Note: This teaching is part of an ongoing series based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.
Fear of difference creates a very constricted, exclusive, and small religion and life—the very opposite of the abundance into which God invites us. – Richard Rohr
Adam Hamilton and I grew up in the same neck of the woods – suburban Kansas City. Being six years older than me, our life experience from our earliest years was very similar. He grew up in Prairie Village, the suburb where my dad was pastor of Prairie Baptist Church, which enjoyed the vibrancy of being a church in the “new” part of town where all the professionals lived. Our family lived further out in Overland Park, which is now a sprawling, massive suburb that extends way south of where it used to end. Like Hamilton, while I grew up in a household that would never tolerate hate speech, I also did not experience much exposure to non-white people. We had an Asian family at church who became good friends. Some refugees from Laos. Down our street lived my brother’s best friend, Billy, who was Filipino. I can’t remember knowing anyone black my first eight years of life.
To give a concrete expression to the undercurrent of prejudice that existed in the state proud of its Underground Railroad heritage, Hamilton offered a covenant from one of J.C. Nichols’ housing developments: “None of the said lots shall be conveyed to, used, owned nor occupied by Negroes as owner and tenants.” Later, the covenant was extended to Jewish people, which meant, of course, that Jesus would not be allowed to live next door… Racism lived in the community that raised me, written right into the neighborhood HOA.
Let’s get some definitions under our belt about this subject. Racism is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.” Prejudice is defined as “dislike, hostility, or unjust behavior deriving from unfounded opinions.” And finally, xenophobia is defined as “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.” Do any of these descriptions describe you? Lucky for you, there is a very quick, simple test to find out whether or not you are on some level racist, live with prejudice, and struggle to some degree with xenophobia. Using your middle finger from one hand, place it on the wrist of the opposite hand (or on your jugular vein on your neck) and check for a pulse. If you have a pulse, you struggle with all three of these things. How dare I say such a thing about a good person like you? Because it is human nature. We are biased toward our own kind. Interestingly, we are also biased toward the dominant kind of the culture we grew up in. In the United States, this means there is an implicit bias toward Caucasians. Move to a part of the world where whites are not dominant, and you will discover that the bias shifts toward the majority. Calling BS on me? Take a test from Harvard University that will open your eyes to what you see.
Hamilton suggests that the longest running fear in the Bible revolves around being afraid of “others” who are not like us. While the story of Cain and Abel certainly is about much more than that, he makes the case that it may point to a division between herdsman who roamed the land feeding their livestock and farmers who tilled the land. The disdain toward Gentiles (non-Jews) in the Old Testament is easy to find and extends into the New Testament as well.
Jesus’ first sermon poked the racist bear, so to speak, when he clearly spoke about how God’s favor is not exclusive to Jewish people, but extended to non-Jews as well via Israel’s most beloved prophets of old – Elijah and Elisha! It nearly got him killed. The sermon provided an allusion to what was ahead for Jesus’ life and teaching. Above all others, Samaritans were the most loathed by Jewish people. So, naturally, Jesus went on to befriend a Samaritan woman at a well, and probably his best known parable positioned a “Good Samaritan” as it’s hero while portraying Jewish religious leaders as severely lacking. Very bold moves toward inclusion.
Peter, one of Jesus’ original disciples and key leader of the early Christian movement struggled with his racism even though he walked with Jesus where he never thought he would. The account of Peter and Cornelius is a remarkable picture of two people who overcome their prejudice which led to inclusion soon thereafter. Paul, who had plenty of implicit bias to work out, became a champion of inclusion as he started up church after church all around the Mediterranean from Israel to Rome. His entire letter to the Roman church was in response to racist-based division between exclusive Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians who wanted a place at the communion table. His letter to the churches in the region of Galatia was in response to well-meaning but narrow-minded “Judaizers” who were trying to impose inappropriate laws on inferior Gentiles. This is where Paul wrote the famous words:
“For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.” – Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)
These biblical examples serve to illustrate the fact that this human issue of fearing those who are not like us is clearly not new. What we may not appreciate, however, is that it is still a serious issue here in the United States where we proclaim liberty for all. It’s still an issue for me and you, even if we can’t admit it. This is not to say that I believe you’re all a bunch of cross-burning KKK members looking to lynch anybody who isn’t lilly-white and blue-eyed. What I am saying is that the issue remains – and will remain – but can be managed down in us and in those we influence if we know what to recognize as racist and learn how to live with different sensibilities.
Brene Brown, in her excellent book, Braving the Wilderness, identifies a method that humanity has used to enable racism to grow to its ugliest and most horrific expressions. Dehumanizing is a primary way we step toward legitimizing mistreatment of “other” people. She writes:
Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive. Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. And if our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media, and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our faith (58).
In her book she illustrates how dehumanizing is what enabled Nazi Germany to kill millions of Jews: they were systematically dehumanized. Killing a Jew wasn’t killing another human being in their rhetoric – may as well have been a rat. When we use derogatory, sweeping terms for entire people groups, we are engaging in dehumanization. When we denigrate others by speaking of all Hispanic people as Mexicans or illegals, we dehumanize. When we call the LGBTQ community “the Gays”, we dehumanize. When we slur our way around using pejorative terms about women, liberals, conservatives, Muslims, Jews, the poor – fill in the blank here – we dehumanize, which allows us to treat them inhumanely.
To bring this up close and personal (and current), Brown bring up the Black Lives Matter Movement and the controversy around supporting police and all people everywhere. She writes:
Shouldn’t the rallying cry just be All Lives Matter? No. Because the humanity wasn’t stripped from all lives the way it was stripped from the lives of black citizens. In order for slavery to work, in order for us to buy, sell, beat, and trade people like animals, Americans had to completely dehumanize slaves. And whether we directly participated in that or were simply a member of a culture that at one time normalized that behavior, it shaped us. We can’t undo that level of dehumanizing in one or two generations. I believe Black Lives Matter is a movement to rehumanize black citizens. All lives matter, but not all lives need to be pulled back into moral inclusion. Not all people were subjected to the psychological process of demonizing and being made less than human so we could justify the inhumane practice of slavery (59).
So many times I have heard people who look like me say, “I just don’t understand why they…” protest, commit crimes, riot, etc. Exactly. We whiter folk just don’t understand. We don’t get it because we’re not black, LGBTQ, female, Hispanic, Muslim, an immigrant, or any other form of other. The best way for us to move forward, if possible, is to discover ways to meet people who are different than us so that we increasingly grow toward the conclusion that there is no “them”, only us. Much of our fear is based in ignorance. The sooner we can discover just how false our expectations have been, the sooner we can be free from the fear of people not like us. We can do this by befriending someone different than ourselves, and we can do this by learning from their perspective (books, articles, movies, TedTalks, etc.)
One of the last letters written in the New Testament came from John. Speaking to people who were struggling to discover how to live like Jesus amidst people who were “different”, he offered these words:
God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.
We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.
If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both. – 1 John 4:17-21 (The Message)
The Greek word used for love here is “agape”, which is not simply a loving feeling, but an active love that serves even if personal sacrifice is required. Hamilton, building from John’s words above, gives us this rule to live with when faced with fear of others. He encourages us to ask ourselves, “In the situation I find myself in, what is the most loving thing I can do?” That’s good advice that helps minimize fear and serves to create a better world in which to live. For everyone.