Sunday, September 16, 2012

Matthew 7:1 and mainstreaming pathology

Publicity still from Yellow
According to director Nick Cassavetes, incest is “super-weird” ... but ultimately no real problem.

Cassavetes, whose new movie Yellow centers on a sexual relationship between a brother and sister, says his movie “is about judgment, and lack of it, and doing what you want.  Who gives a s*** if people judge you?  I’m not saying this is an absolute but in a way, if you’re not having kids — who gives a damn?  Love who you want.  Isn’t that what we say?  Gay marriage — love who you want?  If it’s your brother or sister it’s super-weird, but if you look at it, you’re not hurting anybody except every single person who freaks out because you’re in love with one another.”

This is wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Superficially, Cassavetes would seem to have a point if — and only if — we grant that people are entitled to be psychologically damaged so long as they’re not cutting throats or torching houses … that is, so long as they’re only hurting themselves.  This is nonsense on the face of it; it’s as if we were discussing a right to contract bubonic plague or an entitlement to leprosy.


… I don’t mind taking a stand on the side of inherent, human truth when twisting it confines people to psychological pathology and leaves them forever in pain.  So, here you go:  Sisters and brothers who have sexual affairs are not well.  They need help sorting out and overcoming psychological suffering and terrifying traumas that visited them long ago.I’m here to help them, in part by telling them that, even if they are in denial about the underlying suffering fueling their symptoms (incest), they will have to confront it, eventually.


Cassavetes says his film is about “judgment, and lack of it, and doing what you want”, which is all to say that his film is supposed to be about judgmentalism.  It might pay us at another time to look at the contradiction between insisting on a right to affordable, accessible healthcare on one hand, and on the other holding it the height of tolerance and enlightenment to let people confine themselves to an unhealthy mental/emotional life. 

Right now, though, it appears as though Cassavetes is ready to slap us in the face with Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  Is this what Jesus means — that, when confronted with evil (or at least disordered) behavior, we Christians must hold our tongues and suffer it to continue?  Or worse: Can we not even call anything evil, for fear we should be damned by our own definitions?

If such were the case, I would blame no person with a healthy moral compass for rejecting Christ.  Even people who claim that there is no objective right or wrong quickly convert to moral absolutism (at least for the appropriate moment) when confronted with certain evils such as pedophilia — not because they’re conscious hypocrites but because they’re human.  As it is, within the bounds of the Christian Church, our sanctification lies in avoiding evil and doing good: “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit” (Mt 12:33; cf. Lk 6:44).[1]  So if we can’t properly discern between good and evil, how then shall we do the one and avoid the other?

Of course, the fallacy is apparent once we read the next few lines:

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log 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 brother’s eye (Mt 7:1-5 RSV).

The teaching is not against judgmentalism so much as it is against hypocrisy, a theme which runs throughout the Gospel of Matthew.[*]  As St. Paul says, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.  It is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.  Then every man will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor 4:4-5).  And again:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:24-27).

However, we are called on to make disciples of all nations and to teach them all that Jesus commanded (Mt 28:19-20).  This necessarily entails teaching about evil, admonishing people to avoid it, and even separating ourselves from those who continue in it (Mt 18:15-20), as well as avoiding it ourselves.  Can we fulfill this portion of the Great Commission if we hold ourselves forbidden to discern good from evil?  No.  Saint James uses the example of telling an ill-clad, hungry person “Keep warm and well-fed” to demonstrate how empty faith is without works (Jas 2:14-17, 21-26); we count it just as empty to tell a person to “do good and avoid evil” without teaching him what good and evil are.

Furthermore, as Bl. John Paul II said, “The real purpose of civil law is to guarantee an ordered social coexistence in true justice, so that all may ‘lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way’ (1 Tim 2:2)”.[2]  This requires that, as both a public body and as individuals, we discern between good and evil, and that we set laws against evil so as to minimize harm and maximize the benefits of citizenship.

Cassavetes asks, “Who gives a s*** whether people judge you?”, in the belief that the correct answer should be “Nobody”.  But the fact is, one mark of a good man is that he esteems the approval of other good men, and seeks to associate himself with them.  Edmund Burke almost certainly never said anything about evil triumphing when good men do nothing.  However, he did say, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”[3]  Flouting the opinions of others doesn’t prove a strong mind so much as it displays at best a willful immaturity, at worst a foolish egotism verging on narcissism.[4]

Another mark of the good man is that he cares for and about others.  Doctor Ablow remarks, “In our increasingly psychologically ill society, the mainstreaming of psychiatric pathology — what one of my mentors termed, ‘collaborating with madness’ — passes for tolerance and enlightenment.”  While a society that regulates too much may suffocate and oppress, a society that makes whole ranges of human behavior “somebody else’s problem” because “it’s not hurting me” eventually falls apart.  To stop caring about others is to stop being human; as Terence wrote, “I am a man, and nothing that concerns a man do I deem a matter of indifference to me.”[5]  A person who cares ought not remain silent when those he cares for engage in self-destruction.

Finally, we have a moral duty to tell the truth to people to whom the truth is owed.  “Every word or attitude is forbidden which by flattery, adulation, or complaisance encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct. … Neither the desire to be of service nor friendship justifies duplicitous speech.”[6]  Even observing “an appropriate reserve” about private lives,[7] it’s morally wrong to give anyone a pretext for thinking their behavior healthy when in fact it’s harmful to themselves.

In the sense used by Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5, judgment refers to the judgment of souls, a function specifically belonging to the Son of Man at the end of all things (Mt 25:31-46).  It was never meant to keep us from writing laws or defining bright-line standards of acceptable behavior, but rather to remind us that we too are sinners, that the first saint of the Church was not Stephen but Dismas, the criminal to whom the Lord said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).

We may be forbidden to judge the souls of the incestuous, but we’re still morally compelled to tell the truth.  The truth is that sex is not love, and that there are loves in which eros does not belong.


[*] See, for instance,  chap. 15, vv.1-20; and chap. 23, vv.1-7, 13-31.


[1] For more on faith and sanctification, see “Apologetics toolbox: faith vs. works”.
[3] Burke, Edmund. (1770). “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents”. From Select Works of Edmund Burke: A New Imprint of the Payne Edition, Vol. 1. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (1999), p. 146. Retrieved September 15, 2012 from The Online Library of Liberty: http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/796/20353.
[7] CCC 2492.