Years ago I sat in a college seminar class with ‘genocide’ written across the board. Our small cohort was learning about specific atrocities perpetrated by humans on other humans. Through documentaries, books and journal articles, and with the guidance of a lawyer, historian and political scientist, we discussed the roots of genocide.
Though this was an academic exercise, I enrolled in the class because I wanted to know more about the history and context of the region in which I was raised. Friends and classmates experienced Rwanda during the genocide. I knew I needed to be more educated on the topic.
Cockroaches. Over radio waves, one group of people brazenly spewed hatred for another, calling them cockroaches, promulgating the idea that their opponents were less than human. This was a primary indicator that a genocide was possible. If someone is not truly human, we can justify killing them. In short order, in a state where 90% of the population claimed Christianity as their belief system, we learned that words led to deeds of unspeakable evil as the media urged people to eliminate the ‘cockroaches’ in their midst.
Calling a human being – an image bearer of God – a term that is other than human shows contempt. Contempt is a feeling that another person is worth less than the value God ascribes to them. It is the belief that a person is sub-human and thus beneath our consideration. I often think the grievous sin of contempt is only committed by hardened criminals or internet trolls. But, as Tim Keller notes, ordinary, culturally acceptable insults “betray an attitude of contempt.” And as we know from Scripture, it’s not just our voiced opinions that betray our sin, but our unspoken attitudes of the heart as well.
We practice contempt every day. A family member or spouse voices an opinion and I write them off as not worthy of consideration, tuning them out. A colleague speaks and the first mental response is ‘what an idiot.’ The school board livestream comments exemplify our culture of contempt. Shared social media memes and comment threads are rife with contempt.
Jesus had words to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes, to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
The Pharisee trusted in his own righteousness. We know this because he treated others with contempt. He touted his good deeds and judged others compared to himself. If we treat others with contempt, it shows we have elevated our own righteousness, our own good works. We don’t believe the good in us is a result of God’s grace and His work in our lives. We are good compared to others and so we feel justified in how we treat others.
If your personal practice or public persona is one of showing contempt to others, the gospel you are believing and preaching is one of works righteousness. Those who disagree with you will not be attracted to Christ in you, but repelled by your gospel of self-righteousness. Contempt toward others might justify us to our tribe or ideological buddies, but it is not justifiable before God (Luke 16:15).
Harboring contempt in our hearts is ultimately a manifestation of our original sin, one that we each hold near and dear to our hearts – pride. This was the sin lurking in the heart of the outwardly pious Pharisee. In contrast, the tax collector was justified through humble confession and repentance. His righteous plea to God was for mercy, not a plea of self-justification.
Much like the Pharisee, in American culture we exalt ourselves by showing contempt. We wear it as a badge of honor. Witty, dehumanizing insults directed toward other image bearers wins approval from those with whom we seek it. Our tribe applauds us when we dish zingers, and that puffs us up. Some even praise us, saying we speak with a prophetic voice.
Hours before Jesus hung on the cross, we observe someone acting with contempt. “And Herod with his soldiers treated [Jesus] with contempt and mocked him” (Luke 23:9). Lest there be any confusion, Herod is not the hero in this story. He is speaking for the approval of men. The scribes and religious elite shared Herod’s enmity of Jesus. Herod’s contempt of Jesus surely was met with approval in their eyes.
We should not be surprised at the normalizing of attitudes of contempt among Christians. Why? Because a majority of self-professed Christians in America believe works righteousness theology. We prove our righteousness by vigorously pointing out how unrighteous and contemptible other people are. Particularly this year, when we have fewer opportunities to gather in person, we may not spread the gospel of contempt with our mouths. But we spread its false theology across the internet through memes, tweets and shared posts. We affirm it by inviting it into our homes day after day in our choices of the media we consume.
Brothers and sisters, our words are our witness. If our witness is one of contempt and dehumanization, we are witnesses of a false gospel. The louder we proclaim this message the more we may self-identify as a prophet- but we would be false prophets.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ leaves no room for contempt for others. Jesus’ death and resurrection atoned for our sin. We have no excuse for boasting when we believe it was not our work, but a work of God’s grace that gives us any standing before God (Eph 2:8,9). Our righteousness is not proven by dehumanizing others, but by recognizing our own depravity and wearing the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:16-21). When we believe this gospel we are free to love the vilest offender, and pray that through our public witness he may truly come to believe the same.