The attentiveness charity takes to those who are nearest to us is a recognition of our limits: we are bound to the places we live, and lead lives that are determined by those immediately around us. Charity respects the limits of our creaturely life: it ties us to creation, and recognizes that we are given a place and a time in which we live responsibly before God.
This emphasis on the contingent and accidental bonds within which charity is formed draws us near, I think, God’s command to walk humbly with Him. The Hebrew word Micah deploys resists translation, though one can see why the Septuagint and later Christian writers opted for ‘humility’ to render it. The term connotes a judiciousness that submits to counsel, a discriminating care that is akin to modesty. There is a strong practical or deliberative dimension to the concept, which suggests it indicates a kind of wisdom.
The term is thus distinct from how we commonly think of humility: it indicates a glad embrace of direction and guidance, rather than a reluctance to boast or a refusal to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We might say that the judiciousness and care of wisdom is attentive to the limits of our knowledge: it prioritizes in our discernment those who know the world better than us, by learning to love our nearest neighbors without pretending we can equally understand those whose lives are not intimate with our own.
This emphasis of attending to those near us within wisdom and humility is infused into charity by the disclosure of God’s love for humanity in Jesus Christ. By this, John writes, we know love—that God first loved us, and laid down his life for us. We can only think about loving our neighbour truly by constantly returning to this center and source: the humility of God is more glorious than the glory of men: the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of man. In the cross, God exposes the wisdom of this world as folly; He shames the wisdom of the wise, Paul writes. It is a stunning repudiation of the pretensions of humanity to understand and inaugurate the Kingdom on our own terms. The distinction between God and man in creation is transformed into a division by our sin: the hostility of humanity to God can only be overcome by the humiliation of Jesus Christ. Here, upon the cross, is love vast as an ocean, lovingkindness as a flood: God walks in humility with man that man might walk humbly with God.
When we walk within the endless of wisdom of humility, we learn to see our own life together with our neighbour’s before God. Practically, I think this means that we learn to defer our moral judgments upon our neighbour until we have thoroughly considered our own lives through the same framework. If charity binds us together in love, then we will do unto others as we would have done unto us—and the manner in which we judge will be the manner in which we are judged.
Jesus’s command to “judge not” is the epistemic corollary to the Golden Rule: they both disclose the deep equality at the heart of charity, which is founded upon the common humanity we share before God. Yet this version of charity itself transfigures justice: behind Jesus’s command to ‘judge not’ lies the lex talonis: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The principle of equal restitution limits the otherwise voracious demand for compensation by victims: “The very mercy of the law cries out,” Shakespeare announces in Measure for Measure, “most audible even from his proper tongue, Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.”
Living within the wise humility of God means cultivating a discriminating prudence that sees how our own lives are bound by the standards we impose upon one another. The justice of charity remembers that those whom we judge are our neighbors and fellows, and that we are bound together beneath the judgment of God. We must make a decision: the world can only go on if we close the case, and make a limited and provisional judgment between right and wrong. But we are directed to consider the plank in our own eye because in judging another we describe the shape of a flourishing life that governs our lives as well. Communally, the same principle of deferring judgment applies: judgement begins at the house of God. If the church is authorized to announce the shape of justice within the good news of Jesus Christ, as I think it is, it will only issue this judgment authoritatively if it has already submitted itself to the gracious judgment of God.