THE TONE of the EU campaign has been so deeply depressing it makes you wonder whether as a nation we are capable of intelligent and civilised political discussion any more.
There has been far more heat than light; labels have been flung at opponents, as though those who hold a differing view were at best idiots; some of the language has been extreme and brutal. Videos have been edited to make those in them appear worse than they are. Simplistic memes which are no better than playground taunts and v-signs out of a passing car window have gone viral on Facebook. And this from both sides.
It’s precisely into situations such as this that some words of Jesus come with directness and crystal clear coolness: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned…. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back,” (Luke 6v37-38).
Jesus is not, as the novelist Leo Tolstoy assumed, forbidding the use of law courts. The context here is personal relationships, not a judicial setting.
Nor is Jesus asking us to suspend our critical faculties in making assessments of people and situations. There is even a place for verbal rebuke, as he says elsewhere: “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” (Matthew 18v15-17).
Jesus is elsewhere clear that we need to distinguish between truth and error, and goodness and evil. Much of the rest of Jesus’ teaching here in Luke 6 and in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel is based on the assumption that we will use our critical powers – to be different from the world around us, different from hypocrites, and so on.
What Jesus is talking about here is the fault-finding, condemnatory attitude to others which is too often combined with a blindness to our own failings. In a word, censoriousness.
This sort of fault-finding, condemnatory attitude to others infects whole societies. And it has reached epidemic proportions in the UK as this campaign demonstrates.
A few years ago the writer David Denby wrote a whole book about it, called simply Snark. Writing at the time in The Guardian, he wrote: “Snark seizes on any vulnerability or weakness it can find – a slip of the tongue, a sentence not quite up to date, a bit of flab, an exposed bit of flesh, a blotch, a blemish, a wrinkle, an open mouth, a closed mouth. It exploits – slyly, teasingly – race and gender prejudice. When there are no vulnerabilities, it makes them up…. Snarky writers can’t bear being outclassed by anyone, and snark becomes the vehicle of their resentment and contempt.”
From a Christian perspective, John Stott wrote: “The follower of Jesus is still a ‘critic’ in the sense of using his or her powers of discernment, but not a ‘judge’ in the sense of being censorious. Censoriousness is a compound sin consisting of several unpleasant ingredients. It does not mean to assess people critically, but to judge them harshly. The censorious critic is a fault-finder who is negative and destructive towards other people and enjoys actively seeking out their failings. He puts the worst possible construction on their motives, pours cold water on their schemes, and is ungenerous towards their mistakes.”
So let’s watch our Facebook posts. Our throwaway comments. Our smart one-liners. Let’s engage with the issues, but not engage in the kind of censoriousness which Jesus puts his finger on here.
As Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, wrote: “There are two particularly astonishing things about these instructions. First, their simplicity: they are obvious, clear, direct and memorable. Second, their scarcity. How many people do you know who really live like this? How many communities do you know where these guidelines are the rules of life? What’s gone wrong? Has God changed? Or have we forgotten who he really is?”
Like all posts on this blog, this contribution is anonymous, so it can be read for what it says, rather than who did or did not write it.