Healing our prejudice
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
In the last few days I took a quick trip to Louisville to visit my younger son, who is there for a few weeks. During our visit we decided to check out the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum that showcases the city’s most famous son. It covered his boxing career, his vocal opposition to racism and the Vietnam War, his conversion to Islam, his struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, and his charitable work.
What struck me was the way in which this museum served as a monument to healing from prejudice – the prejudice of one man and the prejudice of a city. For here we were, in a city that once had one of the largest slave markets in the South, that now enthusiastically celebrated a draft-resisting, militant black Muslim. Amazing.
As for Muhammad Ali, he started as an arrogant young man who openly bragged about his affairs and how all his women were submissive to him. And as one who was on the receiving end of a lifetime of bigotry, he was angry, once calling all whites “blue-eyed devils.”
But his conversion to Islam eventually humbled him, and it introduced him to people of good will all around the world. Like Malcolm X, he began to realize that all people, female and male, all races and creeds, are God’s children and every one of them is worthy of respect. The angry fighter became an ambassador for world peace. And then, after he was further softened by Parkinson’s Disease, he became an empathetic advocate for others who suffer, the poor and the abandoned.
Both the city of Louisville and Muhammad Ali had been through a transformation. Both were healed of their prejudices.
This is the theme of both of our readings from the New Testament today. In the Epistle, James puts it bluntly: If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and [dishonor the poor] have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Every honest clergy and most lay leaders in the church squirm when we hear these words. For during coffee hour, really, how do we usually respond to a well-put-together person who tells us that they are a doctor or a lawyer or a University professor? We eagerly introduce them to others, and we all hope they will become a real resource to our community.
And how do we respond when a poor person in dirty clothes person walks in? Do we even talk to them? Do we see them as a potential asset to our community? James reminds us of how much we miss when we ignore them: God [has] chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him. Because of our prejudice, we are blind to the treasure of faith that they offer us.
The gospel reading is also about prejudice. I’m probably going to surprise you here, but I think that this story is about Jesus being healed of his prejudice.
Now I believe that Jesus was and is fully divine; otherwise he could not have done many of the things I believe he really did: heal the sick, walk on water, multiply loaves and fishes, or, as in today’s gospel, cast out the demons of a little girl, from a distance, no less! Jesus was fully divine.
But we often minimize or completely deny the ways in which Jesus was fully human, too. And if he was fully human, then he had to have evolved in his moral development, just as we do. He couldn’t have sprung complete from the womb, with no need for normal human development. Jesus was a man of his time, sharing many of the cultural views and limitations of his upbringing. These come out in today’s story when a Gentile woman approaches Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter.
At first, Jesus says cruel words, words that express his culture’s male-dominated, anti-Gentile prejudices: It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs. But courageously, she comes right back at him: Yes, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.
By these words, she apparently stops Jesus right in his tracks, because something remarkable then happens. Jesus evolves. In this moment he grows, as he sees himself; he recognizes the limitations he grew up with. He no longer views this woman as an object; he sees her suffering, her humanity, and he empathizes with her. He relents, and heals the daughter. So to our great surprise, not only is it a story about the healing of a Gentile girl. It is a story about the healing of Jesus.
Well, if the early church - who had lived with Jesus and still had the recent memory of Jesus’ bodily resurrection - were prejudiced against poor people in their community; if Jesus himself was initially prejudiced against Gentiles and women, surely we have our prejudices too. And surely we are also in need of healing from them.
Prejudice begins in the individual heart, when we make assumptions about others based upon the group that we think they are a part of. We attribute the worst possible characteristics to them that we think their group shares. Making them an object, a thing, we dehumanize them. We justify all of this because we know we are right about the other, even if we don’t even know them. Prejudice leads to indifference, hatred, polarization, injustice, and war.
What makes healing from prejudice possible? First of all, it begins when we admit that we are, like everyone else, prejudiced. I admit that I am prejudiced against people I think of as empty-headed consumers. I see them passively consuming whatever is marketed to them – new car payments and huge mortgages on cheap, ugly houses, clothes they don’t need, and copious amounts of unhealthy food. I see them consuming countless hours in front of the television and digital devices. I see them naively consuming distorted information fed to them by news media; consuming even blind patriotism and self-serving religion.
When I see people in a restaurant or airport that I think are like this, I can just feel the alienation and contempt rising up in me. I am prejudiced.
But admitting our prejudices doesn’t, by itself, heal us of them. We must actually get to know the other as a human being. When we listen to their story and we hear especially the pain they suffer, we empathize. They become three-dimensional, a human being who is, we often realize, doing the best they can.
This is what happens when a person like Muhammad Ali gets out into the world, or a city like Louisville finally integrates and blacks and whites stop seeing one another as manifestations of one another’s fear. They learn to empathize.
This is what happens when we take the time to talk to a poor visitor with just as much interest as we would a successful one. We find out that they are, in fact, treasures to us.
This is what happened to Jesus when he saw the courage and the suffering in the Gentile woman’s eyes that day. He gained respect and empathy for her as a child of God.
And it is what happens whenever I actually have a conversation with one of those supposedly empty-headed consumers. I just might hear a surprising story, if I listen for it, a story of selflessness, faith, and intelligence, of pain and creativity. They become human, and a bit of my prejudice is healed.
Now this doesn’t mean that all forms of judgment are wrong, that all people should be appreciated and affirmed no matter what they do. God gave us the ability and the responsibility to judge people’s actions. That’s what morals and ethics are for. I will probably always judge actions of empty-headed consumerism.
What God does not give us license to do is to judge another by what we assume about them, attributing to an individual the worst characteristics that we imagine are typical of the group we think they belong to. That’s prejudice, and we all do it.
When we notice our contempt rising up within us, when we notice ourselves ignoring others because we think they have nothing to offer us, it is a spiritual opportunity to stop, to be stopped, as Jesus was that day. Stopped in our tracks, taking a deep breath, we can open our minds, cross the divide, and find out who the other really is.
Today we offer anointing for healing, as we do several times a year when we have a healing story in the gospel. During communion, some of you will come to one of the clergy, asking God for healing for yourselves. During the Prayers of the People, all of us will ask for healing for others. Our need for healing is probably something that troubles us – a physical illness, anxiety, depression, or a painful circumstance.
But today, with our New Testament readings still hanging in the air, we can also pray for healing of our prejudices, that God might help us see the assumptions we carry about others, that God might place in our paths the very people we hold in contempt, so that we might come to know them.
And as we are healed of our own prejudices, we can then be a part of God’s healing of this divided world. Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son:
Look with compassion on the whole human family;
take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts;
break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love;
and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth;
that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony
around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.