Monday, March 3, 2014

Do We Really Understand Prejudice?

Someone on Facebook often posts comments and information related to his ethnicity. Recently he posted a link to a brief but touching story about a courageous black man that during his lifetime helped to free hundreds of slaves from bondage.

It’s a wonderful account of a determined man overcoming great struggle and adversity, one that could inspire many people regardless of race. But what gave me pause was it was labeled as an “I love black people photo.” Obviously the man posting is proud of his ethnicity, as well he should.

Such a reference is perfectly acceptable. But what if I – a Caucasian – were to post an image of a famous individual and label it an “I love white people photo”? Would that be regarded as “racist”? 

Can we really overcome prejudice and bigotry
by continually focusing on our differences?
I’m not trying to be argumentative. Really I’m not. It just seems if we’re ever to get beyond racism or any other form of bigotry, at last arriving at a point where we cease to regard or treat people differently, we should stop reminding others – and being reminded – of how different we are.

A few weeks ago a collegiate football player with NFL aspirations announced he’s gay. The sports media said it’s “no big deal,” but then for days talked about nothing else, even though the Winter Olympics was in full stride. As one collective voice, they lauded the player for “coming out” and implicitly dared anyone’s dissent, ready to pounce if it came.

Really, what does sexual orientation have to do with success in professional football? Whether a player is celibate, monogamous, polygamous, gay, or has a penchant for kinky stuff we wouldn’t want to know about, the only issue should be whether he can compete at the top level.

The point of the incessant discourse, of course, was to impress on everyone listening that gay people shouldn’t be regarded differently. But we know, should this player succeed in making an NFL roster, we’ll be constantly reminded he’s the first openly gay player in the pros. So he’s not different…except he is, right?

Back to the broader topic, as a boy I had little interaction with blacks. At my high school in the 1960s, even in the supposed “progressive” north, blacks and whites pretty much kept separate by their choice. And in college I had only a few black acquaintances, although not by intent. During my professional career, I started building friendships with African-American men who seemed to enjoy being with me as much as I did with them. One was a charismatic Jamaican police detective whose hands had been severed by a fugitive crime suspect wielding a machete. Ivan’s efforts to overcome such a disability were inspiring.

In my friendships with black men, I’ve strived to develop a kind of “color blindness.” And you know, it’s worked. My vision’s still good, and their blackness and my whiteness are obvious, but together we’ve learned we have more things in common than things that are dissimilar.

The Bible says, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). There’s the problem. Only by building relationships and getting to know one another can we succeed in getting past outward appearances, differences of skin color and ethnicity, and start looking at the heart.

We don’t often hear it taught this way, but two of Jesus’ most famous stories strike at the foundation of prejudice and bigotry in its various forms. Both accounts shatter racial stereotypes and biases.

The first is the so-called parable of the Good Samaritan, recounted in Luke 10:25-37. In the fictitious story, a man was attacked by robbers along a road, leaving him seriously injured. Two religious leaders avoided the man, ignoring his plight, but a man from Samaria – a people held in scorn and contempt by the Jews – stopped to care for the wounded individual and provide for his needs during recovery.

If Jesus were to tell this parable today, He might choose for the victim to be a Ku Klux Klansman and the “good Samaritan” to be an African-American.

The second story concerned Jesus’ encounter with a woman at the well in Samaria, described in John 4:4-42. A different type of bigotry was at work here. To begin with, she was a despised Samaritan – and Jesus was a Jew. The fact of her gender was another strike against her, since the culture of those times regarded women as second-class citizens, hardly worthy of a stranger’s attention. And lastly, she had been married multiple times and the man she was living with wasn't her husband, clearly contrary to moral standards of the day.

For Jesus to address such a woman was virtually unheard of. When His disciples saw it they were astounded. Yet He defied the cultural mores and not only talked to her, but treated her with compassion and respect, speaking with honesty but without condemnation.

If we are ever to rise above racism and bigotry, truly overcoming it rather than suppressing it by legislation and the edicts of political correctness, we need to follow Jesus’ example. Outward appearances mean nothing, He declared. They can mislead and be manipulated. Instead, continually seek out the heart. That’s where the true person resides.

1 comment:

Susan Scott said...

Thank you for a clear exposition on these muddied waters