Tag Archives: implicit bias

Entitlement, Racism, and the Lie of Limited Resources

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When my children were young I took them to our train station to drop off a guest. As a parting favor he gifted each of them with their own bag of chips, which they clutched to their chest like rare treasure. Before we could exit the chaotic South Asian platform, a crowd of ragged beggar children swarmed around them, tugging on their clothes and extending grimy hands in a plea for food. My first impulse was to drive the intruders back, protecting my own blond babies from being mobbed and robbed of their little treat. I am ashamed to admit it now, but I felt my children were entitled to their chips, and though I felt pity for these brown scraps of humanity, I didn’t value their nurture and well-being to the same degree as I would have if they looked, smelled, and sounded like me.

“I would like these children to remain in their poverty, and I will eat my chips.”

Like me, Jesus’ disciples struggled with implicit racism, valuing their own “kind” over the other ethnic groups around them and assuming God’s favor on them over the others rather than on behalf of the others. In a human economy, there were only so many chips to go around, and they wanted to make sure there were plenty for their own kids.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

No wonder the disciples got upset when a Syrophoenician beggar approached Jesus for a favor. On one hand they had been conditioned to expect His compassionate response to the myriad of marginalized individuals who came clinging to His robes and calling out from the street sides. That was simply His way, and they were learning to appreciate it. But those were needs from within the family. This woman pestering Jesus was an outsider. If He started doling out favors to all of them, then how much time and energy could they realistically expect to be left over for their own people? It wasn’t that they wished any ill for this woman, but they wanted Jesus to maintain His priorities (meaning them) and keep first things (meaning their best interests) first. Her persistent presence made them uncomfortable.

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

But Jesus’ priorities didn’t match theirs. In fact, His entire approach to resources and races was radically different from theirs. Jesus recognized the entitled mentality of His followers, and gently challenged it through His witty banter with the other-race woman. At first glance His comments to her seem shockingly racist. Children vs. dogs? Even if He did have an exclusive calling to the Jews, He didn’t have to insult her like that. But Jesus’ comments were as much aimed at challenging His disciples’ implicit racism as they were at engaging the woman’s need.

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus knew a courageous, witty woman when He saw one. He threw her a soft pitch, and she hit it out of the park. Using derogatory language that had most likely been thrown at her before, He put a little spin on the metaphor that placed this “dog” not on the street as an unwanted outsider, but rather under the table as a beloved member of the family. And this plucky, determined image bearer took His cue and ran with it. Yes! She would take whatever place in the household she was offered as long as it meant she could share in the family benefits. Like the psalmist singing “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God…,” she recognized the treasure of the Kingdom and banked on it. I can almost see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye as He bantered with this woman, and the smile on His face when she pushed back with her demand.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
Matthew 15:32-34

Jesus’ interaction with the woman was not only an invitation for her to stand up for the dignity that was rightfully hers; it was also a demonstration for His disciples to witness His view of people from other races. His use of their racist language put a mirror in front of them, causing them to see the ugliness of their own attitude and giving them the opportunity to see another way. And if they were still struggling with the idea that opening the doors to “her kind” would somehow deprive “the children” of the house, He demonstrated otherwise by healing and feeding 4,000 outsiders from her region, with 7 basketfuls of leftovers to match the number of complete fullness.

If I am willing to stand up for the right of my children to eat their chips in safety and without fear, why am I not willing to do the same for children of another color?

Jesus’ example challenges our hidden assumptions about resources and race. If I am willing to stand up for the right of my children to eat their chips in safety and without fear, why am I not willing to do the same for children of another color? Does Jesus’ compassionate care end with my family and community, or does He intend me to extend the same to all of His image bearers crying out for security, dignity, and equal access to resources? To be honest, this raises fear in me—fear that if I expand the circle of my involvement my own family will suffer lack. Somehow it is easier to send a donation to help suffering children of color far away than to notice and share with the ones in the next neighborhood over.

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
Mark 8:17-21

My son hung back from the demanding hands, stating in his toddler simplicity what I have often been too hypocritical to admit. “I would like these children to wemain in their poverty, and I will eat my chips.” But my daughter knew the joy of sharing and the lavishness of the Sharer. She imitated Jesus, moving forward into the crowd to carefully distribute her chips into each outstretched hand and make sure that no one was missed.

Narrative Wars and the Way of the Cross

I did it!
art credit: Catherine Clark

Everyone loves an overcomer story. We cheer for the underdog, holding our breath as they persevere through obstacle after obstacle and booing the advantaged one simply for the fact that he expected to come out on top. But what about those moments when life casts us in the overdog role? “I didn’t sign up for this!” we may be tempted to whine. “I’m just doing my best to live my life and do good by all. I didn’t ask to be written as the oppressor in someone else’s story!”

Race killings and race riots in the United States have awakened many white Christians to the prevalence of racism. But with that awareness comes a deep discomfort as lifelong assumptions about how the world works and who we are within it are suddenly overturned. I wonder if much of white angst in America today comes from fear of being cast as the bad guy. If I listen to the cries of my African American brothers and sisters, my version of the story—the one in which I am the “little person” who worked hard, came from behind, and made it despite all the odds—comes under threat. Instead, I’m suddenly that privileged, arrogant “champion” we all despise, enjoying the luxuries of monogramed equipment and expert coaches to give me every advantage in the game of life.

Since when is pride compatible with the cross?

I don’t like that second version of the story, and even when I am pushed to admit that it is true, I don’t like the way that it makes me feel about myself.  I’d rather rehash stories of the American Revolution in which “my people” fought off the colonial oppressors with bare feet and raw grit.  I at least want the luxury of largesse, to think of my people as the liberators who brought down the Nazis or brought aid to suffering populations around the world. But when I stop to consider the story from the perspective of a Native American who was driven from her land or an African American who was imported to the land but denied equal status, “my people” come out as the bad guys. Add to that generations of mistreatment and social positioning in which my people continue to come out on top, and the pride I feel in my heritage—the heritage which forms much of my identity—starts to crumble.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Philippians 3:4-7

Perhaps that is exactly what needs to happen. It may not feel nice, but since when is pride compatible with the cross? The reason we love the underdog is because God Himself has a heart for the disadvantaged. Scripture is replete with statements about what He does for the humble and how He treats the proud. The fact that I am holding on to my pride reveals which side of the narrative I actually am standing on. As a follower of Jesus, I get to lay aside anything in which I formerly found gain, including the advantage of my whiteness.

“I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

But how can I help that? Perhaps a second cause for white angst comes from the sudden sense of helplessness in the face of finding ourselves on the wrong side of history. I want to jump the fence to the other side, distancing myself from the racism around me with claims of #NotMeToo. “I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:1-4

Examining myself for areas of implicit bias (while assuming that they are probably there) is a good start. Where do my impulses betray an internal sense of being better than, or perhaps deserving better than, people of a different race? These may surface in the respect I demand for myself or the treatment and opportunities I expect for my children. Am I equally incensed when these are not afforded to my neighbor from a different “community” or her children? Am I equally invested in looking out for her interests as I am my own? What have I done (or not done) to change the systems that make it hard for them to flourish?

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

…“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks…”
John 4:9,21-23

Confronting the areas of bias within myself not only benefits Black lives; it also helps me become more like the Jesus I adore. I adore Him for His meekness with the Samaritan woman, absorbing her defensive reactivity over the way her people had been treated and extending to her a listening ear, a willingness to consider her side, and a friendship that broke all the social rules. I adore Him for going out of His way to seek out her company and sit with her on her turf, neither lecturing her for making a mess of the opportunities that had been afforded her nor insisting that she adapt to His cultural ways in order to be accepted. It can’t have been easy to listen to His people being framed as the bad guys, yet He acknowledged their privileged position in history while also considering her too valuable an asset to leave out of the new integrated community He was forming.

And perhaps it is in Jesus’ example as a privileged Jewish male that I find a way forward as a privileged white woman. Try as I might, I can’t stop being white. And I can’t undo the parts of my heritage that I am ashamed of. But I can humble myself, reach across the racial divide, and use whatever advantage is mine (though I may need help in being able to see it) to my neighbor’s advantage. After all, is this not what Jesus did for me?