Contempt has to be one of the uglier words in English language. When I think of the word, I picture someone with a look of disdain, screaming, “What an idiot.” I hear it in marches where people throw insults and curses, and I read it on social media where people rant and rage and express their invectives. It probably didn’t help the Steelers last Sunday when their coach showed his contempt for the Patriots before game day by referring to them as “a—h—-.“
Still, most did not see it as such a big deal. Contempt is part of culture today. Derisive comments no longer shock. They used to be relegated to occasional whispers behind closed doors. Those in Christ tended to hold their contempt in check. But things have changed. In a recent article, “Our New Age of Contempt,” philosopher Karen Stohr notes that contemptuousness has slithered into our daily experience. Ironically, the article comes out of the NY Times, a publication filled with recent opinions marked by ridicule and condescension.
Contempt cuts deep. Stohr uses the word “globalist” to describe contempt’s fundamental feature—it is directed at the entire person. It goes beyond one’s choice of clothes, one’s economic status, or one’s political preference. Unlike anger that tends to focus on a particular action, contempt is directed at everything in the object. But it is worse. While anger tends to engage, contempt dismisses and dehumanizes. And in the hands of those with power—be it political, economic, or social, contempt becomes a moral danger.
Stohr argues for a return to civility. It is time to push contempt back into the shadows where it belongs. We must insist that each one of us be regarded as “a full participant in our shared political life, entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated.” I share her call. But helpful as it is, her call falls short. Simply insisting that contempt be removed from the daily discourse is not enough. More than removed, it needs to be replaced–replaced with honor. This is not merely an opinion—it is a demand of Scripture, one we seem to be ignoring.
In an earlier age, one far worse than ours, led by an autocratic and coarse regime intent upon destroying the church, Peter called believers to “submit to every human authority, whether to the emperor or governors.” As challenging and shocking as these words must have been, Peter did not stop. He went on to command those who claim to follow Jesus to “honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (I Peter 2:13-17). I hear Peter saying that it is God who is on the throne, and there are bigger things at stake. Don’t get pulled down to an emotional gutter.
To honor is the polar opposite of contempt. It is to regard someone or something as having substance, weight, and value. It is to esteem and willingly place ourselves under. The call to submission and honor and love is not about conformity and capitulation. It’s ultimately about yielding and allowing God to drain the heart of cynicism and sarcasm, disdain and pomposity. It is choosing not to debase and degrade, but live in such a respectful way that the world notices—and the kingdom advances. It’s about imitating Christ in such a manner that the coarseness of this present age is reduced, if not silenced. Honor draws people to Jesus. It’s part of being different.