Bridges Over Barriers to Overcoming Prejudice
By Jill Briscoe
When I was a teenager, I believed that middleclass English people shouldn't mix with lowerclass English people. "It just wasn't done," as we British folk say. I would never have voiced the words "common" or "unclean" out loud, but then I didn't have to do anything about my prejudices in those days. I could live in my big house, play tennis at the most prestigious club, and choose likeminded (and prejudiced) friends.
Then I found the Lord. Discovering that He kept strange company, I was soon seeing my people prejudices in a whole new light. Call it vision if you will⎯a vision of Christ that gave me a new vision of them and myself. Soon I was painfully aware that I needed to deal with my judgmental attitudes.
I was relieved to discover that the Apostle Peter had an experience similar to mine. While Peter was visiting some Christian brothers at Joppa, he went up to the top of the house while the meal was being prepared. He fell asleep and the Lord walked into his dreams. Peter saw a sheet coming down from heaven containing a variety of animals. Some were "clean animals" that the Israelites were permitted to eat. The others, however, were "unclean" animals, forbidden to the Jews by their law.
"Get up, Peter. Kill and eat," the Lord said to him.
"Surely not, Lord!" Peter protested. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."
"Do not call anything impure that God has made clean," replied the Lord (Acts 10:1315).
Peter got the message. God made no distinction between people, even between Jews and nonJews. The Gospel was to be given to the Gentiles. The Lord knew if they were given the chance, they would receive the good news and respond. God would cleanse and accept them just as He had the Jews, and He expected His followers to accept them, too. In Christ there was to be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. All were to be one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).
What Is Prejudice?
The dictionary defines prejudice as "a judgment or opinion held in disregard of the facts that contradict it," or again "a preconceived idea"⎯usually unfavorable. It's a judgment or opinion formed before the case is heard. To judge a person without a fair hearing⎯with partiality⎯breeds suspicion, intolerance, and the hatred of other races or creeds. Prejudice manifests itself in a variety of ways. Let me give you some examples.
When we were planning to emigrate to the United States, I tried to prepare our three grade schoolers for the transition. "The other boys and girls may laugh at your British accent," I warned them. "Just remember, though," Stuart chipped in, grinning, "they have the accent, you don't!" We laughed then, but I wondered how they would cope. When the time came, to my amazement and pleasure, the prejudice I warned them about never materialized. Everyone was delighted with the children and their English accents which, incidently, lasted about four weeks. They were the wonder of the community. People would hide behind pillars at the church just to hear them talk.
For this reason I felt I could assure a new pastor's wife from the Deep South, who had just joined the staff, not to worry about the adjustment her four lively boys would have to make. People were "wonderful" to our kids, I assured her. "You'll see, they will be wonderful to yours, too." I couldn't have been more wrong. I could hardly believe the abuse these boys had to bear. They were laughed at and ridiculed because of their southern accents. I could not understand this prejudice, but then I was from England, not South Carolina.
Having traveled the world, I can think of plenty of examples of prejudice outside this country. Five weeks in South Africa graphically highlighted the black/white problem, while time in my own home capital of London shocked me as I witnessed racial violence due to unrestricted immigration policies.
Such prejudices are totally condemned by the Lord. Partiality is in fact forbidden. Leviticus 19:15 gives us a crystal clear directive: "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly." We are not to judge others at all. As Peter reminded his hearers and no doubt himself, "Jesus commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10.42).
James, the brother of our Lord, talked about a kind of prejudice we can all relate to. He said we are not to show partiality to the rich man and ignore the poor man (James 2:14). In our day there is another twist to that. We often show partiality to those we consider spiritually rich, while ignoring the spiritually poor.
When I speak at a conference, I make my way to the registration table like everyone else. All too often, I find myself being pushed and pulled by all the other ladies in line who, like me, want to get registered and settled into their room before the meeting begins.
Then suddenly someone recognizes me! An immediate transformation takes place. People begin to back away, respectfully giving me room to breathe. The rather rude lady in front or behind, who has been shouldering me roughly a moment before, smiles sweetly and whips out one of my books for me to autograph! Partiality wins the day. This ought not to be. I am not suggesting that we should treat speakers rudely, but that we should treat everyone⎯speakers and listeners alike⎯with the same respect.
Prejudice and Prayer
So how do we overcome prejudice once we have recognized it? We must pray about it and ask God to help us. Remember, God has never had a prejudiced thought. The more time we spend alone with Him, the more His attitude will rub off on us.
We must practice vital prayer so that it becomes a lifegiving habit. In prayer the Lord will help us face our prejudices and show us how we can overcome them.
Bridges Over Barriers
Whom are you prejudiced against? What are you prejudiced about? Do you judge some people "common and unclean"? Have you prejudged a situation or an individual to such a degree that you have isolated and insulated yourself from all contact with them?
There are as many different ways of building bridges over "gaps" as there are people in the world. We can choose to become friends with someone we don't like very much because of their political views and try to understand why they feel as they do. We can join a club knowing groups within it come from different socioeconomic levels, thus forcing ourselves to spend time with people we'd never meet in the ordinary round of life. We can invite people home for a meal; there's no better place for meaningful, constructive dialogue than at our own home and fireside. We can initiate these opportunities. If we don’t, it's very doubtful the other party will. Love always takes the initiative.
An unpleasant incident from the past can be a big part of prejudice. Fear plays an important role as well. Fear of a "take over" by women can affect some men who are a little insecure, especially when they meet a woman with equal gifts. Fear from an unfortunate childhood incident can effectively build barriers of prejudice in our lives that are extremely difficult to surmount.
But fear is often a child of ignorance. When barriers go up between communities, isolation results and breeds fear. But Christ can make the difference! Referring to the literal barrier that the Jews erected in the temple courtyard separating the Jew from the Gentile, Paul remarks, "For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one, and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility" (Eph. 2:14). It is only by understanding the universal plan of God and asking humbly to be a part of bringing that plan into effect, that the Christian can begin to understand her prejudices and work to overcome them.
Another example of someone who had reason to be prejudiced but wasn't is Jesus. He did not prejudge the woman at the well, as His disciples most certainly did. Neither did He judge the woman who washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, as His host certainly did. He talked with the Syrophoenician woman, healing her daughter, and ate with publicans and sinners such as Matthew and Zacchaeus, capturing their hearts and changing their behavior forever.
Peter and you and I have a divine model, divine imperatives, and divine power to do something about our judgmental attitudes. If we are going to beat prejudice, we must know ourselves, watch ourselves, and help ourselves. Prejudice is often deeply rooted. We may beat it at one place only to find it beating us at the next. God helped me to overcome my prejudice of kids on drugs when I worked with them. But ten years later when my daughter wanted to date a young man who had taken drugs before he became a Christian, I balked.
Yet the thing I love about being a Christian is that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. God equips all of us for service. We need to realize there are no medals for special gifts, only for faithfulness. We are called to be faithful stewards, not supreme court judges (1 Cor. 4:12).
As Paul wrote the Corinthians, "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).
In the end that is where justice will be done. Wrongs will be righted and rights will be rewarded. Peter and Paul will be given the martyr's crown, and you and I will have a fair trial as to how we have followed Jesus. How different things will look when we meet the true Judge face to face.