Arthur Brooks is Wrong About Love—Reflections on his Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast
Arthur Brooks is Wrong About Love—Reflections on his Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast
Written By Ron Citlau   |   02.12.20

Arthur Brooks, devoted Catholic, writer for the Washington Post, and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. He is a compelling speaker who spoke clearly of his devotion to Jesus. His remarks were based on his book, Love your Enemies, in which he describes his antidote to the culture of polarization and contempt in American discourse. As the title suggests, Brooks told the room of public figures, religious leaders, and politicians, including President Trump, that loving our enemies is the answer.

Brooks gave no clear definition of love in his speech. Instead, he gave actionable steps of love–as he sees it–for the everyday pundit and politician. Here’s a quick summary of Brook’s solution: don’t be mean (or to use Brooks’ term, “contemptuous”), defend your opponents when your friends are mean to them (which Brooks calls “moral courage”), pray, get an accountability partner, and keep a smile on your face no matter what. These are all good ideas, and I would recommend them for all people of good will, but the kind of love we need in the public square right now isn’t sugar and spice and everything nice. We need contemptuous love.

Biblical love is intention and action that brings about good. The “good” to seek in secular life is called the “common good.” The common good is all that society needs to flourish. Rights like individual freedom, pursuing the life you desire, personal responsibility, a free economy, human dignity, free speech, and freedom of religion are some of the pillars of the common good in America. Christian love in the public square, then, is an intention and subsequent action to ensure that the common good is defended and implemented in ways that enable everyone to flourish. The problem with Brooks’ love is that it assumes that everyone wants to implement the good. That is not true.

In the past, both liberals and conservatives agreed on what the pillars of the common good were, even if they disagreed on how best to see those pillars expressed. Since Reconstruction we have been a nation of differences, but we have also had good will toward one another. Today, however, it is different. Dangerous ideas that undermine the very pillars of a free society are pervasive. We can no longer assume that everyone is acting for the common good, for some among us are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

These wolves need contemptuous love. At this point, you are probably wondering what kind of pastor would write that contempt is ever a good idea in the name of love. Let me show you some biblical examples of what I call contemptuous love, and what rhetoric calls irony.

When Jesus confronts the Pharisees, he calls them a “brood of vipers!” They are not literally vipers, of course, and the people considered the Pharisees holy. So what’s going on? The Pharisees asserted ideas about God and his demands that laid heavy burdens on people and made them feel far from God. Their ideas were dangerous. This wasn’t just a disagreement about whether to be a Methodist or a Baptist but a discourse on ideas that are destructive to the good of human flourishing. So Jesus uses ironic, contemptuous language to defend and assert the reality that God’s love doesn’t come with prerequisites.

Similarly, after Paul had planted a church in the city of Galatia, there was a group that said that to be a real Christian you had to believe in Jesus and be circumcised. This wasn’t an argument about whether a church should use a guitar or an organ. This was about an idea that would undermine the foundation of Christianity. In rhetoric that Socrates would love, Paul says that those who promote circumcision ought to emasculate themselves. Now this isn’t very nice, and, as Brooks might say, not very loving. But this is love on display. Paul doesn’t mean it literally, for he actually desires Christians to do the opposite. He is trying to awaken this church to the danger in their midst. Despite his use of contemptuous language, he is acting in love.

A significant reason for the partisan divide in the United States is that some of the ideas being asserted are dangerous to the common good. Those dangerous ideas aren’t about the historic left/right divide. Instead, the ideas being introduced are born out of the postmodern philosophy that relegates truth to the same category as wishful thinking. Truth is now whatever you want it to be, and everyone has to celebrate your truth. This has been weaponized in the political sphere so much that the basic tenets of the common good are being undermined and dismantled. Everyone should be alarmed. This is a time for contentious love.

Today, instead of people of good will deciding between abortion being legal but safe and rare and abortion being illegal because life begins at conception, they are now promoting abortion as a moral good. When accepting her Golden Globe award, Michelle Williams spoke about how her decision to abort enabled her to be a successful actress. In Illinois, a woman can get an abortion all the way up until the baby takes her first breath. Celebrating abortion as a moral good is a dangerous idea. We have now moved into a moral space where we celebrate killing. This undermines the common good. A society that recklessly, happily, and continually ends life is a society that will destroy life everywhere. What is being advanced is stupid and dangerous. It’s time to set pleasantries aside. When a wolf is in the hen house you don’t give him a treat. You save the hens by getting him out of the hen house. We need to wake up. It is time for contemptuous love.

At one point, people of good will would debate special legal protections for the “LGBTQQAP community and the redefinition of marriage.  Now, however, support for every sexual minority’s “truth” is a litmus test for whether someone can speak in the public square or have a job. If you find out that a parent is going to allow her child to take puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, you better celebrate—or else. Think that same-sex “marriage” is a bad idea? Shut up, or else. Think that research shows that biological differences between men and women account for the greater number of men than women in STEM fields? Get ready for the mob to come for you. Historically, Western society agreed that we will seek and embrace what is true. Even as leftists claim there is no moral truth, dangerous totalitarian impulses to indoctrinate with their “truths” are destroying that agreement. It is time for contemptuous love.

Today, our borders have become polarized as never before. Some are advocating for open borders. Open borders are tantamount to the loss of American identity. Roger Scruton links borders with societal cohesion. Open borders is like saying that you can be human without skin. It is an impossibility. Open borders are the surest way to destroy the foundations of the American experiment. This is a bad idea. It is a dangerous idea. It needs and deserves contemptuous love.

Contemptuous love seeks to shock the hearer back to morality. It seeks to motivate the hearer to act for the good. While it might seem “mean,” it is far from it. It is motivated by love for neighbor and love for the neighborhood. Brooks is right in that we need to love our enemies, but unfortunately, the type of love he describes is insufficient.

IFI is hosting our annual Worldview Conference on March 7th at the Village Church of Barrington. This year’s conference is titled “Thinking Biblically About Our Corrosive Culture” and features Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Rob Gagnon. For more information, please click HERE for a flyer or click the button below to register for the conference.

Ron Citlau
Ron Citlau and his wife have been married for 15 years, have four boys and serve at Calvary Church in Orland Park. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and has a Masters of Divinity from Western Seminary.  Ron has co-wrote, Compassion without Compromise: how to love your gay friends without losing the truth; and recently wrote, Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted. Follow him on Twitter @citlau...
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