I don’t hear much about the Judgment of Charity in Christian circles. I get the impression it strikes them like it strikes nonbelievers, as hopelessly naïve and even dangerous. At least, that’s how it struck me. A lovely thought, to be sure, but just not that practical in a depraved world. It’s only been recently that I’ve become convicted that it is in fact a Scripturally required duty.
The Judgment of Charity is basically a presumption of innocence in our dealings with people. Where there’s uncertainty, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. To illustrate how the Judgment of Charity works, suppose someone says something that really hurts your feelings. The Judgment of Charity tries to assume that they didn’t mean it in an offensive way, that they spoke out of ignorance or without thinking, etc. If you know they did it deliberately to offend, you assume they didn’t mean it in as vicious and hateful a way as you took it in, and so on.
Now I know what you’re thinking: sometimes people are clearly trying to hurt us maliciously. True. Jesus and Paul gave very specific instructions for how to deal with people who flagrantly sin against us. They even go so far as to throw the offender out of the Church. Please note this is a last resort and that they make clear that the goal is to bring the person back into the Church as soon as possible once they repent.
Obviously there’s a limit to the Judgment of Charity. There’s nothing in there that says we shouldn’t exercise due diligence before we make a business deal with someone. Proverbs, in fact, says we should. There’s certainly nothing against investigating someone’s record before we decide whether to vote for them. Paul tells the Thessalonians in his second epistle (3:10) that they shouldn’t show charity to the extent that people use it to avoid working for a living. And when Jesus tells us, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16, KJV), He obviously meant we’re to keep an eye out for danger.
But, if we’re honest, how much are we following the duty and how much are we appealing to the exception? Do we find ourselves predisposed to think the best of people, or do we assume the worst first and then pull out Matthew 10:16? Are we like the federal government, stretching the Elastic Clause of the Constitution until it snaps? It sounds dangerous to assume the best of people in such a world as this, but I’ll give you some examples where the Judgment of Charity would have actually saved lives.
We all know the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. William Bligh was tyrant who terrorized his men until Fletcher Christian had no choice but to remove him from command. This is at best fiction and at worst slander. Even a movie that tries to be as fair to Bligh as possible, the 1984 version with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson, finds itself forced to make stuff up to keep Fletcher Christian from looking like the monster he was and make the mutiny look even plausibly justified.
In reality, when you consider the vast authority to punish that British captains had over their men, Bligh looks remarkably lenient. There wouldn’t have been a court-martial in the Royal Navy that would have batted an eye if he had hanged the Bounty’s deserters, which he didn’t. What emerges from the record is a conscientious captain who was concerned for the welfare of both his men and even the natives he was dealing with in Tahiti.
Bligh’s problem was he couldn’t keep his tongue bridled. Caroline Alexander’s explanation of the real reasons for the mutiny makes the most sense to me. Basically Bligh blew up when he found some of his coconuts stolen, and he accused Christian in a fit of pique. Christian became terrified that Bligh would flog him (despite the fact that Bligh often went off the handle without doing anything and that he was still scheduled to eat dinner with him) and was willing to basically murder Bligh and anyone loyal to him by setting him adrift in the middle of the Pacific in a tiny boat. Bligh had had no intention of flogging Christian, but had rather just been blowing off steam. If Christian had taken the words for what they really were, a lot of people would have lived longer.
What happened afterwards anyway? Well, the subsequent events show who was the hero and who was the tyrant. Bligh navigated by memory across the Pacific and got his men to a Dutch colony, but the malaria there and their weakened state after the arduous trip meant some of them died before they could return home. Meanwhile, most of the mutineers returned to stay on Tahiti, where they were captured and many hanged. Christian kidnapped some Tahitians to help the remaining mutineers, and they settled on Pitcairn Island. There Christian’s tyranny led to war between the English and the Tahitians in which most were killed, including Christian himself. By 1800, a year before Bligh saved the day at the Battle of Copenhagen by transmitting Nelson’s order to keep fighting rather than the order to retreat, John Adams had become the sole survivor of the mutineers on Pitcairn Island. It’s hard not to see the blood of the men who died from Bligh’s boat, the mutineers who were hanged, and John Adams’s confreres as being on Fletcher Christian’s head.
Or to take a much bloodier example, consider the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. When the Spanish realized they needed to bring in a new king, they offered the throne to one of Prussia’s royals. The French couldn’t stand the idea of Hohenzollerns to their south as well as to their east, so they sent their ambassador to meet with King Wilhelm even after the plan fell through to make sure no attempt would be made to repeat it. Wilhelm met with the ambassador at Ems with all due courtesy even though he declined to grant his request. A telegram was drafted to report the meeting’s results, but Bismarck, who wanted a war, edited it to make it seem like Wilhelm had insulted the French envoy and released it to the press on Bastille Day. The French in a patriotic huff obliged Bismarck with war without even bothering to ask their ambassador if the telegram had depicted events correctly. As a result, France suffered a devastating defeat in the course of which its capital was shelled and its people had to slaughter the animals in the zoo for meat.
If still you think me naïve, you will think so no longer when I describe the Scriptural proofs that convinced me that the Judgment of Charity is a duty. I’ll start with the example my pastor gave me when I was wondering if it was required or just a nice thought. The Bible has stringent words about anger. Matthew 5:22 basically says it can be a sin that will get you sent to Hell (note: can be, not always is). I John 3:15 says hating your brother is murdering him. With such things at stake, is it not the wisest, safest course to put the best spin on things and use anger only as a last resort? Thinking the best of someone is one of the best ways to avoid becoming angry and wrathful.
Jonathan Edwards in Charity and Its Fruits said that the Judgment of Charity is explicitly commanded in I Corinthians 13:5 when it says that Charity “thinketh no evil” (KJV). If we love someone, obviously we should not want to think ill of them but rather think the best of them we can. This seems to be in the same vein as what Peter is getting at when he says, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves, for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).
Most tellingly, there’s the famous Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (KJV). Now, when we get caught saying or doing something sinful, what’s one of the first things we do? We start making excuses and rationalizing to make it less evil. Surely we want people to do the same for us and not think basely of us just because of a moment of indiscretion, and therefore we should extend the same courtesy to them. Actually, Jesus explicitly says we should because, “With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2, KJV).
And simply as a practical matter, there’s C.S. Lewis’s observation that we’re not allowed to judge probably because we’re not omniscient. If someone says something we don’t like, we tend to assume they know everything we know and deliberately meant to be hurtful, but we just don’t know everything. I know I’ve had my share of mortifying moments where I’ve heard something, become highly critical (even citing Scripture), and then had to eat crow when I heard the rest of the story. If I’d used the Judgment of Charity, I might have avoided such embarrassment.
The Judgment of Charity sounds impractical in a world marked by sin, but it is thoroughly Scriptural. It usually just means deciding doubtful matters in favor of the other person. Be as shrewd as a serpent, of course, but that doesn’t mean you have to put everything in the worst possible light.