Choosing Love over Contempt

I just finished a great book that I have been wanting to read every since I heard a podcast about it a few weeks ago. The title is Love Your Enemies, and it is by Arthur Brooks. The gist of the book is very simple: we live in a culture of contempt that is destructive for us and for our whole society; to combat it, we need more love—love that does not demand sameness or agreement, but that respects the other as she is, and respects differences in general (especially in ideas).

I agree wholeheartedly, and would say more: churches in particular (and individual Christians) have a distinct and clear call from God to be communities (and individuals) that embody that kind of love. (Brooks is Catholic, so it is perhaps no surprise that the book is peppered throughout with Scriptural references—including, obviously, the title). In my view, this is a crucial, critical calling for the church in society today.

So, first, some definitions. Contempt, he defines as anger mixed with disgust; and he quotes the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who says that contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” Contempt is characterized by an “enduring attitude of complete distain.” Love, by contrast, is not a feeling, in the way that Brooks is using it. Instead, he quotes Thomas Aquinas, who says, “To love is to will the good of the other.” Brooks refines this definition further using the words of philosopher Michael Novak, who says, “To love is to will the good of the other as other.” Love is an action, a choice; it is a verb, which precedes its use as a noun.

Brooks then spends the rest of the book detailing exactly why contempt is such a problem, and how to begin the hard, necessary work of loving those who disagree with us. The book is very good, and I highly recommend it; here are just a few thoughts I want to share.

I really appreciated the way he talked about branding as it applies to people: how we are so quick to characterize someone wearing a MAGA cap or a Harvard sweatshirt, sporting a Vegan bumper sticker, or flying a Blue Lives Matter flag, or a rainbow flag. As Brooks notes, we use demographic identities to swiftly decide whether people are worth meeting and getting to know—in place of doing the hard work of actually meeting and getting to know who they are as individuals. The cure for this is connection. Brooks writes, “When you meet actual people and learn a little of their human story, you feel connection—and connection destroys discrimination.”

This is why stories matter so much; why it is important to listen to other people’s stories, and learn how to tell our own. He cites another study that shows how stories change brain chemistry and facilitate emotional understanding and connection by releasing oxytocin, the “love molecule.” Stories create relationships.

Brooks also describes the concept of “bridging social capital,” versus “bonding social capital”—ideas that, interestingly enough, Interfaith Youth Core spends time trying to teach. The former is inward-looking and reinforces the identity of a homogenous group—like when I hang out with other Lutherans. The latter is outward-looking, “embracing those who don’t fall into one specific camp.”

From here, he talks about three different choices of identity leaders (and anyone, really) can make in today’s climate. You can choose to be a “breaker,” who seeks to gain strength by driving people apart. These are the people who not only don’t build bridges but take joy in blowing them up—and Brooks argues that this is the dominant stream today is national politics on both the left and the right. Or, you could seek to be a “bonder,” who does “little to foster true unity because they use identity to strengthen links to their own groups,” and “neglect the opportunity to bring people together across division, which marginalizes others.” Or, you could do what Brooks says the “ideal leader” does—and he argues that we need these leaders more urgently now than at any other time in his life— and that is to be a “bridger,” someone who is dedicated to a radical embrace of diversity. “These are leaders of all political stripes who see common human stories all around them and are determined to bring people together.”

One very practical and important way of bridging is to recognize shared core values, even as we acknowledge differences in how to achieve those values. So, for example, he cites a study that found fairness and care for others are nearly universal moral values. Not everyone agrees on what economic policies and government actions best promote those values, but everyone still has them. Brooks argues that if we can agree on the “why”—the moral objectives—we can have more civil and constructive disagreements on the “what” (I would probably say the “how”)—the ways to achieve them. And, we would foster more respect for others in the process.

He ends the book with five rules to subvert the culture of contempt:

1. Refuse to be used by the powerful; do not be manipulated by people on your side of the debate who are expressing contempt for those you disagree with.

2. Escape the bubble. Go into unfamiliar ideological territory and pay attention.

3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.

4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas.

5. Tune Out: disconnect more from the unproductive debates on cable news and social media.

It is both very simple and very hard to be a “bridger”—a lover of the other—in a culture that fosters the addictive, pleasing sensation of having contempt for those who disagree with me. But, if Brooks is right, all we need are “decent people” who refuse to participate in this culture of contempt and who instead believe enough in the way of love to stand up and speak out for it.

One person, one community, one congregation at a time.

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