The plus sign.
If you’re like me, I see the advent of Uber and Lyft cars in the city as a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are very convenient, no doubt. On the other hand, they are definitely clogging up our streets and slowing down traffic immensely. But Uber has also changed our relationship to the those who drive us. With the swipe of our finger, we can give them a good or bad rating online, but there is another side to that story: the drivers can rate us passengers as well.
I was reading about an Uber passenger who recently got upset when he discovered that his rating by various drivers wasn’t a perfect 5.0. “I just found out I am four-stars on Uber,” the rider posted on Facebook. “I can’t believe it. I never cancel. I always remove trash. I never talk loudly on the phone. I always say please and thank you. Someone suggested I may be too cheerful when I get in the car.” The writer went on to lament the fact that passengers now have to worry about whether they’re too cheerful or not. The truth is, Uber drivers who are alerted to your request for a ride can immediately see your rating, and there seems to be a consensus among drivers that they will not pick up anyone below a 4.5 rating.
There is a science fiction anthology series on Netflix called Black Mirror, which examines modern society, particularly all the new technology that is taking over our lives. One episode that really scared me involved a technology of eye implants and mobile devices, that allows you to instantly rate your interactions with anyone on a one to five star scale—just like Uber. And it’s not a private rating: with the same technology everyone can see one another’s overall rating as a person.
So imagine if you went into Gristedes and the woman on the line behind you gets annoyed because you aren’t getting your groceries on the conveyer belt fast enough, she could instantly give you a 2.0 rating, which would negatively affect your overall personal rating. Well, the lower your personal rating, the less likelihood someone might be interested in dating you, or working with you, or renting you an apartment, or even serving you at Dunkin Donuts.
And in the episode I watched, that’s exactly what happens to a woman who is the main character in the story. Through a series of small events over which she has no control, her overall rating goes so low that no one wants to have anything to do with her. It’s a frightening scenario.
We’re not quite there yet with our technology, but you can see where we are headed, right? Think about how we are getting our information now, how we are making judgments about what we buy, where we go, with whom we associate? The internet has given us these neat tools to get instant ratings on restaurants, plumbers, charities, movies, vacation spots, potential mates. Yelp, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, Charity Navigator, OK Cupid, Tinder all get lots of traffic in the ratings game. There are even rating sites for churches like Churchfinder!
But there is a dark side to all of this, isn’t there? Our technology has made it so easy to instantly communicate to the whole world, which means that we have extraordinary power to share our judgment of a product, a business, a government or political decision, an entire religion, and perhaps most damaging, we have extraordinary power to share our judgment of a fellow human being with a Twitter note or a Facebook posting—whether it be a just or an unjust judgment.
And it has become so easy to demonize one another, hasn’t it?
It’s no secret that this technology has been instrumental in deeply dividing us. Consider the extraordinary hardness of hearts in our political divide today. We can’t speak about such things even within our families. We rely on websites that utilize powerful algorithms that purposely direct us only to voices with which we agree, just like they funnel us to selected products, programs, newsfeeds, and music. It is insulating, separating and compartmentalizing us all, rather than opening us up to listen to one another and to acknowledge our own weaknesses and humility.
If you thought the last presidential election was bad, wait till the next one. Some pundits are predicting that we are on the verge of a ‘civil war’ if not in guns and bombs, then in civil discourse.
We are so eager to pass judgment on one another, aren’t we, and we seem so sure in our beliefs. We have pulled our wagons together, and hunkered down in our tribal formation because it makes us feel more secure, more self-righteous. And you know what? It is often fear that drives our most coldhearted judgments.
Such fear and such judgments have surfaced in our church as well. You have probably heard about the judgments that many are making in the church regarding gay priests.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks precisely about that damning judgment we pass on one another. He warns us against the danger of judging someone’s heart. It’s so easy to look upon someone’s actions with which you disagree and assume that their motivations are selfish, or sinful, or evil. It’s equally easy to ignore your own blunders, failures, impure actions and corrupt motivations, isn’t it?
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,' when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother's eye.”
Consider Lent, upcoming. It is a time to honestly reflect anew on who we are, and who we really want to be. Why not make it a time to reserve judgment on the hearts of our sisters and brothers?
When I first entered the Jesuits, I learned about a practice that we Jesuits were supposed to adopt in our lives. It was called giving someone the ‘plus’ sign. Before judging someone’s actions and the motivations in their hearts, we were told, we should give them the plus sign, the benefit of the doubt. We should assume that they are good people, and that their actions or opinions with which we disagree—mind you, we’re not talking about murdering or abusing someone---are not coming from an evil or sinful motivation. There is a certain humility in that attitude, and it requires that you must examine your own motivations and hardness of heart towards your sister or brother with whom you disagree. You also need to admit your own limitations and sinfulness.
There are certainly times when we need to speak the truth we see to one another, and when we need to offer a correction to them in love. But always, always to do so in the humble knowledge that we are sinners too, and that Jesus always calls us home with forgiveness despite our self-righteousness and our sins.
An old Christian hymn comes to mind, a favorite of mine as we enter into the season of Lent:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling
Calling for you and for me
See on the portals He's waiting and watching
Watching for you and for me
Come home, come home
Ye who are weary come home
Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling
Calling, "O sinner come home"
As we begin our journey together in Lent, let us rate one another with the plus sign that Jesus always gives to each one of us sinners, come home.