The Speck and the Beam 

Black and white image of an eye.BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“And why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but the beam in your own eye you overlook? How can you say to your brother: Let me throw out the speck from your eye, and just look at the beam in your own eye? Hypocrite, first throw out from your own eye the beam, and then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.” (Q 6:41-42) 

Luke 6.41-42: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7.3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Gospel of Thomas 26: “Jesus says: ‘You see the splinter that is in your brother’s eye, but you do not see the beam that is in your own eye. When you remove the beam from your own eye, then you will see clearly enough to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.’”

This week, we are looking at a saying of Jesus that’s become quite well-known here in the U.S. thanks to the culture wars of the last century. The saying has various names, but the two most popular are The Mote and the Beam or Jesus’s Discourse on Judgmentalism. 

This saying is at the root of Tony Compolo’s popular retort, “Jesus did not teach ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ Jesus taught ‘love the sinner, hate your own sin.’” (Read Campolo’s article, Why Love the Sinner Hate the Sin Doesn’t Work.) Historically, Campolo is right: the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” doesn’t come from Jesus. It came from a phrase that St. Augustine used in one of his 5th Century letters: “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” (Letter 211). The Latin can be translated “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” But we have no record of Jesus ever using this phrase or any like it. It is a phrase that Christians have used, but one that is foreign to the teachings of Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi also gave a pointed response to it in his time as he reflected on the legacy of the Christian British colonialists in India:

“Man and his deed are two distinct things. Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be. ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world . . . For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being, but with him the whole world.” [Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Desai, Mahadev (2008-08-27). An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (pp. 143-144). Emphasis added.]

For Jesus, if one wanted to be a source of healing and help in the wider world, the place to begin was with introspection. Ultimately this close attention does go beyond one’s self—“then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.”—but it does begin with one’s self “first.” What does this mean?

I can’t answer this question for you, but I can share with you what it has meant for me.

Introspection: My Experience

I’m a white, cisgender, heterosexual American man. I have to come to grips with what that means in this society before I can help to make the world a safer, more compassionate place. When it comes to privilege in America, with the exception of not having degrees from institutions of higher learning, I’m the poster child, and I have to explore my blind spots before I can deeply serve others who are different from me.

I’ve learned that I cannot do this alone. I could probably make some progress by sitting quietly, contemplating my place in the status quo. But I’m not sure that listening to the voices within my own head would produce that much change: it would only push me deeper into my own perceptions. What I need is the voices of others.

There are many ways one can encounter others’ voices. As I shared last week, I have chosen a non-defensive posture of listening to those whose experience is not like my own. I have also encountered others by reading as many books as I can digest from those whose perspectives are different from mine.

I’ll give you two examples.

Two winters ago, Drew Hart, author of Trouble I’ve Seen, Rod Thomas from The Resist Daily, and others hosted a Twitter chat with the hashtag #JamesConeWasRight. They were inspired by Cone’s writings, and looked at events in Ferguson, Missouri, and other areas of the U.S. through the lens of what Hart calls “Anablacktivism”—Anabaptist Black activism. (You can read this chat for yourself at https://storify.com/h00die_R/jamesconewasright-an-anablacktivist-chat)

I had just begun reading James Cone when this chat happened, so I decided to follow along and just listen.

During the comments, someone mentioned a point of Cone’s which was also taught by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Someone else replied that they should not run from Cone to White, European, male theologians so quickly. I felt my internal defensiveness surge.

What?” I thought. Bonhoeffer stood up to oppression in solidarity with the Jewish citizens of Germany, but now we were just going to lump him in with all other White European theologians just because he was white and male? Where did that leave me?

This was the only time I was tempted to jump into the flow of the conversation rather than simply listen. But I heard a voice inside me say, “There it is! Sit on that. Just listen!”

As I kept listening I began to see how much the Church has privileged White theologians’ opinions and contributions, and I also saw the great need to center theological discussions and understandings in womanist, feminist, Black, Latin, and queer theologies as well. I realized that it was inappropriate to consider theology by White theologians “real theology” while downgrading theology done by other kinds of people to a lesser category. Other theological perspectives are just as valuable as White theology, and for me who grew into Christianity with only White theologians as my authorities and teachers they are even more 

valuable because I need to broaden my view of the Church. (A great read if you would like to explore this further is the book I quoted from last week, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity by James W. Perkinson.)

Sitting with the chat comments rather than defensively responding on behalf of a writer I still respect gave me a chance to see that bigger picture. It also challenged me not to get stuck in self-defense or even self-pity, and keep reaching out to others I needed to learn from.

The second way I’ve learned to listen is not just by recognizing which theologians aren’t privileged in the Christian community but by actually reading these theologians’ work.

Again, as a white, cis-hetero, male Christian, I must choose to listen to those who approach theology and who follow Jesus from a different perspective than my own. The theologians I wasn’t exposed to during my first few years in Christianity are no more infallible than anyone else. Like me, they also have “specks” in their eyes that need removing. Yet their experience, the experience they use as they approach theology, ethics, and morality gives them a unique advantage at showing me the “beam” in my own eye. A sample of the different theological voices I’ve sought out:

Feminist Theology:
Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Overtures to Biblical Theology) by Phyllis Trible

Womanist Theology:
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams

Liberation Theology:
A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition by Gustavo Gutierrez

Black Liberation Theology:
A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition by James H. Cone

Queer Theology:
The Queer God by Marcella Althaus-Reid

All five of these lenses have been incredibly helpful as I’ve come to see the “beams” in my eye. Each of these authors has taught me to see how easy it once was for me to judge those who were unlike me, to morally evaluate them while cherishing a subtle or subconscious sense of moral superiority to them. I found it much easier to judge those not like me than to stop and listen.

I’m still on this listening journey, and I’m thankful for those who, out of love, have chosen to be in community with me and help me grow in compassion and understanding. I hope that they grow as well. The world that actually exists is a lot larger than I once believed, and I’m deeply grateful to those who have taken painstaking steps to show it to me.

Introspection for You

What does it mean for you this week to prioritize your own eye-beams rather than rush to others’ eye-specks? Both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels describe our “logs” as compared to other people’s “splinters.” And this saying comes in both gospels’ summaries of Jesus’s teachings about judging of others. Sayings Gospel Q places it in the same context, whereas the Gospel of Thomas groups this saying with the teachings on taking care of one’s “brother” (see Gospel of Thomas 25-26)

Luke shares this saying with Jesus’s sermon on the plain, and Matthew includes it in Jesus’s sermon on the mount, both locations that represent the core of Jesus’s ethical and moral teachings. Each of the gospel writers felt this teaching about our logs and others’ splinters was central to their memory of Jesus. If Jesus taught that we should begin changing our world by starting with ourselves, what would this mean for you?

Could this challenge the knee jerk response to the movement for Black lives, “All lives matter”? Perhaps it might halt a defensive explanation that “not all Christians are like that” when someone who has been deeply wounded by a Christian shares some of their pain. When a friend laments how they’re treated in this society, Jesus’s teaching could stop me from replying, “Not all men!”

It can at least mean we all hold our initial reflex of defensiveness and take a posture of listening to others. Where it goes from there will be different for each person, but we have to come to grips with the fact that the greatest obstacles to a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us will not be the dust in another’s eyes but the beams that are in our own.

For all those who desire to lean more deeply into the teachings of Jesus, into making the world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, all who want to become more keenly aware of your own blind spots:

“And why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but the beam in your own eye you overlook? How can you say to your brother: Let me throw out the speck from your eye, and just look at the beam in your own eye? Hypocrite, first throw out from your own eye the beam, and then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.” (Q 6:41-42) 

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, pick a book from the list of five above that your HeartGroup will read over the next month.
  2. Set a date a month from now to share with each other your responses to what you have read. As you engage the book you’ve chosen, also engage your fellow HeartGroup participants in conversation about it to deepen your “beam” removal.
  3. At the end of your group’s discussion, choose a new action to embrace as a result of what you have read and discussed.

Thank you, once again, for journeying with us as we work through Sayings Gospel Q.

Till the only world the remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.