Part 3: To Address the Problem of Prejudice
January 21, 2018
Pastor Morris Brown
In 1945, as WW2 was coming to an end, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a speech reflecting on the tragedy of the war. “If civilization is to survive” he wrote, “people of all kinds must learn to live together in the same world, at peace.” Unfortunately, Roosevelt died before his speech could be delivered. And yet, the words he wrote still ring true, don’t they? I mean over and over again in the last few years we’ve witnessed terrible tragedies caused by the fact that people who differ from each other can’t seem to find a way live together in peace. And over and over again in the last few weeks we’ve we heard a lot of rhetoric.
We’ve heard rhetoric which reminds us that prejudice of all kinds is still an incredible problem in our lives, in our country and in our world. As a result, I decided to scrap the sermon I had planned to share with you this morning, and to continue our iResolve worship series with a message I’ve entitled: “iResolve to Address the Problem of Prejudice.”
What I’d like us to do in our time together today is reflect on three questions.
(1)What is prejudice?
(2)What forms does prejudice take?
(3)What wisdom does our faith offer to help us overcome prejudice?
Let’s start with the first question: What is prejudice?
Well, Webster defines prejudice as “a preconceived judgement or opinion of someone that is not based on reason or experience.” A friend of mine once sent me an email that reminded me of this definition. It was entitled “You might be from North Carolina If...”
The email went something like this,
(1)“If your name is Billy-Bob, your brother’s name is Billy-Ray, and your sister’s names are
Billy-Sue and Billy-Mae...you might be from North Carolina!”
(2) “If you’re school’s summer reading list included ‘The National Enquirer, Soap Opera
Digest and The Rifle and Shotgun Weekly... you might be from North Carolina!”
(3) “If you can count the number of times you’ve seen a UFO, the number of times you’ve seen Elvis, and the number of times you’ve seen Elvis in a UFO.... you might be from North Carolina!”
(4) “If your nickname when you were a kid was ‘Junior, Sissy, Bubba or Booger’...you might be from North Carolina!”
Well, I’m from North Carolina. And even though my sister called me “Bubba” when we were young, I have seen Elvis, and I have been on a UFO at least three times – none of the other traits on that list hold true for me! So, I emailed my friend back and told him his preconceived ideas about North Carolinians were wrong... mostly.
Seriously, when we pre-judge, stereotype, label people as “less than, unworthy, or even evil because they differ from us, we’re engaging in prejudice.
This leads to the second question: What forms can prejudice take?
It can take many forms! Some are obvious, for example, we’re all familiar with racial prejudice. Which, MLK, Jr. said, “is the practice of judging someone, not by the content of their character, but the color of their skin!”
We’re also aware of religious prejudice, because of terrorist acts committed by fundamentalist Muslim radicals in recent years, we’ve seen good, loving, peaceful people who practice Islam prejudged.
But, there are other less obvious, but equally destructive ways in which prejudice raises it’s ugly head. For instance, there is generational prejudice. This happens when young people stereotype senior adults as being old-fashioned and out of touch. Or, when seniors stereotype young people because of the way they dress. Or the way they wear their hair. Or because of the “tats” they have on their bodies.
There is economic prejudice, which happens when middle and upper class folks characterize those who are less fortunate as ignorant and lazy. Or when less fortunate folks prejudge the motivations of those who are successful or wealthy.
There’s political prejudice. Which occurs when we assume every member of a particular political party thinks the same way. And, there’s sexual prejudice. Which happens when women are devalued or degraded in the workplace or people are stigmatized because of their sexual orientation. The list could go on. The point is, prejudice comes in many forms. It takes on many faces in our lives and world.
This leads to the last question: What wisdom does our faith offer to help us overcome the problem of prejudice?
Well, I think our faith offers us some great wisdom, and we find it in the story we read from the gospel of Mark. The story begins as Jesus and his disciples are traveling northwest, from the Jewish territory of Galilee toward the city of Tyre, which is located the region of Phonecia. Now, this was Gentile country – a region no decent, self-respecting Jew would usually go. But, Jesus was exhausted from all the things he had been doing.
Perhaps, he hoped that this Gentile region would be a place where he would not be recognized or bothered so he could get some rest. Unfortunately, however, it isn’t long until someone at the house where Jesus is staying recognizes him; word travels and when it does a Syrophoenician woman comes see him.
We’re not told her name, which is typical because as a woman and a Gentile she would be considered “less than human” by any Jewish man. We are told, however, that her daughter who’s at home is possessed by a demon and needs help. So much so that this woman falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to heal her child!
Now, here’s where the story gets sticky. When the woman asks for Jesus’ help we expect him to help her, to heal her little girl. But, he doesn’t. Instead the gospel tells us that he responds to the woman’s plea with a strange, stunning, disturbing reply. “Let the children (or Jewish people) eat all they want!”
He says, “It is not right to take their bread and toss it to the the dogs.” What?! This woman asks Jesus’ for help and he’s not going to help her? This woman begs Jesus’ for help, and he’s rude to her? The woman pleas for Jesus’ help and he calls her, and people like her, ‘dogs’? What’s going on here?!
What’s going on is Jesus is experiencing cultural prejudice. He resists this woman’s request because she’s not a Jew. Well, this woman will have none of it, and she responds to Jesus with a strong remark. “Yes, Lord” she says, “I know you’ve come to feed the children, but even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs!”
Hearing this, Jesus is amazed! And he begins to change his tune. Instead of refusing the Syrophoenician woman’s request, he praises her witty comeback and her incredible faith. Then, he tells her to go home because her daughter has been healed. And when the woman goes home? She finds that her daughter is healed!
Now, if you’re like most people, this story makes you uncomfortable. If so, be at peace! You’re in good company. Jesus’ words and actions in this the story have made biblical scholars uncomfortable as well. They don’t like the fact that Jesus comes off sounding harsh, uncaring and even prejudiced toward the woman. So, they try to deal with Jesus’ actions in this story a number of ways.
For example, some scholars simply choose to ignore them! In other words, they completely disregard what Jesus says in this story. Instead of focusing on the harshness of Jesus, they focus on the perseverance and strong faith of the Syrophoenician woman.
Other scholars try to soften his words. They try to address the harshness, the prejudice of Jesus in the story by saying, “Yes, Jesus is hard on the woman in this story when he calls her a ‘dog.’ But, he doesn’t really mean it. In fact, the term Jesus uses for ‘dog’ means ‘little dog or pet dog.’ It’s a term of endearment. So, Jesus is just testing the woman’s faith to see if she really means business.”
Others try to deal with Jesus actions in this story by dancing around them. They say, “Jesus isn’t really being prejudice, he’s just acting prejudice. He’s reflecting the prejudice of his day back at the Jews to show them how bad prejudice can be.”
There is one scholar, however, who takes a fourth and what seems to me a more reasonable approach. He embraces them. He says, “Jesus’ words and actions in this story make us uncomfortable because he’s the Son of God. But let’s not forget, he also human! As a result, he, like all of us, grew and changed! As a result, he, like us, struggled with the prejudice of the culture in which he was raised. The most important thing about this story is not that Jesus was prejudiced toward the woman. The most important thing is that Jesus overcame his prejudice. He moved beyond it to praise the woman and heal her little girl.
In doing so, he shows us that with God’s help we can overcome the prejudice that we carry in our hearts. So, how did Jesus overcome the prejudice that existed in his life, his world? How can this story help us overcome the prejudice that exists in ours? Very quickly, I’d like to suggest three important ways.
First, this story helps us address the problem of prejudice by reminding us that EVERYONE experiences prejudice. It’s part of being human. Some people deny that. They’re like the woman who said, “I’m not prejudice! I love everyone!” Or, they’re like the man who said, “I’m not prejudice! I hate everybody!” But, the truth is whether we like to admit it or not, prejudice is something that all of us, even Jesus, struggle with from time to time.
This week I read an interesting article about this very thing. The article, which was written by Harvard professor Gail Price-Wise, was entitled, “Fighting Prejudice by Admitting It.”
The article began with a rather shocking statement. It said, “Every single person in the world is prejudice! This is uncomfortable for us to hear because for most of us the word ‘prejudice’ has painful connotations. No one wants to admit that he or she has a problem with it. But we all do. It’s a natural part of being human! From time to time we will all have negative gut reactions to people or groups who are different. We will all pre-judge people and have automatic feelings about them just by how they look or talk or smell. In fact,” she confessed, “I have negative reactions to people with brightly colored hair and lots of tattoos. The good news is - if we’re willing to admit our prejudice, we can learn to manage it in healthy ways, and even move beyond it!”
Did you hear her point? From time to time, everyone struggles with prejudice – even Jesus. It’s part of being a human. So, the first key to overcoming our prejudice is to simply admit we struggle with it.
Second, this story helps us overcome the problem of prejudice by inviting us to ENGAGE the people we have a prejudice against in a meaningful way. Jesus experiences prejudice when he met the Syrophoenician woman. And yet, instead of ignoring her, Jesus decides to engage the woman in conversation. He banters with the woman, who will not back down from his initial response. As he does, he gets to know her and Jesus learns that even though she’s a Gentile, she is a person of great faith! By engaging this woman in a meaningful way, Jesus begins to move beyond his initial feelings of prejudice toward her.
The same is true for us. Once we admit that we are having feelings of prejudice we must work to move beyond them. And the best way to do this is to begin to engage people we are prejudiced against in a meaningful way.
You’re going to think I have no life, but one of my favorite television shows is on Saturday afternoons on PBS. The show is called Travel Scope, hosted by Joseph Rosendo. Each week Joseph Rosendo features the lives and customs of people from different parts of the world. Sometimes, it’s the aboriginal people of Australia. Sometimes, it’s the people who live along the Rhone River in Southern France. Sometimes, it hardy folk who live in the northeast corner of Maine. But, each week Joseph Rosendo engages them wherever he is and strives to show us that they have the same hopes and dreams, difficulties and heartaches, joys and sorrows as all of us.
Then, Rosendo ends each show with a very interesting quote from Mark Twain, who said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” What is Joseph Rosendo’s point? If we’ll find a meaningful way to engage people – whoever they are, wherever they’re from, however they differ from us – we’ll discover we’re part of the same human family!
You know, Joseph Rosendo is right, and his wisdom echoes the message of our gospel story. If we want to overcome our prejudice against a person who differs from us in some way, we must be willing to find a way to reach out and engage them in some kind of meaningful way. It will make a difference in how we see them.
Finally, this story helps us overcome the problem of prejudice by reminding us that when we deeply engage people who differ from us we often EXPERIENCE a blessing. When Jesus encountered the Syrophoenician woman he expresses prejudice. As he further engaged her, however, something began to happen. He began to see that this Gentile woman, like all people, was a person who was hurt, a person who needed help. He began to see that she was a person of great faith and his opinion of her, as well as his actions toward her changed. His prejudice was eroded. Hepraised the woman for her great faith, and healed her daughter! As Jesus built a relationship with the Syrophoenician woman, he was blessed by her and she was blessed by him.
Years ago I was in charge of taking the youth at my church on the Appalachian Service Project – a mission project in which young people spend a week doing home repairs for people in the Appalachian mountains. One day a girl in my youth group who was really active, came to me and said, “I don’t want to go on the Appalachian Service Project.” When I asked her why, she said, “I just don’t think I’ll like mountain people. I’ve heard they’re dirty and dumb, and I just don’t want to be around them – especially for a week!”
Well, being from the mountains myself I tried not to take too much offense. But, I did tell her that I thought she was judging those folks much too harshly, and she ought to give them a chance. To make a long story short I finally talked her into going. And you know what? She loved the people she met, and they loved her! After spending a week with them I could hardly get her in the van to come home. The next week, when the youth shared about their experience in our church’s worship service, she was the kid who went on and on about how the mountain people blessed her life, and how she’d been able to be a blessing to them!
Jesus, like all of us, experienced prejudice. But, he didn’t let it get the best of him. Instead, he engaged the Syrophoenician woman, and because he did he experienced the blessing of her incredible faith. He was able to bless her in an incredible way. I wonder how many blessings our prejudice might cause us to miss!
Prejudice – it’s a problem in our lives, our country and our world. But, our faith reminds us if we address it, it can be overcome. By admitting that everyone struggles with it. By being willing to engage people who are differ from us in a meaningful way. By realizing that when we do, we often experience a blessing.
I end with an invitation. I invite us to ask God to help us honestly admit our struggle with prejudice – whether it be racial, economic, sexual, religious, whatever. I invite us to ask God to help us find an opportunity to meaningfully engage someone we are prejudiced against – in school, at work, across town, around the world. And as we engage those people, I invite us to ask God to open our hearts and help us see the ways our engagement with them not only blesses their lives, but enables them to bless us! If we’ll resolve to accept this invitation it just might help all of us begin to overcome prejudice and transform God’s world for love!
© Morris Brown, January 22, 2018