Arthur Brooks and I overlapped one year in the same high school back in the early 1980s when Arthur’s father was a visiting professor for a year at Calvin College.  I did not know him very well but saw him around (noting his rather long hair), and my friends in the Grand Rapids Christian High Band took note that Arthur was really good on the French horn.  (They weren’t kidding: among Arthur’s many distinguished accomplishments in coming years was his being the principal French hornist in the City Orchestra of Barcelona.)

A year ago Brooks was back in Grand Rapids to deliver a talk at Calvin’s January Series.  He focused on his new book and spoke on the theme of “Bringing America Together.”  Chiefly he singled out the vice of contempt as being particularly corrosive on our common life together and a near-fatal disease infecting the body politic.  Brooks contended that social media and other forces in the current culture are constantly foisting contempt on us.   The way news and information are presented to us is designed to make us feel contempt within our hearts even as we are then encouraged to respond with contempt toward any and all with whom we disagree.

Instead Brooks pointed to a better way, to a gospel way, to a Jesus way to try to cut the nerve of this vicious cycle.   It was a really good and lively presentation.  But as some colleagues and I discussed it later, we all agreed it had one blind spot: Brooks never engaged the elephant in the room: our nation currently has a President who traffics in contempt on a daily basis and inspires others to do the same.  Leaders set the tone.  Others see what leaders do, how they act, what they say and then take permission to go and do likewise.  Brooks was in no position per se to take on this fact but his talk would have been strengthened had he suggested strategies to help all of us pursue a contempt-free discourse despite this rather large obstacle in the national path.

Fast forward thirteen months to last week’s National Prayer Breakfast where Arthur Brooks was a featured speaker.  He spoke largely from the Sermon on the Mount and once again wove in his fine thoughts on the corrosive effects of contempt with Christ’s gospel ethic of love for all, forgiveness for all, and prayers for all (including one’s enemies).  But this time the elephant in the room he avoided in his January Series talk actually was in the room. And what happened next perhaps tells the tale of why Brooks avoided this the first time.  Because President Trump stood up to take overt issue with Brooks, with Jesus, with the Sermon on the Mount (eliciting laughter, of all things, from some of the religious leaders in attendance).  Trump then put on a mini-seminar on the fostering of and the expressing of a deep-seated contempt for many people, including people sitting only a few feet from him.

Arthur Brooks does not, I am sure, remember me and so would never have asked me, upon being invited to that breakfast, whether or not he should attend.  Had he done so, I suspect I would have counseled him not to go.   The way religion gets mixed in with our politics is bad enough just generally in this nation in our civil religion and such.  But the miring together of evangelicalism and Donald Trump in particular has had some extremely deleterious effects on the witness of the church.  Why get oneself mixed in with such a messy situation?

Probably I would have been wrong in such counsel.  I give my former classmate credit for bearing witness.  He pointed to the right things. And we all need to hear it.  No, the President wasn’t listening except to find points with which to disagree.   But maybe Speaker Pelosi was listening and maybe she needs to.  Her tearing up the President’s State of the Union speech was itself an act of contempt that she absolutely should not have done.  It only demonstrated what Brooks talked about last year at Calvin: contempt spreads like a contagion as deadly as coronavirus.  And when acts of contempt emanate from the top down, it makes it ever so much more difficult for the rest of us to resist contempt’s siren call.

But we have to.  We Christians absolutely have to.  So Arthur Brooks bore witness.  It landed like a thud with the person who most needs to help lead us all a different way but we don’t calibrate the bearing of witness to its likely success.  We bear witness because the Spirit of the living God is within us and, as Jesus said in John’s Gospel, that Spirit will continue to lead us into all truth.  Our job is daily to follow that lead as best we can.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

16 Comments

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    We need to bear witness but we also can’t expect someone who is tone-deaf to appreciate the subtle notes (or even simple tunes) of a piece of music

  • mstair says:

    “ … is designed to make us feel contempt within our hearts even as we are then encouraged to respond with contempt …”

    “ … contempt spreads like a contagion…”

    Great stuff. But contemptuous people are so frustrating! Even Paul perhaps gave in a bit to it …
    “Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.  As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! “ (Galatians 5:12-13)

  • William Harris says:

    Riffing on last weeks lectionary: we bear witness because that is what salt people do.

  • Jessica Groen says:

    The topic of contempt and its corrosive impact is so important to consider and take seriously. Thanks for this essay and your call to think more carefully about what contempt does.

    When Captain von Trapp created and used whistle commands to communicate with his children, that was behavior of corrosive contempt. When he tore the flag of the 3rd Reich, to say, “this will not be venerated as an authorized symbol in my house,” it was a constructive form of resistance that showed responsible care for his community, his children and their well-being. The difference, to me, was that the whistle expressed scorn toward more vulnerable humans, ones whom he had power and authority over. While the flag-tearing expressed scorn toward a symbolic object which represented a misuse of authority by leaders with similar or more power than he had.

    Maria took a risk and a glare when she flippantly asked the Captain, in her position as co-leader of the children, which whistle signal she should use to call him. That was a proper use of scorn/mocking, because she was calling him into a rebuke. What a creative and non-violent way to show him and the carefully watching children that he was misusing his authority. I feel that her challenge to his ways of authoritarianism may have helped him get to the point where he would dare to rip up an authoritarian symbol. It reminds me of how Tamar’s “disrespectful” exposure of Judah’s hypocrisy catalyzed his slow but crucial development from the main sibling plotter against Joseph to the main sibling advocate in Egypt for Benjamin. Power dynamics are reinforced or challenged in events when a person chooses to go with the flow or to interrupt the approval posture toward a platformed leader. What is done (or not done) when authority figures are maltreating their beneficiaries can be the key to interpreting the difference between corrosive contempt and healthy iconoclasm.

  • Anne Kennedy says:

    I was a bit taken aback to see Ms Pelosi tear up the speech, and also an earlier point when she seemed to be making a comment about something DJT said (I can’t imagine to whom, as she was seated next to Mr Pence). I agree with Mr Brooks’ premise and your expansion on the damaging effect of contempt. But I think she was right to tear up the speech. Too many people are sitting by as this man destroys individual lives and our nation as a whole. My sole contribution is signing petitions. We need voices speaking out bluntly, including in actions such as tearing up the speech to indicate one’s rejection of its content. Ms Pelosi has been as courteous as possible and I don’t mind that her courtesy has reached its limits. It isn’t as though she turned her back and walked away or has said rude things about the speech since then.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Scott, once again a courageous posting.

  • Ria Faber says:

    We must bear witness when called to do so. Even if it lands with a thud and doesn’t produce the desired effect, it is still necessary to call our nation to repent and turn to God. Arthur Brooks in this situation was a modern day prophet and should be commended for taking on the “elephant in the room”.

    Acts 28:26 Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: 27 For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.

  • Jane Vroon says:

    Thank you for continuing to bear witness for us to our current political situation.

  • Syl Gerritsma says:

    Thanks for this post, Scott.
    Although you didn’t put it in exactly these terms, the widespread Christian support of Mr. Trumps ethical behaviour and many of his political policies may have an even worse negative impact on the name of Christ than on civic discourse. Christian silence, and even applause for all of this, attaches to us a stench that likely will stay with us for at least a generation.
    We need more courageous leadership like yours, Mr. Brooks, and CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you for your courageous posts. We desperately need them and all the courageous posts on The Reformed Journal.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for a tremendous article. I, too, am taken back by the contemptible state of the news media. It’s as though the news coverage is meant to breed contempt regardless of what party or individual it reports on. My only criticism of your article is your call to bear witness to the truth because the Spirit of God is within us. The lived out reality, as is evident among nearly all professing Christians, is that such Holy Spirit makes little or no difference as to the Christian political witness. All people know deep down we have a responsibility to act in love toward others. The appeal should not be to the Holy Spirit, but to that better self within all of us, Christian and non Christian alike. Thanks, again, for an eye opening article.

  • David Schelhaas says:

    I suppose you are right, Scott, but is there never a time to tip over the tables of the money-changers or rip up their lies?

  • Anthony (Tony) Diekema says:

    Superb piece, Scott…………….”gutsy” and eminently sane. Keep talkin’…………

  • Tom says:

    This is an excellent piece with which I agree. Just one comment, which relates as much to the posted comments as to the original piece – the ‘elephant in the room’ is obviously an elephant, and an enormous one. However, the consensus seems to be that Trump is the source and cause of the ‘contempt’ that is so prevalent, that this is something new. It is not.
    I will not defend DJT’s language, tweets, insults, etc. because it does not deserve defending; however, if one points out his ‘contempt’, then one must also acknowledge the contempt dripping from statements that describe half of Republican voters as a “basket of deplorables”; or describing them as “bitter . . . clinging to their guns and religion”; or a campaign ad describing Mitt Romney as “not one of us”, etc., etc. I’m fairly confident that scouring newspapers from the time of Roosevelt, or Lincoln, or Washington, would reveal a fair amount of ‘contempt’ dripping here and there.

    My point is to be careful. There’s a very human tendency, when someone comes along whose sins are so obvious and extreme, to miss those same sins in our own lives. That old Total Depravity is a hard thing to stamp out . . .

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks much, Scott, for this! Voices like Brooks’ and yours are desperately needed. And prayers for this President’s discovery of decency and civility.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Mr Brooks said in his speech that moral courage is standing up to the people with whom you agree – which is not really what’s happening here. This is a left-leaning site, and the donkey in the room is that the (political) contempt problem is bipartisan. How many here have been called a fascist, nazi or white nationalist lately? I’m guessing not many. How many here have thought that their political opponents are actually racists?

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