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Heaping doses of contempt

American public discourse severely lacks ‘heartedness’

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In a lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School last year, Arthur Brooks, of the American Enterprise Institute, analyzed the state of public discourse: “We don’t have an anger problem in American politics. We have a contempt problem in American politics.” Though “Contempt” was not the subject of the lecture, audio engineers chose those comments to feature in a promotional video on Facebook. Within a very short time, the video had received over 12 million views—making Brooks think he might have touched a nerve.

In political conversation, it’s not persuasive reasoning that tallies up likes and retweets, but the ability to “skewer” or “destroy” an opponent. In everyday life, scoring often matters more than peacemaking. Has this ever happened to you?

• You’re making a deeply felt argument over a religious or political issue, and become aware that your opponent is only listening for a gaffe to exploit or a pause to seize.

• You overhear two colleagues at work discussing Christians, and their tone is so dismissive and scornful it makes your stomach hurt.

• You bring up a sensitive subject with your spouse, and the minute you get worked up or emotional, the eye-rolling starts.

If so, you know what contempt feels like—on the receiving end. Now ask yourself honestly: Have I ever listened only to attack? Mocked anyone who believed and acted differently? Brushed off loved ones when they got upset? That’s what contempt feels like on the giving end. It may be a fleeting emotion you regret later, but how do you feel about comedians who make jokes about abortion or transgender activists who persecute innocent cake bakers? Can you draw a line between despising the actions and despising the person?

I doubt that God values our capacity to skewer Democrats, atheists, or Unitarians.

Arthur Brooks was so concerned about the contempt he saw in public life he asked the Dalai Lama what to do about it. The sage replied, “Practice warmheartedness.” Perhaps we should practice “heartedness” first. That is, contemplate God’s heart, then critically examine our own.

“God is mighty, and does not despise any,” claims the brash Elihu (Job 36:5). Is this true, or a typical Job-counselor platitude? God pours out righteous anger because He takes His image-bearers seriously enough to hold them accountable. But His contempt is rare. In Psalm 73:20, He will despise the wicked “as phantoms” after they’ve lived all their days and made all their evil choices. By then they will actually be phantoms, not human beings. Nahum prophesied that the Lord would pour contempt on Nineveh, but only after showing great compassion for the Ninevites and rebuking the prophet who despised them (Jonah 4:11). God laughs presumptuous rebels to scorn in Psalm 2—before urging them to repent.

Far more often, it’s the people who despise God. See Numbers 14:11, 1 Samuel 2:17, Malachi 1:6, and one of the most heartbreaking passages in all of Scripture: “He was despised and rejected by men.” If we were to ask people on the street, “Do you despise God?” most would reply, “Of course not!” Some would even claim to love God. But He might have a different view: “You hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you” (Psalm 50:17). He’s speaking to His own people there, those who claim to be on His side while carelessly assuming He is on theirs.

God has words about how we think and what we say about each other, both in the church and outside it: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). “Honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17). “Be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). When dealing with ideological opponents, those are words we are prone to throw behind us. Why do we judge other people’s motives? Why do we call names? “My brothers,” says James, “these things ought not to be so” (3:10).

I doubt that God values our capacity to skewer Democrats, atheists, or Unitarians. We are not His shock troops but His agents of reconciliation, sent not to destroy our enemies but to pray for them and plead with them. If we don’t, who will?

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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