“Must I be the scapegoat for the damages to your community, real and perceived, because of my heritage?”
The previous article, ‘Prejudiced?‘, addresses my honest disagreement with the theory that everyone is prejudiced. We do not all pre-judge negatively without evidence. I do concede that we all automatically assesses new situations, people, and substances on the basis of what we already know and how much we are willing to explore beyond known parameters. That’s our natural core learning process.
Wise parents employ this process as they tell a child that the stove is off-limits because it is hot and contact with its heat will hurt. Then, either the child tests the theory for themselves or they trust the parent, generally a mix of both. When the child then approaches a candle or a bonfire, the parent again says something like “ouch! hot!”, and the similarity of the situation is registered, in most cases without a flaming child to show for it.
It is possible, of course, to have too much of a good thing. This is how ideas like prejudice and other forms of judgmental behavior get passed down through cultures, from generation to generation. A parent, wishing the best (or at least the minimum pain) for their child, and knowing the harsh realities of the adult world around them, may warn that being friends with the pick-your-poison child down the street will result in pain. Black, white, hispanic, Jewish, Asian, wealthy, poor, orphaned, offspring of an addict or pervert, crippled, stuttering, Christian, Mormon, Atheist…it really doesn’t matter. Humans insist on sorting and determining their value by outranking other humans. The sweet innocence of childhood that first sees another child as a potential playmate or competitor is twisted into seeing that child as a danger, if not directly, then by the response of the adults around them, starting at home. The Disney film “Ruby Bridges” does a fabulous job of illustrating this point.
(spoiler alert) As the film concludes, some of the children make the brave choice to defy their parents’ restrictions and decide for themselves whether this different person is an acceptable playmate, at least within the boundaries of school. Their courage, in part, comes from observing other adults around them who hold a different viewpoint and are willing to act on it in the face of great ugliness. (end of spoiler)
I was raised to believe that God made Adam & Eve, their babies had babies, and here we are, all the same. Everybody laughs, cries, and, according to a popular children’s book, Everyone Poops. Between my family and some Divine arrangements, I had friends with every color of skin and hair, and most varieties of physical and/or mental limitations. If you approach me like a reasonable person, I will respond to you as though you are a reasonable person, until you signify otherwise. If you approach me as though your hair’s on fire, don’t get upset if I dump a bucket of water on your head.
This is why the assertion that “everybody is prejudiced” strikes me as a gross overstatement ignoring those of us who are not (we do exist). Since there’s a commonly supported notion that white Christians who take Genesis literally and live above the poverty level are completely unaware of life in the real world, I decided to ask some of my real world friends about this alleged blind spot. (Incidentally, the belief that I can’t think rationally or compassionately because I’m not an obvious member of the classically downtrodden groups smacks of it’s own prejudice, doesn’t it?? Logic and elementary mathematics would say ‘yes’.)
Ok, back to the discussions with a variety of people outside of my demographic group… (see? willingness to explore beyond my known parameters) My neighbor answered with a sad smile, “Many people are still stuck in that way of thinking, so it’s hard to trust people until you get to know them.” Fair. The degree to which you’ve been convinced, directly or indirectly, of the danger of interacting with people like me will naturally dictate how much you’re willing to risk to give me a chance. Some of us say “innocent until proven guilty”, others say “guilty until proven innocent”. My neighbor and I are among the first group, willing to give people a chance, and both finding a new friend in the process. We’ve both met people from the second group.
Another answer was striking, and I suddenly found myself carrying on two conversations at the same time. Two men in ministry together, building bridges across the racial divide, were invited to speak in our class. I stayed afterward to discuss this matter with them, specifically with the non-white man. I reminded him that we’d never met, I’d never acted directly to harm him or his community, but if I showed up in his neighborhood, I would immediately be viewed with suspicion – he agreed to these points. I then asked the fateful question, “Must I be the scapegoat for the damages to your community, real and perceived, because of my heritage?” Without a blink or a pause for thought or breath, he looked me in the eye and firmly said “Yes.”
As he was drawing a breath to explain, the other conversation started… “I was the scapegoat for you.” I struggled to take in the rest of what the man had to say, not because his words were difficult, but because I had ringing in my mind and soul the weight of this truth: Jesus, perfectly innocent, willingly accepted the position of scapegoat. He withstood both the wrath of God and the abuse of humanity, in order to give me a chance to be in relationship with Him.
The man standing before me went on to explain a strong community dynamic within certain cultures, including African, African American and Hispanic. They grow up under a teaching that the sins of one stain them all. The core mindset of these cultures declares that if one steals, all are guilty of theft and share, at least psychologically, in the need to provide restitution. When they see others, said he, they don’t first see an independent individual, they see a representative of the whole community, equally deserving of whatever affection or wrath that community has earned. This actually provides some insight to the longstanding and violent issues between groups in the Middle East, and by global extension, the vicious enmity they hold toward the Western world. We won’t be able to resolve the matter militarily or diplomatically, it goes too deep.
I politely listened to all the man had to say, but I had already received a clear answer. Jesus’ gentle whisper spoke volumes and left no room for rebuttal. His command is that we follow Him, carry our own crosses, be His representatives to others, and extend His invitation to those around us. Sometimes this means we are in the position of scapegoat. He was ours.
It may interest future readers to know that this is published on Good Friday,
the day we consider Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.