As I was passing through the Atlanta airport last week, a married couple wearing matching surgical masks rushed by me to catch the train to another concourse. It seemed unlikely to me that both of them suffered from a compromised immune system. So I began to wonder if they might be taking precautions against coronavirus.
The specter of a pandemic understandably worries people. In China, hundreds of people have died and thousands more have contracted the illness. Outside mainland China, 25 countries and territories have reported nearly 600 cases of the virus. In the US the CDC has confirmed 15 cases as of this writing.
Even with such low numbers in this nation, the government has taken action to prevent any further spread of this deadly, highly contagious disease to our shores. And as I witnessed in the airport, travelers are taking protective measures into their own hands just in case.
The United States is not in the grip of a coronavirus epidemic. But experience has taught us to take the prospect of an epidemic seriously. We all recognize that taking precautions early on might avert a catastrophe later. Well, sort of. Actually, maybe, not so much.
You see, we are in the midst of an epidemic right now. And we seem to be doing all in our power to continue its deadly spread across this nation. We are at the height of a historic epidemic of contempt for fellow citizens who disagree with us.
Democrats and Republicans, Progressives and Conservatives no longer respect see each other as offering alternative solutions to the problems we all must face together. Instead, each has come to see the other as the problem. And so they heap contempt upon one another in speeches and through social media. Many of our leaders have stooped to name-calling and seeking revenge on those who dare to differ with them.
Sadly, contempt is not limited to the halls of power in DC or in our states capitols. In our personal relationships many ordinary residents of the United States now live in a bubble with others with whom they agree. Everybody outside the bubble deserves an eye roll and derisive remarks from a comfortable distance.
I almost hate to tell you what Jesus says about this, because it stings pretty bad. Here’s how he put it in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)
Let’s put that another way. The key here is what this passage translates as “insult a brother or sister.” The verb Jesus used is “raka.” It’s actually a word meant to convey the sound of spitting—or hocking to be more graphic—on another person.
Jesus recognizes that we will disagree with each other. However, he cautions us that disagreement can lead to anger. Anger can lead to contempt.
Before you know it, instead of seeking the common good we’re obsessed with destroying each other. We assassinate each other’s character and destroy the community that, in the beginning of all this, we both sought to nurture. Why? Because we can’t resist the temptation to think that we’re right about everything and to demonize anyone who disagrees with us. That, as Jesus tells us, is hell on earth.
So how do we bring this epidemic of contempt to an end and establish a community of mutual respect? Jesus gives gives us some basic principles:
• Love your neighbor as yourself. Seek the good for everybody, not just for yourself. In other words, seek the common good instead of your own narrow self-interest.
• Love your enemy. Respect differing opinions as arising from a sincere desire to find the common good. If it turns out that you’re dealing with a selfish person, draw your boundaries and hold your ground. But no spitting. Ever!
• The poor, the homeless, the disabled, the hungry, the prisoner, and the homeless are your neighbor. Make sure that your solutions to our common problems include a dignified, humane life for them.
• Forgive each other. Seek reconciliation. Repent your own boneheadedness. Just admit that you’re not always right and that other people have a perspective you need to hear.
This is not an exhaustive list of Jesus’ cure for our epidemic of contempt. But these principles offer a starting point toward a different kind of community. A community where differences of values and ideas can be reasonably discussed. Good will can be assumed. Compromise can be reached with integrity. And respect for every human being can be maintained.
Our contempt for each other is killing us. Killing us as individuals and as a nation. It’s time we take what Barbara Brown Taylor calls Gospel Medicine. The love that heals us.