Just Because You Can (An Alternative to American Contempt and Disgust)

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I was a little bored watching an NFL game last week and began flipping channels for something more interesting. I stumbled upon MLB Network where the 2013 film "42" was showing. The scene that caught my eye was when Jackie Robinson, played by the late Chadwick Bosman, sat across from Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey (acted by Harrison Ford). Rickey wanted to know how Robinson would handle racial insults, not eating with the team, and sleeping away from his white teammates. Rickey assaulted Robinson with the same awful things he was going to hear (no matter where he was) as the first African American to play in white baseball. Rickey wanted to know how would handle himself if provoked by rabid fans or trigger happy policemen in the South. 

In the same week, CNN released a poll that one in three Americans think that violence against the federal government is justified. Following the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, Americans and law enforcement officials braced for possible violence. Many of the insurrectionists were Christians.

The last time violence was justified by Americans against Americans, the result was the bloodiest war ever in the republic. Most Americans, especially Christians, don’t just simply interpret the world politically. Most American Christians believe violence against another Christian is justified in order for one’s side to win. 

How did we get here?

According to author Arthur Brooks, contempt has become the emotion of choice with many American Christians. The last two presidential elections revealed contempt as the only way to view people who don’t agree with your perspective. Contempt is the feeling that disagreement isn’t enough to bring satisfaction, but that enjoyment comes from seeing the other destroyed with great cruelty. 

Brooks quoted a psychologist, “What makes you violent is the perception that you are being held in contempt. This rips families, communities, and whole nations apart. If you want to make a lifelong enemy, show him contempt. Contempt says you disgust me. You are beneath caring about.” (Arthur Brooks, Loving Your Enemies, p.22-23)

Disgust is the other side of contempt. Most psychologists have wondered about this emotion in the last decade or so because little research has been done about its power in social situations. Psychologist Valerie Curtis called disgust the “strong magic” that determines if someone by social proximity and interaction pollutes or contaminates others.

Curtis called disgust “the source of much human suffering and its plays an unappreciated role in anxieties and phobias.” (Why Disgust Matters, December 2011) When a person has disgust for someone, they view the other as a parasite which demands the need to draw the line between what is pure and what is polluted. When this determination has been made, contempt and disgust simply provide the justification to dehumanize anybody for one’s righteous cause. Violence becomes the only remedy worthy for such disgusting people, right?

Things were going bad for Jesus after his excruciating bout with his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. He learned there were no shortcuts, no plan B in order to save condemned people from the wrath of God’s anger against sin. Roman soldiers, after getting arrest warrants in collusion with disciple Judas Iscariot, had a posse to take in Jesus. Peter had contempt and disgust for Roman soldiers or anyone who was after Jesus. It was justifiable to kill in order to defend Jesus at all costs. 

A severed, bloody ear dropped to the ground. Jesus should have given word to all of his disciples to slice and dice in his name. Jesus should have used whatever means to show who had the power to put Rome in its place. Jesus doesn’t compliment the violence of the servant. He doesn’t encourage revenge on his enemy.

While telling his disciples to put away their devices of war, Jesus modeled something quite counter cultural: “Put your sword back in its place. For all who live by the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my father and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then will the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54).

Back to Jackie Robinson, Rickey told Jackie that he knew he could fight back, stand up for himself with any racist white person. However, Rickey challenged Robinson to beat them not by fighting back, but by taking the road less traveled. Rickey summoned Robinson that contempt could be defeated by kicking the players’ butts on the diamond. Rickey challenged Robinson to bypass the disgust he felt against the social conditions of black people by being dignified.   

Maybe the way of changing hearts and minds in this toxic world of contempt and disgust is by practicing holy restraint and modeling gospel dignity that restore humanity rather than destroying it. 

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