Racism, Prejudice, and Christ

When the eternal Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us, he crossed an infinite chasm—from the infinite to the finite, and from immortality to mortality.

There is a fine line between legitimate probability judgments and sinful prejudice. It is a real line. God sees it even when we don’t. And my concern is to plead with you not to let the legitimacy of probability judgments function in your heart as a subtle self-justification for sinful prejudice.


Probability and Prejudice

When the eternal Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), he crossed an infinite chasm—from the infinite to the finite, and from immortality to mortality. He left infinite moral perfection to live among moral corruption. Christ did not despise us. He came to us. He loved us. He died in our place to give us life. And he did all this when we were more alien to him than anyone has ever been alien to us.

When we feel or think or act with disdain or disrespect or avoidance or exclusion or malice toward a person simply because he or she is of another race or another ethnic group, we are, in effect, saying that Jesus acted in a foolish way toward us. You don’t want to say that.

Removing a Subtle Self-Justification

One of the ways we continue to fall short in diverse ethnic relationships is by using subtle self-justifications to protect the sinful prejudice in our hearts. I would like to describe and help remove one of those self-justifications. This is a self-justification that we all are tempted to use either consciously or subconsciously. Knowing what it is, and understanding the truth and error in it, will help us be free from its snare.

The gist of it is this: we know intuitively that we cannot live our lives without making generalizations about people and events and nature (I will illustrate this in a moment). But often we do not make clear distinctions between legitimate and necessary generalizations, on the one hand, and disrespectful stereotyping, on the other hand. One reason we don’t make these distinctions is that it’s not easy to do. Another is that not making these distinctions supports our unloving prejudices.

Life Depends on Generalizing

The way of thinking that generalizes from the particulars of our experience and draws probability judgments on that basis is both inevitable and good. The human brain inevitably works this way. And, in fact, our life depends on it working this way.

You observe carefully that mushrooms with certain features are poisonous. So when someone offers you one like that, you turn it down. You have never tasted or tested that individual mushroom, but you see it as belonging to the general class that in the past has been poisonous, and so you form a probability judgment that it could well be poisonous and so refuse to eat it. Your life depends on not treating this individual mushroom in isolation from your experience of others like it.

Sometimes your judgment seems totally legitimate but proves to be dead wrong. You form a generalization that the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is safe. You have crossed it a thousand times. The state inspects it regularly. But on August 1, 2007, you make the judgment to cross in safety, and it collapses. Your probability judgment was wrong. But it was not a sinful judgment. It was well warranted.

If I pass a man with certain features and dressed a certain way in my neighborhood—at least for this season of our corporate life—I form the probability judgment that he is Somali and Muslim. I could be wrong. But that is what my brain does with the information that I have. Facial features, dress, language, gait, location—all these and more incline me to think he is part of the group of Somalis who live in my neighborhood. However, a conversation reveals he is from Ethiopia. I made a mistake.

I see a white car with red lights flashing behind me. From all my experience, I form the probability judgment that this is the police and not a criminal faking the lights to trap me. I could be wrong. But I pull over.

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