catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 20 :: 2008.11.07 — 2008.11.21


Shades of beige and brown and tan

Snapshot #1: I was four or five, living in a small Dutch-American town on the hinge between the 70s and 80s. My dad was the pastor of one of the more traditionally-worshiping congregations of our small Calvinist denomination, whereas some of the others would occasionally sing a “praise song” instead of a hymn.

My conception of the world around me, at that tender age: I had this uneasy feeling there was something suspicious about those praise song churches. Out there, somewhere, even more suspect, were people who went to our “rival” Calvinist denomination. Beyond them, out in the outer reaches of what my mind could conceive, were those who didn’t go to church at all.

My parents didn’t hold these attitudes, so I’m not sure where I got them from. At any rate, there they were, nicely mapped inside my head.


Snapshot #2: The scene-Nairobi, a city of three million in Kenya. There (so I’m told by my boyfriend, who happens to be from there) the map is somewhat different. The inner circle might contain the larger and smaller tribal groups you’re from, for one. Beyond the tribes, it’s the Somalis in the country next door who are rumored to cheat you every time, and the Nigerians across the continent who aren’t much liked.

Beyond these factors, there’s also the accented use of English or touristy Swahili (including the greeting “Jambo,” which only tourists use) that identify tourists. And within the realm of tourists, there’s also distinction.  I might be given extra points for being American instead of British, since it was only in the 1960s that Kenya separated from England in a bloody revolution, whereas America is seen to be the land of opportunity.

Let me point out a few things about these snapshots.

  1. Prejudice and stereotyping are certainly factors in the above pictures, but they’re largely divorced from skin color.  When everyone is predominantly the same color, ethnic identity-that amorphous voluntary checkbox on so many American forms-only plays a small role.
  2. Notice how micro-culturally-specific these categorizations are. Unless you knew the culture of those fourth-generation Dutch-American small towns and the people who populate them, for instance, you would probably have no clue that you were being judged by some of the people in the town-or if you knew, you probably wouldn’t know why without learning a lot about the culture and history of that denomination, or hanging around the people extensively.
  3. The prejudice in each case, if it can always be given that name, springs out of a certain set of personalities, preferences, experiences. At least some of the above categorizing springs from fear of others who are different, and from hearsay about what those people are like en masse as particular groups. Some of the stereotypes are probably warranted in certain situations, some not so much.

French philosopher Alain Badiou lays out a process by which accounted-for stereotypes can be broken through and new groundbreaking categories can emerge. Although he’s not a Christian, Badiou cites Paul’s fidelity to the Christian event as one of his favorite examples of this radical breaking down of categorical walls. In fact, one passage he quotes frequently to illustrate the kind of breaking-through-the-barriers he’s talking about is a familiar one to us Christians: the one in which Paul lists out all the radical categories that can fit under the heading of Christ-followers-“neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).

This fact, that Christ’s category breaks through all human categories, no matter the culture-that in the kingdom of God we are neither American or Kenyan, praise-bandy or traditionally worshiping church-preferrer, neither tourist nor native, British nor American-ought to encourage us to take action.

Ironically, looking at our personal and cultural categorizations that don’t fit the broader societal mold and comparing them with the nuances of individuals we know might be the first step towards understanding this way the kingdom of God transcends prejudice. If we can find stereotypes and prejudices within us, no matter the type, and people who don’t fit those categories, or ways in which we can see those people as being more than the categories we can usually think of, in my mind we’re on the way to breaking new ground.

So here are the steps I’m developing to try to figure out what I should do with this:

  1. I’m identifying obvious prejudices, and looking for ways the people I know don’t fit those categories. Looking at as many facets as possible and being precise about details will help me with this task (for instance, our skin tones are not, after all, black and white, but beige and brown and tan).
  2. I’m asking God to look inside me and find the blind spots in that little rear-view mirror I carry around with me about my own and other cultures. “Do I have a blind spot about which church pew someone sits in?” I ask. “What about those big ones we all think of: race, skin color, nationality? Furthermore, do I have a prejudice toward anything You’ve gifted me with or asked me to do? Anything I should do about these blind spots You’ll show me beyond the call to repentance?”
  3. When I meet someone new, I’m trying to actively look at the categories I put them into and try to see the ways they do and don’t fit into them. I’m looking at the many facets people have, and delight in seeing the unique ways in which these facets converge differently within each person.
  4. Beneath all of that uniqueness, I’m looking for those evidence that helps me know and believe that we’re all created by God and we’re all fallen, so that there are a couple of big clubs we’re part of together. It’s only a step from there to seeing us all as part of the loved-by-God category.

With His help, I’ll make it there each time, allowing myself to be guided from every new blind-spot discovery to a moment of grace.

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