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Mary Latham was an 18 year old woman who lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1643 – a time when the Puritans ruled New England. During her teens and by the standards of that time, Mary was impetuous, wild and a seventeenth century version of a party girl. She became engaged to a young man who later decided against marrying her. Hurt and feeling abandoned at the altar, Mary vowed to marry the next single man she met. He happened to be much older but Mary kept her word and married him.
That was obviously not the context for a good marriage. Mary continued her wild ways and frequented places where married and unmarried men drank alcohol. At one of those affairs, she met a young and handsome professor recently arrived from England. One thing led to another and soon, allegedly, they had sex. Wracked with guilt and remorse, the young professor later confessed his sin to religious leaders. Mary was quickly arrested for adultery.
While Puritan laws were harsh, they did stipulate some standards of evidence. Two witnesses were required for any conviction. While the professor admitted his guilt and accused Mary of being his accomplice, nobody else could confirm the alleged dirty deed.
Nevertheless, Mary and the professor were convicted. Mary, feeling remorse at her conviction, later confessed to adultery with twelve other men. They, however, were never convicted. Shocked at her serial promiscuity, the Puritan court sentenced Mary to death. According to John Winthrop, who was the Massachusetts Governor at the time, Mary went to the gallows peacefully, claiming she deserved die.
Many of us have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Scarlet Letter about a similar Puritan conviction. As judgmental as what happens to Hester Prynne in the novel seems, her punishment was lenient. The majority of Puritan trials were for sex offenses since it was illegal to engage in any sexual activity that was not procreative and was not between a husband and wife. But, since sex is a private activity, eyewitnesses were rare. The standard requiring two witnesses was thus conveniently overlooked. Persons convicted of illegal sex were occasionally executed but most were sentenced to a public whipping either at a stake or while being dragged behind an ox drawn cart. Those whipped were often permanently maimed and some died. After their punishment, men were required to wear a noose around their necks and women, like Hester Prynne, were to forever wear a scarlet “A”.
It seems ironic that the Puritans practiced harsh judgment of sex acts given the admonition against that by Jesus in the story about a woman caught in adultery. That story describes how the legalistic Pharisees tried to test Jesus and his fidelity to standards of Jewish law. They brought before him a woman they said had been caught flagrante delicto – in the very act of intercourse. Jesus does not say much at first, but after hearing the accusations from the men, he began to write in the dirt. It is unknown what he wrote. Many surmise he detailed sins committed by the accusers. Reminded of their misdeeds, some of which may have been sexual, the men are visibly shaken and deeply embarrassed. Knowing the punishment for adultery was stoning to death, Jesus then uttered his famous words that only those without sin should cast the first stone at the woman. The men, however, quietly slink away. Jesus rhetorically asks the woman, “Where are your accusers?” Seeing that there are none, he assures her that he does not accuse her either. Showing empathy and compassion, he tells her to go and sin no more.
There is abundant controversy surrounding this story. Many Christians who struggle with Jesus’ non-judgmental attitude, question its authenticity or its meaning. They argue that some early Bible manuscripts do not contain the story, although some do. And, several early church leaders referred to the story in their writings. As such, the story is deemed sufficiently a part of the established Bible canon that almost all translations include it.
But the story is still unsettling to many. Adultery is a sin listed in the 10 commandments and Jewish law is clear about its punishment. Why did Jesus protect the woman? What did Jesus write in the dirt? Perhaps the woman was innocent or a victim of rape and Jesus knew that. He would therefore have been condemning not only hypocritical attitudes but also the rush to judgment and the illegality of an impromptu trial since, despite Jewish law, the man involved was not also accused. Perhaps the story was far more nuanced than was presented to Jesus. Maybe the woman was a prostitute and desperate for money to feed herself or her family. Maybe she was a rape victim, maybe she was from a broken family or, perhaps she was legally married but abandoned by her husband. We do not know all of the details since such facts are not presented – only that she was caught in a compromising situation.
Whether or not the story was a part of the original Gospel of John, it does not matter. Nor does it matter if is actual history. The story resonates because of its universal teaching about judgment. It was included in the Bible for a purpose and it legitimately reflects other teachings by Jesus against hypocrisy. It echoes his teaching and that of the apostle James that only God is to judge moral character. It also deeply reflects Jesus’ views on forgiveness and redemption. Many interpreters see a direct similarity of the story with Jesus’ trial and execution by a group of self-righteous accusers.
What the story does do and what the history of the Puritan trials also do are to highlight the scary mask people often wear – that of a judgmental attitude. Within a few minutes of meeting someone, almost all of us have not only formed an impression of him or her, we have often judged that person to be good or bad. Learning of a behavior we disapprove by a friend, family member or stranger, we are quick to judge the person – pronouncing a sentence much like a mob of stone wielding men. He or she is immoral, indecent, unkind, lazy, bad, unworthy. We apply labels. We demean. We condemn. We arrogantly presume, all by ourselves, to act as policeman, judge, jury and executioner for any person, action or situation we disapprove.
These stories which I have recounted offer us insight, however, to the scary mask of judgment that many of us wear. By understanding problems with being judgmental, we can better see how to instead live.
When making any determination of another person or situation, we must operate with as complete a set of facts as possible. Mary Latham was convicted solely on the testimony of her partner in crime. Other Puritan convictions for illicit sex were based on innuendo, no eyewitnesses and few facts. The woman dragged before Jesus was said to be observed in the act but even such visual confirmation does not prove willful adultery. She could have been raped or coerced as a young, immature and impressionable female. There could be mitigating factors for her actions or for the action of Puritan women – their poverty, their lives as powerless women in cultures where single women were lower in status than slaves, or their being abandoned physically and emotionally by husbands. What we see are judgments rendered with few facts, no compassion, no empathy and no desire to understand the background and context. When we judge another, that is a primary clue to the evil we have perpetrated – we don’t have all the facts!
Herein lies the challenge not to judge others. Judgment of other people involves an emotional response and rush to conclusion about perceived flaws and misdeeds. We render an opinion about an action or situation that derives from anger, jealousy, insecurity or fear. We view a person or situation with tunnel vision. We are narrow minded, intolerant and anti-intellectual.
Discernment, however, relies on an accumulation of facts and evidence. It does not rely on emotion but rather objectively determines the truth. Judging another, for example, labels a person convicted of a crime as a bad person. Discernment, on the other hand, simply concludes that a bad action was committed by another. It is the crucial difference between the discerning actions of our sober, lengthy and deliberate justice system versus mob anger and rush to judgment shown by the men who confronted Jesus and the pious courts of Puritan Massachusetts.
Our call is to practice discernment in our thinking. Refusing to judge others does not mean we abandon rational, reason based thought. We have unique intellectual abilities to marshal facts and arrive at close approximations of truth. We’re asked to seek a complete set of facts BEFORE we form an impression and thought. And that takes time. It cannot be immediate. There is no malice, condescension, dislike, jealousy or anger in objective discernment. Emotions cloud our thinking. Calm reasoning offers clarity.
Buddhists suggest an additional method to discern and not judge. We practice mindfulness when we allow thoughts and observations to flow through our minds without focusing on them and allowing them to dominate. We can observe other people, their actions and other situations without taking the mental energy to analyze and form conclusions. Buddhists find inner peace not by closing themselves off from people and the world but by simply and gently observing what goes on around them – and refusing to judge. Observations without analysis can thus flow in and out of the mind in an endless but peaceful stream of simple awareness.
A second concern with judging others, as Jesus implicitly points out in the Bible story, is that nobody is morally equipped to render an opinion on the goodness of another. Who among us is free of wrongdoing, misbehavior or so-called sexual sin – the standard being any form of sex outside of marriage? Even more, as Jesus taught at other times, the sin of adultery need not be one of action. Jimmy Carter memorably confessed to adultery of the heart – calling attention to Jesus’ teaching that simply thinking about and desiring sex with another – whether or not it is acted upon – is a sin. There are very few people who are absolutely pure by such a standard.
As Jesus taught, real sin lies in our hearts and not just in our actions. Lust is lust whether it is in our minds or our behavior. Hate is hate whether it is in our hearts or in how we act. The point is crystal clear. We are all flawed. We have all misbehaved. We are all adulterers. How dare any of us presume to render moral judgment on another, therefore, when our accusing finger points menacingly back on us.
Even more, who among us should act like God or any other universal force for goodness? I have not been elected or appointed the God-like judge of anyone’s innate character and morality. I doubt very much that you have either. I also don’t have the ability to see the totality of other lives. Someone who appears to me as a good person may well be full of inner hatreds and prejudices. The opposite is also true. I know many people whom the world might judge as sinners, criminals or bad people but who, in their humble speech, compassion, generosity, kindness and redemption are not perfect but are far more moral and good than any self-righteous soul who believes himself or herself the determiner of who and what is moral. As one anonymous commentator once said, “Even God does not judge a person until their death. Why should we?”
A third warning is also implied in the stories I’ve told. What motivates the accusers and the judges? Why did Mary Latham’s alleged lover confess when he knew full well the severity of punishment for adultery? Was he angry at Mary for turning down his sexual advances? Was he disturbed with his own inadequacies as a man – and thus taking them out on she who had tempted him? Why did the group of angry and self-righteous Pharisees drag a poor girl before Jesus? What were their attitudes toward women? Were they protecting one of their own in his adultery? Were they really concerned about morality, or were they motivated by a desire for vengeance against Jesus and women in general? Were they motivated by an all too common subconscious compensation for their deficiencies as men, husbands and moral persons? While we can speculate forever about their motivations, the facts as presented leave us in doubt. The same is true in ANY judgmental situation.
We must therefore ask ourselves what really motivates us in our critiques and opinions of others? So often judgment of others reflects more about ourselves than it does the other person. We subconsciously dislike something in us and so we project that self-condemning thought on another. Many psychologists assert that those who are overly critical and judgmental of others are symbolically acting and speaking as if in front of a mirror. As examples: If we are shy and dislike it, we condemn those who are extroverts. If we are secretly gay, we condemn homosexuality. If we ourselves have acted improperly in the past, we viciously condemn others who do the same. If we live in fear, we decry those who don’t. If we feel inadequate and insecure, we hate those who succeed and achieve. What we do, in reality, is judge others with the same critical spirit we subconsciously have for ourselves.
We also project our shallow attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes about wealth, race, gender, power, status and appearance on others. An overweight person is judged less competent and less intelligent. One who is friendly and seems flirtatious is promiscuous and immoral. An African-American man has criminal intentions. A woman is weak, overly emotional and unstable. A conservative is uncaring. A liberal is a sentimental sap. A poor person is lazy. A rich person is greedy.
We must ask ourselves, what biases lie in the recesses of our hearts that lead us to judge and critique others and their lives? If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that our critical opinions are ego strategies to make ourselves feel better, salve our fears, or soothe our jealousies. Instead of confronting issues inside of us, we lash out, condemn, and maliciously judge another. Indeed, as Jesus teaches with his skillful use of symbolic analogy, it is the log in our own eyes that we willfully ignore when we point out the tiny speck in someone else’s eye. Wayne Dyer, a contemporary social commentator, has said, “When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.”
That calls us to not only examine our motivations but also our moods and emotional outlook. Those who are frequently critical of others often operate according to a rhythm of how they feel. When tired, stressed, fearful or insecure, they can respond with judgment and criticism of others – most often with those closest to them. When we feel the bile of judgment and condemnation rise within us, we can ask ourselves, how am I feeling right now? Should I take a rest, should I take a deep breath, read a book, go for a walk or seek some form of finding inner peace?
My topic and messages this month on scary masks people wear – hate, indifference, judgment – are ones to contemplate this Halloween. None of us want to be hateful, indifferent to the suffering of others or judgmental in attitude. And yet, most us often are. I know I have hated and can hate. I have been indifferent and still am. I have judged others and still do. They are the most evil masks I could possibly wear. I pray your help in taking them off.
We see so much pain around us – people who are lonely, hungry, depressed, poor, afraid, hurting. Why would we ever wish to add our hate to that mix? How can we be indifferent and fail to do what we can for such suffering? Who are we to judge anyone based on false, incomplete or hypocritical thoughts and facts? Our families, our friends, the people in our communities desperately need, instead, our compassion and our understanding. We have been blessed with intelligent minds. Let us use them with wisdom and discernment. But let us also use our hearts and the grace they’ve been shown, the compassion that causes them to beat, and the love that makes them larger.
I wish you, and those listening online, much peace and joy.