These days it seems that the church as well as the nation (and world) are caught up in never-ending spirals of condemnations. All we seem to hear is “Condemn them! Condemn that! If it’s not perfect, we must condemn!” Even the calls for church leaders to condemn an action, group or individual have grown more vocal as we demand our judgmental viewpoints be echoed from someone who (supposedly) represents God.
What is this need to condemn and where does it come from? Why do we think judgment and condemnation against others is the answer to so many of our problems? And why do we feel the need to demand that our leaders condemn those we want judged on our behalf?
The word “condemn” comes from the Latin word con-damnare. Damnare, the second half of that word, means to harm or damage; the con is there for emphasis. So to con-damnare someone means to really, really harm or damage them. (https://www.etymonline.com/ )
Of course, we can all see the word “damn” in this Latin word which invokes images of God (or us) sending people to the horrible suffering of hell. And while sometimes we may have a lighter meaning in mind when we “condemn,” such as to disapprove or judge against, the weight of the word tends to imply the harsh desire to hurt or rip apart those we’re condemning.
This I think is one of the reasons behind our need to condemn: to lash out and harm others after being wounded. When we experience this hurt or remember past hurts while failing to remember the many hurts we’ve caused, we often are left with a strong craving to retaliate. We want to damage others the way we’ve been hurt through assaulting, dehumanizing, demonizing, and damning them, their identity group, their character, their actions and their personhood. And we especially like to do it on social media where we think there are no consequences to our actions.
We also seem to do this out of our own sense powerlessness and feeling out of control of our situation. We condemn in order to lift ourselves out of insecurity and a sense of weakness; in order to bully ourselves out of anxiety and fear; in order to tear others down and rip them apart so we can feel more self-righteous and more like god and thus all-mighty and power-full so that at least in the condemning moment that sense of human weakness and helplessness disappears…until it returns when those we’ve condemned attack us back.
And this steers us toward demanding that our leaders condemn others so that we can hear our own condemnations through their voices. We get stuck in echo chambers where we choose to hear only what we want to hear, and what we want to hear is our leaders confirm our opinions and echo back to us what we believe so that we can feel righteous in our own right-ness.
The fact is that all this condemning actually just perpetuates the cycle of destruction as the condemned get defensive and retaliate with more condemning words or actions. Then we retaliate with our own condemnations and so on, until we descend into violent, hate-filled damning of one another in a horror-show like the spectacle on January 6 or other violence, riots and wars seen throughout human history.
Here’s reality folks: condemning one another does not work! It doesn’t fix any of the problems we want to fix. It doesn’t allow us to be the solution we claim to want to be. It doesn’t cure the evils of the world. It doesn’t heal the wounds we want to heal or help those we are called to serve. Condemning only harms, destroys and damages, perpetuating the cycle of bitterness, cynicism and fear into on-going hate and finally eternal damnation.
So what do we as followers of Christ do? Do we stay silent in the face of the evil and suffering so obviously happening in the world around us? Do we ignore the pain and oppression, hate and violence against ourselves or the neighbors we are called to love and just suck it up as our “cross to bear”? Do we hide inside a comfy, nice-but-not-kind church in a false sense of safety until we get to escape to heaven?
No, of course not! But we don’t turn to condemning, which is God’s work and God’s alone -- IF God chooses to do so. God is God; we are not, and we are commanded to be on God’s side, rather than forcing God to be on our side, including the side of us that wants to condemn. (Cf. First and Second Commandment & Bp Elizabeth Eaton)
Instead, we exhort and challenge the “what is” by speaking and living God’s eternal Law of “what God wants,” namely Love, by being and doing Christ’s love in everything we do and say into the world through kindness, compassion, peace, reconciliation, generosity, justice and self-control.
Instead, we admonish through the words of God’s Law but always in humility, seeing and renouncing our own sin and complicity in the larger evils first by checking in the mirror and asking how our own words, actions, and ways of life may already be breaking God’s Law, harming our neighbors and preventing Christ’s kingdom from coming near. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Mt 7:1-5. See also Lk 6: 37-38 and Rm 2:1ff)
Instead, we proclaim through our actions and words the gospel of God’s grace, forgiveness, welcome, and equal acceptance and love of all people of all identities, standing with the wounded in solidarity and lifting them up through the Spirit’s encouragement, empowerment, and enlivening words, thoughts and actions.
And we proclaim this Gospel and Law not by tearing some people down to lift ourselves or others up, but by preaching over and over again the affirmative, positive gospel that we know through teachings and ministry of the Jesus of Nazareth in the Bible. (Thanks to Bishop Michael Curry for reminding us of this on the webinar that was recorded today entitled “Democracy and Faith Under Siege: Responding to Christian Nationalism” and can be found here soon.
So no, I will not condemn. Nobody but God has the power or right to condemn, including me. But I will speak and affirm God’s Law AND Gospel loud and clear ad nauseum to those who would listen. For that is my call as a pastor. And I do this knowing that I too am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself, knowing that through faith that I too am a beloved child of God and created in God’s image, knowing that I too am welcomed, loved and accepted through my baptism.
And SO ARE YOU a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, welcomed, loved and accepted into Christ’s kingdom! What amazing, grace-filled good news this is that we all get to share with the world! So let’s stop condemning and instead lift up God’s love for our neighbors in all we do and say.
In Christ’s Love,
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod