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May 21, 2022

Fighting our culture of contempt

One day my wife Laurie is on NextDoor, the social media site, and sees someone post, “Hey, just saw a coyote in my backyard, make sure your cat is safe indoors.”

Almost instantly that seemingly innocuous text ignites into a full-fledged neighbor war, complete with insults in all caps. Someone types, “I am offended that you said ‘YOUR’ cat, we do NOT own animals.” Next: “Well I am offended that you are only defending cats. COYOTES ARE PEOPLE TOO.” Next: “Shut up tree hugger!!!”

I will admit it sort of amused me. But it’s just one more example of the hair-trigger tempers we are all seeing around us, the us-vs.-them mentality that is making any dialogue seemingly impossible.

I was riveted last week as I listened to Harvard economist Arthur Brooks on the podcast Freakanomics discussing the economic and social damage that our spirit of anger and division is causing to our country. Brooks believes there is only one weapon that can defeat our extreme polarization: love. He wrote a book about it called “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.”  Of course, his title caught my attention because it’s a quote from Jesus: “Love your enemies! Do good to them.” (Luke 6:35)

Brooks argues we have reached a contempt crisis in the U.S. This contempt goes beyond mere anger. Contempt says, “You are worthless. What you say or believe is worthless. You are beneath my regard.” That kind of contempt–– for anyone unlike me or who disagrees with me—is what leads to the bitterness and polarization we see in our country right now.

So how do we fight our culture of contempt? How do we save our country?

It’s hard because contempt is addictive. A professor at Stanford has done research about how contempt stimulates dopamine, just like a drug. Everyone‘s experienced this. It gives you a little high to get worked up, to be angry and self-righteous. It’s a very popular drug right now.

Brooks says the only way to break that addiction and restore peace… is to love. And he says that has to start not with the emotion of love, but with acting as if you love people, through good deeds. That is the only answer, he says, to what is pulling our country apart. 

That’s one of the reasons our congregation has begun an Acts of Kindness initiative. We are encouraging people to plan acts of kindness, large and small. These can be individual deeds for a neighbor in need, or large group projects for schools or food banks. We hope to swamp our county with love. Will you join us? You don’t need to be a member of the congregation—just choose someone to target with kindness!

Since starting this initiative on October 14 we have collected over 1,000 pajamas for children in transitional housing through Project Pajamas and put together over 50 gift bags to every staff member at Mar Vista Elementary School, because we know public school teachers have been the target of so much anger recently. We are hoping to raise one million meals for Second Harvest Food Bank by Thanksgiving, since food insecurity has risen dramatically since the pandemic. Individual members have helped neighbors patch drywall, do gardening, clean gutters, and more. 

The thank-you notes we’ve already received are heart-warming. One example from a teacher at Mar Vista: “The thought and love and care that was put into this effort is beyond! And to know that every single teaching staff member (including aides and student teachers) were included is just a beautiful thing. Thank you for shining your light on this world that is feeling a little dark right now!”

This is not just being “nice.” In our cultural moment this is a revolution. It’s a fight against evil. As Paul of Tarsus wrote, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” 

I know that when you say things like, “love people, do good, be kind,” it sounds like you’re tilting at windmills, like you’re just a dreamer. But keep dreaming that dream. Stand up against the merchants of contempt. Fight political polarization and contempt and injustice with love. 

Because as Arthur Brooks says, when you do that you are changing the world.

René Schlaepfer is senior pastor of Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, His views are his own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.


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