I woke up this morning thinking about the state of discourse in my own country, both in the realm of politics and in the realm of religious and social dialogue, with these verses ultimately ringing through my head:
But I say to you, That whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: and whoever shall say, You fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
“Raca.—As far as the dictionary sense of the word goes, it is the same as that of the “vain fellows” of Judges 9:4, Jdg_11:3; Proverbs 12:11; but all words of abuse depend for their full force on popular association, and raca, like words of kindred meaning among ourselves, was in common use as expressing not anger only but insolent contempt. The temper condemned is that in which anger has so far gained the mastery that we no longer recognize a ‘brother’ in the man who has offended us, but look on him with malignant scorn.” -- Charles John Ellicott (1819–1905)
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has ought against you Leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.;
“Because men are very apt to fall into rash anger, and to express their anger by contemptuous speeches and abusive names, fancying that there is no sin in these things, or but little, and that the compensation may easily be made for them by acts of devotion, Jesus declares that atonement is not to be made for these offenses by any offerings, how costly soever, and therefore prescribes immediate repentance and reparation as the only remedies of them. He insisted particularly on reparation, assuring us that, unless it be made, God will not accept the worship of such offenders, being infinitely better pleased with repentance than with sacrifices, or external worship of any kind, how specious soever those duties may appear in the eye of vulgar understandings. Vain, therefore, is their presumption, who fancy they can make amends for yet more gross acts of injustice, by acts of devotion.” — Rev James MacKnight DD (1721-1800)
Have we, as individuals, indulged in the sin of dismissive speech and scorn? Are we, as a nation, involved in this sin that Jesus so fully condemns? Absolutely: in the realm of politics, in the realm of civil discourse, in the realm of social and moral discussion and debate, in our media and in our conversations in our homes, with our neighbors, in our workplaces, in our schools and even, heaven help us, in our Sunday School classes. And so we must honestly answer the question; in what ways have we also embraced and excused this sin in ourselves, for we cannot escape being lulled into complacent acceptance of hell-worthy thinking and speaking when we are so fully immersed in it in our society. We easily recognize it in the people with whose ideas we fully disagree. But we excuse it in ourselves.
Some versions of the Bible add the phrase “without a cause” to this injunction against being scornful or dismissive of another. However, the earliest extant manuscripts of these verses do not include this phrase, neither does the version (JST) I often refer to. (See also 3 Ne. 12) Perhaps they were added to manuscripts later as a thoughtful individual contemplated the very human response of righteous indignation. But in its earliest form of these verses Jesus condemns scorn for, or the angry dismissing as foolishness of, the ideas and actions of others, period, no excuses. It is a call to each of us, me, you, all of us, to repentance of even our own most self-justified sins of scorn and self-righteous dismissiveness of others with whom we disagree.
Only when we are able to make those changes in ourselves, speaking and thinking of others with whom we passionately disagree with human dignity regardless of how completely or thoroughly we disagree with them, and regardless of whether or not they make those changes in themselves, will we have any logical hope to be able to move towards iterations of the various lasting changes in our society that we each, variously, so desperately want and then make them last.