It seems as if the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have most people taking sides – either justifying Officer Darren Wilson’s actions or condemning the shooting death of Michael Brown, the young man who Officer Wilson fatefully encountered on a Ferguson street August 9th, 2014. The emotions around this case are racially charged and seemed to be dictated by the color of one’s skin. African Americans decry the bias they believe is inherent in the treatment of African American youths by law enforcement. Caucasian Americans wonder why African Americans can’t see the reason for the their bias in the face of the violence and rioting that occurred after the Grand Jury’s declination to file criminal charges against Officer Wilson.
Whether one view is absolutely right or wrong is as irrelevant as it is a fantasy – as in any conflict, both perceptions of the issue have some truths and some falsehoods. The false perceptions of motives and inclinations of blacks and whites toward each other in this country spring from the sinful practice of prejudicial thinking. Prejudice – the preconception of a person or group of persons based on ethnicity, religion, or any other characteristic – devalues the integrity of the person as an individual, unique in his or her own right. In its worst form, prejudice can be the catalyst for violence.
Jesus Christ warned against assuming the motives of others’ actions in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:46-47 recounts Jesus’ clear teaching concerning how we are to treat others that we may be fearful of due to prejudices:
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
His approach is one of forgiveness and turning our focus on our own actions, looking ourselves in the mirror and assessing whether we are acting as He would want.
There are lessons in the racial divide caused by such stereotyping of African American youths that can be applied to interfaith relations. Marc Gopin, professor of religious studies at George Mason University, talks about the concept of “Othering” in his book Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East. “Othering”, according to Gopin, is defined as viewing another individual or group through the lens of biases that we have developed over years, biases that tend to grossly exaggerate a negative preconception in a sub-conscious effort to counterbalance fear.
When we engage in “Othering”, we dehumanize the individual or group we are targeting. In our eyes, the “Other” loses his or her human and, most importantly, unique qualities in the fog of stereotyping. Suddenly, their motives become suspect and nefarious, their raison d’ etat somehow disconcerting and scary. I personally find it difficult to engage in “Othering” when I know members of the group in question. Knowing them on a personal scale breaks down the stereotype and applies a human face.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners has written a beautiful piece on the importance of proactive reconciliation to the Christian walk. He writes, “It’s time to listen — for us white Americans to listen to black Americans; for white parents to listen to black parents; for white Christians to listen to black Christians. This may be the most important thing we have ever had to do: to listen, really listen.” As Christians, we are commanded by our faith to be peacemakers and reconciliation facilitators rather than dividers, just as Jesus reconciled us to our heavenly Father through His death and resurrection.
The incident in Ferguson, Missouri should give us pause to consider whether prejudices influence how we view the religious “Other”. In the highly-charged American political climate, simple misunderstandings of other religious traditions are exploited to fuel fear and further political agendas and, in doing so, legitimize these misunderstandings as truth . All people of faith must be on guard to avoid allowing fear and unfamiliarity of other religious traditions and, in some cases, years of learned and unchallenged bias, influence behavior toward others.
If we take the time to listen to one another on faith issues as well, rather than jumping to conclusions and automatically casting the “Other” is a demonizing light, we are in obedience to God’s commands and we may learn a few things along the way.