Thanksgiving: The Remedy for Cultural Contempt
"Contemptuous actions and attitudes are a knife in the heart that permanently harms and mutilates people’s souls."—Dallas Willard
In worship this past Sunday, the appointed Psalm pled with God:
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt.
It made me think of our cultural moment: As humans, we are enduring no end of contempt. Mutual contempt is central to the history of conflict in the Middle East. Any explanation of wars in Eastern Europe must include contempt for certain people groups. The same is true for dictators in Latin America and tribal wars in Africa. Contempt also dominates America’s current political discourse.
Do you long for Jesus-centered justice to heal our world? Consider becoming a paid subscriber. All proceeds go to support The Center for Formation, Justice and Peace.
This text, however, is not first about us. Psalm 123 is a Song of Ascent, sung by crowds on pilgrimage to a feast in Jerusalem. As these travelers walked, they sang their longings and laments to God. In this case, as an oppressed people, feeling unjustly mocked by surrounding society, they were longing for God to take away the contempt they felt. The Hebrew text says they were sated with contempt—it filled their hearts and minds, their communal conversations.
If an insult causes a scratch, contempt penetrates the deepest recess of the soul. If a poke in the chest is offensive, contempt is like a baseball bat to the heart. Contempt feels like one’s humanity is rejected; it mocks one’s personhood; it ridicules basic traits; it is derision, scorn and disdain—all intended to make the recipient feel totally disrespected and rejected.
Dallas Willard says,
In the course of normal life, one is rarely in a situation where contempt is not hovering in the wings. And everyone lives in terror of it. Contemptuous actions and attitudes are a knife in the heart that permanently harms and mutilates people’s souls.
I sat in church last Sunday drenched in the knowledge that such mutilation animates most news stories. I realized I was praying Psalm 123 as a disciple of Jesus on pilgrimage to the renewed cosmos. I imagined a world in which, until we get to heaven, we sing to God, not shout scathingly at each other. I longed for God’s realm, where contempt for one another is banished.
But my longing had a dream-like quality to it. The reality is I wake up every day in a fuming and furious world. We seem to have made rage central to human relations. We direct feverish disgust at anyone who disagrees with us.
Jesus knew well the contempt that existed between Romans and Jews, between Jews and Samaritans, and in the infighting among Jewish sects. In the midst of it all, Jesus taught his followers to not even speak contemptuously and insultingly to anyone (Matthew 5:22). Jesus knew deeds of destruction were never far behind damaging words.
From Contempt to Thanksgiving
To our ancient ancestors, Jerusalem symbolized communion with God, with all the perfections that implies. We know that same thing is true about the new heavens and earth. But in the meantime, as we travel there, how do we deal with contempt?
I’ve found one powerful remedy:
Giving thanks for a person or a people group heals contempt.
It is not possible to simultaneously treasure a neighbor as a fellow human being and at the same time mutilate their body or soul. We are not likely to harm someone we cherish. On the contrary, we give thanks for the people we treasure and cherish.
Curing contempt begins with a proper view of humanity:
Whose idea were we?
What is our nature?
What is our sense of purpose?
We find correct answers to those questions in the phrase Imago Dei—the image of God. When we see God in others, contempt is banished. Imago Dei makes contempt based on skin color, caste and gender unthinkable. Rather, when we see every human being as possessing the image of God, we’re empowered to fully rehumanize them and all others who have been systemically and relentlessly degraded as less than human.
Imagine a world where we cherish the people that our history, culture or current events tell us to hold in contempt. Picture a world where, instead of dropping verbal or actual bombs of contempt on our neighbors, we intuitively treasure them. When we cherish and treasure others, we are grateful for them. We appreciate the place they occupy in our lives. We are thankful to be closely connected to them.
This Thanksgiving, my heart—like the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem—cries out:
Lord, we have endured no end of contempt.
And then I pray:
Lord, help me to treasure my neighbor and cherish my enemy because they contain your image. And having done so, help me to give thanks for them. This Thanksgiving, please replace my instinct for rejection with embrace, mockery with respect, ridicule with esteem, derision with honor, scorn with appreciation, and disdain with deference. As I thank you for the people in my life, let my relationships with them be marked by respect and embrace.