Hope for a Culture of Contempt

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Noted marriage therapist John Gottman, who has observed thousands of couples in his Love Lab at the University of Washington, claims he can predict with 94% accuracy which relationships are headed for divorce.
What’s the number one predictor?  Gottman votes for contempt.
Contempt is anger mingled with disgust – the settled conviction of someone else’s worthlessness.  The telltale signs are sarcasm, sneering, hostile humor and the ultimate giveaway, eye-rolling.  When Gottman sees partners react to each other by rolling their eyes, he has come to have a high degree of confidence that apart from powerful course corrections, disintegration is on the way. 
Contempt, unfortunately, has become a dominant reality across America’s political landscape.
In his book Forgive Your Enemies, columnist Arthur Brooks suggests that our nation’s greatest challenge is navigating through “a culture of contempt.”  According to a 2017 Reuters poll, one in six Americans stopped talking to a friend or family member because of the 2016 election.  Contempt springs from the assumption that there is no possibility of finding common ground.  “My motives are based in love.  Your motives are based in hate.  Only a selfish and immoral person could believe what you believe.  And don’t throw your ‘facts’ in my face.  Your news is fake news.” 
Contempt goes beyond anger.  Anger says, “I care enough about these issues to get emotionally involved.”  Contempt says, “You aren’t even worth caring about.”  In anger, I may want to hurt someone.  In contempt, I don’t care if you get hurt or not. 
If this is where our relational and political conversations begin, it’s no surprise that we so often end up hurling insults at each other.
Heading into the 2018 midterms, six siblings of an incumbent congressman filmed a series of TV ads denouncing him.  A sister labeled him a racist.  A brother sighed, “He just doesn’t appear to be well.”  The congressman responded that his siblings are “related by blood to me, but like leftists everywhere, they put political ideology before family.  Stalin would be proud.”  It might be best to decline an invitation to join this family for Thanksgiving dinner.
After political candidates invest an entire election season rolling their eyes and calling their opponents liars, fools, or criminals, who can be shocked that it’s hard for Democrats and Republicans to govern together?
The good news is that we don’t have to act this way.  There’s hope for our culture – especially when we come to grips with the good reasons for leaving contempt behind. 
Brooks devotes much of his book to demonstrating that contempt isn’t just bad for those we are rejecting.  It’s seriously bad for us.  Contempt makes us unhappy, unhealthy, and unattractive even to those who agree with us.
Jesus doesn’t hesitate to address anger and contempt in his Sermon the Mount.  He says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court.  And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).
Words are serious things.  Words can wound and kill.   
“Raca” is one of about 20 Aramaic words that appear in the New Testament.  Many of them have come into common English usage without being translated.  Think of “amen,” “hosanna,” “rabbi,” and “abba.”
“Raca,” however, is a singularly fierce word.  It is an expression of contempt, and is far stronger than the “you idiot” that some translations prefer.  It’s likely that its very sound – “rahcahhh” – is meant to represent the gathering of spit at the back of the throat – spit that I intend to hurl at someone I consider worthless. 
Jesus makes it clear that there will be serious consequences for people who unrepentantly set out to hurt other people.  Bible scholar Dale Bruner comments, “Anger carried and vented, according to Jesus’ astonishing assessment, is Last-Judgment-and-hell-deserving crime.”
But what if we have to deal with people whose views are truly repugnant?
Opinions might be worthy of rejection.  But we must never curse or dismiss the people who hold them.  Every woman and every man you will ever meet bears the image of God.  That is our ultimate common ground.  We may repudiate their opinions, but always with respect – and always with the hope that we might somehow find a way to go forward together. 
John Gottman insists that disagreement with a spouse, partner, cantankerous neighbor, or even a sworn enemy never needs to descend into contempt.
He reminds us of the five-to-one rule:  Balance every critical remark you make to someone with five positive ones. 
That may seem impossibly hard.
But nobody ever said that loving real people would be easy.
And it may even be that God intends to deploy us on the front lines of his efforts to transform our culture of contempt into a culture of his grace.