Contempt is eating us alive right now. There is another way.
My sermon for February 16, 2020.
A couple of weeks ago Arthur Brooks addressed the national prayer breakfast. I realize that the President’s remarks are what made the news, but perhaps some of you saw what Brooks said when he shared it in the Washington Post a few days later. Brooks is, by his own description, a conservative who was raised by liberals who “were Christian people, who raised me to follow Jesus.” He went a different way, as he said, at “great inconvenience to them” but his point was that we can see things different ways and still love each other and that, despite what we’re being taught these days it’s not actually all that hard.
But that message – that we cannot love one another in difference – has become so consuming and so viral, our alternative reality has become so dominant, that we have reached a point where a soul crisis has become a national crisis. He said, “I am here today to talk about the crisis of contempt – the polarization that is tearing our society apart.”[i] Later he gives a definition of what he means, using Arthur Schopenhauer’s definition of contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”
That word contempt caught my attention because I had just the week before read something that Bishop Robert Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta had written in an essay on preaching on the issues of the day. He was speaking to ministers and preachers with the task of speaking good news in a time when it’s hard to see it, to speak prophetically at some times and pastorally at others and at all times remain focused on the ultimate commitment to bring us all to maturity in Christ.
Bishop Wright started at a place I didn’t expect – not at prophecy, but at a kind of exorcism. He said that “what is necessary here is that you and I begin the slow and essential work of coughing up the asphyxiating mucus of contempt for one another.” He goes on to speak of how he intentionally listens to media on both sides of the spectrum, including some of the most more extreme voices. He said,
I listen to both because my diocese listens to one or the other. What I have learned is that both news sources share a spirit of contempt for the core constituency of the other…Both are trafficking in a substance more addictive than opioids – contempt. [ii]
The crisis of contempt. The demon opioid of contempt. And to that I would add what Jesus said about it, right here in today’s gospel. You have heard it said since ancient times, those who murder will be liable to judgment. But if your anger leads you to insult a sister or a brother, then what’s going on in your heart is also sin…and if you say, “you fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. Jesus was proclaiming a higher law in saying that what goes on in your heart and your mind matters, and that the insults we level at others are the sign and symptom of a deeper contempt.
Why does this matter? Because contempt and love cannot coexist. They can fight for one another for space and oxygen, but in the end they are not compatible. If contempt rules our hearts, then love is kept at bay. And when we do not love, we give up the power we have to change the world.
This is some of the most challenging stuff in the gospel, because we are accountable not just for our actions, but for the inmost thoughts of our hearts. At first glance, this is terrifying. If sin is about not doings thing that are obviously wrong, them most of us at most times can stay in the right lane. Jesus says, “you shall not murder,” and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at not murdering. I’m 100%. But suddenly Jesus tells us that I am also accountable to God and to my neighbor for what I think and what I feel, that these inward movements my soul are at play when I speak, when act, and when I worship.
Years ago George A. Buttrick wrote that God sees the inmost motive, and must be worshiped in truth – worship being the crowing act of life; and a heart harried by grudges cannot offer any wholeness of adoration[iii]. A heart harried by grudges cannot offer wholeness of adoration.
Our contempt hurts us as much as it hurts the object of our scorn. But the point here is not to punish us for our inmost wrongdoing, but to name something insidious that crowds out the goodness and love that forms us in God’s image. The other side to this is that through Jesus we can heal from our contempt, we can go into recovery: we can see it, confess it, and actually get better. We can see how contempt warps us and keeps us from doing God’s work in the world.
In fact – and this is a key part of understanding what contempt is and how to fight it – there’s a very quick way of dealing with it. Jesus says, simply, go to the brother or sister who you’re mad at, and be reconciled. It assumes a world where two people can come together quickly and begin the process of healing, because when they see one another, face to face and with an inclination to love despite differences, they may not come to perfect agreement but they are able to cast out that demon of contempt and return to the altar together.
Understand that when I speak of contempt I’m not speaking about righteous anger, or prophetic speech, or critical thought, all of which are essential to building the beloved community. If those two at the altar have a surface-level reconciliation but one still lords power over the other, then we haven’t solved the problem. Rather, I’m talking about when we drift into the “unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another” and stay in that seductive place, not only because contempt weighs down our hearts, but because it also dilutes our power.
I actually think that Jesus’ prohibition of contempt has a lot to say to us about power. It’s what I wish Brooks had talked about at the prayer breakfast, because he lifted up two opposing views of the world – contempt on one side, and love and neighborliness on the other. As people of faith who live in the world, we have to name that both of these their own relationship to power, and that just as contempt and love will battle for control of our own souls, I believe that contempt and neighborliness are two very different forms of power that are fighting to rule our hearts as well as order our lives.
I think we despair in moments when we feel that contempt is winning.
And you know what? I think it is winning. It’s winning because it’s a proven strategy for gaining and holding power. Rallying around the worthlessness of others is a really quick way to exploit folks’ fears so that we can gain and hold on to power and privilege. Terrifying movements have been built around this, nations formed and wars fought.
Contempt is so easy, and it has incredible staying power. It uses fear and anger and laziness for fuel. You don’t have to weaponize it…it comes out of the box that way. And it makes us incredibly vulnerable…if contempt is what rules our hearts, we’ll fall for the first delicious poke that comes across our self-selected news feed, and we’ll pass it along without questioning it. Another vote for contempt rather than love, another brick in the wall that separates us from our neighbors.
The surprising things about contempt, though, is that while it’s really good at building the kind of power that gathers like unto like and separates the rest, it’s actually surprisingly fragile. All it takes is for two people who are angry with one another – going back to Jesus’ example – to see one another as children of God and to love them as children of God. This is the kind of power that love has. It’s real. And we know, because the world tells us this, that this kind of work often takes generations, “because that’s how the world works.” But the secret of love (and it really isn’t all that secret) is that that isn’t actually how the world works. When two people who are inclined to love one another finally get in that room together, it can also take, like, 10 minutes. It’s actually isn’t that hard. Because we know, as followers of Jesus, love eats contempt for breakfast.
And that’s why contempt needs walls. Brick by brick, that power stays where it is. And when we respond to contempt with contempt, we don’t knock down the wall, as we like to think, as if the right insult or the snarkiest tweet will change the game. What we do is add a brick to another wall, which only separates us further from the power to transform the world.
When we respond to insults with insults, when our despair and feelings of powerlessness leads us to drift off into the muzzy opioid-sleep of contempt, we give away the power that we have in Christ, power that is grounded in love and given to us by God so that we can live life in its fullness and so that we can be agents of healing in this world. So let me ask you…before you let the soothing burn of contempt take residence in your gut…let me ask you…do you have power that you can afford to give away right now?
I do believe that contempt is winning these days, but I don’t believe for a minute that we are stuck with that. I know that love and neighborliness have a power all their own, and that connecting to that brings us both hope and healing.
What can the world look like when we build on the power of love rather than the things that divide us? In a couple of weeks, Thursday, February 27 (The day after Ash Wednesday, so a perfect way to start Lent) Trinity Cathedral will join people of faith from across the city at a Greater Cleveland Congregations community action in support of two pre-charge mental health clinics. We are seeking the creation of two diversion centers – one on the east side, and one on the west – so that when police encounter folk whose substance abuse or mental illness flareups result in minor offenses they can take them for in-patient treatment rather than being charged as criminals. Imagine, something that discourages further marginalization of those already suffering, something that costs the county far less, something that gives treatment for the mentally ill and frees the police to deal with more serious crimes.
When we come together on Thursday the 27th we will see first-hand what power based on love can look like. Love honors the integrity and humanity of everyone involved – those who are ill or addicted, the police, the victims of crimes. Love does not remain silent or complicit, but it refuses to eat the poison pill of contempt.
I hope you’ll join us, I hope you’ll be a part of this because the more of us go, the more we see how power that comes from love of neighbor and faith in God can transform and heal our world.
Contempt will always be with us, and even though Jesus put it its proper place we are wise to see and name the power it can have over us. The crisis of contempt that Arthur Brooks names is that right now, contempt is winning. But we know that love will always cast it out, if we can name it and if we can dismantle the walls that keep us separated from one another. Sometimes that is the work of lifetimes, but sometimes it is quick work indeed. Never underestimate the power of love, and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform hearts.
Brooks is hopeful, and so am I. In fact he charges us all to be missionaries, he sends us out as people of love: he says, Go out looking for contempt so you have the opportunity answer it with love. (It’s a surprisingly Buddhist statement for a conservative Christian, but then again that’s what happens when we get down to core truths.) Don’t just hang out in spaces where folks agree, and don’t go with an expectation to convince or even be welcomed, but only to love. “Missionaries,” he says, “go where they are needed. It’s hard work, and there’s lots of rejection involved (here are words that have never been uttered: “oh good, there are missionaries on the porch.”) But it’s the most joyful type of work, isn’t it?”
I agree.. This is joyful work. It’s hard work, and there are many temptations along the way. Don’t wall yourself in. Don’t give away your power. Don’t let contempt cloud your soul. That’s the place designed to hold the presence of God, that’s the place from which God breathes words of healing and hope into a world collapsing under the weight of its own contempt.
The greater power is love.
The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio, Feb 16, 2020. The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A.
[i] Arthur C. Brooks, “America’s Crisis of Contempt,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/07/arthur-brooks-national-prayer-breakfast-speech/?arc404=true
[ii] The Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright, Preaching on the Issues of the Day, Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2019, p. 119.
[iii] George A. Buttrick, The Interpreter’s Bible: The Gospel of Matthew