Measure For Measure

Matthew 7:1 is among the most misquoted scriptures in the entire Bible, and that is saying something. The passage in which this verse appears, which takes in the first five verses of the third and final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, is famous enough to have given the title for a Shakespeare play: ““Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?  Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” It is easy to remember the first part of the passage, judge not, but it is impossible to do the rest of the passage if one does not engage in some sort of judgement. To be sure, this judgement is not condemnation, but it is judgment nonetheless.

It is hard to be just. Even when we recognize the native biases we have that pervert and twist our sense of justice in our own favor, we only do so long enough to pervert and twist our sense of justice in some other way that is equally or even more harmful to our sense of justice. At its core, justice is reciprocity, it is giving people what they deserve, and treating other people as we would wish to be treated. In theory, this is not so hard. We want love and respect, so we therefore treat others with love and respect. We like to be given the benefit of the doubt and so we give others the benefit of the doubt. We like to share our opinion and perspective so we must therefore be patient with others sharing their opinion and perspective. None of this is particularly difficult to understand when we are thinking in the abstract, but something tends to get in the way when we move from the abstract level of understanding reciprocity and get to the level of actually putting it into practice.

Here is where our native bent towards injustice becomes especially difficult to overcome. What we believe is so obvious to us as to be self-evident, but what others believe is not self-evident. Americans are fond of self-evident truths, such as the truths that all men are created equal and that God has endowed them with certain unalienable rights. But the man who drafted these immortal words, one Thomas Jefferson, has come down in history as a rank hypocrite because he claimed the equality of man on the one hand while owning slaves and even keeping a slave mistress after the death of his wife, who happens to have likely been his wife’s half-sister, thus making his legitimate daughters and his secret second family three-quarter siblings. Our generation is particularly harsh to the hypocrisy of the past, the recognition that those who claimed themselves to be egalitarians were, in fact, self-serving and corrupt elites who talked the talk but could not walk the walk. What is less self-evident to us is that we are no better than they were. We can see the hypocrisies of the past clearly because they are in the past, but our own hypocrisies and double standards and lack of reciprocity will only be obvious to those in the future, or those who have some sort of distance from the follies of the present that allow such follies to be seen as they will be seen by those in ages to come.

One of the unfortunate truths of history is that it is easiest to point fingers at the evils that we are most familiar with from our acquaintance with our own dark hearts. Those who hate male privilege the most are those who wish to establish or maintain female privilege. Those who linger the longest on the tyranny of Western imperialists are those who are the most fond of non-Western tyranny. Those who fume about the cronyism of capitalists demonstrate themselves to be cronyist socialists. And so on it goes. We hate evils the most that are the mirror images or even the exact replicas of the evils that are in our own hearts, the evils we know the best from personal experience. When we judge evil, therefore, we very often end up judging ourselves in the very act of judging evil, because we judge evils that we are familiar with, evils that we struggle (often not very successfully) against, evils that we may abhor in others but excuse in ourselves. We are all quick to point the finger at those who judge us, but do not recognize the many ways in which we judge others. The injustices and wrongs we suffer are ever before us, but we are blind to the casual injustices and wrongs we inflict on others. If humanity did not have double standards, it would have no standards at all.

This need not be something to despair over, though. The fact that if we have just standards that they will condemn us as well as others does not mean that our standards are bad. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is only to the extent that our standards do cut us as well as others that we can be sure that our standards are just and holy and good. Those standards which only cut others are inconsistent standards lacking in justice. If we hold some people to a high standard and excuse ourselves for saying and doing the same thing, we affirm that we are hypocrites with self-serving standards that are unworthy of respect and honor. On the contrary, if we affirm standards that other people can hold us accountable to and find us wanting in, then we are hypocrites and sinners–which we would be anyway–but our standards are just and holy and good, worthy of honor and imitation, precisely because we may fall short of them ourselves because those standards are just and fair and not self-serving. If our hatred of evil includes the shadows within ourselves, our hatred of evil is one that simultaneously inoculates us from the self-righteousness that is responsible for so much of the rancor and hostility of so much contemporary discourse.

All of this requires that we judge, but it requires that we judge fairly. And this is by no means an easy task. To judge fairly means to judge us even as we judge others, to recognize the grounds on which we are likely to be biased in our judgment. And if we do this task well, others will recognize us as being different in the way that we judge than other people. They will not necessarily like it or appreciate it, but they will recognize it as different. Even if they do not like our standards or appreciate the measure by which we judge, they will at least do us the honor of judging us where we fall short and holding us accountable for not living up to our noble and righteous standards. And as irritating as that is, when people hold us to our own standards, even if they are people whose life and whose standards are not all that honorable, they do us a favor by holding us accountable. We benefit by being pointed to the mirror of our own just standards, to the extent that these standards are just, even if this act may not ultimately serve the benefit of those who hold us accountable. Even the vilest of hypocrites serves a useful purpose when their natural human tendency to attack the self-serving justifications of others serves to make us less vile hypocrites ourselves. And if we are particularly charitable, we may thank them for the favor, and return it back to them measure for measure.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Measure For Measure

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    The whole point of the matter is to judge ourselves by the same standard that we judge others. This takes the hypocrisy out of the equation. When we hold ourselves accountable, people will notice the difference, even though they may hate what we say. This whole issue is about recognizing right from wrong; being able to condemn wickedness without hating one’s neighbor or society in general–even if it practices hypocrisy. Our mission is to learn to judge with fairness and equity. We must fight our own natural tendencies and seek the high road, even as we advocate for it. Not “throwing stones when we live in glass houses” has meat to it, for the message has little weight when we don’t practice what we preach.

    • Yes, very much so. Hypocrisy is a very frequent element of many efforts at judgment, however, in a variety of way. If we did not have double standards, many people would have none at all.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    I sometimes wonder which is the lesser of the two evils, double standards or none, I suppose that people with no standards might be teachable, but those with double standards aren’t; they have no introspection.

    • That is what I think as well. Someone with no standards might be brought to repentance to have standards, but those who have double standards already think themselves in the right and therefore beyond repentance. That is why, in John 9, Jesus said that if someone admitted that they would blind “they would have no sin,” but the self-righteous Pharisees thought that they saw and scorned the need for repentance, therefore their sin remained.

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