[Today’s guest post is from Marlena Graves. We didn’t plan it this way, but her post is a great follow-up to my series last week on judging, judges, law and legalism. (Here are Parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.) Follow the links below to explore more of her great writing after you’ve got a taste of it here.]
We often hear the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The point of course, is to move beyond the superficial trappings of a book to its content and to move from the superficial trappings of a person to his or her character. The point is, that a book with a not so great cover may be a treasure. And conversely, a book with an eye-catching cover may prove empty, not delivering what we expected. The cover, the exterior of a book, does convey something doesn’t it? Publishers use book covers to make a good first impression and to lure readers into purchasing the book. A cover is part of the marketing strategy. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but publishers and marketers know we do. And we often judge people that way, too.
Even though I’d like to think that I am generous and mostly unprejudiced, that I’m immune from judging people based on superficialities, I know I do. After my family, and what amounts to be a small church full of people, were maliciously harmed by Christian leaders of a certain theological and denominational bent (despite an uproarious public outcry calling these leaders to account and condemning their actions), I find myself recoiling when this particular denominational group is mentioned. I have visceral reactions. I associate much that is wrong with the church with them and people like them.
I am prejudiced.
I am judging a person by denominational trappings.
When those prejudicial feelings start to erupt, I try to get a hold of myself. Try to tell myself that I know many lovely, Jesus-like people in this denomination. Prejudice, judging people by superficialities, is not the Jesus way. I must rid myself of it. It is malicious. It was what was done to me. So what if I don’t agree down the line with everything people in this denomination stand for? Who agrees with anyone down the line? I hate being pigeonholed. It’s hard to climb out of the pigeonholes in which people trap us. Am I going to turn around and do the same thing?
Our prejudices put us in danger of not loving others as Jesus has called us to love. They have the power to break fellowship among believers. How many times do we excommunicate people from our lives because of our prejudices? Too often. And sometimes we aren’t aware of it.
I am always amazed that Jesus had fishermen, zealots, and tax collectors among his twelve disciples—not to mention female disciples like Mary of Bethany (though not among the twelve). The educated and uneducated, those from rural areas and those from bigger towns, and those with dissenting political opinions, all traveled in a close-knit pack. There were arguments and competition among them, questions about who was the greatest. But slowly, ever slowly, Jesus’s presence began to form them into more loving people, people who cast off their prejudices. They couldn’t help but observe how Jesus interacted with and loved people who were the target of their prejudices: the poor, women, Samaritans and other gentiles, and even Roman officials. Which reminds me, a great way to begin ridding ourselves of our prejudices is to interact with those we are prejudiced against. It’s hard to demonize people we know.
Like a book cover, our denominations and church associations do say something about us, but they don’t tell the whole story. All of us have to move beyond seeing superficial Christian trappings to trying to see the contents of a person’s soul. We may discover that we have more in common than we previously thought. And even if we don’t have a lot in common, Jesus is the tie that binds us together; he commands us to love one another so that people will know we are his disciples. I am convinced unprejudiced love is the only way they will know us as disciples; those who do not know God are attracted to our genuine love for God and for one another. Love always enfolds others into itself.
May we labor to rid ourselves of prejudices in Jesus’s name as we depend on the Holy Spirit.
[Marlena Graves (M.Div. Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY) is a by-lined writer for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics Blog and Gifted For Leadership Blog. She is grateful to have been a member of the Renovare Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. Her book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Brazos Press), will be out in June of 2014. She blogs at: marlenagraves.com.]