2244) Healing Words (part two of two)

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“America’s Crisis of Contempt”
Arthur C. Brooks keynote address at the February 6, 2020 National Prayer Breakfast, Washington, D. C.
Reprinted from the Washington Post


     (…continued)  Let’s take a step back now and diagnose the problem a little bit.

     Some people blame our politicians, but that’s too easy.  It’s us, not them —I am guilty.  And frankly, I know many politicians, many of them here today, who want a solution to this problem every bit as much as I do. 

     What is leading us to this dark place that we don’t like? 

     The problem is what psychologists call contempt.  In the words of the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”  In politics today, we treat each other as worthless, which is why our fights are so bitter and cooperation feels nearly impossible.

     The world’s leading expert on marital reconciliation is Dr. John Gottman, psychologist at the University of Washington.  Over the course of his work, Dr. Gottman has studied thousands of married couples.  After watching a couple interact for just one hour, he can predict with 94 percent accuracy whether the couple will divorce within three years. 

     How can he tell?  It’s not from the anger that the couples express.  As I already told you, anger doesn’t predict separation or divorce.  The biggest warning signs, he explains, are indicators of contempt.  These include sarcasm, sneering, hostile humor and — worst of all —eye-rolling.  These little acts effectively say, “You are worthless” to the one person a spouse should love more than any other.  Want to see if a couple will end up in divorce court?  Watch them discuss a contentious topic and see if either partner rolls his or her eyes.

     Why do they do that?  The answer is that it’s a habit, and that habit is tearing their marriage apart.  And like a couple on the rocks, in politics today, we have a contempt habit.  Don’t believe it?  Turn on prime-time cable TV and watch how they talk.  Look at Twitter — if you dare.  Listen to yourself talking about a politician you don’t like. We are guilty of contempt.  It’s a habit, and it’s tearing our society apart.

     How do we break the habit of contempt?  Even more, how do we turn the contempt people show us into an opportunity to follow the teachings of Jesus, to love our enemies? 

     To achieve these things, I’m going to suggest three homework assignments. 

     First:  Ask God to give you the strength to do this hard thing — to go against human nature, to follow Jesus’ teaching and love your enemies.  Ask God to remove political contempt from your heart.  In your weakest moments, maybe even ask Him to help you fake it!

     Second:  Make a commitment to another person to reject contempt.  Of course you will disagree with others — that’s part of democracy.  It is right and good, and part of the competition of ideas.  But commit to doing it without contempt and ask someone to hold you accountable to love your enemies.

     Third: Go out looking for contempt, so you have the opportunity to answer it with love.  I know that sounds crazy, to go looking for somethings bad.  But for leaders, contempt isn’t like the flu.  It’s an opportunity to share your values and change our world, which is what leadership is all about, isn’t it?

   I’m asking you to be kind of like a missionary.  I’ve had missionaries on both sides of my family, and they are amazing entrepreneurs. They don’t go out looking for people who already agree with them, because that’s not where they are needed— they go to the dark places to bring light.  It’shard 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’m calling each one of you to be missionaries for love in the face of contempt.  If you don’t see enough of it, you’re in an echo chamber and need a wider circle of friends — people who disagree with you.  Hey, if you want a full blast of contempt within 20 seconds, go on social media!  But run toward that darkness, and bring your light.

     My sisters and brothers, when you leave the National Prayer Breakfast today and go back to your lives and jobs, you will be back in a world where there is a lot of contempt.  That is your opportunity.  So I want you to imagine that there is a sign over the exit as you leave this room.  It’s a sign I’ve seen over the doors of churches — not the doors to enter, but rather the doors to leave the church.  Here’s what it says:

   You are now entering mission territory.

     If you see the world outside this room as mission territory, we might just mark this day, Feb. 6, 2020, at the National Prayer Breakfast, as the point at which our national healing begins.

     God bless you, and God bless America.


Matthew 5:43-47  —  (Jesus said),  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?”

Proverbs 12:18  —  The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Proverbs 15:1-2  —  A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.



Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.