One of Martin Luther King’s most famous statement’s from his “I Have a Dream” speech was the part when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It’s a statement that is oft-repeated, but I think it is a little misunderstood. It can be likened to the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We use it to express the idea that there may be more to whatever’s being judged than what we can gather from its most visible features.
Generally speaking it is reasonably good advice. But, it is incomplete advice. When MLK made his statement, notice that he did not say that he didn’t expect his children to be judged in this nation at all, which is often how we take the “Don’t judge a book by its cover” statement. Rather, he implied that he wanted them to be judged correctly. Judging by externals is always incomplete. That’s why his dream was that they would be judged by the content of their character instead. In other words, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Do judge it by it’s content. And “believe me folks”, this goes both ways. We usually think we shouldn’t judge negatively while forgetting that judging positively by externals can be just as off and incomplete. The fact is that sometimes you get a book that looks awesome on the outside, but turns out to be crap on the inside.
What’s That In Your Eye?
The Bible talks a lot about the perils of inadequate judging. And yet, according to many polls and personal accounts, many of us who claim to subscribe to its teachings are considered to be some of the most judgemental people around. It is so hard to dispute this that the less “judgey” of us are sometimes afraid to be judged by the more “judgey” of us for not judging others enough. That being said, we probably aren’t any more judgemental than other groups who think they have all of the answers. We just have a bigger budget and a whole lot of practice. So don’t take it too personally if we come at you like that. That’s just what humans do–especially if we’ve had the experience of being on the receiving end of harsh judgments. Jesus and the prophets knew this. That’s why the Jews were always told to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and why Jesus warned about judgment so much and encouraged his followers to treat people as we want to be treated rather than treating them as we were treated. Obviously we are still working on this.
One of the most well known Christian teachings on non-judgment is the one about not telling someone that they have a speck in their eye when we have a plank in our eye. The point of it is that we need to work on ourselves instead of or before telling other people about themselves. But, the part we often miss in this teaching is the part where it says, “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother/sister’s eye.”
As I understand it, the complete teaching goes beyond the idea of judging unjustly and into working on ourselves so that we can see clearly to show people where they too could benefit from cleaning out their eyes so to speak. When we see clearly, we see possibilities that we never knew were there before. In the video below, I talk about an incident where I had an opportunity to help someone see new possibilities once he was made aware that my cover did not reveal my content.
Context Context Context
Finally, once we get pass the cover and get into the content of a book, we must remember the influence of context upon what is understood. This includes both the context of the “book” as well as the context of the “reader”. We are all influenced by so much that it is easy to understand why so many of us take the path of least resistance when it comes to encountering things we don’t understand. Even in the face of information that contradicts our assumptions and indoctrinated beliefs, many of us will still hold on to false narratives simply because we can’t bear the burden of admitting our limits.
Complete judgment is not the idea of making final judgments, but rather judging with the most complete and honest information available. It is only accessible to those who are willing to empty themselves of prejudgments and assumptions by being present with the experiences we are actually having rather than trying to make them conform to our preprogrammed expectations. When we do this, we open ourselves to infinite possibilities. To encounter life with fresh eyes is what Jesus was going for when he taught that only those who approach the kingdom as children can enter. For them, even what we would consider to be the most mundane event, invites in whole worlds of wonder.
As a father like Martin Luther King Jr., my dream is that my children will be able to maintain that presence of mind so that the content of their character is that of someone who embodies infinite possibilities for themselves and sees clearly enough to see the possibilities in others as well. More than that, this is my hope for all people. Let me know if you would like to see this too.