Arthur Brooks National Prayer Breakfast speech: America’s crisis of contempt

Arthur C. Brooks’s remarks, as prepared, for the National Prayer Breakfast keynote address on Thursday at the Washington Hilton. Mr. Pre...



Arthur C. Brooks’s remarks, as prepared, for the National Prayer Breakfast keynote address on Thursday at the Washington Hilton.

Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Mrs. Pence, Speaker Pelosi, heads of state, members of Congress and honored guests: Thank you for inviting me here today. I am deeply honored and grateful to address the National Prayer Breakfast.

As you have heard, I am not a priest or minister. I am a social scientist and a university professor. But most importantly, I am a follower of Jesus, who taught each of us to love God and to love each other.

I am here today to talk about what I believe is the biggest crisis facing our nation — and many other nations — today. This is the crisis of contempt — the polarization that is tearing our society apart. But if I do my job in the next few minutes, I promise I won’t depress you. On the contrary, I will show you why I believe that within this crisis resides the best opportunity we have ever had, as people of faith, to lift our nations up and bring them together.

As leaders, you all know that when there is an old problem, the solution never comes from thinking harder in the old ways; we have to think differently — we need an epiphany. This is true with societal problems and private problems.

Here’s an example of the latter: I have three kids, and two are still teenagers. (Pray for me.) Two years ago, when my middle son, Carlos, was a senior in high school, my wife, Ester, and I were having a rough parent-teacher conference. It was his grades. This was an old problem which we had tried everything to solve, but we were getting nowhere. We left the conference in grim silence and got in the car. Ester finally broke the silence.

“We need to see this problem in a whole new way,” she said.

“I’m all ears, sweetheart,” I answered, “because I’m at the end of my rope.”

“At least we know he’s not cheating,” she said.

See, that’s thinking differently! And that’s the spirit in which I want to address the problem of political contempt.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering what happened to Carlos: Currently he’s in Parris Island, S.C., at boot camp for the U.S. Marine Corps. We couldn’t be prouder of him.)

To start us on a path of new thinking to our cultural crisis, I want to turn to the words of the ultimate original thinker, history’s greatest social entrepreneur, and as a Catholic, my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus. Here’s what he said, as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapter 5, verse 43-45: You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Love your enemies! Now that is thinking differently. It changed the world starting 2,000 years ago, and it is as subversive and counterintuitive today as it was then. But the devil’s in the details. How do we do it in a country and world roiled by political hatred and differences that we can’t seem to bridge?

First, we need to make it personal. I remember when it became personal for me.

I give about 150 speeches a year and talk to all kinds of audiences: conservative, progressive, believers, atheists and everything in between. I was speaking one afternoon some years ago to a large group of politically conservative activists. Arriving early to the event, I looked at the program and realized I was the only non-politician on the program.

At first I thought, “This is a mistake.” But then I remembered that there are no mistakes — only opportunities — and started thinking about what I could say that would be completely different than the politicians. The crowd was really fired up; the politicians were getting huge amounts of applause. When it was my turn to speak, in the middle of my speech, here’s more or less what I said:

“My friends, you’ve heard a lot today that you’ve agreed with — and well you should. You’ve also heard a lot about the other side — political liberals — and how they are wrong. But I want to ask you to remember something: Political liberals are not stupid, and they’re not evil. They are simply Americans who disagree with you about public policy. And if you want to persuade them — which should be your goal — remember that no one has ever been insulted into agreement. You can only persuade with love.”

It was not an applause line.

After the speech, a woman in the audience came up to me, and she was clearly none too happy with my comments. “You’re wrong,” she told me. “Liberals are stupid and evil.”

At that moment, my thoughts went to … Seattle. That’s my hometown. While my own politics are conservative, Seattle is arguably the most politically liberal place in the United States. My father was a college professor; my mother was an artist. Professors and artists in Seattle … what do you think their politics were?

That lady after my speech wasn’t trying to hurt me. But when she said that liberals are stupid and evil, she was talking about my parents. I may have disagreed with my parents politically, but I can tell you they were neither stupid nor evil. They were good, Christian people, who raised me to follow Jesus. They also taught me to think for myself — which I did, at great inconvenience to them.

Political polarization was personal for me that day, and I want to be personal to you, too. So let me ask you a question: How many of you love someone with whom you disagree politically?

Are you comfortable hearing someone on your own side insult that person?

This reminds me of a lesson my father taught me, about moral courage. In a free society where you don’t fear being locked up for our opinions, true moral courage isn’t standing up to the people with whom you disagree. It’s standing up to the people with whom you agree — on behalf of those with whom you disagree. Are you strong enough to do that? That, I believe, is one way we can live up to Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies.

Let’s take a step back now and diagnose the problem a little bit.

Some people blame our politicians, but that’s too easy. It’s us, not them — I am guilty. And frankly, I know many politicians, many of them here today, who want a solution to this problem every bit as much as I do.

What is leading us to this dark place that we don’t like?

The problem is what psychologists call contempt. In the words of the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” In politics today, we treat each other as worthless, which is why our fights are so bitter and cooperation feels nearly impossible.

The world’s leading expert on marital reconciliation is Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington. Over the course of his work, Dr. Gottman has studied thousands of married couples. After watching a couple interact for just one hour, he can predict with 94 percent accuracy whether the couple will divorce within three years.

How can he tell? It’s not from the anger that the couples express. As I already told you, anger doesn’t predict separation or divorce. The biggest warning signs, he explains, are indicators of contempt. These include sarcasm, sneering, hostile humor and — worst of all — eye-rolling. These little acts effectively say, “You are worthless” to the one person a spouse should love more than any other. Want to see if a couple will end up in divorce court? Watch them discuss a contentious topic and see if either partner rolls his or her eyes.

Why do they do that? The answer is that it’s a habit, and that habit is tearing their marriage apart. And like a couple on the rocks, in politics today, we have a contempt habit. Don’t believe it? Turn on prime-time cable TV and watch how they talk. Look at Twitter — if you dare. Listen to yourself talking about a politician you don’t like. We are guilty of contempt.

It’s a habit, and it’s tearing our society apart.

How do we break the habit of contempt? Even more, how do we turn the contempt people show us into an opportunity to follow the teachings of Jesus, to love our enemies?

To achieve these things, I’m going to suggest three homework assignments.

First: Ask God to give you the strength to do this hard thing — to go against human nature, to follow Jesus’ teaching and love your enemies. Ask God to remove political contempt from your heart. In your weakest moments, maybe even ask Him to help you fake it!

Second: Make a commitment to another person to reject contempt. Of course you will disagree with others — that’s part of democracy. It is right and good, and part of the competition of ideas. But commit to doing it without contempt and ask someone to hold you accountable to love your enemies.

Third: Go out looking for contempt, so you have the opportunity to answer it with love. I know that sounds crazy, to go looking for something so bad. But for leaders, contempt isn’t like the flu. It’s an opportunity to share your values and change our world, which is what leadership is all about, isn’t it?

I’m asking you to be kind of like a missionary. I’ve had missionaries on both sides of my family, and they are amazing entrepreneurs. They don’t go out looking for people who already agree with them, because that’s not where they are needed — they go to the dark places to bring light. It’s hard work, and there’s lots of rejection involved. (Here are words that have never been uttered: “Oh good, there are missionaries on the porch.”) But it’s the most joyful type of work, isn’t it?

I’m calling each one of you to be missionaries for love in the face of contempt. If you don’t see enough of it, you’re in an echo chamber and need a wider circle of friends — people who disagree with you. Hey, if you want a full blast of contempt within 20 seconds, go on social media! But run toward that darkness, and bring your light.

My sisters and brothers, when you leave the National Prayer Breakfast today and go back to your lives and jobs, you will be back in a world where there is a lot of contempt. That is your opportunity. So I want you to imagine that there is a sign over the exit as you leave this room. It’s a sign I’ve seen over the doors of churches — not the doors to enter, but rather the doors to leave the church. Here’s what it says:

You are now entering mission territory.

If you see the world outside this room as mission territory, we might just mark this day, Feb. 6, 2020, at the National Prayer Breakfast, as the point at which our national healing begins.

God bless you, and God bless America.

Read more:

Cal Thomas: It might be time to suspend the National Prayer Breakfast

Arthur Brooks: How to avoid the traps that produce loneliness and isolation

Michael Gerson: Trump’s politicization of the National Prayer Breakfast is unholy and immoral

Henry Olsen: Trump’s address on his acquittal showcases why people hate him. And love him.

Marie Yovanovitch: These are turbulent times. But we will persist and prevail.

Arthur C. Brooks: The world is doing much better than the bad news makes us think

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