Judgment vs. judgmentalism

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Opinion columnists, like the rest of humanity, walk a fine line between judgment (holding people accountable to a standard we did not create) and judgmentalism (thinking ourselves morally superior because we haven’t committed the acts of others).

Since writing of my friendship with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, I have been flooded with responses. Some have been kind, but many — perhaps a majority — have heaped on me the revulsion the writers also heaped on Mr. Kennedy. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was the writer who accused me of “going wobbly.”

That many on the left continue to dance on the grave of Richard M. Nixon and to revile George W. Bush does not give the right permission to engage in eye-for-an-eye behavior. Many on the right invoke the name of Jesus on Sunday and tear down a politician whose policies they don’t like the rest of the week.

Tearing down policy is fine, but diminishing the value of a fellow human being simply because you don’t like his politics (or his personal behavior) is not a good strategy for persuading him to change. It also raises the level of invectiveness, which is injurious not only to our politics, but to the one contributing the invectiveness.

What am I trying to accomplish when I engage in criticism? Do I want to present superior arguments I hope my political opponent will at least consider, if not adopt, or is my objective simply to make me feel better by engaging in moral superiority? If it’s the latter, I am committing the sin of pride, which goes before all the others.

Mr. Kennedy’s list of sins is well known, from sexual promiscuity to offering help to Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov in exchange for Mr. Andropov’s assistance in defeating Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. The latter act is properly criticized, even denounced. Discussion of the former can easily fall into the judgmental category.

Public exposure of private sins reminds us of our own coverups. Each of us is capable of doing what Mr. Kennedy did, given the right circumstances and opportunity. This doesn’t excuse his actions. It does explain them.

This was the great offense laid on Jesus of Nazareth, whose name was invoked on several occasions at the Kennedy funeral and burial. Those who hated and rejected Jesus did so because He exposed what was in them, and no one likes his dark soul exposed to the light. It is one reason some of us wear makeup and nice clothes and blow-dry our hair and why others consider plastic surgery as they age. If we seek to cover external flaws in these ways, how much more would we undertake to hide the internal ones? Vanity, vanity; all is vanity.

This is not to absolve Mr. Kennedy of his sins, only to say that we are neither the judge nor the one who can absolve. We can’t forgive ourselves, or, as I put it to a TV interviewer who asked me: “Bottom line: Senator Kennedy, a good man?”

“Only God is good,” I responded. “The rest of us are sinners.”

It is not hypocritical to care for someone who behaves badly. In fact, it is the height of love to do so because you want him to have a changed life and attitude that will help him behave better for his own sake and that of his family. Denouncing that person and condemning him to hell is not likely to make him more open to things that will lead him in the other direction. Who among us has lived a perfect life that would be acceptable to God?

Twila Paris wrote a song that might speak even to hard hearts when they think of the One who forgave their own sins and who was never accused of going wobbly: “How beautiful the tender eyes that choose to forgive and never despise.”

I strongly opposed much of what Mr. Kennedy proposed, but I cared for him as a person. Those without sin, send your condemnation stones to this newspaper.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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