Cliches, Stereotypes, and Cross-Cultural Relationships

Tonight’s Islam class was all about learning to walk in the shoes of the Other, but peppered with disparaging remarks about western Christianity’s ritual practices. In his fervor to teach us to be sensitive to Islamic ritual practices, the speaker trashed the ritual religious traditions of his audience. It reminds me of a saying from the anti-war, anti-capital punishment era, “How do you teach people not to kill people by killing them?”

We all do it. If we look closely enough into the closet of our own understandings, we find racks and racks of racial, economic, religious, ethnic, gender, and nationalistic prejudices, and another closet full of meaningless cliches and stereotypes that we drag out in defense, every time someone challenges one of those prejudices.

After the Katrina and Rita disasters, I was sitting with some people, listening to them talk about “those people” in the sports stadium, describing the survivors, figuratively, as a group of shiftless, lazy, morally-challenged parasites. When I challenged that viewpoint as meanspirited and even sinful, the host said, “no, we’re just speaking the truth.” Then we dropped the issue, to avoid an all-out debate.

It’s hard loving each other through all our weaknesses and foolishnesses. We all have them. And it’s also hard to love people who are different from us without trying to make them walk, talk, think, and look like us. So we think we have to choose–between becoming like them, or making them like us… And the more different from us we think they are, the more likely we are to condemn their behavior. Perceived difference is a tough challenge to overcome on the road to compassion.

The God who loves us all endures all our sillinesses day after day, year after year, century after century, knowing we *are* better than that. Jesus calls us to be better than that now!

Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.
Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:30-32)

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