In a recent article entitled “Overcoming Christianity’s Lingering Complicity,” theologian and political thinker M. Shawn Copeland summarizes philosopher Bernard Lonergan’s definition of bias: “The more or less conscious refusal or exclusion of insights; the more or less conscious choice to be incorrect, to suppress new or further questions.” There is an element of fear in the concept of bias, a fear that hesitates to attempt to understand the “Other,” anyone outside our own understanding of the world – or oftentimes to even acknowledge the Other’s existence. The horror fictionist H.P. Lovecraft wrote in Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” It is frightening to recognize that there exist perspectives entirely different from our own, and frameworks through which others view the world that do not at all resemble ours. It’s frightening to consider that we may be wrong, or even that we may not be the only ones who are right.
Bias manifests itself in racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of discrimination; I suggest that it can also play out in a phenomenon we can call “the Christian bias.” At its best, it is an indifference to other beliefs, an unconscious choice to not grapple with ideas that may challenge our own. At worst, it manifests in willful ignorance, in an often angry decision to resist opposing beliefs. While I want to believe that this last attitude is not the norm for Christians, that most remain open to listen to different ideas and consider them fairly, nonetheless in my own life I have experienced this more judgemental stance. It is my hope that as Christians who long to serve God and love others—Christians who pray, as many Greenville students have prayed, that we may “worthily magnify [His] holy Name”—we would be conscious of the way we approach the Other. I hope that we are wary of the attitude that we have already attained knowledge of truth, of right and wrong, of what God approves or to what He shakes His head.
The Christian bias is problematic because it excludes those who do not share our beliefs. It makes constructive dialogue between opposing sides impossible, though dialogue is exactly what we need. Anyone who has ever attended Sunday school knows the adage “in the world, but not of it,” and most understand it to mean that there should be a distinction between Christians and non-Christians. However, this is not exactly what Christ says. In John chapter 17, Jesus is praying for his disciples, and he says, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (verse 16, NIV). Then, two verses later, he adds, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
It seems that we often neglect the “in the world” part; if God desires us to share his love with the world, then surely we are not supposed to stay in our safe Christian bubbles, i.e., to rest happily, unchallenged, in our safe little neighborhoods where we all look the same, make the same income, order the same drink at Starbucks, and believe the same things. Nor should we appear to the world to be an impenetrable sect, but when we differentiate between “we the righteous” and “they the incorrect,” we set ourselves on a pedestal that does not allow non-believers to grapple with the message we are called to convey. Perhaps it is an act of self-preservation, an act of fear. If we sit stonily out of reach on those pedestals, we do not have to fear the unfamiliar. We don’t have to feel the weight of the Other; we don’t have to acknowledge them, or even to validate their existence as humans with beliefs and convictions as valuable as our own.
The Christian bias also has the potential to paint Christianity in a negative light. Most non-Christians will not distinguish between Christ and Christians, and they are right in that; ideally, what we do and what we confess to believe will be identical. Unfortunately, the Christian bias is one factor that prevents that alignment. This is a serious issue for Christians to address. In the first part of Philippians 1:27, Paul wrote, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NLT). This is where being “in the world, but not of it” should come into play. We have to remember that when we encounter non-believers, they substitute us for Christ. Their conception of who he is and what he is like is directly derived from how we conduct ourselves in our interactions with them. What god do we represent if our approach to troubling, controversial situations—situations that we might automatically deem “sinful”—is an approach of judgement and self-righteousness?
I argue that this biased representation is not an accurate image of our loving, gracious, and compassionate God. In Practice in Christianity, theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard admonishes those who would like to call themselves Christians to consider what they accept when they answer Jesus’ invitation to follow him. Kierkegaard argues that what we know of Christ cannot be derived from the concept that has developed throughout history—the sterilized Christ—the exalted, adored, world-changing Christ our tradition reveres. Instead, we learn about Christ from his time on earth. Kierkegaard calls this Christ’s “abasement”: his lowliness, or lack of dignity. The abased Christ was not popular; he was a divergent carpenter from a tiny nation, no more than a blip on the Roman Empire’s radar. He was dirty, homeless, and selfless to a fault. Kierkegaard writes that the “divine compassion” that Christ exemplified was inspiring from a distance, but in actual lived reality, could only be interpreted as madness.
The abased Christ was perhaps interesting, but the idea of responding to his call “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) is nothing short of absurd. Without historical context to polish and exalt Christ, we are left to adore and emulate a dirty, homeless guy who just loved people… all people. Therefore, if we are to emulate him, we too must love all people, regardless of race, creed, or anything else that sets them apart from us. It is truly incredible what a simple “I understand” can do to create a loving environment for conversation. Telling someone that you understand does not mean that you agree with the Other or that you condone what they do – “they” being non-Christians, the LGBTQ community, the students on campus protesting the national anthem, or anyone with whom you stand in contention. It does mean, however, that you are receptive, that you desire to understand their position, and at the very least, that you are listening. If we truly desire to call ourselves Christians, then we have to be able to join Christ in his abased state, and to approach the rest of the world with his attitude. I believe this requires stepping off our pedestals. It requires admitting that we are not that special, certainly not above anyone else. It requires conscious decisions to face our fear of the unknown, to acknowledge the weight of the Other, to validate their existence, their struggles, and their beliefs. It requires us to love absurdly.