Reflections on the Politics of Contempt

“Super” Tuesday during Lent – March 3, 2020

By John Jones IV, Ph.D.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult  a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Matthew 5:21-22 (NRSV)

Today is the first Tuesday of Lent. It’s also Super Tuesday for the Democratic Primary, which, to me at least, signals the true beginning of an 8-month long horserace that is the campaign for the office of President of the United States of America. The never-ending conflict that is our political life is about to enter a period of maximum volume, and I’m afraid we all know that things are going to get nasty. Now, please don’t hear me dismissing elections as unimportant, but rather suggesting the possibility that our daily lives and culture are more influenced by this political life than they influence it. That possibility is troubling to me. It seems that the battles over our divisions only make us more divided – and more unkind.

But I recently heard a good sermon by my friend Max Ramsey that articulated something I’ve been sensing for some time now, but unable to voice – the notion that Christians in the church have something crucial to offer to the wider society – a society that seems committed to a politics of contempt.

He drew on this passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a passage that my undergraduate students frequently dismiss as opaque if not altogether unrealistic. And he focused on the word in v. 22 – angry = “if you are angry with a brother or sister …” That word in the Greek is “orgizomenos” suggesting more than the anger that emerges in response to some wrong. There’s a permanence, a deep-seated disdain associated with this word when applied to relations between human beings. Max translated it as “contempt,” reflecting deeply on the frightening power of contempt when it lodges in our heart.

Philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer described contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” Now if that doesn’t describe the tenor of American politics over the last several years, I don’t know what does.

When you hold someone in contempt, you can justify all sorts of horrible actions and policies, because you’ve basically invalidated any claim of humanity. So when I hear Jesus’ words in this context, I feel a sense of conviction, because I know I’ve felt contempt in my heart so often. At times, I have to take a break from watching or listening to the news to preserve my own peace of mind because it seems that the actions of some leaders inspire anger in me – anger that easily devolves into contempt.

But as Lent begins, I want to take up my friend Max’s challenge to try to pay attention – to root out the contempt I know in my own heart, so that it might be replaced by the radical love of Jesus Christ. That radical love is what Christians in the church can offer surrounding society. Rather than dismissing our opponent as “worthless,” because of our contempt, we can embrace both their and our own full humanity. Rather than seeking to annihilate them through the “warfare” of electoral politics, we can disagree vehemently with integrity and love. We can set an example by calling out injustice while remaining committed to the full, valuable humanity of even our worst political enemy.

May this Lenten season be a period of inner reflection, rooting out contempt from our hearts so that we might offer an example of love instead.

I invite us all to pray together this prayer of St. Ignatius.

Prayer:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

~~St. Ignatius of Loyola

Photo by Ben Mater on Unsplash

Dr. John Jones IV is Central Seminary’s Central Wisconsin Site Coordinator and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Theology and Ethics.  He serves as the Associate Regional Minister- Education for ABC/WI.
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