When the disciple Philip invited Nathanael to meet Jesus, his response was “Can anything from Nazareth be good?” (John 1: 46) When God sent Peter to meet Cornelius, the Italian soldier, God had to visit Peter with a vision and tell him three times to open his mind and heart to someone he considered an abomination, a non-Jewish person. (Acts 10:1-48) Prejudging people is not new. It seems like humans have always found differences to use to prejudge, to exclude, to mistreat other people. We have always had structures and systems that justify mistreating another; whether it was Pharaoh enslaving the Hebrew people based on their status in the society, the Hebrew people excluding non-Jewish people as part of the purity system or Saul (Paul) tracking down Christians to arrest as part of enforcing their national identity. The Bible has many instances of one group of people looking down on, mistreating, even persecuting another group of people even in the name of God. If Nathanael had not set his prejudice aside, look what he would have missed; he would have missed the saving presence of Jesus and Jesus would have missed the gifts, talents, and the person of Nathanael. If Peter had not set aside his prejudice, he would not have been able to be an instrument of God to Cornelius. Cornelius would have had to wait for another to bring him the good news of Jesus, and God would have had to find another person willing to serve as that instrument of grace. Paul summed up in his letter to the Galatians our Christian ideal, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) We are one in Christ Jesus. Jesus’ life showed us that in the kingdom of heaven one person is not more valuable than another. All people are due justice, respect, and love because they are a good creation of God. We humans continue to struggle to live this ideal.
The only way we can have compassion for another is to learn their experience. We can’t feel their feelings in our guts (the Biblical definition of compassion) until we are willing to hear and validate their feelings. Our conference has just begun the 21-day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. As your leaders, Bishop Bob and the appointive cabinet began the challenge in mid-September. We meet in a small group every week to discuss and process the things we have read and heard. I must say those small group times have been very meaningful to me as a place I can speak honestly about hard things and learn that I am not alone in growing in awareness and commitment. Reading and listening to the articles and podcasts has been eye-opening. While my lived experiences are important (especially to me), other people have very different experiences. The challenge has helped me encounter those other experiences. There are structures and systems in place along with deeply entrenched attitudes that we may not be aware of or wish to admit that limit and diminish the lives of God’s beloved creations. Let me give you an example. When my husband and I started using Netflix and began watching British shows, we noticed that the villains in most of the shows were white and black people were the husbands, wives or business owners. That difference made me realize how often in American television the villains are portrayed as black. It was a subtle thing that I never noticed that makes a difference in how we view black people in general especially if we don’t have black friends and colleagues to challenge the negative images.
One of the statements in an article by W.E.B. DuBois summed up the heart of the matter for me. “…ending our nation’s habit of creating enormous systems of racial and social control requires us to expand our sphere of moral concern so widely that none of us not even those branded as criminals, can be viewed or treated as disposable.”[i]
Viewing and treating people as people of worth and value is a spiritual matter as well as a political and social matter. My prayer is that you find the 21-day challenge meaningful and inspiring and that together we might work toward our Christian ideal of a culture where our systems and structures lead us to treat all people as beloved children of God.
We are one in Christ.
[i] Michelle Alexander. The Injustice of This Moment is not an ‘Aberration’.