This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
I enjoyed the Saturday morning session of the April 1972 General Conference right from the first talk, Elder N. Eldon Tanner’s “Judge Not, That Ye Be Not Judged.” The message is clear enough, but it’s not something I recall hearing an entire talk dedicated before reading this one. Elder Tanner makes the case strongly that we cannot judge because “We cannot see what is in the heart. We do not know motives, although we impute motives to every action we see. They may be pure while we think they are improper.” He goes on:
It is not possible to judge another fairly unless you know his desires, his faith, and his goals. Because of a different environment, unequal opportunity, and many other things, people are not in the same position. One may start at the top and the other at the bottom, and they may meet as they are going in opposite directions. Someone has said that it is not where you are but the direction in which you are going that counts; not how close you are to failure or success but which way you are headed. How can we, with all our weaknesses and frailties, dare to arrogate to ourselves the position of a judge? At best, man can judge only what he sees; he cannot judge the heart or the intention, or begin to judge the potential of his neighbor.
It’s a great quote, and it falls in line with the emphasis on intellectual humility that is the central theme for this blog.1 Elder Tanner made some additional strong points that I’m still mulling over. For example, he said that “only by suspending judgment do we exhibit real charity.” And so that has me thinking about the relationship between suspending judgment and loving unconditionally. And that is also the entire point of our mortal experience: judgment is postponed. That makes this mortal life chaotic and confusing (because consequences do not follow immediately and inexorably from our decision), but it also carves out space for the atonement–the ultimate act of love–to work.
Elder Tanner also talked about the relationship between not judging and optimism, urging us to “look for the good rather than try to discover any hidden evil.” I believe there is something noble and empowering in trying to see the best in the people around you rather than engaging in easy, seductive cynicism.
Regardless of our ego, our pride, or our feeling of insecurity, our lives would be happier, we would be contributing more to social welfare and the happiness of others, if we would love one another, forgive one another, repent of our wrongdoings, and judge not.
Although here, too, there is a connection to love. “Even in families, divorce has resulted and families have been broken up because the husband or wife was looking for and emphasizing the faults rather than loving and extolling the virtues of the other.” When a Mormon man and woman are sealed to one another, they are stuck with each other for eternity. The time for criticism and judgment is past. From that point on, the goal is to love the one you’re with, in part by emphasizing their virtues and strengths in your own estimation.2
Lastly, this idea of optimism vs. cynicism and judging bears on the political arena.
Tirades against men in office or against one’s opponent tend to cause our youth and others to lose faith in the individual and others in government and often even our form of government itself.
How true is this of our nation today? How many of us have lost complete faith in our representatives and also in our form of government? There are two reasons for this, I believe. The first is that we–as everyday Americans–have long since abandoned the idea of holding our leaders (and ourselves) to high moral standards. Elder Tanner addressed this, writing that “it is most important that all of us, including our politicians, strive to live so that our actions will be above reproach and criticism.” Coincidental with that, we have also begun to engage in complaints and mockery–often with a partisan edge–as a kind of public spectacle and blood sport. It is bad enough that we tolerate and condone unethical behavior by our leaders. This encourage precisely the wrong kind of men and women to run for office to enrich themselves with the opportunities afforded by public office. It compounds the problem to then grow so cynical about our leaders that we do not believe any of them can act for decent or humane motives. This discourages preciesly the right kind of men and women from running for office, because who wants to deal with that? Our judgmentalism, because it is cynical and divorced from principle, increases the incentives for corrupt politicians and decreases the incentives for honest ones. And yes, that’s a thing. The results, as we see on the news every day, are lamentable.
There is a difference between being non judgmental and being unprincipled. A non judgmental person has principles, but is generous in interpreting the actions, intentions, and motives of others. An unprincipled person has no moral true north, but can easily engage in ad hoc judgmentalism nonetheless.