When enough people care enough about prejudice, when concern reaches critical mass, action is taken. This usually means that legislation is passed or new policies enacted. The display of hatred associated with a particular prejudice – for example, race discrimination in housing – is outlawed.
Such legislation is necessary and improves conditions for many people but it does not dispel prejudice. It may remove it from sight but, until the fear and hatred which motivate it are eradicated, it will not eliminate it. Prejudice will simply mutate.
This is not to say that legislation is useless or policy changes are a waste of time. Legislation is to prejudice what quarantine orders are to Covid-19: a means of limiting its destructive impact. Limiting its impact is a worthy goal, one to which people can nobly give their lives and energies, but we must be realistic. Passing legislation, revising policies, and changing structures will not get to the root of the problem.
What is needed is a radical solution to a problem that is buried deep in the human person. Prejudice is not native to America, though it has manifested itself throughout American history. It is a human problem. One of my closest friends, a dark-skinned Bengali, born in Kolkata in the 1950s, grew up on the subcontinent where lighter skinned people received better treatment than their darker skinned neighbors.
A radical solution requires, I believe, a transformative spiritual encounter. We cannot go on as we are – with the ideas we have subconsciously imbibed since infancy channeling our thoughts – and still eliminate prejudice, even if we truly desire to do so. Laws and policies need to change but so do we.
Our ideas need to change at a profound and unseen level. This is known, in religious circles, as “repentance.” (The compound Greek word so translated in the Bible is comprised of a prefix suggesting “change” and a root meaning “mind.”) When ideas change, individuals change (this is known as “conversion”), and when enough individuals change, society does too.
Legislation and policy changes are not radical enough. Prejudice will “outsmart” such things by mutating. Only a profound personal transformation can eliminate prejudice by uprooting the fear and hatred growing in the depths.
This has happened in history. In a time when prejudice was rampant, ideologically supported, and structurally engrained, a group of transformed people were, in large part, freed from it. They were such a contrast to the society around them that everyone took notice.
The people who comprised this radical group came from different ethnic and national backgrounds. They didn’t dress alike, eat the same foods, keep the same schedules, or belong to the same organizations. Their lives had been as separate and unequal as possible. They were Jews and Gentiles, yet they were melded together in the nascent Church of Jesus Christ.
One of their chief spokesmen, the Apostle Paul, wrote that in the Church “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.” In one rhetorical swoop, he gathered the principal prejudices of the day and unmade them. This was only possible, he was careful to articulate, because Greeks and Jews and barbarians and Scythians had undergone radical, spiritual change.
In our own country, with our own structurally ensconced prejudices, this same kind of thing once happened. On an April evening in Los Angeles in 1906, a group of praying men were transformed in a spiritual encounter. One of them, a black man, the son of emancipated slaves, became the public face of what has come to be known as the Azusa Street Revival.
During one of the worst decades of racial violence in American history – a thousand black men lynched, hundreds of thousands of white people in the KKK – Latinos, whites, Asians, and blacks were meeting together, praying together, and embracing one another as brothers and sisters. They did this not because it was legislated but because they were changed.
We who desire societal transformation should make our views known to our legislators. More importantly, we should plead with God to transform us into the kind of people who experience Jesus’s love and concern for others and reflect it to the world around us.
First published by Gatehouse Media