It is generally acknowledged that our society has become increasingly mean-spirited. Unless today’s politician is chronically incensed and habitually scornful, no one will take him or her seriously. The so-called “liberal elite” are famously contemptuous: That conservatives are morally-challenged dimwits is for them a matter of orthodoxy. I, who have expressed thoughtful opposition to gay marriage, have been repeatedly belittled and insulted.
But the contempt of the irreligious for Christians has been frequently matched by Christians’ condemnation of the irreligious. David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a research and communication company that explores cultural and religious trends, reported in his book, “UnChristian,” that 87 percent of unchurched people born between 1966 and 2002 believe present-day Christians are “judgmental.”
That perception is not limited to people outside the church, either. When Philip Eaton was president of Seattle Pacific University, a Christian liberal arts college, he asked: “Why are Christians so mean to one another so often?” and went on to speak of a “meanness within the Christian community, a mean-spirited suspicion and judgment that mirrors the broader culture.”
These two issues, contempt and condemnation, devaluing others and damning them, are clearly addressed in the Bible. Jesus spoke to both issues in the celebrated Sermon on the Mount. He saw contempt and condemnation as so destructive that he prohibited his students from engaging in either.
Jesus warned his followers that contempt, expressed in invective and insult, would place them “in danger of the fires of hell.” He knew that contempt opens the door to abuses that could not otherwise happen. Sexual harassment, gay-bashing, racial discrimination, and every other crime of hate begins with contempt.
The Nazis are the ultimate example. They turned contempt into a science. When Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and people with disabilities had been transformed by propaganda into something subhuman, the population was able to ignore, and in some cases even applaud, the atrocities committed against them.
Jesus also warned his followers, in no uncertain terms, against adopting a posture of condemnation. He told them, point-blank: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged ...”
Contempt and condemnation are analogous to two poles of an electromagnetic field. It is possible to distinguish between them, but they come from the same source. In the case of contempt and condemnation, that source is self-righteousness. When people enter a contempt-condemnation field, they can feel it. Some will be attracted by it and others, good people, will be repelled by it.
No one should ever enter one of these contempt-condemnation fields by going to church. Churches ought to be contempt-free, condemnation-free zones. This does not mean that appropriate rebuke and correction cannot take place. It can, and sometimes ought to take place, but it must be performed in a manner like that of St. Dominic. He was said to reprimand “so affectionately that no one was ever upset by his correction and punishment.”
Of course, churches are not condemnation-free, contempt-free zones. (Just ask 87 percent of young, unchurched people — or ask churched people, for that matter). If they are ever to become condemnation and contempt-free, it will not be because they implemented diversity training or held communication workshops, however valuable these may be. It will be because they took seriously their commitment to Jesus and put his instruction into practice.
In the absence of a strong commitment to live Jesus’s way, our differences with each other will produce contempt and condemnation. Indifference to the lordship of Jesus virtually guarantees our differences will divide us. But it is right here that the genius of the church is most apparent: When we share a commitment to Jesus as our leader, our differences make us stronger.
That shared commitment does not lead us to value diversity in the abstract, but to value each other — in all our diversity. This is such a rare feature in contemporary society that when people see it — even the 87 percent of young, unchurched people — they stand up and take notice. Jesus clearly foresaw this when he told his followers, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Really, who else lives like that?
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County (Mich.). Read more at shaynelooper.com.