Enough of Contempt
Fr. Tony’s Midweek Message
January 13, 2021
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud. (Psalm 123:3-4)
Seeing just how deep our nation and community have descending into the abyss of division and mutual reproach in the last two weeks, I have had to ask myself many times, “how did we come to this?”
I think the most basic problem is we have become accustomed to nurturing contempt for those who differ from us. I heard one supporter of the outgoing President interviewed on the radio actually defend the violent insurrection of a week ago by saying “Congress are scum. They deserve anything that comes to them.” Over the years, I have heard a steady barrage of such contempt for progressives: “snowflakes,” “communists,” “Satan-worshippers,” “baby-killers.” I also have heard some of my fellow progressives say that anyone who supports even one bit of the conservative agenda is a Nazi, a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist, a Trump-cultist, and, now, a terrorist and insurrectionist. Contempt, contempt, contempt. It is a sin, and a community-destroying one. In it there is no grace, no forgiveness, no fairness.
Such contempt is fueled by lies, whether deliberately told to others, or inadvertently self-told. The most common lie here is taking the leap from saying the effect of a policy with which you disagree is such and such an evil, to actually believing your opponent consciously and deliberately intends pursuing evil. This is a lie because it ascribes intention where there is none: your opponent may simply differ with you on weighing merits and risk of different policies. The fact they do not buy into your view on something does not mean you share nothing in common. Some progressives make this error when we confuse the results and harms of ambient institutional and cultural racism with the personal intentional racist bias of prejudice, animus, and hatred. Some on the Right make the error when they think that because someone supports a woman’s freedom to choose in reproductive matters, that means they think abortion is a good thing, and thus are bloody-minded “baby-killers.”
The outgoing President has fed us an almost unending string of such lies labeling his opponents as evil socialists, thugs and rapists, unpatriotic Americans out to destroy freedom. But, as the “What About you?” arguments heard this week from so many of those who want to defend him show, the Left has its share of blame. This is not to say this is anywhere near on par with what happened at the Capitol a week ago.
Ronald Reagan famously said, “the government is the problem.” When this means there are failures and weakness in any system of bureaucracy that need to be addressed and perhaps constrained, it is an obvious truism. But when you make it mean, “government per se is evil,” or the “governmental workers and officials are evil,” it is a contemptuous lie. I worked for the Department of State for 25 years, three of them in the analytical side of the Intelligence Community. But my experience was that, with very, very few exceptions, most Foreign Service Officers, Civil Servants, and political appointees were dedicated people trying their hardest to fulfill their oath to faithfully execute their offices and support the Constitution. We welcomed appointees from a party opposite our own because that is what makes a democracy work. I think most Foreign Service Officers were moderates, in both parties. In grad school, I worked for four years as a staffer at the House of Representatives—again, my experience was that apart from a very few (all of whom rightly later went to prison), everyone tried their best to do their duty, follow the law, and serve the people.
One specific lie that you still hear all around, from extremists both on the Left and Right, is that there is a “Deep State” cabal of wicked people pulling the strings and feeding lies to the media. If anyone was in the “Deep State,” I was. And let me tell you, NO SUCH THING EXISTS. Another lie is that journalists in general are liars and plotters. I worked in press relations at Embassies overseas for years. While journalists can be annoying and difficult at times, they are, once again, by and large dedicated and honest people trying to do the hard job of speaking truth to power. Some blame big business, big Pharma, the Academy, the Bar, Scientific or Medical Expertise, or the police or military, again, thinking that they are a cabal and their personnel are wicked through and through. Granted, no human being or institution is perfect, and abuse occurs. But when it does so, we have processes for holding people to account.
Most of these grudges are, simply, contempt and resentment by outsiders toward insiders. Our democratic system and rule of law try to include and give outsiders a voice, but can, in their effort to balance minority and majority rights and maintain liberties, be opaque and puzzling, requiring arcane and off-putting awareness of procedure, law, and precedent. For many of us, it is simply easier to throw up our hands in disgust, damn our opponents, or simply declare “a plague on both your houses” than to do the hard work of democracy and submit ourselves to the disciplines of living in a community.
Again, contempt is our besetting sin here. In my experience, most things labeled as conspiracy are not that at all. They are simply imperfect people trying the best they can to do the right thing. There are some exceptions, and we need to hold them to account. The greatest exception to this in our nation’s history, I think, is the systematic exclusion or oppression of some people in order that others might profit. But we are working on this as well.
When we lie and hurl contempt at others instead of doing the hard work of truth and reconciliation, of holding each other to account, we are following the path of demons. As Martin Luther King. Jr. taught, darkness cannot drive out the dark, only light can; hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can .
We all need to start listening to each other and be fair. We need to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated, regardless of tribe, party, or sect. We need to forgive.
Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that we need to let bygones be bygones and give a pass to violence, oppression, and tyranny, or to their inciters and enablers. I agree with a priest friend of mine, Mother Ellen Brauza, who commented, “Forgiveness without repentance is cheap enabling. There is no grace in it.” Rather, it is the “cheap grace” of sentimentalized love and self delusion described by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” written not too long before he was executed by the Nazis for opposing their atrocities and trying to hold them to account. Again, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.”
Most of us understandably have had enough of contempt directed toward us and ours. I pray that God works a change in our hearts, so that we equally reject and abandon the contempt we feel for others.
Grace and Peace.