I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means for me and others like me. I love ethnic diversity---I hope that in fifty years the Henchey bloodline is colorful, brimming with bi-racial marriages and interethnic adoption---and I don’t know if “racism” is something I struggle with. But, boy, do I struggle with prejudice. I think all of us---especially if we are accustomed to a middle-class lifestyle---might really struggle more than we realize to see all people as people.
Here is how prejudice manifests itself in my life:
We moved to a different town a couple months ago, and one of the first things I noticed as I grew accustomed to local shopping was that the demographic of people is quite different than it was back in deep suburbia. There’s a popular website in which contributors post pictures of odd-looking people they spotted at Wal-mart (almost never to the subject’s knowledge), and visitors to the popular site revel in the humorously outrageous ways that some people actually dress or look when they go to Wal-mart. Suffice to say, I think a large majority of those pictures could have been taken at my Wal-mart. Almost everyone has bad teeth, bad hair, bad clothes...it’s not exactly a picture of “classiness.”
But look at all the places my thoughts went in that moment. I exalted myself over all my fellow shoppers, mentally dehumanizing them because they look and probably act different.
“Did you just hear that lady yell at her kids!?,” I might whisper to my husband as we pass a frazzled woman in Aisle 9.
“Seriously!? These people are crazy!” I’ve surely exclaimed as someone drove their bike in front of my moving car in the parking lot.
I can be so quick to say things like, “I don’t think that guy was ‘all there.’”
“I have never seen a larger person in my life,” I might mutter, wide-eyed, after passing a shockingly overweight man.
I’ve found that we’re the most tempted to jovially dehumanize others when we’re with someone we’re very close to and comfortable with; a mom, a best friend, a husband. We somehow find unity in poking fun at strangers. We might sit on a bench at the mall to do some “people-watching,” an activity that can be worshipful but usually ends up just sounding like a bunch of snickers as we observe “weird” people doing “weird” things, as if the general public is unwittingly a comic book display.
We might say things like “There are some shady characters around this part of town” without even a thought that these “characters” are actual people with souls who either belong to the kingdom of God’s beloved (whom we should see as our own family), or to the kingdom of darkness. Our interactions with all people should have some sort of consciousness of this fact, because no one is just spiritually neutral joke-fodder.
All people are invited into the kingdom of God; everyone is either passively or actively rejecting that invitation and on their way to hell (may the Spirit use us to stop them on their way!) or they are running the race and fighting the good fight of faith, right alongside us. There isn’t a category for “Weird People God Put in Our Lives to Annoy Us And/Or Give Us Something to Post About on Facebook.”
I think at least two scriptures speak to this:
Proverbs 17:5 says, “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.”
When we are making fun of someone who is in a desperate situation, we are saying something about the God who made him or her. God takes those who are made in His image very seriously; stylish or not, humans are the crown of His creation, and He cares for every one of us deeply.
A scripture that hits even harder is James 2:1-14. In this passage James talks about the sin of partiality. I initially excused myself from this since I had an inflated perception of my own humility, but the more I meditated on this passage the more I saw that my heart definitely struggles with showing favoritism to certain kinds of people:
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?"
Imagine it’s Sunday morning, and you see a good-looking guy brandishing cool shoes, trendy hair, and he’s holding the coolest iPad case you’ve ever seen. The people around him are laughing at his jokes and he just looks like an amicable guy who has it together.
Then you see a guy in jean shorts and a wife-beater who has the words “White” and “Trash” tattooed on his calves.
With whom are you most likely to strike up a conversation?
But who did Jesus say is more likely to enter the kingdom of Heaven? It is very hard for a rich man to see his need for Jesus (Matthew 19:23.)
Though obviously we are supposed to love the rich, we must remember that those who have nothing---who vigorously scratch away on lottery cards before they even leave the store---just might be very ripe and receptive to hearing that Jesus can be their everything. In Luke 10:21, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
When we think about all that goes into salvation---election, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, glorification---we must realize that is a weighty thing that God calls people to Himself. When we look at the people around us, we need to---with great seriousness---realize that Christ has shed precious blood for His people. He doesn’t pick who to redeem based off resume or cool factor. Man looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7.)
God has elect (chosen people) from among all nations. God has elect among the people of my local Wal-mart. God has elect among the people of Derek Jeter’s neighborhood. God has elect among the LGBT community, the Joel Osteen fan clubs, the socially-awkward homeschool families, the legalistic fundamentalist churches, the satanic covens. He just might not have gathered them yet. And He just might use us to do that. We need to meet our deeply-rooted, deceptive, and poisonous prejudices head-on and seek Christ as the only solution. All the love and tolerance in the world cannot create the kind of true and deep acceptance that the gospel creates. We were strange to God, but He has brought us near. May we see all people as present or potential worshippers of Christ.