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Reflection August 26, 2018
"No End of Contempt" by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
“Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, (no end) of contempt from the proud.” (Psalm 123:3–4, NIV) Is there anyone who would not say “Amen” to this ancient Biblical prayer?
I believe contempt to be among the most corrosive and destructive of human emotions. Contempt, unfortunately, is rampant in our contemporary society and in our politics. But what is contempt? Most of us know it when we see it – the rolling of the eyes – the mouth turned upward in a sneer - but what is it actually?
We should first acknowledge that we’re all prey to this negative emotion. We’re all prey to it because contempt actually feels good at first – it makes us feel better about ourselves. Contempt can validate our sense of self-worth. But it does this by pushing someone else beneath us. Contempt lifts one up at the expense of someone else. Contempt generates falsely inflated self-worth.
Professor Robert Solomon places contempt on a continuum with resentment and anger. He suggests resentment is the emotion we direct at a perceived higher-status person; anger is the emotion we direct at a perceived peer – or equal status person; contempt is the emotion we direct toward someone we perceive as a lower status individual.
It’s been suggested that contempt is the glue holding hierarchies together. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences argues: “One of the functions of contempt is to create or maintain a social hierarchy.” Contempt helps establish one’s place in the hierarchy. It categorizes who’s at the top, the middle and the bottom of the pyramid. People who feel contempt towards others are not usually people on the bottom rung.
Thank God for being American Baptists! Thank God for belonging to the free-church tradition! We, Baptists, don’t subscribe to the hierarchies that prevail in so many Christian denominations. Praise God! We don’t have to worry about our level or place in the Baptist scheme of things! We are all equal and all members of the priesthood of believers. We, American Baptists, are fundamentally democratic as opposed to denominations where authority comes from the top down - denominations that are hierarchically organized.
It’s been shown over and over that contempt is the most destructive emotion in any relationship, particularly marriage. Contempt erodes marriages. Contempt corrodes every relationship. And contempt also corrodes our souls. It causes our souls to darken and diminish. Contempt is like a vampire, sucking out the vitality and goodness of the human soul.
Contempt happens when we feel morally or socially superior to others. It’s hard not feeling superior to someone at times. We may encounter “street people” and say under our breath: “Thank God, I’m not like that person!”
Feelings of contempt may arise from old festering wounds and old unresolved traumas. Feelings of contempt may arise from deep-seated fears. Feelings of contempt may arise from the inordinate, unwarranted, self-love called narcissism. There are, undoubtedly, many places within the human heart where contempt festers and grows. As Proverbs 18:3 warns: “When wickedness comes, contempt comes also.”
Recent neurological research has discovered something significant regarding feelings of contempt. It’s been shown that the social brain goes cold in the grip of contempt. the prefrontal cortex doesn’t show its normal electrical activity. A person feeling contempt toward another looks at that person the same way as looking at an inanimate object like a chair. Contempt, in other words, destroys feelings of empathy and human connection.
Need I add that contempt fuels interpersonal conflict? Need I add that contempt depersonalizes others and makes war and rampant violence possible? Need I add that contempt turns others into enemies? Need I add that contempt despises those deemed “losers” in the game of life? Need I add that contempt also reveals itself in religion?
Is it not true that there are Christians who harbor contempt for those who are not Christian? Is it not true that there are Christians who harbor contempt for Christians who do not believe a certain way? Do not some fundamentalist Christians harbor contempt for more liberal Christians? Do not some liberal Christians harbor contempt for fundamentalist Christians? Do not some Christians on the right as well as the left harbor contempt for Christians who seek middle ground? Is this dynamic not common across the Christian landscape?
Is this not why some of our young want little or nothing to do with being Christian? And let me add - this dynamic is not only found in Christianity – it is found in Islam and Judaism and all the other major religions. Contempt damages every religion.
Contempt damages religion because when one feels contempt for someone, then one does not have to listen to that person. But listening is essential to healthy faith. If I feel contempt for someone, then I don’t have to dialogue with that person. I can say to myself, I’m the true believer, not that one! Contempt, in other words, saves time and effort! No wonder many succumb to its allure! But it makes faith and healthy religion impossible.
Contempt goes against everything Jesus taught. Can we imagine Jesus feeling contempt for anyone? Jesus forgave everyone – even those who killed him. Jesus was the most compassionate person who ever walked this world. And in his life, death and resurrection, he showed us the antidote for contempt: compassion, the willingness to help carry the suffering of others. This is what Jesus did and what we’re called to do as his disciples!
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister