On my way home from teaching, I pass an empty lot in the middle of my town’s business district. The local funeral home rents the space and posts one of those Clever-Saying signs that usually adorn the parking lots of evangelical churches in my area. This week the slogan read: Love people to life. Don’t judge them to death.
After my brain performed its automatic hatchet job on the structure of the couplet, reversing the two sentiments for clarity, it settled down long enough to reflect on the message. Needless to say, the couplet put me in mind of the oft quoted Biblical verse, “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:10). I suppose that was the point.
Am I the only person who has a scripture as a pet peeve? Because Matthew 7:10 just strikes me as wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but off. Incomplete. Like someone left something out. My life experience simply doesn’t support the verse because every day I am required to make a myriad of important, practical, and often spiritual or ethical judgments as I strive to follow the Lord. In my efforts to be a decent parent, I must teach my children to judge between good and evil behaviors. Part of doing this requires me to sometimes point to the things people do, even to who they have become, and verbally express what amounts to a judgment: “Don’t do that. Don’t become that. It’s not the best way.” The Lord himself advises us to choose everyday whom we will serve. In my eyes, that commandment is as much about making judgments as about making a decision.
To demonstrate my point, consider our experiences within our fledgling Mormon literary community. We are all judges, all critics of one type or another, and critical thought is founded on the ability to analyze, to evaluate, to judge. Some of us are tasked with the job of editing and, within that realm, must judge between works of literature, offering publication to some, rejecting others. No one reasonably expects the editor or the critic to refrain from judging a writer’s talent, skill, and execution; no one would expect readers to refrain from judging the stories they consume; and no one would ask the writer to please write stories in which judgments are not made, either by the characters or by the readers. Judging is how the world–including the literary world–functions.
We have to do back flips to harmonize “Judge not that ye be not judged” with the requirements of daily living. Or so I’ve always felt. But as I drove the rest of the way home, reflecting for the zillionth time on this troublesome New Testament verse, I had an epiphany. It was like I’d highlighted the word “judge” in my thoughts, right clicked on a mental mouse, and selected “Synonyms” from the drop-down. The word “condemn” appeared in my consciousness as a substitute for “judge.”
Condemn not that ye be not condemned (Lisa 1:1).
Yeah. I like that. Okay, sure. “Condemn” may not be, in most cases, a perfect synonym for “judge.” And I have no idea if “condemn” is a derivative of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Latin word that has been translated as “judge.” But I do know that this edited verse fits well with my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Judging isn’t the problem. The problem is when we issue a final verdict.
Again, we are expected to judge between good and evil–even shades of good and evil–but not to condemn our fellow man, not to issue an edict on his value, or worth, or redemptive potential; we must never cease believing in a person’s ability to improve, repent, to work good in spite of failings. We should lift up, encourage and never condemn. If we move beyond the judgment of right vs wrong and into casting about our condemnations of others, we merit condemnation ourselves, considering we are no more perfected than our brothers and sisters. If they stand condemned, certainly we will as well. This satisfies my understanding.
But I hardly intended for this to be a religious post. Rather, I wanted to express how this epiphany impacted my thinking about Mormon letters. You see, after reading the sign, I reflected on ways I may have condemned within the circle of Mormon lit. I’m ashamed to say I have done just that. Once upon a time, I was proud college graduate, a classically trained member of the literati, and a self-proclaimed critic with little patience for anything but “genuine” literary art. I read nothing by Mormon authors, assuming them trite, unrealistic, banal. In a very real way, I condemned Mormon literature on the whole. You’ve probably heard some members of our community let fly some pretty fiery darts of condemnation: Faith-promoting literature lacks substance. Mormon romance literature is silly and unrealistic. Mormon Speculative fiction is escapist fluff. Literary fiction is boring. Poetry should go the way of Latin. And so on. Each is a condemnation of the “other.” According to Lisa 1:1, the condemnation we sow will be the one we reap.
That assertion, I think, moves beyond the kind of nanner-nanner-nanner-ism of schoolyard logic that it implies. I am presently reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series with my nine year old son. As fellow fans of the series know, Camp Half-blood is a training facility for the world’s demigods. The camp has an overarching structure and purpose, but it is comprised of a series of cabins which house the offspring born of the various Greek gods and their mortal lovers. Each cabin has its own set of demigod strengths, but they also have very different desires. One cabin is dedicated to war strategy; another to the strategy of love, and so on. But each cabin must learn to work in unity with the other cabins, and to support them, even encourage them to develop their strengths, if Olympus is to be saved from destruction.
This reminds me of our Mormon literary community, with the cabins representing each subgenre within the larger genre of Mormon literature. Writers and readers of the various subgenres–romance, SFF, lit fic, etc.–should strive to support one another and cease to condemn because, if we condemn, we are, in essence, condemning ourselves. We may not be demigods, but I dare say our purpose is as singular as theirs–not to save Olympus of course, but to promote the well-being of Mormon literature. I make no call for members of our community to cease judging the merit of any given work by an LDS author or about the Mormon experience. Rather, I suggest that we should celebrate our genre differences as evidence of our scope, breadth, and strength. We should stop wasting our energies condemning the “other” within our group lest, in issuing that final verdict, we close our own casket. Indeed, condemn not that ye be not condemned.