Cultural Contempt

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’re curating a series on NEXT Church resources. Members of the NEXT Church communications team, staff, and advisory team (and others!) are selecting resources already on our site and sharing the ways they have (or would) use them in their ministry context. We pray these will be of use to you in your own ministry! Have other ideas for resources you’ve used from our website? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

This editorial was originally posted on the Presbyterian Outlook website and has been re-posted with permission.

by Jill Duffield

Repeatedly, in a multitude of settings, I hear complaints about people in leadership positions: the executive director, the principal, the president, the head of staff… you name it. From the neighborhood association to the city council and beyond, leaders are considered not simply mistaken or misdirected or misinformed, they are stupid, idiots, evil. Motives are not questioned, they are assumed malevolent. Decisions are not disagreed with, debated and discussed, they are maligned and the people who made them castigated. The benefit of the doubt doesn’t exist anymore. Public postings of perceived ineptitude have replaced personal conversations seeking understanding and resolution.

And we wonder why the pool of people willing to occupy leadership roles is so shallow.

When we operate out of a default mode of disdain, we get the leaders we deserve: the ones who don’t give a whit about what others think, the ones who seek power for self-aggrandizement and abuse the privileges their offices afford.

Research has shown that the biggest indicator of the dissolution of a relationship is contempt, described in an article from Business Insider as “a virulent mixture of anger and disgust.” Susan Heitler, writing in Psychology Today, notes, “Empathy and contempt are polar opposites.”

I believe we are living in an age of cultural contempt.

When adults insult teenagers grieving the death of friends shot and killed in a mass shooting, and a group of fraternity brothers film themselves spewing racial and ethnic slurs, and memes making fun of children with disfiguring genetic disorders go viral, our moral compasses have collapsed. Empathy has left the building; anger and disgust have overtaken any sense of connection and concomitant compassion.

No wonder people of goodwill soon succumb to the relentless pillories and step aside.

Civility is not the answer. I understand the critique that civility is code for silencing the oppressed and delaying, if not denying, justice. We are nowhere near mutual respect. We are an ocean away from mutual trust. We need to begin with recognizing the reality and destructiveness of our mutual contempt. We must individually and corporately recalibrate our moral compasses.

I had the pleasure of hearing Jonathan Walton of Harvard Divinity School speak at this year’s NEXT Church gathering. His answer to a participant’s question sticks with me; he responded that we must know and name our “moral frame.” How do we morally view life, people, situations? He noted that his moral frame meant he is always aware of who the most vulnerable person or people are in the room. He knows his moral frame, and others know it too because he names it.

I began to think about my own moral frame and here is where I landed: I believe everyone is a beloved child of God made in God’s image. Additionally, I believe that transformation is possible. These two frames shape how I view everything and everyone. Now that I am clear and explicit about this framework, I am clearer and more explicit about my beliefs, motivations, words and actions. Contempt for another cannot fit in this picture. The frame cuts it out. Disgust cannot remain either. And if I believe that transformation is possible then I cannot write off anyone. Now that my moral frames are visible and known to me, I am obligated to check to see if what I say and do align with them. And when they don’t (and they often don’t), I am forced to make a choice: Do I want to live with integrity or not? Am I willing to do what I need to do to live within the parameters I believe God sets for my life or not?

Let me be explicit, blunt, uncompromisingly clear about this reality: Countless times I have answered, through my actions, a resounding and hurtful “no” to both of those questions. My only hope in the wake of such personally caused destruction is God’s promised grace and the forgiveness won for us through Christ.

In this age so rife with cultural contempt, what is your moral frame? Make it explicit, known, visible in word and deed so that a grassroots movement of empathy can transform our culture. Transformation is possible, promised by God even.

Jill Duffield is the editor of The Presbyterian Outlook.

A Public Moral Framework

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Amanda Pine

In an age where every church worker has a blog, the questions: “Who are you?” and “Who do you want to become?” reign supreme in the public leader’s mind. Like it or not, every person employed by a church becomes a public persona of that congregation; thus, the establishment of an unwavering moral framework becomes imperative to an individual’s presence – both in person and virtually. Jonathan Walton’s keynote at the NEXT Church National Gathering helped me to envision how a moral framework might be created, for those behind the curve.

Define Your Moral Framework- How do you guide your behavior? How do you know the difference between right and wrong? When you are solving a problem, on what basis do you make your decision? When you define your moral framework, lead with it. Make it a part of your sermons, your blog posts, your newsletter articles, and any other communication that you can think of. The more often you reiterate your thought process, the better. People may not agree with your moral framework, but they will understand where you are coming from.

Know You Might Be Wrong- Walton indicated that every preacher has to deal with public disdain and contempt. However, it may not always be because you’re speaking truth to power in love and you have such a strong prophetic sensibility. Sometimes, the disdain and contempt comes because we’re just jerks. Acknowledging that your moral framework is not infallible is an important step to overcoming our inner jerk – and recapturing the humility that comes with ministry.

Take Critique Seriously- Along the same lines, church leaders hear both praise and contempt on a weekly basis. Perhaps, as a response to a sermon, a newsletter article, or something that they posted on their Facebook wall. Respond to critique with the same love that you would speak truth in any other circumstance. Just as you hold those in power accountable, the congregation should hold their leadership accountable.

Know the Slide- Every moral framework, according to Walton, should slide based on the situation that one finds themselves in. For example, if part of your moral framework is that you partner and advocate for the most vulnerable group of people, that may change based on the space you find yourself in. While the moral framework itself does not change, who you align with in a particular moment might shift. Be attentive to such changes.

It seems to me that a public moral framework prevents an individual from getting caught in the trap of partisan politics. They can transcend allegiance to a particular side, and more effectively listen to those that they serve. Furthermore, no one is caught off guard thinking that the leader aligns with them on every issue. The development of a moral framework is a great place to start for those feeling called to boldly proclaim the truth.

Amanda Pine is director of Christian faith formation at King’s Grant Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, VA. A graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Amanda has previously served churches in Newport News, VA, and Chesapeake, VA. She is passionate about social justice, community issues, and is an avid learner. Amanda and her husband live at the Virginia Beach oceanfront with their two cats, and are expecting their first human child in June.