Overcoming Stereotyping and Prejudice

“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them.” Luke 10:33 NLT

You can certainly pick up the prejudicial tension in Jesus’ telling of this well known story we have come to refer to as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Prejudice, a preconceived, irrational and judgmental attitude or action toward an individual or group was obviously as serious problem in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. 

Jews and Samaritans did not get along because they were ethnically, culturally and religiously different from one another.  Their prejudices, just like ours, were rooted in stereotypes that had been inherited or learned and sadly gave them a distorted perception of reality.   It is likely, if the Jewish guy who was beaten, robbed and left laying half dead alongside the road had been conscious, he would not have wanted to have anything to do with the Samaritan who stopped to help him.  

So what could possibly have motivated the Samaritan to set aside his own prejudice in order to get involved in such a messy and potentially racially charged situation?  Why did he choose to cross the road while two religious Jews refused and “passed by on the other side”?

Jesus told this parable in order to redefine the meaning of the words love and neighbor, as used in the context of the second great commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  We learn that love is proactive and a neighbor is anyone with whom we come in contact – even those who are not like us, against whom we may hold prejudicial attitudes and may in fact be our enemies.

In the verse quoted above from this parable Jesus explains why the Samaritan was able to set aside his negative preconceptions and turn aside from his journey to cross the road.  In so doing Jesus reveals two universal truths that can be helpful for anyone who wants to overcome their own prejudices.  These keys can be summed up in two words – identification and association. 

1. Identification –  All three men who came upon the roadside victim “saw” him.   But the way the Samaritan “saw” him differed dramatically from how the first two men who passed by saw him.  When the Samaritan “saw the man” he saw himself.  He was moved to compassion because he began to identify with man.  “If that were me beaten and left beside the road to die, what would I want somebody to do?”  Or “If that were my son laying there bleeding, what would I do?”  “What would I hope someone would do?” 

Identification engenders empathy, and empathy typically begets compassion.  Thus when the Samaritan “saw the man, he felt compassion for him.”  The mark of godly compassion in contrast to pity is that it moves people to do something about what they feel, which brings us to the second key to overcoming prejudice.

2. Association – The compassion the Samaritan felt for the man caused him to take action.  He crossed the road to the man and began immediately to tend to his needs.  To associate with someone means to be in proximity to, to relate to, keep company with and to share.  Hanging out with people who are different from us, especially those whom we might be tempted to be prejudicial against, is a game changer.  It provides us opportunities to move beyond our simplistic preconceptions and stereotypes of people and get to know them for who they really are, in all their human complexity.  In so doing we also discover and come to appreciate the commonality of our frailties, adversities, passions and aspirations.

Identification and association work hand in hand in enabling us to overcome prejudice.  The more we can identify with people the more natural it will be for us to associate with them.  And the reciprocal benefit of association is that the more we have relationships with people different than ourselves the more we will be able to identify. 

Prejudice is not limited to the arenas of race and religion.  It touches every aspect of our lives from gender, age and weight to political persuasion and sexual orientation.  James tells us “if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin.” (James 2:9)  That is a sobering indictment with regard to prejudice.  The only antidote for such an attitude is love.  Jesus clearly spells this out in the parable.  And James says the exact same thing in the context of his discourse on prejudice in his epistle. (James 2:1-13)  The “royal law” of love is the only answer. (vs. 8)

Only when we are lifted by Jesus, to a level of love where we can soothe and bandage our enemy’s wounds will be finally know that prejudice in our lives has been defeated.

What have you learned about overcoming prejudice?  For a message I have given on this topic click this link:  “Overcoming Stereotypes, Archetypes & Not-my-types.”

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