Sermon given at the Judges' Service 2014

1 October 2014 at 11:00 am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian

From this pulpit, earlier this year, a memorable judgement was delivered. It was given by Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Capetown at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

He first described a context: 'I come from a country', he said, 'which systematically degraded black people: only a few years ago it sported road signs reading "Drive carefully - natives cross here"…' (also adding, by the way, with glee, how one of the signs had been amended with graffiti: "Drive carefully – natives very cross here"!). He then re-told the narrative of Mandela's resistance to the State, his incarceration, release, and his miraculous magnanimity which helped create a new State - birthed not through blood-letting but through truth and reconciliation: yes, still an imperfect state, but still a miracle.

Then came the specific judgement I'm referring to. Tutu toyed with a counterfactual. 'What if?' What if Mandela had not been released? Of course, he was released: so Tutu then said three times, from the heart, simply: 'thank you': a thank you said specifically to the largely white, liberal, international anti-apartheid movement, for their contribution to Mandela's release.

Why do I say that simple, gracious, 'thank you' was a memorable judgement?

I define judgement (not in legal terms but, I think, with some similarities) like this: a moral discernment pronounced on a state of affairs which by the act of pronouncing it also establishes a new moral climate. And in those terms Tutu's pronouncement that the anti-apartheid movement should be publicly thanked is a significant judgement. It challenged - equally - residual black bitterness, post-colonial suspicion, and the paralysing self-loathing of liberal whites; so it helped construct a new moral climate; one in which all genuine efforts of goodness and justice could actually be believed, not debunked - not only those of Mandela but of white liberals too.

Judgements work most powerfully in this way from someone who has high profile and real moral authority (something that particular 'very cross native' Desmond Tutu has in spades!). But in fact all public figures, whether in the judiciary, politics, arts, entertainment, church, media, military have this potential. Even when there is scepticism about their institutions, individuals within them can still have effect with their judgements. In personal life too: we all have some power to create new moral climates by judgements we express just in personal relationships, in ordinary social contexts, what we say in social media. For good or ill, judgements have effect. They are acts not just words.

Why this reminder of the power of judgements? – to judges, of all people, who surely need no reminding!

Simply because, if judgements matter so much, this is also a reminder how much it matters how we resource them. Or rather, how we resource ourselves. For effective judgement is never just something we can pluck from the shelf of a factually well-stocked mind - it also flows from our personal dispositions, our character. There were profound personal resources lying behind Tutu's judgement of thanks: deep dispositions of faith, hope, humility, grace, humour, realism.

How, then, are these sorts of things formed in us?

God and religion can be the worst possible source. The idea of God as an absolute source of wisdom to whose mind we have crystal clear access, that fundamentalist travesty of religion (in any form), as we know can be a root of terror not good judgement. But religion in its truest register, where God is indeed an absolute source of wisdom, but one to which we have only limited, refracted access - the God of whom& we just heard who is as far beyond our full grasp 'as the heavens are to grasshoppers', whose mind we know best through a lived life not in absolute propositions - that sort of faith is indeed a profound resource. It sets conditions for good judgement precisely by dispositions it forms in us.

In particular, it helps forms the vital twin dispositions of a deep seriousness and humility in our judgements. Seriousness follows because such a God means there really is an absolute moral truth about things - it really does exist, in that mind of 'one who sits above the circle of the earth'. And that means we are bound always to try to find this objective truth and right judgement: we can never be cynical, never relax just into easy relativism. Yet humility also follows, inextricably, precisely because this absolute judgement belongs fully only to God not us: we, as creatures of God, are by definition limited by contingency, finitude, fallen-ness.

For those who can brook no idea of God at all the resources of humanism surely offer something similar. The best instincts and principles of humanism (including notions of basic human rights) also offer a creed which is both binding and supple. Humanism too holds us with utmost seriousness to an objective truth - the fundamental equality of us all; yet it also helps us see the particularities of being human, which forbid us from making absolute judgements about how that equality can actually work in particular situations; so it too sets limits to our wisdom. Hegel was right. As the Owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk, total wisdom only comes at the end of time, not now. Humanism, like religion, offers its moral wisdom with seriousness, but also with humility.

These resources of religion, philosophy, literature form such dispositions in us especially, I suggest, through their stories, not just their propositions. They become part of our character best when we immerse ourselves in their narratives, in the experience of the lived lives they relate, rather than the ideas they propagate. So we should pay attention to these luminous stories they tell; those stories which keep rhyming with us. It is often stories, not propositions, which for religious believers offer the best windows onto God's mind, however partial; and which for secularists prove their worth simply by experience. Read again, for example, the stories of Jesus's judgements: his judgements about a woman caught in adultery, and his judgements about those who accused her.; his judgements about dispossessed people, and people of power and privilege; his judgements about children. Ponder again the judgements and stories of Rumi the Prophet, Shakespeare, Sophocles. Ponder - and if you are inclined, pray too.

It is notable that many who have given the most effective judgement in critical times have indeed drawn deeply on these sorts of resources. Mandela, Tutu, certainly. And to take just one other example: some 60 years ago, during those major cold war crises played out with Russia, China, Gaza, Suez, the Congo (and how strangely history too still rhymes!), extraordinarily creative judgements were being made by the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld. They were judgements which sustained hope, gave purpose, created new moral climates. He certainly drew deeply from the wells of faith, literature, philosophy. He knew they could form him well. In his own words: diplomacy, politics, law are 'no mere play of will and skill': they depend on faith and well-formed character.

But this isn't just for the world stage. We are all charged with this. For the sake of good judgement, we are all charged, as the historic origins of this service bid us, not only to feed the factual furniture of our minds, but also to feed our souls.

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