What’s So Wrong With Stereotypes?

Second Sunday After Epiphany

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”
He then added, “Very truly I tell you,you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” John 1:43-51

(Paul wrote to Titus) One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” Titus 1:12

“Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.” -Second Doctor in “The Wheel in Space”

What’s so wrong with stereotyping? If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all do it at times. Because this behavior is so universal, social scientists believe that it must have an evolutionary advantage. It seems logical that in primitive societies, it would be very helpful to have a quick means to differentiate members of your own tribe from those of another tribe who might mean to cause you harm. Hunter-gatherers who were too friendly with strangers wandering into their territories might find themselves not surviving long enough to reproduce and pass on their trusting genes. So over the course of centuries, the tendency to mistrust strangers, especially those who are different in observable ways, becomes amplified.

Not only do we all have the tendency to make pre-judgements about people based on our stereotypes of them, we have probably also been stereotyped ourselves. My mother became friends with my third grade teacher, who moved to Alabama from Ohio and was surprised to find that her students were not all barefort and suffering from hookworm.  As a young adult in Kentucky, I shared an apartment with another young adult who was pianist in a black church. I remember meeting some of the leaders from her church who, upon hearing my Alabama accent, asked me in all sincerity if my family owned any slaves. For several years I deliberately (but unsuccessfully) strove to eliminate my deep-South accent, just so people would not make incorrect and disparaging assumptions about my intelligence, habits, or behavior. Having been the victim of stereotyping myself has made me especially sensitive to moticing it when it happens to others.

Stereotyping others is a natural, even logical behavior. But just because something is natural or logical does not necessarily make it morally or even objectively right. When Philip told Nathanael that he believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, Nathanael didn’t believe him. It seemed that people living in Bethsaida held negative stereotypes about the character of people living in Nazareth. If you were from Nazareth, you weren’t a good person. We aren’t told of the reasoning behind the stereotyping. Were they especially poor? Uneducated? Troublemakers? The text doesn’t say. What it does say is that Philip responds by telling Nathanael that he should come see for himself, and Philip does. He has a life-changing conversation with Jesus, and becomes one of his first followers. What might have happened if Nathanael, because of his preconceived ideas about people from Nazareth, hadn’t decided to come and see for himself? He would have certainly have missed out “bigly”!

Jesus seems to have paid little attention to stereotypes when it came to inviting other people to join his inner circle. From the hints we get here and there in the gospels, they seem to have been a very diverse group, ranging on the political spectrum from Matthew the tax collector to Simon the Zealot. Matthew would have viewed people like Simon as violent revolutionaries, while Simon must have viewed people like Matthew as greedy collaborators. And I like to think that both Matthew and Simon changed their opinions of each other after spending three years together on the road with Jesus. That’s usually what happens when you “come and see” for yourself rather than unquestioningly clinging to stereotypes. That’s what happened to my third grade teacher. It’s what happened to me and some of my classmates when my school was integrated in the sixties. It’s what often happens when people travel. Friendship and/or working together for a common purpose can be a very effective antidote to all kinds of stereotypical beliefs and behaviors.

I don’t think God has ever been a particular fan of stereotypes, either. As God told the prophet Samuel regarding the selection of David as king, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God definitely never bought into the “oldest, most responsible” stereotype, at least according to the Genesis stories of Abel vs Cain, Isaac vs Ishmael, Jacob vs Esau, and Joseph and his many older brothers. Stereotypes are not just mistaken, but sinful when they prevent us from doing things God has repeatedly commanded us to do. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated. Where stereotypes collide with the practice of compassion, it’s pretty clear to me which one God prefers. And if we choose obedience to behaviors prescribed by a stereotype rather than obedience to behaviors God prescribes, isn’t that dangerously close to idolatry?

There are times when stereotypes may serve a useful purpose, but they should always be viewed with suspicion. When stereotypes are never questioned, they can be very harmful to the stereotyper as well as the stereotypee. Nathanael would never have met Jesus if he hadn’t been willing to “come and see” for himself.  Furthermore, stereotyping by one group usually leads to counter-stereotyping by the other group in an escalating spiral.  Walls between the two groups are thrown up higher and higher, until they eventually come tumbling down, crushing everyone in the vicinity.

“Come and see” is still pretty good advice. As I understand it, God is more interesting in taking down walls than putting them up. I think he wants us to join him in his efforts. And that’s good news to me.

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Author: joantheexpatriatebaptist

Retired high school science teacher and guidance counselor. Sci-fi, fantasy, and theology geek who also enjoys music and gardening.

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