Back in the 1990s, when I was an instructor at Emerson College in Boston, they needed someone to be the Jewish chaplain; our previous Jewish chaplain was ill, as I recall, and a replacement hadn't yet been named. I was asked to fill in for a semester, because (a) I was Jewish, (b) I had taught comparative religions for years, and was familiar with Scripture, and (c) I had a background in counseling. I was also fairly well known to the students, most of whom seemed to like me. And that's how I became Emerson's Jewish chaplain, joining the school's Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains (there may have been chaplains for other faiths, but I don't recall).
It was an interesting semester. I listened to students with various problems; I read Bible verses with them (if they wanted me to); and above all, I tried to be a source of comfort and encouragement to them during difficult times. But there was something else I recall about the experience-- not one of the students who came to see me was Jewish. In fact, they were all Catholic.
Fortunately, I knew something about the Catholic religion: my dearest friend for nearly four decades was a nun. I tried to imagine what she would say to the students, if she were sitting with them; and in the end, I hope they felt I was a good listener, who offered them compassion and good advice. Whether they were in my religious tradition or not, they were human beings seeking comfort-- and I tried my best to provide it.
What brought the memory of my semester as a chaplain back to me was a tweet I saw several days ago, from an Evangelical Christian commentator named Erick Erickson. He took Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to task-- but not for any of his policies (which wouldn't have bothered me-- people can disagree on politics and still respect each other). However, Mr. Erickson decided to criticize Mayor Pete for being the wrong denomination of Christian: "Just a reminder that Pete Buttigieg is an Episcopalian, so his understanding of Christianity isn't very deep or serious."
I'm not an Episcopalian, but I was deeply and seriously offended. Perhaps Mr. Erickson was sleeping the day his church had the Bible study on the dangers of being judgmental. Perhaps he forgot that the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, says all of us are imperfect and all of us have disappointed God on numerous occasions, and that God alone is the Judge. But he had to let everyone know that his interpretation of religion was superior and everyone else's is just plain wrong.
I thought back to the students who came to see me when I was the chaplain-- some told me about problems related to drugs, or cheating on an exam, or some other negative behavior. They were ashamed. They felt they couldn't tell others what they had done. So they told me. And should I have chastised these students and let them know that they had violated Scripture? Would it have helped the situation if I were just one more person expressing my disappointment in them? Somehow, I think not. And while I didn't praise what they had done, I also didn't pass judgment-- I mainly tried to understand, and get them to look at how they could make amends.
I guess that's why I was bothered by Mr. Erickson's tweet: it reminded me that we are living in a time when too many people want to let us know that they are so much holier than we are. And yet, if Jesus or Moses or some other great spiritual leader were to come back to earth, I wonder how they would feel about all these folks who think it's their duty to let us know we've failed their purity test. I know it's human nature to see the other person's flaws (and not look at our own); but I think we'd have a better world if we could all learn to be more forgiving and less judgmental...
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