Mark 3:31-35; John 4:27-30, 39-42
Rev. Tom Herbek
January 15, 2017
In their recent book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald recount a tale from Dr. Seuss, “The Sneetches”:
The Sneetches are yellow duck like birds who come in two varieties – those who have a green star on their bellies and those who don’t.
The Star-Bellies consider themselves naturally superior and refuse to have anything to do with the starless, never inviting them to their picnics or parties; the Plain-Bellies seem to have internalized their inferior status and mope around, envying the Star-Bellies cavorting on the beach. As in most societies, the class system in the land of the Sneetches is stable until the arrival one day of an entrepreneur named Sylvester McMonkey McBean, who makes their peaceful hierarchy go, well, belly up.
McBean invites the Plain-Bellies to avail themselves of his ingenious invention, a Star-On machine, which adorns them with the much-coveted star – for a small fee, of course. When the Plain Bellies pop out of his machine they are plain no more, and soon the number of newly starred Sneetches grows exponentially, infuriating the original Star-Bellies, who can no longer tell in-group from out-group. What to do about the dilution of their stock? Well, McBean has just the solution: His still newer invention, Star-Off, can remove the now-cheapened symbol to distinguish the Mayflower Star-Belies, as we may think of them, from the new stars – for a slightly larger fee, of course. In the ensuing madness of class warfare, stars are repeatedly stamped in and out, driving all the Sneetches, star and plain, to financial ruin:
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one . . . or that one was this one
Or which one was what one . . . or what one was who.
In the Dr. Seuss story, McBean exits laughing and rich, convinced that the Sneetches will never learn. But he is wrong, for by the end of the book they do come to understand that, with or without stars, “Sneetches are Sneetches.”
Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to help people to see that “people are people,” and that the boundaries we set up between people are meaningless. Imagine their reaction to him talking with the Samaritan woman.
You can almost hear the disciples telling their families later that night: “And then we came back and we found him, and guess what he was doing? No you’ll never guess. It’s unbelievable what he was doing. It’s no wonder that we hear the questions about him that we do. It’s embarrassing for all of us.
“He was talking – with a woman! Can you believe it? A woman. And not just any woman: a Samaritan woman! And then he went and stayed with a bunch of Samaritans – in their home, of all places. We were all speechless. What could we say? He’s incorrigible. He has no sense of what is right and wrong, no sense of what is proper, no sense of how you’re supposed to act.”
We all know that there are certain boundaries that you just don’t cross. We have been carefully taught- by our parents, our family, our friends, our neighbors, our teachers, our role models, our culture, our religion, our entertainers, our sports, our games, People Magazine. We have all been taught to be prejudiced. We cannot grow up without it happening. It is a part of life. William Arthur once described it in this way: “Prejudice is a disease characterized by hardening of the categories.”
But we sometimes believe that we have gotten past such prejudice, and certainly we all have, each in our own way. But we must be somewhat humble about our progress. The writer, William James, once said: “Many people believe they are learning when, instead, all they are doing is rearranging their prejudices.”
How can we realistically accept our own limitations, and yet continue to be challenged to follow this notorious boundary-crosser, Jesus of Nazareth? We have all made significant strides in crossing many of the boundaries that were present in our society in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The boundaries of race that Martin Luther King rallied us against are no longer legally defensible, and our society has moved a long way. But there is still work to do.
The boundaries of gender and sexism and sexual orientation that have been present for centuries are no longer accepted in many places, and our society has moved a long way, but there is still much work to be done.
We are in a time where we still must work to remain open to the possibilities that, when we follow the notorious boundary-crosser, we will have to move into situations and accept people which may make us uncomfortable.
Let’s face it. The boundaries of intolerance did not end with Jesus’ full acceptance of women, his acceptance of racial and religious differences, his acceptance of cultural and income differences. Much has changed since Jesus’ day. And much is still the same. There are in-groups and out-groups still. They may differ depending on who you are and where you live.
And we all have within us still some hidden biases that may surprise us. Banaji and Greenwald tell an interesting story about the allocation of resources in society in ways that reveal this hidden bias:
Carla Kaplan was an assistant professor of American literature at Yale in the late 1980s, a serious young scholar in her late twenties who looked even younger than her actual age. Carla was also a dedicated quilter. While working with patches of cloth, she could be transported to faraway places of pattern and color, oblivious to all but the world she was creating.
One evening, while she was washing a crystal bowl in her kitchen, it accidentally slipped from her hands. As she tried to catch the bowl, it hit the sink and broke, and the jagged edge slit her hand from mid-palm to wrist. Blood splashed all over the floor, and her boyfriend hastily improvised a bandage before rushing her out the door to drive her to the emergency room of the university affiliated Yale-New Haven Hospital.
At the ER, Carla’s boyfriend made it clear to the resident physician on duty that Carla’s quilting was very important to her and that he feared the injury might impair the fine motor control she needed for this activity she loved so much. The doctor seemed to understand this concern and expressed confidence that all would be well if they could just “stitch it up quickly.”
As the doctor prepared Carla’s hand for the stitches, a student volunteer who had been working nearby recognized Carla and exclaimed, “Professor Kaplan! What are you doing here?” and this sentence seemed to stop the doctor in his tracks.
“Professor?” he asked. “You’re a professor at Yale?” Within seconds, Carla found herself on a gurney, being escorted to the hospital’s surgery department. The best hand surgeon in Connecticut was called in, and a team worked for hours to restore Carla’s hand to perfection. The good news is that Carla regained full use of her hand and can type, quilt, or do anything else with the same fine motor control she had before.
Recently, when we wrote to Carla to confirm the story, she elaborated: “Suddenly, they were calling in one of the most renowned hand specialists in New England. A complete 180-degree turnaround. My being a quilter meant nothing to them in terms of doing the needed nerve repair on my right thumb. But being Yale faculty got me that expensive and complex surgery.”
The way in which the bias was hidden was that no one in the situation was hurt by the doctor’s action. Carla, the only person who was affected, was helped by the revelation of her identity as a Yale professor. And there was no easily identifiable disadvantaged group in the situation. If pressed to say what group was being discriminated against, we would have to define it as consisting simply of “all those who would not get the same special care.”
The importance of Carla’s story is that by capturing not just acts of commission but acts of omission, we expand our sense of how hidden bias operates. It also allows us to see that the people responsible for such acts of omission are, like the doctor who is the main actor in this story, by and large good people who believe that helping is admirable. So far as we can tell, the doctor was a responsible and caring professional who had no conscious intention to discriminate against Carla the quilter. Nevertheless, he did discriminate and the harm that could have been done to Carla’s hand had she not been recognized as a member of the in-group is a real one.
The lesson from Carla’s story is that discrimination of even the most apparently well-intentioned kind – helping members of the in-group – has significant impact on both those who are not part of the in-group and those who are.
As psychologists, we have learned that if we study hidden bias by the traditional method of looking for expressions of negativity or hostility directed against out-groups, if we measure it by counting the number of out-group churches or mosques that are burned down, we may fail to see the far more pervasive ways in which hidden biases maintain the status quo, depriving those on the bottom rungs of society of the resources available to the more privileged by birth and status. It won’t be surprising, then, that the Star-Bellies will always get more of the good stuff than the Plain-Bellies.
Being blind to the boundaries can be helpful or hurtful. When we fail to appreciate hidden boundaries in us and in our society, then it can be hurtful without us realizing it. Yet Jesus showed us a way to be blind to boundaries that is life-giving, rather than life-limiting. Jesus believed, and lived out that belief – that God’s love and acceptance know no boundaries.
Civil Rights activist Vincent Harding was interviewed by Krista Tippett. She writes: “I was privileged to interview, and come to know, Vincent Harding, who died in 2014 at the age of eighty-two.
He and his wife, Rosemarie, helped Martin Luther King, Jr., develop the theory and practice of nonviolence through the Mennonite Center of Atlanta, and he helped King write his controversial Vietnam War speech.” Harding says:
Let’s remember that that community that helped to create King and that he then helped to nurture was a community deeply grounded in the life of religion and spirituality. This was their way of being. For instance, everyone near him knew that he took very seriously this traditional, beautiful terminology when he said that what he was seeking was not simply equality or rights, what he was seeking was the creation of “the beloved community.” He saw everything that crushed against our best human development and our best communal development, like segregation, like white supremacy.
When he moved to break down those laws, those practices, he was doing it not simply as an act of civil action, but a deep spiritual responsibility. People like Jimmy Baldwin and others, Malcolm for a certain time, couldn’t imagine how Martin could see those possibilities. But I think he was seeing it because he was looking with an eye that was deeply filled by love and compassion and that eye opens us up to see many things that might otherwise be missed.
- Becoming Wise
Dr. King once said it himself quite eloquently: “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.”
Jesus was very clear that family is much bigger than our narrow idea of who we are related to, who are our brothers and sisters. Jesus makes the point in Matthew 25, when he tells his disciples that every time they clothe a cold, naked person, they are in fact clothing Him, and every time they ignore someone who needs clothes, they are ignoring Him: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
I am very hopeful. I continue to see movement, and gradual openings for tolerance to replace intolerance. I continue to be surprised by people who I expect to be intolerant, and who are actually far more tolerant than I would have predicted.
What are the boundaries that we will be called to cross in the months and years to come? I am not sure, but it will happen, and it may feel uncomfortable, at first. And we will have to be alert to the call, and we will have to help each other when it is uncomfortable for us, and yet, we can make a difference for those who will follow in our steps.
My ardent hope is that, whatever happens, no one will later write about us what Martin Luther King wrote about his time: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”(Stride Toward Freedom).
We will not be silent! With gender and race and sexual orientation, culture and religion, social class, disability/ability, political party, life-style, and you-fill-in-the-blank to create boundaries between us, perhaps the miracle is that any real boundaries ever get crossed. But perhaps they do. And they will.
And we will do it.