The Antidote to Contempt: Thoughts on the National Prayer Breakfast

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Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering in Washington D.C. hosted by members of Congress. It was a wonderful experience and I was grateful to receive the invitation. I was especially encouraged by the bipartisanship the event seemed to foster, as both Democrats and Republicans took the stage to read Scripture and pray together. But the highlight of the event for me was the keynote address delivered by Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist, author, and Harvard professor. Brooks delivered a stirring monologue about our present culture of contempt and the ways in which it permeates our political discourse. This crisis of contempt and polarization, Brooks says, is tearing our society apart.

Perhaps you’ve noticed.

Brooks defined contempt with a quote from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another human being.” For decades, psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman has been touting contempt as the kiss of death for married couples. Contempt can be measured both verbally and non-verbally: interruptions, biting sarcasm, constant criticism, and eye-rolling are some of the usual suspects. When interrupting, sarcasm, criticism, and eye-rolling become common at home, you probably want to call a marriage counselor. But when they take place in the political arena, we televise the whole thing and call it a presidential debate.
Brooks noted that contempt has reached a toxic level in our culture. We seem to have lost the ability to disagree well, content to simply retreat into our our respective ideological camps which function quite effectively as echo chambers of like-mindedness. And because we don’t spend very much time among people with whom we disagree, it becomes all too easy to label those individuals as “evil” or “stupid.” Or worse.

I was fully tracking with Brooks as he delivered his address. Like most Americans, I bear a few scars resulting from fractious political conversations with friends over the years. And like most Americans, I can point to several relationship casualties, friendships that ultimately could not stand the freight of our political differences. And like most Americans, this grieves me.
I found myself thinking, “What does the way forward look like?” And as Brooks delivered his speech, I expected him to advocate for greater tolerance for one another. We basically live in the golden age of tolerance; it is hailed as one of our highest cultural ideals. But shockingly, Brooks said tolerance is not the answer. The problem of contempt can only be solved one way: through love. Brooks said, “Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew didn’t say tolerate your enemies, he said love your enemies.”

The way forward isn’t greater tolerance or civility.

The way forward is love.
The way forward isn’t disagreeing less.
The way forward is disagreeing better.
The antidote to contempt — according to Brooks but, more importantly, according to Jesus — is to love one’s enemies. What I loved about Brooks’ speech was his desire to maintain the relevancy of the words of Jesus, even amid a political climate such as ours. All too often, we rush to easy reductionism when it comes to the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. “You can’t act that way in the real world,” we’ll say when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek or go the second mile. We reduce the clear teaching of Jesus to the level of religious aphorism, as if whatever “spiritual” meaning we find there has no translation into tangible action. “Loving your enemies doesn’t work in the real world.”

Father, forgive us for presuming that we understand reality in a way that Jesus does not.

I appreciated Brooks reminding us that if Jesus is truly Lord as we claim, then His words are resonant with relevance today. If Jesus is truly the Lord that we believe Him to be, then He is the one with the proper view of reality, not me. His call to love my enemies comes to bear precisely in the midst of fractious, contemptuous contexts such as our current moment. To paraphrase the old adage: If He isn’t Lord of this moment, then He isn’t Lord at all.

In the weeks since the National Prayer Breakfast, I have tried to be more aware of the dangers of contempt, especially among followers of Jesus. It would be a misnomer to identify political contempt in this country without also naming the spiritual analogue. I’ve been forced to examine my own heart for any traces of contempt, any temptation to treat another as if they were worthless. I have to fight the urge to retreat into my own ideological bunker, even among my sisters and brothers in Christ. And I’ve been reminded of something Jesus said a long time ago: that the way forward isn’t tolerance or civility, but love.

This week, we experienced some conflict in the church I serve. As a career churchman, I can say this conflict was of the standard issue, low level variety, but it was conflict nonetheless. And for the sake of full disclosure, I was simply an ancillary figure in the whole episode. But even from my vantage point in this conflict, I witnessed the power of disagreeing better in real time, and it was beautiful. Those who were offended voiced their concerns without accusation. The offender went directly to the individuals who were hurt and asked their forgiveness. Reconciliation flourished. Feelings were hurt, yes, but reactions were godly. The entire episode was handled with grace and truth, a reminder of the One who perfectly embodies both of these qualities.

As always, love is the way forward, the antidote to contempt.

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