Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Charitable Judgments

A short news item caught my eye this week. The article noted that Michael Vick addressed a group of people at a Washington, D.C. church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city on Tuesday, accompanied by the president and CEO of the Humane Society. Vick told the sparse crowd that dogfighting is pointless and he doesn’t know why he risked his career for it. “I got caught up in the culture. I never thought I would get caught. I used poor judgment. I had people around me who didn’t have my best interests at heart.” While playing quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, Vick would go home to Virginia every week to fight dogs. “For what reason, I don’t know to this day. Something so pointless.”

Vick was a college football phenom at Virginia Tech who went on to star at quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. In 2007 he was implicated in an extensive interstate dog-fighting ring that had operated for five years. Vick pled guilty to federal felony charges and was sentenced to twenty-three months in prison, during which time he declared bankruptcy. It was a stunning public fall from grace. Moreover, because of the details which emerged of the brutal practices he employed as the owner of Bad Newz Kennels, he became the object of intense public debate about whether he should be allowed to re-enter the NFL after his release from prison. Vick subsequently has been reinstated and currently plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. He also spends time speaking at inner-city schools and in other public venues warning children not to repeat his mistakes.

Critics have noted that Vick’s public talks lack some of the key words and tone associated with remorse. For instance, saying the whole thing was “pointless” does not have the same ring it would if he said how “horrible” and “inexcusable” his treatment of dogs was.

But I’d like to suggest we give the man the benefit of the doubt. Let’s make a charitable judgment. What if he knows he committed a federal crime, outraged the public, and did wrong, but does not feel his actions were as despicable as many others do? The man is still “bearing fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). He has paid his debt to society by serving his prison term and is now trying to use his stunningly self-destructive downfall as a teaching example for children growing up in poor and crime-riddled neighborhoods who may be susceptible to similar unsavory influences. Will we now parse his every word and voice inflection for signs of sincerity and thereby judge his inner motives? Don’t each of us often have motives that are laced with self-interest?

This, I think, is one of the things Jesus is saying in Luke 6:27-38, from which I am preaching this week. He’s saying make charitable judgments about people (6:37). He’s saying measure others with the measure you want to be used on you (6:38). He’s saying treat others the way you want others to treat you (6:31). Evaluate people by their actions. If they are bad actions, criticize them. But if they are good actions, don’t assign or assume impure motives behind them unless you have a concrete basis for doing so or would want others to do the same to you.

Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36). It is often difficult.


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