Christian Prejudice: Finding Answers to a Shameful Problem

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What are we supposed to do?

A friend of mine, Kyle West, posed this question to me in response to a blog post about racism in my community. The answer requires more space than my blog allows. But I can provide some beginning thoughts.

The gospel has the power to heal historical and cultural wounds, and it’s no secret that the American church is doing a poor job of it. Sunday mornings remain the most highly segregated day of the week in the entire country. Despite what the Bible has to say about “neither Jew nor Greek,” Christians continue to segregate themselves by race and class. The result is that the church continues to perpetuate social injustices.

What do I mean by this?

I mean many things, but at a basic level, the people in our social spheres are the ones who benefit from the value of our company. They are the ones who borrow our money, who get a ride from us when they don’t have a car. They get our job recommendations and old furniture, our wedding gifts and poorly made casseroles when they’re having a baby. When we choose to only associate with people like ourselves, we are excluding everyone else from the benefits and privileges we offer. The Bible condemns this as partiality. Today, we call it prejudice, an umbrella term that describes everything from racism and classism to bigotry and sexism.

The church is filled with prejudice, but no one wants to admit it. Don’t believe me? Walk into your church on a Sunday morning. If 85 to 90 percent of the people are from the same race and class, your church is prejudiced. Look at your own social network. If 85 to 90 percent of your friends are from the same race and class, you are prejudiced.

I am prejudiced.

I took a class over the summer called “Cultural Pluralism,” and I asked my professor the same question that Kyle posed to me. I was feeling hopeless. As someone who strongly believes that government assistance is absolutely critical, I nevertheless reject the idea that government programs solve systemic injustice anymore than Band-Aids heal a wound. So I asked my professor, “What are we supposed to do?”

She told me that the only person you can change is yourself.

Our social and cultural problems were not created by the government. They were created by a mass of individual choices and behavior, and the government has been their instrument. As cliché as her response might have been, I think my professor is right. The problem gets fixed when individuals fix themselves, when people stop thinking of what “we” should do and, instead, start thinking of what “I” should do.

Christians believe that the Gospel has the power to do this — to change the individual — but when it comes to prejudice, we don’t let it do so. We have a personal responsibility to take the word of God seriously when it says things like, “Sell all of your possessions and give them to the poor,” and “Show no partiality.” But we don’t. The fact that so few Christians view racism and classism as a priority to address in their lives is shameful to our faith. We are quenching the Spirit of God in our lives and obstructing the power of the Gospel.

When we talk about systemic oppression and injustice, we are talking about a form of evil that is so embedded within a civilization that to suddenly fix it would require the complete collapse of the entire society in some kind of transformative revolution that allows for an impossible “fresh start.” This never happens because it can’t happen. New forms of oppression are always created.

So what are we supposed to do? If we really want to fix systemic injustice we will start with ourselves. Stop thinking of what others should do, or even what “we” should do. Instead, start thinking of what “I” should do.

The only way I know to do this for me is found in the words of Jesus: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent of the prejudice in your life. Repent of the ways you have allowed racism and classism to control your behavior. Allow the Gospel to change you. Take the fresh start given at the cross. Live your life accordingly.

Show no partiality.

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3 thoughts on “Christian Prejudice: Finding Answers to a Shameful Problem

  1. Sarah Reply

    Bridget,

    Just statistically speaking, I don’t believe your criteria for “prejudiced” is fair. Are you suggesting that we exercise “affirmative action” in our friend selection? Over 75% of American citizens are “white only.” To lead that by only 10% in your average social group would require no prejudicial effort. Are you really prepared to diagnose sins based on something that is affected by such a wide range of factors? Or perhaps you are comfortable doing so because you simply believe that it’s a safe bet that everyone is affected by every sin to some degree… I can’t see how that would be helpful.

    Consider that most social groups are formed around common settings. You’re likely to make friends with people at work for example. Those people will typically be in the same socio-economic class as you. You don’t have to be actively exclusive to make this happen. Consider also that you are likely to make friends with people who have similar interests, beliefs, and cultural values. It seems that American’s have a hard time swallowing this pill, but people of different ethnic backgrounds are likely to have divergent cultural values. In high school one of my best friends was black, and this cultural difference was impossible to miss when I interacted with her within her family setting. My husband is from a Hispanic background. His family has a completely different attitude toward family and celebration than my all-white family does. This doesn’t mean that you can’t become friends with people of other backgrounds – obviously I’m not saying that – but it does mean that making connections with people who are of the same race as you is generally a natural thing, because it requires little work to understand and appreciate one another’s values. To do otherwise may require a great deal of personal exertion (in finding people who don’t naturally enter your life through work, etc.) and getting out of your comfort zone (in interacting with people in a way that is unusual for your own culture).

    I think you are too quick to assume that systematic prejudice and oppression is behind all self-segregation. Have you ever been to an all black church? I can’t speak for all of them of course, but in my experience they are wildly different from white churches. I think most white people would be uncomfortable – not because the people present have black skin, but because of how they do church. American’s are so desperate to be homogenous that they are offended at the idea that black people and white people (and all other peoples) have distinct cultures. Of course the Gospel crosses all culture bounds, but does that mean that we all must become “blank slates” in terms of culture? I don’t really think so.

    The question for me is not “is racism and prejudice a problem?” The answer is most obviously yes. No more and no less so than in the case of every other condemnable sin. The question for me is, “do we diagnose society with sin, or people?” It seems like you diagnosed society and then offered the treatment to individuals. I think you’ve got the wrong end of it. People have the sin problem. It doesn’t do much good to diagnose society. The only effect of diagnosing society is to remove the issue from individual people (society taught you this – it’s not some innate sin nature – and that’s why all are guilty) and to create offense against an ambiguous enemy (whoever you choose to diagnose) rather than particular people who do you real and actual harm.

    Sarah Z.

  2. Traveling Nun Reply

    Hi Sarah!

    I think that you bring up some good questions. One thing that I hope I can make clear is that I don’t believe most people are actively and intentionally prejudiced. Most people engage in prejudicial behavior in very unintentional ways. Like you mentioned, making connections with people who are similar to you is just easier for most people. Cultural differences across race make building relationships much more challenging. Intersect those challenges with differences across class, and it becomes even more difficult. What I’m trying to say is that people naturally segregate themselves. However, I don’t think that I did a good enough job of explaining the extreme nature of American Christianity’s voluntary self-segregation. According to one study, most American churches are 10 times more segregated than the communities they serve, and 20 times more segregated than their neighborhood public schools. Here are two links you can look at:

    http://factsandtrends.net/2014/10/09/ethnic-blends-growing-healthy-multiethnic-churches/#.VnhvmWSDGkp
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/january/most-segregated-hour-of-week.html

    I’m also trying to say that this natural segregation contributes to systemic injustice, and to the extent that it perpetuates injustice, we must work to overcome it. My primary argument is not that systemic injustice contributes to self-segregation (though this is, in fact, probably true). Rather, I’m primarily arguing that people’s natural self-segregation contributes to systemic injustice. In reality, I think it is a cycle, both feeding each other. But I think the cycle stops when individuals stop. And the systems will follow thereafter. What I’m trying to say is exactly what you said in your last paragraph — the sin of people, not society, is the main source of our problems. The systems of society merely reflect the vices and virtues of its people. Thus, if we want to change society for the better, we must change the individual. We must change ourselves. It is easy to talk about problems embedded within society. It is much more difficult to talk about problems embedded within ourselves. Perhaps I did not make this clear in my post. If not, I hope to correct it now!

    I am also trying to say that Christians have a biblical responsibility to step outside of their comfort zone and befriend those from a different race and class. This responsibility bears particular weight for those who come from a culture of privilege and power in our country. A quick cursory reading of biblical passages on this topic support this idea: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16); “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (Romans 1:14); “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13); “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9). I don’t think this means that we must become a culturally homogenous, blank slate. Rather, I think it means that the Christian church must learn to build the kind of unified diversity that is described of God’s people throughout scripture. We are all “members of one body” (Romans 12:5)

    I hope I could address some of the things you brought up. Thank you for the thoughtful response! I appreciate your pushback and insight.

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