Prejudice, or pre-judging others on irresponsible bases, robs them and robs us. God hates it, but how can we minimize its impact?
By Mark D. Harris
On 31 October 2017 the world will remember one of the unlikeliest and yet most important events in human history, Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Following the custom of the day, the young priest had written them in Latin to avoid bringing unnecessary controversy to the Church and he posted them in a public place to invite clerical discussion. Luther never expected that his theses would be translated into German within days, printed on recently invented printing presses, and spread throughout Western Europe within weeks. The Protestant Reformation had begun.
Luther has been lionized by Protestants and vilified by Catholics for centuries, but recently another part of his legacy has faced scrutiny. His 1543 On the Jews and their Lies is scathing, bigoted, and manifestly untrue. Last night my family and I attended a play produced by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts entitled Martin Luther on Trial which examined the legacy of Luther. It was well worth watching.
Peter’s Example in Acts 10
Acts 10 describes how God addressed prejudice in the heart of Simon Peter. Peter had been a faithful Jew, dutifully observing the Law of Moses as he, a fisherman and not a religious leader, had been taught it. He had been a disciple of Jesus Christ and had recognized Jesus’ role as the promised Messiah, the One who would save Israel, and all mankind, from their sins. Peter boldly proclaimed the story of Jesus, the Gospel, and opposed the religious leaders who tried to destroy the movement. God worked mighty miracles through him, and Peter was the most respected man in the early Church.
While at Simon’s house in Joppa on the Mediterranean coast of the Levant, Peter saw a vision in which God told him to eat foods that were unclean according to the Jewish law. God seemed, therefore to be telling this observant Jewish man to violate the will of God as he had been taught from childhood. Peter refused, and the Lord repeated the vision twice more. While puzzling about the meaning of this strange event, messengers from the Roman (Gentile) centurion Cornelius appeared at the door, asking Peter to come to his house and preach the gospel. To accompany them would be to risk breaking the law, as Cornelius’ food, surroundings, and family may have been unclean according to the Book of Leviticus. Nonetheless, Peter obeyed. In so doing, he saw the unmistakable work of God among non-Jewish people and his own bigotry melted away.
Prejudice has been an issue for all men throughout all of history, and it remains a problem in our day. This article will examine the Acts 10 story in order to help readers learn how to address prejudice in their own lives.
Recognize and understand the intellectual basis for your prejudice
We must begin by defining our terms. This article will refer to prejudice as “pre-judging” people, especially on the basis of characteristics that they cannot control such as race, age, or sex. Prejudice is usually negative, such as “black people are criminals”, but can be positive, such as “Asian people are smart.” Either way, prejudice violates the perfect will of God.
Peter’s intellectual basis for avoiding Gentiles was his understanding of the Law of Moses. The Torah gives strict “purity” instructions on food, personal hygiene, disease control, and a host of other matters intended to set the Hebrews culturally apart from the surrounding nations and to keep them healthy. It also forbids intermarriage, not on a racial basis but on a religious one. Marriage of a Hebrew to a non-Hebrew would invariably violate the purity laws, reduce the cultural difference between God’s people and those around, and compromise their faith.
The Hebrews had been badly scarred by the Babylonian captivity and wanted to avoid such a catastrophe again. By the first century, Jewish religious leaders did all they could to promote the official interpretation of the Law. Peter’s prejudice seemed to have a sound intellectual and even theological basis.
In reality, however, it did not. God’s intention was for Israel to demonstrate His glory to the nations. Following the ancient Mosaic Law was actually a healthier, happier, and more disciplined way to live. Hygiene laws minimized injury and disease, criminal laws provided a stabler society, and the subsequent prosperity of the Hebrews would be noticed by the world. Other nations would see the Hebrew example, emulate it, and give glory to God.
The Lord showed his compassion repeatedly to Gentiles in the Old Testament, including Ruth (Ruth), Namaan (2 Kings 5), and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). God does not exclude but includes; He created a diverse world. Our Creator intended the beauty and truth of the Bible to glorify Himself and bless man, but many ancient Hebrews used it to “prove their superiority” and justify their prejudices.
The only dividing line that they Lord makes is a moral one. The Bible assumes that man is a moral agent. Though he has a sinful bent, he is capable of choosing good or evil and is responsible for the consequences of his choice. God discriminates between people who do good and people who do evil, prospering the former and opposing the latter. The Creator expects His creatures to live for Him, rejoicing in the gifts that He has provided, doing the things that He created them to do and living the life He created them to live. The Bible is a reliable guide to truth, and He will honor those who obey it.
The prejudices of modern people also have an intellectual basis, although never a very good one. Antebellum bigots misrepresented the Bible to prove the inferiority of blacks, while Hitler used “science” to demonstrate the unworthiness of Jews. The first step in purging prejudice from our own hearts is to identify and dispel our “intellectual” reasons for that prejudice.
Recognize and understand the personal basis for your prejudice
This gets more to the heart of the matter, since man is more an emotional creature than a rational one. We use mental fig leaves to hide our irrational reasons both for believing and acting as we do. Jewish leaders crucified Christ and persecuted believers, and Christian anti-Semites have justified their thoughts, words and actions on this basis for centuries. Luther did as well, but there were other, deeper reasons for his anger.
Early in Martin Luther’s career he advocated for German Jews against anti-Semites in the culture. He knew Paul’s prediction that the Jews would eventually accept Christ (Romans 11) and thought that his was the right time. Luther met with Rabbi Josel, the great advocate for German and Polish Jews, and tried to convince him that Jesus Christ was the Jewish Messiah. His arguments failed with the Rabbi, and failed with other Jews as well. Luther’s passion for salvation by grace through faith gradually became frustration, and he grew estranged from the Jews. This frustration, physical pain from kidney stones and other ailments, regret over his own sin, the physical declines of age, and a host of other factors contributed to his later hatred for the Jews. None of these justify the venom that spewed from Luther’s pen and the tragedies that directly and indirectly followed it, but they make his actions more understandable. Like all men, Luther was motivated by feelings, but rationalized his actions.
We do the same. No matter whom we choose to pre-judge or why, our primary reasons are not intellectual but emotional. A friend was beaten up by an Hispanic gang as a grade schooler, and he has struggled with trusting Hispanics since. The media incites friction between groups, and appears happier the more heated the friction becomes. Conflict, after all, attracts eyeballs. Children blame their parents for their prejudices and spouses blame each other. Members of ethnic groups attribute their troubles to oppression by another ethnic group, even when the individual member has suffered no personal harm. In the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims justified themselves by dredging up 500 year old injustices.
The second step in purging prejudice is to identify and understand the personal reasons for our prejudice.
Bring your prejudices to God through prayer, Bible study, and interactions with others
At any given time, man can change his attitude about his circumstances. However, he cannot do so in a lasting way without the help of God. Ultimately, the Lord changes the heart. God uses prayer, the Bible, experiences in the physical world, and other people to transform us into the likeness of Christ.
Consider the example in Acts 10. Peter began teaching Jews about Christ, along with whatever Gentiles happened to be in attendance (Acts 2). Throughout the early days, Peter and the other apostles dedicated themselves to the study of Scripture and to prayer (Acts 1:14, 6:4). The Holy Spirit used the Word and the daily intimate time with God to imperceptibly change their hearts. Jesus’ example, showing compassion to the Samaritans (John 4) and the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-29), resonated with His followers.
Within several months, Peter shared the power of Jesus with the half-breed Samaritans and witnessed the mighty power of God in them (Acts 8). Since the Samaritans were detestable in the eyes of observant Jews at the time, this was a major step for Peter. The Lord let Peter experience Him through a major miracle, the raising of Tabitha, which was sure to build his faith.
God used Peter’s hunger and an unmistakable climactic vision to finally purge prejudice in Peter’s heart. The vision challenged the apostle’s understanding of God and man, and was followed immediately by a challenge – would Peter go with the Gentiles waiting downstairs at the door or not?
The Lord does the same thing with us. If you look at any major change in attitude in anyone’s live, good or bad, you will find that God uses events, people, and information (such as in the Bible) to make it happen. The third step in purging prejudice is to bring your prejudices to God through prayer, Bible study, and interactions with others.
Do what God tells you to do
God does nothing in our lives without obedience. Had Peter refused to go to Cornelius’ house, he would not have seen him accept Jesus. Peter would have missed the coming of the Spirit to the Gentiles and denied himself a profounder understanding of the grace of God. Paul would still have brought the gospel to the Gentiles, but without Peter’s authority supporting Paul’s work and the Gentile believers, relations would have been much more acrimonious.
Just as Jesus could not heal those who rejected Him (Mark 6:4-6), the Lord cannot change us if we do not obey. Revelation is always accompanied by a call to action. It will not remain without obedience. God will take away our prejudices, just as He removes other sins, if we trust and obey.
Jesus said “if you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Therefore, the fourth step in purging prejudice is to do what God tells you to do.
Keep doing these things
Later in life, Peter lapsed back into his prejudiced ways (Galatians 2:11-14). He is no different than the rest of us, for we all lapse into previous sins from time to time. Our wicked nature can be suppressed more and more throughout our lives, but can easily fall back into sin (1 Corinthians 9:27). Perhaps Joshua said it best:
“This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success (Joshua 1:8).”
Prejudice is a terrible presence in human life. It divides people and harms them, and it keeps us from grasping the abundant life that the Lord so longs to provide. To overcome prejudice in our own lives, or rather to have the Lord free us from it, we must recognize and understand the intellectual and personal bases for our prejudices. We must then bring our prejudices to God through prayer, Bible study, and interactions with others. Finally, we must do and keep doing what God commands.