I mixed up my hate crimes recently, confusing the fate of the killer in the gay night club in Orlando slaughter with that of the assassin of the British MP Jo Cox. It was in a sermon, which made my slip a bit public.
What a dismal way to start a message! Not with an anecdote about a cat or dogs, or observations on the arrival of the rain to refresh our dry gardens, but with examples of the worst sort of inhumanity, in places much like our own city, filled with people much like us.
These killings were horrific actions, and, what is more, they are not the only examples we could cite of such things going on these days. Why do people behave in this way?
I wonder, does it come about in part because of the way a person thinks about difference. We all know that people are different. The trouble may start when difference is equated with value, when someone embarks on a chain of thought like this: “that other person who is different from me is not quite as good as me,” then “not as valuable as me,” then “not as human as me.” From there, it is possible to slide into deciding that the other person can be exploited, or that their suffering does not matter, or that they are inherently evil and so should be killed. That last one most often gets the headlines, but there are plenty of examples of the others, that is, of exploitation or the unfeeling infliction of suffering.
Is there an antidote to such thinking? As with most complaints, it’s best to stop it at the start. “That person is different AND that person is loved by God.” We as Christians are fortunate in that we acknowledge God cares for creation and we have the example of Jesus as someone who life displayed care and love for others. We can say “That person is different and loved by God, so I should love and care for that person too.” (We may need to remind ourselves of that several times.) That does not mean that we tolerate uncaring behaviour, but that our response is limited to what is most effective and most positive for all parties. For serious cases, a fair and balanced justice system is a good step in this direction. Vengeance is not.
Unfortunately, humans also have a tendency towards seeking vengeance, through uncontrolled violence. Was the killer the son of an Afghan refugee? Then there is a tendency to regard all refugees, or all Afghanis as dangerous. Humans generalise; humans stereotype.
Generalisation has its place – our ancestors would have had a tough time if they had not been able to make a simple connection, “that plant with red berries made me very sick, so I won’t eat from plants that look the same again.” We still use that ability, “that bus was late last week, so I will catch the earlier one just in case.” Even Jesus generalised! “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13, Luke 11:42). Yet he was still prepared to talk with them, or eat with them, and even praised a scribe as being not far from the kingdom of God (Mark 12:34).
Again, the key step to heading off destructive stereotyping is to remind ourselves that the other person is beloved by God.
Over the last few weeks we have been reading passages from the letter of St Paul to the Galatian Christians. Paul emphasizes that the relationship with God is based on the faith that God cares for us and accepts us, as displayed by Jesus, and not anything else, and certainly not any humanly constructed patterns of behaviour, regardless of how helpful these may be in living in community. We are beloved by God. We (can) love because God first loved us. So stereotype to your heart’s content, but remember to love those you are speaking about and work for their good.
We can turn this around. How do you respond if you find yourself on the receiving end of a stereotype, if you find yourself categorised and somehow judged less than properly human, for whatever reason – because you are short or tall or skinny or old or unemployed or a refugee or gay, or …
Remind yourself, you are beloved by God. You are a precious child of God.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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