In his latest book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen suggests that one of the main things that has to happen in order for us to come to conversion and purity of heart is that we must move from being judge to being repentant sinner.

From judge to repentant sinner, what is being suggested here? Psalm 50 haunts the heart with the refrain: “A humbled and contrite heart you (God) will not spurn.” Our problem is that, despite considerable sincerity, our hearts are rarely humble and contrite. The norm is judgment of others, anger at them, and a certain moral smugness and self-righteousness.

Rarely are we on our knees with our heads against the breast of a forgiving God, contrite about what we’ve done and left undone—our betrayals, our sins, our inadequacies. Most of the time our posture is that of the judge. Our own faults are rarely at issue as we adjudicate others’ need for contrition and pronounce judgment on their faults.

Our own judgmental attitude and self-righteousness is, most of the time, hidden from us. In our own eyes we are never the hypocrite, the one sitting in judgment on somebody else’s life. No. We are the honest ones, the compassionate ones, the humble ones.

Yet, that is rarely the way we are seen by others, especially by those closest to us. Almost always they feel judged by us and almost always they see in us a self-righteousness and a moral smugness that offends them. People around us are only too aware that we are much more the judge than the repentant sinner, even as we ourselves are little aware of it.

Thus, for example, if our temperament puts us at home in liberal circles, there is a good chance that we nurse a fair amount of anger against our more conservative and traditional brothers and sisters. Invariably they will appear to us as morally smug, holier-than-thou, complacent, timid, rigid, dogmatic, fundamentalistic, power-hungry and intellectually backward—and yet as claiming the moral and religious high ground.

Moreover, we feel that they are judging us, believing that we no longer pray, that we have sold out in terms of sexual morality, and that we are not really Catholic and Christian in the true sense.

And this double awareness—of their hypocrisy and of being judged by them—will dominate our self-awareness much more than will any self-criticism or awareness of our own duplicity, sin and betrayals.

Little are we aware that they, the conservatives, feel judged by us, that they feel us as intimating that they are stupid, backward, sexually hung-up, racists, sexists, blind to justice, legalistic, naive of real human experience and fundamentalistic. Little are we aware that they, whom we label as holier-than-thou, consider our attitude as “holier-than-thou.”

The converse is just as true: If we find our home among those of a more conservative mindset, there is a very good chance that we harbor a lot of anger against our more liberal sisters and brothers—against feminists, against social justice groups, against a lot of artists and against theologians. Invariably they will appear to us, precisely, as morally smug, as posturing (more-sensitive-and­inclusive-than-thou), as intellectually arrogant and bullying, and as claiming, in pharisee fashion, the religious and moral high ground.

And we will feel them as judging us, believing that we are intellectually backward, fundamentalistic, unenlightened, hung up on sex, insensitive to the needs of the poor, a racist, a sexist,, a dinosaur from another age.

Little are we aware that they, on their part, feel so judged and put down by us. That they perceive us as the bully, the power to be feared, the person who is anti-life, the dealer of unfreedom and death.

Strange how each of us so clearly sees the judgmental attitude in the other and yet is so unaware of how brutally judgmental we ourselves are. One man’s prophet is another man’s fanatic; one woman’s freedom fighter is another woman’s terrorist; and one person’s pro-life struggle is, for another person, the dealing of death!

What is true here in terms of the self-righteousness and self-blindness that exists within our ideological circles is perhaps even more true within the ordinary give and take of our daily lives. We are invariably judge, never repentant sinner.

Conversion begins when we stop standing as judge in order to kneel as sinner. When we are humble and contrite of heart we will not be spurned by God—nor by each other.