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Summer Reading Group: Contempt and Heresy


This is the sixth post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the tentative reading/posting schedule here.

In Chapter 7 of Unclean, Beck explores the emotion of contempt as a boundary psychology, a cousin of disgust. Beck writes, “[W]hile sociomoral disgust may be a relatively rare experience for many of us, the emotions of disdain, superiority, and contempt are fairly common. Who can avoid feeling smug around certain sorts of people?” (p. 107) Beck explains that disgust and contempt are intimately related, pointing to results from psychological studies to show that the feeling of superiority is dehumanizing and destabilizing to intimate relationships.

In this post, I wish to underscore Beck’s emphasis on the ways contempt and disgust affect the way we treat each other by disagreeing with his concession that extreme forms of it are “relatively rare.” We really want to believe ourselves to be good people at the core. We want to believe that the values enshrined in our constitution, espoused in our religious tradition, and proclaimed on our institutional brochures. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And these values, simultaneously religious and political, elevate us above the Nazis, the Stalinists, and in more modern times, pro-slavery secessionists and the KKK. We want to believe that if we teach our children to “love their neighbors”, if we teach them about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust then the atrocities of history will never be repeated. Our philosophical beliefs, we believe, inoculate us from bigotry and the capacity to dehumanize and brutalize.

But this notion, at once a psychological and political theory, could not be further from the truth. Societal atrocities continue to plague us in the face of universally accepted values like compassion and fairness. If there is a universal within the moral conscience of human beings, it is that we find the moral flexibility to excuse our own impulses toward extreme sociomoral disgust which fuels our own racism, bigotry, and dehumanization of others. The milieu of casual anti-semitism from which the Holocaust was born is not that foreign to Americans, despite the outrage to our amour-propre. We can interpret the native American genocide (whenever we aren’t ignoring it completely), the institution of slavery, and the subsequent oppression of African-Americans as historical failures our society has overcome. Our real lineage, we imagine, runs not through the oppressors and murderers, but through the liberators, freedom fighters, and civil rights activists who brought about change. We celebrate MLK over Bull Connor precisely because we have fantasies of ourselves in the march instead of behind the firehose. However, if we look at the facts, we contemporary Americans, Seventh-day Adventists, Christians, are subject to exactly the same tragic irony humans have always have been susceptible to—we imagine ourselves as angels, but act otherwise.

The U.S. government has regularly subjected Abu Zubaydah to sexual humiliation, temperature extremes, beatings, isolation, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and several other forms of torture over the course of several years. In a single month in 2002, Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times. He was stuffed into a confined box and then insects were placed in the box. His torture included the removal of his left eye. He had a previous injury suffered while he was fighting communists in Afghanistan which was exploited and exacerbated by his torture at the hands of the United States. His mistreatment has left him with permanent brain damage. He suffers from blinding headaches, an excruciating sensitivity to sounds (his torture included “music played at debilitating volumes”), and seizures, over 200 in the course of two years. The United States has tortured him literally to the point of insanity. He can no longer recall his father’s name. Abu Zubaydah has been held in U.S. custody without being charged with a crime since March 2002.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was similarly brutally tortured. The United States imprisoned his sons, 6 and 8 years old, and used them first to locate him and then as leverage against him. The children were denied food and water and were mentally tortured by having ants and other creatures put on their legs to scare them.

These are hardly isolated cases. U.S. prisoners in the War on Terror were forced to stand on broken legs and were regularly and repeatedly raped. “Prisoners were subjected to ‘rectal feeding’ without medical necessity. Rectal exams were conducted with ‘excessive force.’ The report highlights one prisoner later diagnosed with anal fissures, chronic hemorrhoids and ‘symptomatic rectal prolapse.’” The United States has tortured approximately 100 people to death in its war on terror. Among them are Mani al-Utaybi, Yasser al-Zahrani who was only 16 when he was imprisoned, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed. They died while suffering a torture technique called dry-boarding. Dry rags were shoved so far down their throats that medical examiners could not pull them out of their corpses.

Prisoners who have been cleared for release, in some cases multiple times, are being force-fed in increasingly brutal ways. A nurse friend of mine once described nasogastric intubation as the most painful medical procedure we perform on conscious patients without anesthetic. One report describes the same “large tube” being used on multiple prisoners. Keep in mind that these are prisoners who have never been accused of a crime, some of whom have in fact been cleared of any wrongdoing and cleared for release. “Techniques include making cells ‘freezing cold’ to accentuate the discomfort of those on hunger strike and the introduction of ‘metal-tipped’ feeding tubes, which Aamer said were forced into inmates’ stomachs twice a day and caused detainees to vomit over themselves.” 

One might argue that this behavior is limited to that of a few people, but it turns out that a majority of Americans are supportive of torture. In fact, Christians are more supportive of torture than non-religious Americans. However, polling shows that the American public still opposes torture.

Willingness to dehumanization does not come out of nowhere. Widespread anti semitism festered in Nazi Germany. Widespread anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia festers in the United States. Cable news channels and political commentary are saturated with claims about the Muslim world oppressing women, that female genital mutilation is an Islamic problem, that violence in the name of Islam is not condemned by moderate Muslims—claims which are demonstrably false. One need only go to the comments section of a news article about Muslims to read Americans describing Muslims as “unevolved,” “animals,” and worse.

I have chosen to highlight American Islamophobia, but I could have discussed the racism and nationalism behind much of the unethical human experimentation and other human rights violations of the United States. Or I could have discussed the widespread homophobia particularly acute among fervent Christians that continues to fuel abuse1 and abandonment2 of LGBT children and discrimination against LGBT adults.3

Parenthetically, I do not mean to say—nor do I believe—that anyone who raises moral, theological, or political objections to e.g. gay marriage is a bigot or is somehow just as debased as the perpetrators of atrocities like the My Lai Massacre and the Holocaust. Political issues like gay marriage are issues about which reasonable people can disagree without necessarily being motivated by prejudice or animus. Rather, my intention is to assert that the widespread (though rapidly evaporating) contempt and disgust for LGBT Americans creates an environment in which the physical and emotional abuse of LGBT children and the conscious and deliberate oppression of LGBT adults can thrive. Examples of the kind of deliberate oppression I am thinking of include baseless accusations of pedophilia, denial of housing, termination of employment in positions unrelated to one’s human sexuality (the firing of a gay mail carrier, say), sexual blackmail, intimidation, physical assault including sexual assault and rape, discrimination or abuse by law enforcement, et cetera.

Beck writes, “My fear is, given the strength of the disgust response, that people will conclude that sociomoral disgust is symptomatic only of very extreme behavior, the purview of racists and bigots. But as I tried to show toward the end of the last chapter (and hope to show in this one), the dynamics of disgust are everyday affairs” (p. 107). Beck’s flattering assumption that his audience is of course incomparable with Nazi Germany and that we, his readers, are not bigots and racists is spectacularly false. Bigotry and racism are ubiquitous. The same kind of prejudice, in quantity and in quality, from which the Holocaust was born exists in the United States, in the global Seventh-day Adventist church, and within every human society. Beck’s claim that “the dynamics of disgust are everyday affairs” could not be more true.

We profoundly misunderstand the relationship people have with their doctrines, values, and ideologies when we fail to recognize our unbounded capacity to reinterpret, to admit exception, and to flatly ignore our most sacred principles in order to accommodate our contempt and sociomoral disgust. Religious liberty, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment,4 the right to a speedy trial5, or freedom of belief [16] can be switched off like a light switch whenever we deem it convenient. The notion that our past atrocities are water under the bridge is absurd. The participants in the My Lai Massacre are still alive, as are the people on either side of the firehoses of the Civil Rights Movement and the participants in the Rwandan genocide.7 They’re not even that old. And our contemporary political dialog could not be more contemptuous. Liberalism is a “mental disorder,” while conservatives are “unintelligent ignorant racists.”

Beck directs our attention to the Lord’s Supper, as an antidote for the human propensity for disgust and contempt. Yet, we would be mistaken if we conclude that a correct theological understanding of the Lord’s Supper will enable us to overcome our racism and classism. Rather than correcting mistaken theological beliefs, a more effective remedy to disgust and contempt is to transgress the boundaries between ourselves and the other, as Beck explains:

Psychologically, we observe in all this how the practice of the Lord’s Supper expands the moral circle. By universalizing kinship language the Lord’s Supper is actively pushing against the sociomoral fissures of disgust and contempt. The Lord’s Supper, through its metaphors and the missional practices it promotes, is a ritual that is fundamentally altering and remaking the psyche. (p. 113)

In other words, Beck is not saying that incorrect beliefs are responsible for the sociomoral disgust and contempt at the center of Matthew 9 and of 1 Corinthians and that an intellectual correction of these beliefs would resolve the contempt and disgust. Rather, Beck points to Jesus’ practice of transgressing sociomoral boundaries in Matthew 9 and the practice of the egalitarian ritual of the Lord’s Supper—it is a moral act—that dismantles sociomoral barriers.

But communion is about more than just gathering around the communion table quarterly during a worship service. This notion of communion with difference is a practice that is applied inconsistently within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I reflect with pride on our ability to enjoy services with locals and internationals, the rich and poor, the highly educated and those without education, and the young and old. All of these groups participate alongside one another in our church communities. On the other hand, I can’t wait for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to invite LGBT voices to their next discussion of human sexuality. And often certain ideological perspectives are intentionally excluded from our conversations, and those who hold them are marginalized in our congregations. We sometimes exclude perspectives from those scientists among us, certain interpretations of scripture (think the IJ, origins, human sexuality, etc.), and political perspectives from the far left, to cite a few examples I have experienced. Perhaps we should remain hopeful in progress so long as we continue to practice communion and organize potlucks.


  1. Some LGBT youth are sent to conversion camps at which they endure physical and psychological torture and sexual humiliation: “[T]hey would attach electrodes to your genitals (usually one to the shaft of the penis and one to the scrotum) and show you porn, both gay and straight. If you got aroused while watching the straight porn, nothing happened, but if you got aroused while looking at gay porn, they would administer an electric shock to your groin.” (See the Reddit AMA, “I am a guy who was sent to an ex-gay camp in Iowa.” 
  2. See “6 Shocking Realities of the ‘Troubled Teen’ Industry.”
  3. Spectrum has covered Andrews University’s unwillingness to support homeless LGBT youth here and here.
  4.  In Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States, Rebecca Gordon quotes John Conroy: “[O]ne of the central aspects of torture, that the class of people whom society accepts as torturable has a tendency to expand.” She writes, “That class has in fact expanded to include Muslim men living in the United States, including U.S. Citizens.” She argues that there is “already a larger group of U.S. citizens whom society accepts as torturable: prisoners in state and federal jails” (p. 57).
  5. Including U.S. citizens José Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi.
  6. In his book The End of Faith new atheist Sam Harris writes, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (p. 52). Bizarrely, Harris defends himself against critics of this statement by saying, “[N]owhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes.” See “On the Mechanics of Defamation.”
  7. Ronald Osborn explores Adventist participation in the Rwandan genocide in “No Sanctuary in Mugonero: Notes on Rwanda, Revival, and Reform.”


Robert Jacobson is assistant professor of mathematics at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. He teaches a senior seminar on science and religion and would never let his students use Wikipedia as a source in their research papers.


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