Hitchens and Judge Not

A few years ago, I called my mother and she was very distraught.  Expecting to hear her cheerful voice, I was surprised and concerned and I asked her what the problem was.  She told me that she had had a terrible day and when I asked her to elaborate, this is what she said:

I had jury duty this week and I kept hoping that I wouldn’t get sent to a court room, but I was sent to a court room.  So I hoped that I wouldn’t get picked as a juror and then I was picked as a juror.  And then I listened to the case and this sincere young man said that he didn’t do it and I so wanted to believe him, but the evidence against him was just overwhelming.  I had to vote guilty and I feel terrible about it.

When I heard Christopher Hitchens say that “judge not lest ye be judged” was an evil teaching because it meant that we would live in a society where murderers would roam free, I thought of this incident.  My mother is no Oxford scholar, but she understood a truth that had evidently escaped one of the most brilliant and erudite men of our time.

In some sense, this is not really surprising to me.  Over the years, I have known men who were so motivated by politics that it came to dominate their lives.  As smart as these men were, they became so politically oriented that they were incapable of separating personal life from political life.  Such a man was Christopher Hitchens, I would argue, and my primary line of reasoning would involve his interpretation of the commands of Jesus Christ.  He mistook the personal commands of God to one of his children for a political program and made some poor and undiscerning arguments as a consequence.

I suppose my favorite cultural example of the distinction between the kind of judgment prohibited by the Lord and the kind of judgment advocated by Mr. Hitchens is the movie “Twelve Angry Men”.  One of my favorite movies, the story is an elegant defense of our jury system and the reason why we assume someone innocent until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  This story is a great illustration of the distinction between Jesus prohibited judgment and Hitchens essential judgment because both types of judgment are on display.

The kind of judgment prohibited by the Lord is on display in the bigot who wants to convict the young man regardless of the evidence because, “you know how these people lie”.  The kind of judgment advocated by Hitchens is being exercised by the other characters in the movie who thoughtfully investigate the evidence to determine the question of the young mans guilt or innocence.  As I know from my mother’s example, avoiding the one does not mean you are incapable of the other.

An Interesting Aside

As I was recalling this incident, I remembered an argument that I had with an old friend of mine on the movie “12 Angry Men”.  He lamented the idea that the U.S. criminal justice system gave prosecutors such a high burden of proof because he believed it led to a great deal more crime.  When I argued that the system was in place to prevent innocent men from being imprisoned, he responded that it was just as bad to let a guilty man go free as to imprison someone who was innocent.  At the time, I had no response for his argument.

As I have thought it through over the years, however, I have concluded that the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof  is statistically the best way for the system to work.  The salient fact is that criminals commit more than one crime while an innocent man is only likely to be unjustly accused once.  O.J. Simpson, for example, may have gotten away with the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, but he will still spend most of the rest of his life in prison.  Why?  Because the mindset that leads one to commit a single crime leads one to commit multiple crimes and all we have to do is convict you once to put you away for a long time.

Amendment #1

Reading over this post again and re-watching the Hitchens video, I realize that I was not careful enough to make the necessary distinction between allowed forms of judgement and disallowed forms of judgment.  In my view, Christians are allowed to judge as part of a governmental process based on facts and the principles of justice because government was established by God to prevent evil.  Christians are not allowed to judge and hate others in their own personal lives but must instead love and forgive.  This is the difference between interpreting God’s commands as a political program and interpreting them as essential principles for Christian believers.  Much the same distinction exists between the command, “Thou shalt not kill” and Paul’s attitude toward government sponsored violence in Romans 13.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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8 Responses to Hitchens and Judge Not

  1. askthebigot says:

    It’s so important to make a distinction between the personal response (forgive, turn the other cheek, don’t condemn) and the authority’s role in a matter (to seek out and administer justice). You mom held the for latter role when on jury duty, but she was probably very good at the former in her daily living.

    • My dad’s favorite story about my mother concerned the race riots in Buffalo when I was young. He says that while she was a public health nurse, my mother visited patients in areas where the police and national guard would not go. She is an amazing woman.

  2. Mr. Atheist says:

    “You will remember that Christ said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries. I have known in my time quite a number of judges who were very earnest Christians, and none of them felt that they were acting contrary to Christian principles in what they did.” – Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian

    I’d like to know how Christopher Hitchens used the “judge not” phrase… A link or title or something…

    • I have been watching a ton of him on YouTube and I think he threw it out there on a book tour that was not the God is not Great book tour. I did a quick search for it when I wrote the post, but I couldn’t find it. I will go and look again. It has to be in my history.

  3. Mr. Atheist says:

    I will be here waiting…leaning up against the wall with folded arms. 🙂

    Context is important.

  4. Mr. Atheist says:

    Thank you. I will review.

    I will say (my opinion) that your mother found that young man guilty because the evidence pointed to that fact. She felt bad for the young man’s mother. She felt empathy. She probably thought of you. Probably because she wondered how she might react if that was her son. You. Would she be able to sort the evidence from her feelings? It is not easy.

    I will see what Hitch has to say.

  5. Pingback: Church History | A Thoughtful Christian

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