What does our judging say about us?

The behavior of Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice has been a hot topic this week. ESPN’S Outside the Lines showed practice footage of Rice physically and verbally abusing his players. The tapes came to Athletic Director Tim Pernetti’s attention in December, and he fined and suspended Rice for three games. But with the video going public this week, the controversy has now claimed both Rice’s and Pernetti’s jobs, and the fallout may not stop there.

But I’m less interested here in the act itself and more in the public response. It’s not even just the outrage itself but its intensity. My Twitter feed lit up on Tuesday with people rushing to express anger, to call for Rice’s head, and Pernetti’s, and anyone else in the vicinity. It’s felt like a race where the winner is either the first to condemn, or to express that anger more gigantically than anyone else.

Where does this outrage come from? In a culture that so prizes tolerance and not being judgmental, why are so many so strongly, so quickly judging Mr. Rice? Don’t we need to understand his context, perhaps some rough things were going on his life at the time, or maybe there are family issues in his background?

The impulse to call evil evil is a good one. To judge injustice is part of genuine morality. But we live in a time and place where that impulse has been tamped down. We have suppressed in many ways that right desire to stand against what is wrong. It’s not just live and let live, but rather that the reluctance to expressly affirm what others do, contrary to your own moral sense, has become problematic.

Consequently, there are very few socially-sanctioned outlets for this moral impulse of judgment. So when one comes along . . .  It’s like when you dam a river but leave one small opening. The water pressure builds, and the flow of water through that gap pulses with intensity. So here, this abuse of the coach-player relationship, that violation of trust through verbal and physical abuse, is one place were we do allow judgment. That suppressed moral impulse to call evil evil, so tamped down elsewhere, now pours forth with a surprising ferocity, when it finds an outlet.

Yet we should be quick to listen and slow to speak or become angry (James 1:19–20). Jesus clearly points to the perils of judging (Matt 7:1–6). There’s a legitimate place for judging (see recent Points of Focus), but we should be careful. That’s especially when we possess only a superficial knowledge of the situation. I don’t anything close to all the facts, and nor does nearly anyone else who has weighed in. Morever, no one has put me in a position where I need to judge and hold the Rutgers coach or athletic director to account. I should therefore be cautious to contribute.

My reluctance to judge comes even more because I worry for my own soul. I am suspicious of my motives, especially in a case that has nothing to do with me. Could it be that I enjoy the feeling of moral superiority that passing judgment produces in me? I feel better because I can look down on Mr. Rice and call him out and know that I’d never do that. Would I?

We have an impulse to draw categorical, clear-cut lines for good and evil. Something or some person is all good or all bad. It makes evil something other, something different from us so that we feel secure that we wouldn’t do that. That’s not us. But that’s where the insight of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, cited last week in the Good Friday service, is so important:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The split runs through us, not between us. I am not some great moral superior to Mike Rice. I know that anger is a problem for me too. I thought I was sorted until I had kids and realized that my anger can unexpectedly well up and threaten to burst. We should call what Mr Rice did evil, and yet at the same time, reflect with humble conviction that in ourselves, we’re no better before God. The old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I . . .” is really true. Unless God forgives us, and by his Spirit changes us, there is no hope for real growth in good in us.

There are things that happen that are wrong, and they need clearly to be called as such. But we need to be even quicker, and more keen, to turn such questions back on ourselves, and let God use them in our lives.

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