Judge, if You Must, but Curb the Glee: Notes from Las Vegas

Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, points to a photograph of Jeffrey Epstein as he announces the financier’s charges of sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors, in New York, N.Y., July 8, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)Wisdom makes cooperators rather than rivals out of justice and mercy.

 Las Vegas, Nevada — Judge not, lest ye be judged” is the most abused line in the Bible and possibly the most tortured and misunderstood sentence in English. (Perhaps the passage is clearer in Matthew’s original Greek or in other translations. Hit me up, New Testament scholars.) “Judge not!” is practically the municipal motto here in Las Vegas: What happens in Sodom . . . But of course we must judge. We must do justice and mercy, protect the vulnerable, enforce the law, maintain order — and none of that is possible without judgment. We value judgment above all in public men and those who are entrusted with important affairs. (Well . . .) When your children are going the wrong way in life, when you meet at addict, when your neighbor keeps showing up with unexplained bruises on her face, Judge not! is the worst of all possible advice.

And yet . . .

Did I ever tell you how I came to oppose capital punishment? In the 1990s, I went to write about a protest outside the prison in which Texas conducts its executions. There was a small group of people voicing their opposition to the execution — the usual hippies and protest hobbyists. They were pretty dusty. There was also a much larger and more expressive group cheering on Old Sparky — and they were having a great time. It was a rave, and their eyes were shining, and they were alive with joy. The horror of the scene, it seemed to me, was not what was being done to the man inside the walls of the prison — who surely had it coming — but what was being done to the citizens gathered outside those walls.

You may have observed a similar phenomenon in less dramatic circumstances. There are some people who when gossiping about some moral outrage or act of depravity positively glow. Their eyes light up as they relate the details of the crime, and they smile or even laugh as they articulate their disgust.

Maybe King David was one of those. Having betrayed his comrade Uriah and taken the man’s wife, Bathsheba, as his own, David is rebuked by the prophet Nathan, who tells him a story:

There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.

The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:

But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:

And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.

And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.

Which is to say, King David judged and was judged in turn. Nathan passes along a direct message from God: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.” But David wanted more even than that, and he — see if this starts to sound familiar — wanted it on his own terms. Powerful men are like that. Men who aren’t powerful are like that, too, but you hear less about them, because they generally have less capacity for bending the world to their will. King David, as our Evangelical friends like to put it, was convicted. He confesses his wrongdoing and repents. Reminding us that the God of the Bible often has a sense of justice that is fundamentally at odds with our own, the Almighty kills David’s son to settle the score. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Big on killing sons, the God of the Bible is. “Oh, you must find your faith very comforting,” they always tell us.

Do you think David’s eyes shone with glee when he pronounced death on the rich man in Nathan’s story? I’ll bet they did. I’ll bet he was ready to go all Old Testament on that rotten so-and-so, that sorry whatever the really really ancient Hebrew was for “rat bastard.” Some Christians travel the world looking for fragments of Noah’s ark or ancient inscriptions because they want to prove that the Bible is true. They’re up there on Mount Ararat, snuffling around in the caves, on the hunt. But they have climbed the wrong mountain.

King David? I know that guy. If you want to meet him, you can find him at Starbucks, you can find him down at Circus Circus drinking a watery rum cocktail and playing bleep-bleep-bloop-bloop Wheel of Fortune–themed video games, you can find him down on the floor at any political convention. Standing outside the death chamber, everybody facing the same direction and chanting “Burn, baby, burn!” and aflame with glory. Up and down the Vegas strip, a whole raggedy army of them, marching in flipflops and sun hats. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. How do you recognize him?

Ask Nathan. He knows.

The news for the past few weeks has been full of Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly, two men who are different in trivial ways but nearly identical where it matters most, which is not their shared taste for gold chains. Both have been indicted under federal law for crimes involving sexual relations with underage girls. Epstein already is a convicted sex offender and is under federal indictment for trafficking; Kelly has not been convicted of any crime, was previously acquitted on similar charges, and, in spite of what certainly appears to be a mountain of evidence, categorically denies wrongdoing in the matter. Innocent until proven guilty and all that — as a legal matter.

But: Judge not?

We’re going to judge. Of course we are. We are going to judge and judge and and judge and, if the evidence ends up looking like what the evidence certainly looks like it’s going to look like, we are going to just judge the hell out of them both. We must. Wisdom makes cooperators rather than rivals out of justice and mercy, and while even the worst monsters have a claim on our mercy, the victims of these monstrous crimes have a claim, too. About that there is no question. It is stipulated. We are going to judge them righteously.

And, inevitably, self-righteously. There are already the late-night comedy routines, the prison-rape jokes on social media, the attempts to use one man or the other or both to make some kind of political point. Of course, they have it coming. So did that guy who was being put to death in Texas. So did the man in Nathan’s parable. So did King David. And, then as now, there is a real moral danger for those of us standing outside the prison walls looking in — pruriently, self-righteously, indignantly, eyes blazing, stoned on outrage, hearts full of merciless joy. We are having a great time. We are going to enjoy this too much.

“Judge not!” is a specifically Christian maxim, and although the wisdom contained therein may be fruitfully incorporated into the moral philosophy of those who do not affirm the gospel, it imposes specific burdens on Christians and presents us with particular challenges, assuming that there is more to our faith than the proposition that Jesus is our buddy and sometimes helps us win the scratchers. And here we begin to take shelter in the plural: “All of us are fallen,” the affirmation goes, “all of us have fallen short of the glory of God.” Original sin, “total depravity” as the Presbyterians say, is kept at a little bit of safe intellectual distance by emphasizing that it is a universal condition. “It is certain that there is no one who is not covered with infinite filth,” as the hygienically minded John Calvin put it. It is not, strictly speaking, rational for the individual to feel less shame about his undignified state simply because all his friends are in the same hamartiological pickle as him, but we do.

And that creates a little bit of an opening for error: “Oh, sure, we’re all fallen creatures, all in a universal condition of total depravity, but that guy is a real m——r.” In his most famous poem, Father Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the moment of Christian redemption this way: “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am.” (To which John Calvin would no doubt add the parenthetical: “Filth!”) Christians do not believe that they meet their Savior because they are good but precisely because they need a Redeemer, and it is in the depths of the darkness that they encounter Him. The Incarnation referenced by Hopkins bridges the cosmic gulf between the fallen creature and that from which he has fallen. And what did the crucified messiah find when He descended into Hell? Only us. What do we — and it is remarkably easier to say we than I, isn’t it? — find when we descend into the muck and darkness and vileness of the crimes of R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein? Do we have the moral courage to answer: Only us? That, whatever the particulars of the case (which are not trivia), we are what they are — and not “all at once” but, rather, are and always have been. Nietzsche did not have it quite right: When you look into the abyss, it is not the abyss that looks into you — it is your own face, my own face, there, staring back from the shadows, awful and depraved but also fearfully and wonderfully made. Nietzsche and his swaggering epigones were right to hate and fear the moral edifice built upon the foundation of that truth: It is radically at odds with what they love and most esteem. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. Not even Jeffrey Epstein or R. Kelly.

David the king was also David the psalmist. And he also went into the darkness.

Whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Even the darkness will not be dark.

Why would David want to flee his Lord? And if we follow into the darkness and chaos, what will we find there?

Only us.

While Christians are off looking for the lost metatarsals of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, patron saint of dysentery, the nonbelievers may look at all this mumbo-jumbo we’re always going on about — incarnation, death, resurrection, redemption — and ask, not unreasonably, “Isn’t this all a bit . . . involved?” You might think that the Author of the Universe would come up with a more efficient and more direct way of going about His daily business than taking on human form in some backwater of the Roman Empire to complicate the wedding plans of two ancient Palestinian Jews and organize yet another Levantine wine cult. Why not just wave the old Omnipotent Hand and magic things back into paradise and perfection? William Greenough Thayer Shedd, a 19th-century American theologian who was blessed with a superabundance of names and sideburns both, saw the affair as a kind of grand police proceeding: “The law is obligated to punish the transgressor as much as the transgressor is obligated to obey the law,” he wrote. “Law has no option. Justice has but one function. The necessity of penalty is as great as the necessity of obligation. The law itself is under law; that is, it is under the necessity of its own nature; and therefore the only possible way whereby a transgressor can escape the penalty of the law, is for a substitute to endure it for him. The deep substrata and base of all God’s ethical attributes are eternal law and impartial justice.” If you are like me, you might think there’s a little intellectual base-stealing going on somewhere between “a substitute to endure it for him” and “eternal law and impartial justice.” The innocent are punished, and the guilty escape the rightful penalty laid out for them — how is that justice?

Would we think it justice if Jeffrey Epstein paid a substitute to do his time for him?

Of course we are talking here about two very different things: The ordinary administration of criminal justice under the law and the redemption of mankind under Providence. But the latter must to some extent inform the former for Christian citizens — which is to say, for those of us who believe that religious principle has a home in the public square as well as in the confines of the church. Which brings us right back to: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” King David made many mistakes and committed many crimes, but there is a maturity and a clarity in the psalmist who understood that God saw through him and into him, that there was no place to hide from that reality, and that God nonetheless did not reject or abandon him. Even in His terrible vengeance — taking the life of David’s child as a substitute for the transgressing king himself — He did not simply abandon the reckless man to the outer dark.

It is easy to imagine the glee with which the people might have expounded on the crimes of the king. (Though perhaps they may have been more circumspect; an errant ruler was an extremely dangerous thing in those days, even before Twitter.) It is a powerful story — we still sing songs about it. The judgment on David was terrible, which surely did not go unremarked upon — indeed, the king was closely watched throughout the episode, at the end of which he does something extraordinary.

It came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead?

But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.

Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshiped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.

Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.

And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?

But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast?

King David appears to exhibit an almost superhuman equanimity in the face of the death of his son, whose life was taken by a wrathful and vengeful God — and David’s first act after the killing of his son is to go to worship the killer. But David knew himself and was honest with himself. He was not an innocent. His crimes had been heinous. Saint Paul would later describe himself as the “chief of sinners.” Peter “wept bitterly” at his own cowardly lies denying his association with the condemned Jesus. “Yes, we are all fallen, but I’m no R. Kelly.” But Paul? But Peter? But King David?

The point of law is to encourage human flourishing. It is, properly understood, a utilitarian concern. We could get by perfectly well without it, if we didn’t mind living in a world in which there was a great deal of uncertainty, in which disputes were settled by bonking one another on the head, and in which the main deterrent to antisocial behavior was ad hoc violence. We could simply tear Jeffrey Epstein to pieces on the street for his crimes and maybe argue a little bit over whether that is proportionate. (“The police are just a janitorial service used to clean up your blood after you’ve been murdered,” as the philosopher Wynn Duffy observed.) But we don’t do that. We have a piece of social technology called law, which helps us to have some security and predictability in our lives, which in turn allows for things like trade, investment, the provision of public goods, and other life-enhancing social practices. And it is to that end that criminal law is properly administered.

But what about vengeance? The desire for it is not necessarily wrong or discreditable. But I do not want to put that particular loaded gun in the hands of the people chanting “Burn, baby, burn!” at executions or entrust it to the political system that brought us both Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Anger makes you stupid, and self-righteous anger makes you stupid and dangerous. And if there is to be a mode of modern citizenship that has a particularly Christian character, it should begin not with arrogant crusading and joyous heretic-burning but with moral and political humility. Spend a little time here in Las Vegas and tell me whether you think we should moderate our expectations of democracy just a teensy bit. If we really believe what we say we believe — that we are made of the same stuff as R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein — then perhaps it is enough for us to seek to secure decent and regular administration of the law, reasonable public order, such prevention of harm as we can manage, and a measure of rehabilitation for those who can be rehabilitated. If we must judge and punish — and we must — then let us do so only because it is a mournful necessity, not for the love of the act itself and its power, or for the seductive pleasures afforded to us by detestation, reckoning, and hatred.

Thou art the man, Nathan said. And we say we believe it. But when we are put to the test — “Don’t drop the soap in the prison shower, ha! ha! ha!” King David, standing on the roof of his splendid palace, could think only of what he did not have, that gnawing terrible empty place inside that can be filled with many different things, not the least of which is the satisfaction of vengeance. But the desire for power will do, too, as will ordinary lust, greed, ambition, wine, resentment, sloth: Vegas, baby! — all that neon out here in the holy quiet desert, and that compaction of id and appetite and anxiety, a golden tower looming in the background crowned by the squat serif letters “Trump.” That’s one way to fill up the hole in the middle of you. Better to fill it with something else first — something better. That it now requires an act of almost heroic imagination to begin to discover what that might be also testifies to our fallen state, and suggests, more than a little bit, that we don’t even remember which way is up.

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