I’ve been thinking a lot lately about when, where, and how to speak out about social issues such as immigration, race, and religion in public discourse.
- Do I say something from the pulpit or does that make it a bully pulpit?
- Do I post stuff and fight the futile battle for moral high ground, even if it doesn’t seem to accomplish much?
- Do I get involved in activism?
- Do I learn more about structure justice and policies that would be more loving and fair in our society?
- What would do some good and what might actually do some bad?
Our church is studying Matthew 7 this week, and maybe this teaching of Jesus might help some of you who struggle with the same questions I have. So, I’ll suggest seven stepping stones to move from judginess to fruitfulness–seven steps to help cross the river of social issues, all based on Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 7.
What is judginess? My definition for judginess is when I judge myself at my best and others at their worst. Jesus wants to turn this around on us, because the source of judginess is an ungodly belief that I’m better than you, and that leads to demonizing, hating, and fearing the other. Because this is such a hot and difficult topic, Jesus enters it with comic relief.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
There’s a woman I knew long ago who doesn’t laugh after a punchline; she just says, “Now that’s funny.” What Jesus says here, now that’s funny. But Jesus’s cutting humor targeted religious folks who judged harshly. He wasn’t calling for a moratorium on all moral discernment! If he delivered the line in today’s churches or communities I can imagine he’d have started the story this way:
A man tattooed on one arm, “Don’t judge me!” and the other arm, “But I reserve the right to judge you!”
For a culture whose mantra is “Don’t judge!” there sure is a lotta judgin’ going on these days, and I’m one of ‘em! I’m working pretty hard not to make this article too judgy. Is there an emoji to lighten up what I’m saying here?
Stepping Stone 1: Plank Removal
To move from judginess to fruitfulness, the first stepping stone is plank removal. This reverses judginess that measures others’ planks against our specks. Jesus says we have to flip this. In order to do speck surgery, we need to get the plank out of our eye first!
In college I tore down an offensive poster from a giant California football player’s dorm room. No, I wasn’t a resident assistant; just a judgmental vigilante. I even asked a suite mate to lie and cover for me. I’ll call him Rick, ‘cause that was this gentle giant’s name. Rick the Gentle Giant stormed into my room and I thought he’d take my head off, but his question stung worse and still does: “What kind of Christian are you to come in my room, rip something down, then try to hide and lie about it?”
At Rick’s words, I was speechless and deeply embarrassed, and even telling the dumb story today makes me flush. No, I was not much of a Christian that day. Thing is, many days since I haven’t been much of a Christian, and you can ask my wife and kids about that. And go ahead and ask the congregation I’ve served 12 years about whether they’ve detected some judginess in me from time to time, in some cases up close and personal as well as in sermons.
I was judgy, and I’ve struggled with judginess all my life, judging others on their worst moments and myself on my best. That’s not fair, and Jesus says get the plank out.
Recently I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with a friend. I’ve been to a few AA meetings and many, many church meetings. In the few AA meetings, I’ve seen more plank removal than I’ve witnessed at the many church services.
Stepping Stone 2: Silent Prayer
Jesus talks about petitionary prayer (“ask, seek, knock”), but embedded in petitionary prayer is the truth we forget. Petition rises out of powerlessness to change our situation. We ask because only God can give the good gift of life.
Silent contemplative prayer–the kind that reminds us the ground at the foot of the cross is level–gives us time to remove our planks, check our motives, contemplate what the Holy Spirit saying to us.
Yet, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” King spoke out at the right time when his prophetic voice was needed, but that voice was formed in the crucible of silent reflection, prayer, scholarship, and preaching for more than a decade before he followed others into marches and bus boycotts. Are you at the point in your life when it’s time to speak out or pray more?
Stepping Stone 3: The Golden Rule
It should be called the Golden Ruler, because “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is enacted in the context of non-judgment, or at least fair judgment. The yardstick you use to judge people will be used on you! What measuring stick are you using to judge others? Let the Golden Rule stand for a biblical context in which you bathe every issue, debate, and concern. I’ll say more on this in step five.
Stepping Stone 4: The Narrow Way
When Jesus speaks of the narrow way, he’s not calling us to conjure a new, more legalistic way. He’s talking about his favorite topic, the kingdom of heaven, a way of radical mercy few choose then and now. Landon Saunders at the 2017 Pepperdine Bible Lectures said it this way:
I decided I was going to love everybody, and let God sort it out. I treat everyone I meet as if they are going to heaven. … The most important thing is for you to be the kind of human being a transgender person would want to walk beside. Be the kind of human a Muslim would want to walk beside. Why is that true? Because the best thing that ever happened to a human being was to be brought into the presence of the human Jesus. There all the things could happen to a person that needed to happen for that person to have an abundant life, and we are called to be such a person in our world today.
Stepping Stone 5: Coat Check
Jesus warns us against false prophets, wolves in wool suits! Surely I’m not a wolf in sheep’s clothing! But I am if I refuse to consider that I may be. Wolves in sheep’s clothing ask the people-pleasing question, “What do people want me to say?” and the God-manipulating question, “How can we get God to do what we want?” Kyle Idleman says we must flip these questions. Instead, we should ask, “What does God want me to say?” and “How does God want me to respond?”
Stepping Stone 6: Fruit Basket Turnover
The sixth stone for crossing the rapids from judginess to fruitfulness is to check the fruit in the bottom of your basket. Hucksters put rotten fruit in the bottom of the bushel basket and pass off the whole basket as top quality. What rotten fruit are you passing off on your world that needs emptied out of your bushel basket?
And here is the scariest part of Jesus’s teaching: often, people who think they are producing good fruit, are not. Jesus keeps score differently. “We’ve called on your name, cast out demons, prophesied in your name, even performed miracles!!” Jesus shakes his head and says, “Uh, I never knew you. Depart from me.”
Watch this video by Randy Harris about bearing good fruit.
Stepping Stone 7: Good Footing
The final stone for passing from judginess to fruitfulness is a good footing. I used to dig footings for houses. A footing is the perimeter of a house dug three or four feet down where you place steel, pour concrete, and build the house on that.
Jesus says the person who does what he says is like the person who builds on a good footing. When you’ve taken planks out of your eyes, prayed, followed the Golden Rule, walked the narrow way of love and grace, and checked your wool coat and fruit, there’s one more place to watch your footing!
One more time I’m quoting Landon Saunders from that same talk at Pepperdine: “We must be careful that we do not let our minds on these issues be shaped by political rhetoric. Our minds are to be shaped by the mind of Christ.”
To avoid wrapping myself around debates on Facebook and to help me cope with anger and frustration over political rhetoric and real consequences for many people worldwide, I have developed a principle for my life. Before I post globally, I do something locally.
This principle has taken me to DACA rallies, discussions with military veterans, Black Lives Matter marches, speeches, unity prayer meetings, AA meetings, LGBTQ rallies, and into discussions with neighbors such as Koreans to whom I’ve expressed love after escalating rhetoric for conflict between North Korea and the United States.
When we take a few steps from judginess to fruitfulness, our legs are going to talk more than our mouths. After walking with Martin Luther King, Jr. to protest war in Vietnam and for equal rights for all African Americans, Abraham Heschel said, “I feel like I’m praying with my feet.”
In the last scene of The Help, Viola Davis’s character, Aibileen, says, “No one had ever asked me what it’s like to be me.” This week, take a step from judginess to fruitfulness and see where these stepping stones of Jesus lead us. Ask someone who’s kneeling or has their hand on their heart, or someone who’s wearing a Make America Great Again hat, or a rainbow T-shirt, or who’s in a wheelchair, or who has a different skin color, or who’s a different religion what it’s like to be them. Say simply, “Tell me your story. I want to know more about your life.”