FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Message: Rooting Out the Seed of Bias
Scripture: Acts 11:1-10
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
A few years ago I was invited to be a panelist for a county forum held in Davis called “Breaking the Silence of Racism.” The other panelists were the chief of police, the assistant superintendent of schools, the district attorney for the county and the vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion for UC Davis. One of the questions put to the chief of police was how the department screened for racism and trained their officers to consciously dismantle structural racism in the police force.
As part of his answer, the police chief said when candidates are being interviewed, they are always asked if they have any bias toward any particular group. Then he said the answer they are looking for from each candidate is “Yes.” If the candidates answer no, or they answer yes but can’t explain how they counter that bias, they are not hired.
A team of social scientists led by researchers from Harvard University have developed a test called the Implicit Association Test. I linked the test which you can do quickly and anonymously online in my column this week in our This Week at Epworth E-Newsletter. The test taker is asked to link words and pictures that flash on the screen with other words and pictures. The test is not perfect, but over several years, millions have taken the test and the results continue to confirm a statistically significant presence of implicit bias in race, gender and sexual orientation in our population.
So what exactly is implicit bias? It is an unconscious preference for one group of people over another. As the Perception Institute puts it, our brains want to be right and we need to respond to many stimuli quickly. So our brain creates shortcuts in decision-making by utilizing associations. Yet we live in an environment that can program stereotypical associations into our brains which will affect our decision-making. These associations based on stereotypes can in turn lead to discrimination or even justify unfair or violent behavior. This is implicit bias. Implicit bias along with explicit bias manifest in ways that diminish and degrade the human community and create environments of brokenness.
Our scripture for this morning from Acts confronts us with both the explicit and implicit biases held by Peter and other first century Jews. In the scripture, Peter is confronted by other Jerusalem Christians. These are new Christians who, like Peter and Jesus, were Jewish in origin. In the post-resurrection days, the center of Jewish Christianity was the Jerusalem church, where James and Peter were considered leaders.
In those days, most Jews held deeply seeded bias against Gentiles. They were considered profane and unclean, in part because they did not uphold the purity laws around eating that were found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They were from a different part of the Roman Empire centered in Greece, and when Gentiles were mentioned, the associations in the minds of first century Jewish Christians with Gentiles being profane and unclean caused repulsion and hatred. To be a Jew was to hold a belief in being set apart, a descendant of Abraham, chosen. Jews had survived for centuries by drawing clear distinctions about who they were and who they were not.
One of the ways that Empire persists is by pitting groups of persons who exist on the edges of society, or in this case in the farthest flung territories of the empire, against each other. If they can be encouraged in hatred and fear against each other, they will not band together and focus their anger at being second class citizens against the primary power causing that reality. The fear and hatred that existed between Jews and Gentiles was aided and abetted by the Roman Empire.
As the scripture from Acts opens, Jerusalem Christians are criticizing Peter for communing with Gentiles. They had heard that there were Gentiles who had come to follow Jesus, to believe in the risen Lord, and the associations their brains made concerning Gentiles caused them to forget about the core of Jesus’ message of inclusivity and radical love.
And so Peter responds to his critics, sharing a vision he had had while praying of a large sheet coming down to him with four footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the air. He heard a voice telling him to kill the animals and eat them. But his training as a Jew told him that to do so would have made him unclean, that to do so was profane. This was how the Gentiles ate. He objected but a voice from heaven said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And this scene is repeated three times to make the point!
What’s interesting here is that the voice says, “What God has made clean you must not CALL profane.” It doesn’t say God has made what is profane clean. God does not make profane or unacceptable creatures or people. The problem is in the perception of Peter and others who do not understand the original blessing of creation by God. God creates things and people in blessing and goodness, but WE become confused and stuck in brokenness and call things profane. And this, my friends, is why Christ came into the world to redeem the world from our delusion, our bias, our calling profane what is actually very very good. Our biases are like an addiction that we cannot free ourselves of on our own. When we acknowledge this and turn toward a higher power, we recognize that this is who Christ is, our redeemer.
Theologian Marjorie Suchocki has argued that what original sin really means is that acts of violence and discrimination stemming from fear and hatred and bias accumulate, creating environments of brokenness. We are born into these environments and are affected by them and the resulting bias that gets laid down in us manifests in individual and structural ways as racism, sexism and homophobia. What Peter was facing as he sought to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the Gentiles and extend the church’s mission beyond the Jerusalem Church was an environment of brokenness, a kind of original sin. But Peter knew that the antidote was in Christ, and in turning toward his way, in accepting this message of unconditional love and original blessing, we could be redeemed. What God has made clean, you must not CALL profane.
We are all affected by this kind of original sin, the environments of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and ableism that swarm around us. Anyone who has ever tried to free themselves from unconscious bias knows how hard this is. Research in implicit bias shows that there are three main avenues to work on in trying to rid oneself of bias: Mindset, Debiasing and Decoupling.
In focusing on mindest: the first step is to be humble. If you think you are uniquely able to be free from implicit bias, the best scientific evidence suggests that not only is this not true, you are more likely to discriminate. Second, be mindful. Slow down and monitor your thoughts and behavior. You can practice at this through prayer, meditation, the practice of being present in the now. Be internally motivated to be fair, to reflect the impartiality and unconditional love of God.
Debiasing is the conscious attempt to try to scrub our brains of stereotypical associations. Science suggests that we can rewrite the associations in our brain by exposing our brain to counter-typical examples. Women clergy and gay clergy counter a stereotype from religion about clergy, and about women and LGBTQ persons in general. Navigate complex and inclusive environments. If you enter an environment, and that includes church, that features a number of persons of color and women in leadership, you are likely to decrease unconscious stereotypes that counter stereotypes suggesting that women and persons of color can’t lead. We need to be conscious and intentional about the images we are consuming. What is your screensaver on your computer? Who is in the images around you?
The final step suggested by research to dismantle and eliminate bias is decoupling, which is the conscious work of stereotype replacement. This is a four part process that asks us to:
be conscious of biased thinking,
Label biased thinking,
Ask why the biased thinking happened,
Consciously make another association that does not have bias.
This is important knowledge, and we at Epworth seek to continuously rid ourselves of the original sin of bias and the environments of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and ableism. It is hard, painful and dangerous work. In humility we bow to how much brokenness pervades us. But the Good News of our scripture this morning is that this is Christ’s primary work! To heal brokenness, to guide our steps, to sustain our recovery, to grant us visions of what an existence free of this debilitating bias would look like. It is in this way that we can understand who Christ is as redeemer.
Jesus came into the world with a gospel for all peoples, with a mission to break down the barriers of prejudice spawned by pride, fear, and the desire to dominate. If we allow the spirit of Christ to inform, guide and sustain us, the sins of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and ableism can be dismantled and transformed. Jesus did not come into the world just for one group of people. All of the descendants of Adam and Eve are heirs to the original blessing where our differences are seen, understood, honored and cause for celebration. Amen.