The first Tuesday of Lent and Super Tuesday coincided this week.
To me at least, this week’s election primary signals the true beginning of an eight-month long horserace that is the campaign for the office of President of the United States of America.
The never-ending conflict that is our political life is about to enter a period of maximum volume, and I’m afraid we all know that things are going to get nasty.
Now, please don’t hear me dismissing elections as unimportant, but rather suggesting the possibility that our daily lives and culture are more influenced by this political life than they influence it.
That possibility is troubling to me. It seems the battles over our divisions only make us more divided – and more unkind.
But I recently heard a good sermon by my friend, Max Ramsey, which articulated something I’ve been sensing for some time now but unable to voice: the notion that Christians in the church have something crucial to offer to the wider society – a society that seems committed to a politics of contempt.
He drew on this passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a passage that my undergraduate students frequently dismiss as opaque if not altogether unrealistic. And he focused on the word in verse 22: angry – “if you are angry with a brother or sister …”
That word in the Greek is “orgizomenos,” suggesting more than the anger that emerges in response to some wrong.
There’s a permanence, a deep-seated disdain associated with this word when applied to relations between human beings.
Max translated it as “contempt,” reflecting deeply on the frightening power of contempt when it lodges in our heart.
Philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer described contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”
Now if that doesn’t describe the tenor of American politics over the last several years, I don’t know what does.
When you hold someone in contempt, you can justify all sorts of horrible actions and policies because you’ve basically invalidated any claim of humanity.
So, when I hear Jesus’ words in this context, I feel a sense of conviction because I know I’ve felt contempt in my heart so often.
At times, I have to take a break from watching or listening to the news to preserve my own peace of mind because it seems that the actions of some leaders inspire anger in me – anger that easily devolves into contempt.
But as Lent begins, I want to take up my friend Max’s challenge to try to pay attention – to root out the contempt I know in my own heart so that it might be replaced by the radical love of Jesus Christ.
That radical love is what Christians in the church can offer surrounding society. Rather than dismissing our opponent as “worthless” because of our contempt, we can embrace both their and our own full humanity.
Rather than seeking to annihilate them through the “warfare” of electoral politics, we can disagree vehemently with integrity and love.
We can set an example by calling out injustice while remaining committed to the full, valuable humanity of even our worst political enemy.
May this Lenten season be a period of inner reflection, rooting out contempt from our hearts so that we might offer an example of love instead.
John A. Jones IV is Associate Regional Minister-Education for the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin and Site Coordinator for the Wisconsin Site of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches Theology as supplemental faculty for the seminary and Religion and Ethics as an adjunct at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.