say “you should just lighten up and not be so judgmental about what they do with their money” and that in this case is good advice, but life throws a lot of other situations at us that aren’t quite so simple. We are not all islands, we live in a great interconnected web of relationships and these two sides of judgment are not so easily dispelled.
Why do people try to avoid talking about politics and religion? Because these areas, what we believe and what we do as a community are the arenas where the two sides of judgment get expressed. Furthermore our individual and communal identities are all wrapped up in our judgments.
When young Steve Jobs declares he doesn’t want to have anything to do with a God who knows about starving children in Africa and, as he assumes, is doing nothing about it, he has made a judgment and that judgment has taken up residence in his identity.
In all fairness young Steve Jobs might not even be judging God. He might simply be saying that the situation is so ridiculous that the church’s presentation of or worship of such a God is inconceivable, wrongheaded or offensive and he’ll have no part of it. Maybe the church has God wrong? Maybe Steve is judging God to be negligent? I doubt young Steve Jobs thought through any of this with much specificity. What he likely did was make a snap judgment (which we all do) that the whole situation is unworkable and by virtue of how he saw himself to be (identity again) he wanted nothing to do with it.
What I hoped to show, however, is that there really is a lot going on underneath the surface here beneath whatever judgment young Steve Jobs came to. We also know that young Steve Jobs is not alone in coming to the judgment he made in facing this particular dilemma. Many people when they see or experience suffering and injustice quickly arrive at judgments. Sometimes these judgments are about God, sometimes about other people, somethings about themselves. Identities also quickly come into the mix.
If this were purely an academic exercise we might look at all of these transactions and say that they do not matter, but what we can see from the story, however, is that they matter a great deal. These judgments produce conflicts, set trajectories for lives, split up relationships, families, nations, ethnic groups, etc. In this case they set young Steve Jobs onto another path that had enormous consequences for the shape of his life. It impacted his art, his character, and potentially because of a number of his ideas about his worldview, his body, etc. it influenced his course of medical treatments which may have resulted in his early death. It also shaped how he thought about death.
One of the great ironies in this story is in fact that although Jobs came to a judgment with respect to the church and Christianity on the basis of his interaction with a pastor and a magazine cover, Jobs himself didn’t seem to follow a path that impacted starving children in Africa either. Is that a judgment on my part or an observation? You’ll probably make up your own mind on that subject and if you know me it might impact our relationship. 🙂