(First published November, 2015)
“Isn’t Christianity all about forgiveness and redemption?” was the question I was asked, as I sat as a potential juror in a courtroom in the Hennepin County’s Government Center. Hennepin is Minnesota’s most populated county. Criminal court would see a steady stream of trials that day. My trial would decide the guilt or innocence of a man who had been charged with conspiracy to receive stolen property, through a sting operation.
The prosecutor continued his questions by asking if I would be able to make a judgement about guilt. “How,” he asked, “would you feel if you had to make a judgement of guilty?” The man in front of us would face devastating consequences if he were found guilty. Not only the possibility of prison, but his immigration status would change. He could be sent back to West Africa where he would be separated from his family. From the prosecutors questions I knew what I had only suspected before, there would be no way that a clergy person would be serving on this jury. Our prosecutor was weeding out anyone he thought would tend towards leniency.
Until then, I was curious about our system of justice. My last experience of being contacted for jury service for a different court was during a very busy season in my life. I was relieved when my name wasn’t drawn for any actual case. But this time was different. Being retired has given me more time. My love of a good mystery fueled my interest in court proceedings in the actual world. I had not really asked myself how I would feel about finding a defendant guilty until that moment. What came to mind was a sense of heaviness – heaviness in my spirit, in my heart.
Not surprisingly, I was one of those who were sent back to the larger jury pool that day. The question asked of me, however has stayed with me. It’s not that I’ve never judged another person or made decisions that have impacted another’s life, through my judging. Jesus may have let us know that judging others put us in some shaky territory when he said, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1 NKJV) but it hasn’t kept me from being quick to judge way too often in my life.
I don’t know how it is possible to go through life without doing some judging. Being a mother of seven put me in the position of deciding who was guilty and who innocent on any number of occasions. Trying to be fair and just was difficult and challenging with competing stories. We make judgements when we decide who to trust and who not to. Throughout our lives we find ourselves in a position where it would seem the only response is to make an honest judgement, given the information in front of us.
I think that Jesus was getting at another type of judging . . . The way we too quickly blame the poor for being poor, or the sick for being sick. We cast our stones at those we perceive have been bigger sinners that we are. We like to think of ourselves as superior to others. Casting our eyes about us on any given day, we are likely to size ourselves up as somewhat better human beings than others we are looking at. And when there is a scandal breaking in the neighborhood, office or on the political front, (especially on the other side of the political spectrum) we can quickly throw in our lot with those who criticize, while we secretly celebrate the downfall of another.
The problem is . . . We have this Jesus who called us to accountability. He asked then, as he asks now, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 NRSV) God who knows us better than we know ourselves, is well aware of our faults and our failings. Marianne Williamson, in her book “Illuminated Prayers” writes these words. “Dear God, When they accuse me falsely, help them see the innocence in me. And when I judge, Lord, help me see the innocence in them.”
The prosecutor was onto something that day. Christianity “is all about forgiveness and redemption.” The forgiveness that allows us to live our lives washed from the stain of failure, mistakes and our own sins. And a Redemption which lifts us above yesterday’s mistakes, giving us the joy of a new and better life.