“Judging and Genocide” by Mark W. Harris – October 28, 2007

“Judging and Genocide” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – October 28, 2007

Opening Words- Israel Zangwill

Come into the circle of love and justice,
Come into the community of pity,
Of holiness and health —
Come, and ye shall know peace and joy,
Let what ye desire of the universe penetrate you,
Let lovingkindness and mercy pass through you,
And truth be the law of your mouth.


D. H. Lawrence – “There is my creed”

This is what I believe:

That I Am I,
That my soul is a dark forest.
That my known self will never be more than a little
clearing in the forest.
That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into
the clearing of my known self, and then go back.
That I must have the courage to let them come and go.
That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but
that I will try always to recognize and submit to the
gods in me and the gods in other men and women.
There is my creed.

Matthew 7 : 1-5, 7-8

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. . .  ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Everyone judges. Come on. You know it’s true. We do it all the time. If we see unruly children in a restaurant, we may judge the parent as incompetent or irresponsible. With their eyes, their sighs or even their words our fellow diners may implore us, “Can’t you keep them under control?” And so we may quickly try to finish up our meal so that we can exit, or one parent takes the children outside, or we may even defiantly say to ourselves, “If they don’t like the way my kids behave, tough luck.” But there may also be instances when we feel judged by another, and it is entirely appropriate. As a parent I was shirking my duty. Bad behavior can be more than just a quiet meal interrupted. Children running through a parish hall, for instance, can be dangerous to the elderly and others. When a fellow driver runs red lights, or weaves in and out of traffic, we judge them as a danger to public safety.

The point is we can’t help but judge others. They are not doing their job. They are not paying attention. And we say, shape up. We also have views about what we think is appropriate behavior, dress, lifestyle choices, the right amount of exercise to get or eating habits right down to the brand of ketchup we think is superior. If we see Hunt’s instead of Heinz, we may grimace and say, Yeech, my brand is better. This is a regular topic of discussion with my boys. They all love video games, but they have different preferences for what they like. Sometimes they cannot seem to avoid saying to one another – “you are stupid for liking that game,” or “that is a lousy game, I can’t believe you like it.” When one of them feels judged by the other, they go on the attack As parents we try to say they need to realize that everyone has preferences, and it is ok, if you like something that I do not, and you are not stupid or ignorant for liking it.

This came up in a more serious way not long ago with two Boston firefighters who were killed in the line of duty. We all have tremendous respect for firefighters, as evidenced right now by those individuals who are endangering their lives to save countless homes and land in California. It is a job with a tremendous amount of risk involved, and that was the case with the two firefighters who rushed into a restaurant and were engulfed by an exploding backdraft. We admired their bravery and dedication to duty so that we the public might feel safe. After the massive outpouring of grief in support of the families and affirmation of the firefighters at their respective funerals, some shocking news surfaced. Autopsies showed that one of the firefighters was legally drunk, and the other had cocaine in his system. This besmirched the brave epitaphs with the revelation that firefighters may behave in ways that can endanger their own lives, and the lives of the public at large.

This raises many questions. If he was sober, would he have gone into the building? What if he had to rescue someone? What kind of firehouse environment permitted him to work in this condition? Do we want a drunk firefighter driving erratically down the street in a swaying, massive red truck, or making some kind of erroneous decision about your health and safety because he/she couldn’t think straight? They might be both a danger to themselves and us, and our property. We later learned that Boston is the only firefighting unit in a major city that does not require drug testing. The immediate reaction to this news was most enlightening. The Union seemed to imply this was a private matter, and they immediately announced they wanted to “protect the families of our fallen brothers.” Even the next day, when I was walking through Harvard Square, a newspaper dealer was hawking his headlines by shouting “these men risk their lives by going into burning buildings. You’d have a drink, too. I think he was missing the point. This wasn’t a lifestyle choice to drink socially because of a stressful job. The firefighters need to be judged for irresponsible actions that could endanger themselves and the public.

Up until recent months, the town of Watertown participated in an apparently innocuous program to promote equality and diversity, and more seriously to speak up and act if there are public instances of hate being spoken about a particular person or group in a community. This program, called No Place for Hate, is sponsored by the Anti-Defammation league, which for many years has held community events, workshops and printed materials to help communities battle against prejudice and discrimination, especially anti-semitism. A few of our First Parish members were involved, including me as their treasurer, and as the chief organizer of Watertown’s annual Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast. The Town Council were official supporters of this No Place for Hate program, and a police officer was the co-chair. This was clearly a non-controversial, mom and apple pie way to try to embrace a community vision of how we can all get along and understand and accept one another despite our differences. A number of interesting and informative programs have been sponsored over the years, including sessions on hate crimes and immigration issues. Yet this summer we learned there was a seamy underside to the “peace, love and understanding.” theme.

This seamy underside has to do with the fact that 1.5 million Armenians were intentionally killed by the Turkish government between 1915 and 1923. This intentional killing of a national or ethnic group constitutes what has become recognized as a genocide, the same term that is currently being applied to the human destruction in Darfur in the Sudan. It turned out that the Anti-Defamation League had failed to recognize the slaughter of the Armenians as a genocide, and seemed to view the carnage in Turkey as the consequence of tragic wartime conditions, much as the Turkish government has. In short, a regrettable consequence of war, but not intentional killings. Because the Turkish government is Israel’s only friend in the Middle East, the ADL refused to say that the Turks had intentionally perpetrated these acts. The ADL chose political expediency over integrity, which makes it difficult for them to legitimately define themselves as a group which decries all forms of hatred when they refused to affirm and name the truthfulness of a terrible historic event that was the very epitome of hatred.

The uncovering of this failure of the ADL to live up to the integrity of their own mission led the No Place for Hate Committee, led by our own Will Twombly, to work with the Town Council to remove Watertown from this official program. A new group is forming around these issues, and if any of you are interested in participating, I encourage you to speak to me, or Will or Sue Kuder. This local turmoil has led to some interesting national and international repercussions. The ADL has reconsidered its positions, and a US House of Representatives Committee has endorsed a measure labeling these events a genocide. Affirming the truthfulness of this genocide, which is a non binding resolution without the force of law, has unnerved President Bush, and resulted in the Turks calling their US ambassador home and the government doing some saber rattling in northern Iraq against the Kurds. For years the Turks have tried to silence the discussion around this genocide, and like any attempt to censor, it has only led to more attention being focused on Turkey, and in a way the present government makes itself more of a party to events that it was not responsible for in the first place. The denial and cover-up make it worse.

I believe this Armenian genocide discussion is a helpful reminder to each of us of how and when we judge, and why it is crucial that we reflect on how we judge at certain junctures in life. The scripture passage from Matthew is instructive here because I believe a typical liberal interpretation of this would be that we should never judge others. It tell us, “Judge not, so you will not be judged.” In keeping with liberal thought on tolerating other perspectives or understanding others, we are likely to affirm that we should not judge whether someone or something is right or not. We tend to fall on the personal decision side of ethical decision making. We affirm people following their own bliss. But there can be harmful effects to this approach. This came up at a recent study group meeting of mine. One of my colleagues had a quandary that he could not address. One partner in a marriage was having an affair. Our liberal inclination is to not judge that person because our faith tends to focus on the individual and on individual needs. We affirm each person and minister separately to the sad and angry partner who was betrayed; to the philandering spouse who is looking for something more in life; to the person seeking power by being chosen over someone else. So that failure to judge does not acknowledge the immoral nature of the act, which is what the more evangelical church would do, but moreover it fails to acknowledge how someone is getting hurt. The person is destroying a relationship. Shouldn’t a minister speak to him about the destructive nature of his acts?

Most of us are sensitive to being judged, or feel ashamed. And so if we have the courage to share something we feel badly about, it is not helpful to be told how awful this act was. We already know that. We seek forgiveness or understanding. We forget sometimes how easy it is to make someone feel bad with our judging. I was speaking to someone this week about a group she used to be in, which involved sharing some very painful experiences. A common first reaction after a person had told the group of some painful trauma was, “I could never survive that” or “how could you stand it?” Perhaps meant as an attempt to admire strength, it also comes across as judgment. You were stupid to put up with that. You endured too long. We want to share without fear of being judged critically, in the hope that we can make amends and find a new way to live. So the context of the judging is crucial. Is it to affirm me and my beliefs, or is to to affirm the other and help them feel supported? Is it giving or is it selfish?

People don’t want to be judged, and yet we must call each other to be our best selves. So I think the more helpful way to understand Jesus’s comment on judging is that we do judge, but when we do so it must be with honest and helpful intent rather than in a destructive, attacking or controlling kind of manner which always implies that I am right. Could it be that sometimes we need to judge or be judged? For example, I feel judged every time I visit my doctor. I am going to step on his scale, and then tell him how little exercise I get when I go for my annual physical exam, which of course I have delayed scheduling because I am going to be judged. We are reluctant these days to be critical of those are overweight or out of shape, despite the obesity epidemic among children. But we could also say my doctor is judging me because he has my good health in mind, which he has sworn an oath to uphold. If I still smoked cigarettes, he would judge my decision about that, too. So his intent in judging me is to serve a greater good, my own health. The idea is not to insult someone or make them feel bad about themselves, which is not what you would expect from a doctor. He is also not trying to imply that I am a bad person, but that it is my actions that need changing. As with children, we make the distinction between the behavior and the boy. My doctor is trying to help me feel better, and live better, and I need to make the decisions in my own life to help me do that.

Liberals may live by the mistaken presumption that if we do not judge we are really being very accepting of others, but our acceptance may indeed be an unwillingness to engage with the other person or issue. It may be a silent avoidance of confronting the real problem. By this I do not mean the stereotype nosy, controlling in law that tells you or shows you what she perceives is the right and only way to do your dishes or fold your laundry or how everything you do seems wrong . That is a judging that feels consistent with my boys insulting each other for liking a video game that one of the others dislikes. There is another helpful kind of judging that we need. This says that a child’s behavior does needs correcting sometimes. Or that a person needs to be judged when they are hurting someone else in our wider community by violating appropriate boundaries. If we are unfair in our judgments it will be reflected by the log in our own eyes. Judging is not about my being right and you being wrong, but it can be something that helps us see those times where we are hurting ourselves or another. And then our friend, our partner or even our doctor, is being helpful, even loving to judge what we are doing. So the idea is to judge fairly, and not in any selfish way.

The problem is that we sometimes live with the notion that we are better people if we do not judge at all. I think we teach our children to just be nice and accepting toward others, and think of everybody as good and worthy. Unfortunately being nice has its limits, especially when someone perpetrates an act of selfish judgment on another. One person may say to another, “what you like is horrible, and it reflects how ignorant you are, too.” The judgment often feels as if it is about the person, as well as about the action. Here is where D.H. Lawrence’s creed has some religious value for us. He says the soul is a dark forest. Our tendency as people is to protect ourselves. We think it would be better if we all got along, but achieving that goal is easier said than done. The dark forest is how complicated human nature is. With the No Place for Hate situation we have a seemingly faultless sponsoring group which is actually protecting its own interests, and compromising its own integrity for political purposes. Here protecting the alliance was more important than recognizing the genocide. They needed to be called to task for not owning up to the truth. Judging them made them face the truth.

Liberals tend to have this belief that if we allowed all perspectives equal time everyone would feel welcome and accepted, right? There is no judgment here. I just finished teaching a crucial session in my class on the history of Unitarian Universalism. Liberals in the early 19th century wanted to avoid conflict and have one big happy Christian fellowship where your faith was measured by what you did, and not by what you believed. But giving room to everybody, as nice and nonjudgmental as it sounds, means that those who believe in something strongly are not permitted to do so because we don’t really want that kind of dogmatic faith in an inclusive setting. Inclusiveness is actually an ideology. I believe we should be courageous enough to admit that, and in this context we should also be courageous enough to say that we are judging those who have strong beliefs. We may judge them as wrong, but it is also true that that judging may be appropriate, especially if they are slinging homophobic or racist words. In other words, in the context of the community, we take a stand based on our values.

What is crucial is whether the judging we do is calling others to their better selves, or is it prejudicial or vindictive? In our avowed nonjudgmental way, we often voice hyper critical judging. Historically, liberals believed they knew what was right for the ignorant masses. We saw ourselves as the better educated, more cultured people, and judged others as incapable of doing what was right for the communities where they lived. But perhaps it is just our own rational fear of deep religious experience, or faith that is simply present, persistent. If you are a person who has had an experience of visionary dreams, or had inexplicable religious experiences happen to you then you may feel judged within a Unitarian Universalist context because that is not an acceptable way to be religiously in our paradigm of understanding truth. I think of my father telling me of the amazing experience he had going into his pea patch early in the morning as the dew was glistening on the leaves, and the pods were bursting with green circular morsels of delight, and the sun was rising over the tree tops, and the birds were sounding their first songs, and he said he heard the voice of God. Students in the class I teach say that people they know, are fearful of sharing this kind of experience in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They will be judged they say, as crazy.

Perhaps these are D.H. Lawrence’s strange gods that come forth from the forest that we need to be less judgmental of. We remember that under the peace, love and understanding of No Place for Hate or liberal religion there is a dark side of our apparent nonjudgmental ideology. There are truths we don’t talk about. We are always judging things – my issue is paramount, your experience is wrong. We are not exempt from judging the speck in the other’s eye, while the log sits in our eye. This is when D. H. Lawrence’s creed comes full circle We recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women. We all judge all the time. I think it is part of our very nature that we cannot deny. Those gods of judgment in us are calling us to remember how often we think we are right, and that is a judging that makes the log in our eye grow. But when our judging calls others to see and listen to the gods in each other – Armenian and Turk, Jew and Palestinian, liberal and conservative, reason and experience, then we can truly be reconciled, to the truth, to our better, more healthy, more loving selves; then it is a holy kind of just judging.

Closing words – by Frederick Gillis
May the love that overcomes all differences,
  that heals all wounds,
  that puts to flight all fears,
  that reconciles all who are separated,
Be in us and among us
  now and always. Amen.

Reverend Mark Harris
Minister | + posts

Mark was minister at First Parish from 1996 until he retired in 2019. Mark’s ministry was grounded in the importance of carrying on the traditions of the congregation and the UU faith. He loves congregations like First Parish where everyone ministers to one another, and the community is central. On his retirement in June 2019, Mark received the title Minister Emeritus.