CONFRONTING THE SCANDAL OF OUR PREJUDICES
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Billy Graham has preached the Gospel around the world to every race. In an interview with Diane Sawyer he was asked this question: "If you could wave your hand and make one problem in this world go away, what would it be?" Without hesitation he replied, "Racial division and strive." This world is filled with civil wars based on race and religion all because people have a deep-seated prejudice against other people who are different. Hate crimes abound for the same reason. If this was the limit of the impact of prejudice in our world, it would be the number one sin of mankind according to Billy Graham and many others. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Prejudice of one kind or another poisons the heart of just about everyone. Masses of people do not experience racial prejudice because they have no contact with any but their own race. But nobody escapes all forms of prejudice.
The issue of male-female prejudice touches almost everyone. Class prejudice is also nearly universal. Religious prejudice, not only between the religious and non-religious, but between the many religions of the world and the many denominations of each religion. We could go on endlessly listing areas of prejudice down to such trivialities as right-handers against left-handers and cassettes lovers against CD lovers. There does not appear to be anyone who can escape all forms of prejudice, and so to some degree we are all a part of the problem.
The Apostle John tells us that he did not record all that Jesus did, for the world could not contain it if everything was recorded. But he did record the confrontation of Jesus with the woman at the well, and he gave us a lot of detail. The reason for it is because in this encounter Jesus demonstrates that He was free from, and uncontaminated by the prejudice that dominated the fallen hearts of men. Jesus rejects all the major prejudices of men in this account. Racial, religious, and sexual prejudice are rejected in this encounter. No two people could be more in contrast to each other than Jesus and this woman, and yet we see Jesus reaching out to break down all the walls of prejudice in relating to her.
It is hard for us to grasp the audacity of Jesus in this situation, and to understand why the disciples were so surprised to see Him talking with her. But just imagine if you walked into a McDonalds and saw Billy Graham in a booth talking to a black prostitute whom you knew had just started her own cult in the area, and Graham is asking her to go get him a glass of water. If that scene would not surprise you and draw out some feelings of prejudice, you are ready for the rapture. Most Christians would be shocked just as the disciples were shocked at Jesus. Why? It was because they were prejudice. They were products of their culture, and so they had the typical sexual, racial, and religious prejudices of their day.
Jesus uses prejudice people like His disciples because that was His only choice. They wanted to call fire down from heaven to destroy the Samaritans. They wanted no part of eating with Gentiles, and they were even prejudice against little children, for they wanted mothers to keep their kids away from Jesus. He rebuked them and told them to let the little children come, for of such is the kingdom of God. Jesus had to fight all kinds of prejudice in His disciples, and the fight goes on all through history for Christians are full of all the prejudices that are popular in the culture in which they live.
Jesus came to buck the system and to reject the prejudices in all its forms. He goes against the grain of His culture and dares to love all people equally. It is His dream that His disciples will be people of the same spirit. It took a long time for Jesus to get His disciples free of prejudice. Peter, even long after Pentecost, could not bring himself to eat with Gentiles. It was a deep prejudice in him, and even the Holy Spirit could not cleanse him of it. God had to speak to him in a dream and tell him not to call anything unclean that he had made clean. He finally got Peter to go and eat with the Gentile Centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. It was one of Peter's hardest spiritual battles in letting go of his prejudice against Gentiles.
It is good that his battle is recorded, for we do not want to give the impression that prejudice is easy to eliminate. It is very hard to do so, and often the best Christians can do in the short range is to recognize that they have prejudice, and to keep it under control so it does not do damage. I know Christian leaders who are prejudice against others, but they know it and face it honestly, and they do not let it block their Christ-like response to others. It is there, but it is Christ who is controlling their actions.
Overcoming the power of prejudice may be the hardest battle many Christians will fight. Lavonne and I are grateful for our mostly prejudice free upbringing. We have very seldom felt the power of prejudices in our lives, and we have not found it hard to love people of a wide variety of differences. This has not been the case for many Christians, and the result is they have a perpetual fight with the power of prejudice. Bad circumstances that lead you to suffer because of other people's behavior leads to prejudice.
I read a funny story that illustrates this point. A Jewish painter in Tel Avive was hired to paint a church. The ladder began to slip when he was painting the ceiling, and he fell into the baptismal fount and was knocked out. The priest passed by and tried to revive him, but he could not do it. He made the sign of the cross over him and uttered a few Latin phrases. He was about to leave when Mr. Feldman awoke. He asked, "What happened? Where am I?" The priest said, "You are in a church and I just bestowed a blessing on you. You are now a Christian." Feldman went home feeling very shaky, and he called out to his wife, "Rachel do you want to hear what happened to me today?" She shot back from the kitchen, "No time! I'm late for my tennis game. Supper is on the table." He went to his daughter's door and said, "Marian, do you want to hear what happened to me at work today?" She came bursting out of the door saying, no time! I hear Don honking the horn for us. Bye." He walked down the hall to his 17-year-old sons room, and before he could even ask his son he came out clutching his basketball and said, "Hi dad. The guys are waiting to get started. I'll see you tonight." Feldman sat down on the living room couch and thought to himself, "I'm a Christian only a few hours and already I hate three Jews."
The point is, if you are in some way mistreated by a person who is of another race, class, sex, or religion, you will tend to hold all people in that category accountable for your suffering, and that is prejudice. Let one woman driver do something stupid and almost cause you to have an accident and you will say, "Those awful women drivers," and condemn the whole class because of the mistake of one. Then every time you see a female driver you have the preconceived judgment that she is a menace on the road.
Prejudice is based on magnifying a particular experience into a universal principle. I know a Mexican who will not get out and get a job. Therefore, all Mexicans are lazy. I know an Irishman who drinks too much. Therefore, all Irishmen are drunks. We could go on endlessly describing how people make universals out of particulars. Jesus refused to do this, and instead, he treated all people as individuals without judging them as a part of a class. Other Rabbis would be saying that you do not talk to a woman because they are uneducated and ignorant. Jesus did not assume such a thing, and the result was that He found her to be quite intelligent. Jesus did not assume anything, but He treated her as an individual with as much worth as any other individual.
Jesus did the same thing with Zachaeus. Others were prejudice against this little man, for he was a tax collector. He was pre-judged as being a scoundrel with no potential to be an asset to society. Jesus did not prejudge him, but He loved him and treated him with respect. Because of this He won him as a disciple. Jesus did not right anybody off as having no potential to be a part of His kingdom. Gentiles, women, children, publicans and prostitutes, and even Pharisees were welcome. Jesus never shut the door on any individual, for He was prejudice free. This is the goal for every believer.
Jesus lived in a world filled with all forms of prejudice. The Jews hated Samaritans, and both hated Romans. The Jewish and Gentile conflict was perpetual. All of these conflicts are still a part of that area of the world. Jesus did not change that at all but He produced a kingdom within the world where prejudice is not allowed. In the kingdom of God there is no Jew or Gentile, bound or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ. In the kingdom of God all prejudice is eliminated. When Christians do have prejudice it is because they are conforming to the world, and they are letting the values of their culture control their lives. They are not praying that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The Christian is to be in world but not of it. When they are both in and of it they no longer represent the kingdom of God. There would be no point in the Lord's Prayer being prayed: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," if this was automatic. It is not, and the Christian can refuse to let the kingdom come, and instead let prejudice be a controlling factor in their lives. At this point they are just like the world, and this explains why there is so much conflict in the Christian world. When we operate in Christ, and His spirit dominates us, then we are in conflict with the value system of the world. If other Christians are not in Christ, but are in the world, they will be prejudiced against us.
Take D. L. Moody as an example. He was so full of the love of Christ for all people that he was severely criticized by many Christians. Moody loved the ragged poor kids of Chicago, and this made the rich Christians angry at his folly in focusing on them. Moody loved famous theologians like George Adams Smith and Henry Drummond. They were too liberal for many Christians, and they were angry at Moody for loving them. Moody was friendly with certain Roman Catholics in a day when this was very offensive to many Protestants. When his son Paul Moody wrote about how prejudice free his father was he was savagely attacked by other Christians. Why? Because the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world are in conflict, and if you have the mind of Christ and live free of the scandal of prejudice, you will be in conflict with all people who thrive on prejudice.
I have a hunch that the large majority of Christian conflict with other Christians is a matter of prejudice. When the Christian does not have the mind of Christ, but is thinking like the world, there will be inevitable conflict with Christians who do have the mind of Christ. If you are prejudice free you will not only be bucking the world system, but the Christian population who is influenced more by that system then by the Spirit of Christ. This means that to be really Christ like you have break out of your comfort zone, and, like Paul, rebuke Peter for his prejudice against Gentiles. It is hard to risk the disfavor of other Christians, but it is a duty to point out the scandal of a Christian having prejudice attitudes. Peter responded to the rebuke by overcoming his prejudice, but not all will respond this way.
Jesus cared about this Samaritan woman as much as He cared about any other person. She was of a mongrel race, which was a race of Jews that had intermarried with the hated Assyrians. She was of a corrupt religion, and her personal life was a disaster of broken relationships. If anybody Jesus ever met should have been ignored or rejected, here was the prime candidate. But Jesus gives her more than the time of day. He gives her the water of life, and she became one of the greatest evangelists of the New Testament as she brought many others to Christ. There are dozens of reasons why this was all wrong from the point of view of prejudice, but none of these reasons had any effect on Jesus. He broke down all relational walls so that there was no such thing as a person who was treated with any kind of prejudice.
The greatest enemies of Christ were the Pharisees, and the most violent of them all was Saul of Tarus. And yet Jesus chose this enemy to be His Apostle to the Gentiles. He converted him, filled him with His spirit, and sent him into the world to break down walls, and to be an agent of reconciliation. Saul, the embodiment of prejudice, and a man filled with bitter hatred toward those who were different, became Paul the embodiment of Christ-likeness with a prejudice free spirit. This is the dream of Jesus for all who follow Him. Jesus did not approve of this woman's divorce record, nor did He put any stamp of approval on her living with a man out of wedlock. He did not okay her unorthodox religious views either. Being loving and unprejudiced towards others is not the same thing as acceptance of all others do or believe. Jesus was very narrow in His perspective. He said, "I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me."
Jesus had many deep and absolute convictions. But He was able to accept all persons regardless of how they may differ from Him. He did not say, "You are a woman, and so I'll not waste my time talking to you. You are a Samaritan, and so I'll not make any effort to break down that wall. You are immoral, and so I'll not try to show you a better way." A prejudice free spirit says that anybody and everybody is worth relating to, for they have the freedom to choose the will of God for their life. Being prejudice free does not mean you like or accept everything about another person, but that you accept the person, and do not let what you don't like hinder your treating them with respect.
To do this is a far greater sign that you are filled with the Spirit than speaking in tongues, or healing of diseases. You can do wonders galore, but if you do not have love you are, as Paul says, nothing. Without the prejudice free Spirit of Christ that enables you to love all people you cannot fulfill His dreams for you. Gandhi in his Autobiography tells of how he was beaten and forced by officials to leave his first class place on the train in South Africa, even though he had a first class ticket. The whites refused to let a colored man have equal accommodations with them. He refused to cooperate with their prejudice, and they had to take him off the train by force. He fought this kind of prejudice and inspired many around the world to do so. A lot has changed because of his influence, but the spirit of prejudice is still alive everywhere.
The Christian is to go beyond the law and really care about people of all races. By law the world has to treat people better, but if the Christian does not rise above that level they are still sub-Christian. Christians are to love and not just tolerate, and until they do they are not prejudice free, and until we are prejudice free we are still a part of the scandal that is so contrary to the Spirit of Christ.