Overcoming Contempt

A month ago, the Annual National Prayer Breakfast was held in Washington, D.C. Typically, it is a time to emphasis both religious and political unity; to set aside differences and celebrate common ground.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen this year.  With the impeachment hearings and trial just over, Mr. Trump chose to strike a vindictive tone by attacking his political opponents by way of their faith—Speaker Pelosi and Senator Romney in particular.

By contrast, the speaker that immediately preceded the president’s remarks shared some insightful words about how urgent is it to build bridges by trying to live out the challenging words of Jesus to “love your enemies”.  The root of the problem, he said, is the pervasiveness of contempt.

The speaker was Arthur Brooks; a Harvard Kennedy School Professor of public leadership.  He is a political conservative, a Roman Catholic, and a staunch advocate for free market capitalism; certainly not a progressive in any way.  Since his remarks were largely ignored, I’d like to share some excerpts here.

“I give about 150 speeches a year and talk to all kinds of audiences: conservative, progressive, believers, atheists and everything in between. I was speaking one afternoon some years ago to a large group of politically conservative activists. Arriving early to the event, I looked at the program and realized I was the only non-politician on the program.

At first I thought, “This is a mistake.” But then I remembered that there are no mistakes — only opportunities — and started thinking about what I could say that would be completely different than the politicians. The crowd was really fired up; the politicians were getting huge amounts of applause. When it was my turn to speak, in the middle of my speech, here’s more or less what I said:

‘My friends, you’ve heard a lot today that you’ve agreed with — and well you should. You’ve also heard a lot about the other side — political liberals — and how they are wrong. But I want to ask you to remember something: Political liberals are not stupid, and they’re not evil. They are simply Americans who disagree with you about public policy. And if you want to persuade them — which should be your goal — remember that no one has ever been insulted into agreement. You can only persuade with love.’

It was not an applause line.

After the speech, a woman in the audience came up to me, and she was clearly none too happy with my comments. “You’re wrong,” she told me. “Liberals are stupid and evil.”

At that moment, my thoughts went to … Seattle. That’s my hometown. While my own politics are conservative, Seattle is arguably the most politically liberal place in the United States. My father was a college professor; my mother was an artist. Professors and artists in Seattle … what do you think their politics were?

That lady after my speech wasn’t trying to hurt me. But when she said that liberals are stupid and evil, she was talking about my parents. I may have disagreed with my parents politically, but I can tell you they were neither stupid nor evil. They were good, Christian people, who raised me to follow Jesus. They also taught me to think for myself — which I did, at great inconvenience to them.

Political polarization was personal for me that day, and I want to be personal to you, too. So let me ask you a question:

How many of you love someone with whom you disagree politically?

Are you comfortable hearing someone on your own side insult that person?

In a free society where you don’t fear being locked up for our opinions, true moral courage isn’t standing up to the people with whom you disagree. It’s standing up to the people with whom you agree — on behalf of those with whom you disagree. Are you strong enough to do that? That, I believe, is one way we can live up to Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies.

The problem today is what psychologists call contempt. In the words of the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” In politics today, we treat each other as worthless, which is why our fights are so bitter and cooperation feels nearly impossible.

(Contempt) is a habit, and it’s tearing our society apart.

How do we break the habit of contempt? Even more, how do we turn the contempt people show us into an opportunity to follow the teachings of Jesus, to love our enemies?

To achieve these things, I’m going to suggest three homework assignments.

First: Ask God to give you the strength to do this hard thing — to go against human nature, to follow Jesus’ teaching and love your enemies. Ask God to remove political contempt from your heart. In your weakest moments, maybe even ask Him to help you fake it!

Second: Make a commitment to another person to reject contempt. Of course you will disagree with others — that’s part of democracy. It is right and good, and part of the competition of ideas. But commit to doing it without contempt and ask someone to hold you accountable to love your enemies.

Third: Go out looking for contempt, so you have the opportunity to answer it with love. I know that sounds crazy, to go looking for something so bad. But for leaders, contempt isn’t like the flu. It’s an opportunity to share your values and change our world, which is what leadership is all about, isn’t it?”

Powerful and helpful words from someone I, personally, would disagree with politically.  Yet, this is exactly the approach that will provide a faithful way forward for our country.  Unfortunately, the speech that followed was a masterclass in the contempt Brooks was trying so hard to diagnose and heal.

Still, I am grateful that Brooks was given the opportunity to speak and to lift up a call to live from a place of respect, dialog, and love.

See you in church,

–Rev. Dominic

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