September 12, 2006

I'm Not A Bigot...Or Am I?

capMel Gibson's assertion that he is not a bigot -- despite his recent drunken tirade against Jews -- made me wonder: Do we ever see bigotry in ourselves?
I'd like to believe I'm not a bigot. I don't make or repeat ethnic jokes. I have friends of different religions, races and political persuasions. I don't join groups that exclude others. And yet ... I wonder if bigotry is a little like being tone deaf. Your own voice sounds right on key until your kids hold their ears and beg you to stop singing.
The more I listen to conversations lately, the more I understand that bigotry is hardly ever in the eye of the bigot. We may all understand political correctness, but when we relax with friends -- people like us -- conversations can drift into some degree of us and them-ness.
A friend of mine, caught up in the fun of a party recently, made an observation about a religious group that was met with dropped jaws and averted eyes. "What?" he said later. "It's true. And it wasn't a negative thing." While the point seemed obvious to him, he had wandered over that delicate line that separates familiarity from stereotype and understanding from bigotry.
2006 1524 page50He wasn't a hateful person, and in my heart of hearts, I had to admit I didn't completely disagree with him. Was I innocent because I had the discipline to not express such thoughts aloud? Is it OK to use stereotypes if they aren't negative?
As the popular song from the Broadway hit "Avenue Q" says, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." Pushing back at political correctness, it points out:
    "If we all could just admit
    That we are racist a little bit,
    Even though we all know that it's wrong,
    Maybe it would help us
    Get along."
Is getting such suppressed thoughts out in the open the answer? I'm not so sure. I think it's a good thing that we pause before characterizing a group of people, and don't think it's funny when others do. Shame isn't always a bad thing.
I do agree with Gibson when he says that bigotry is inconsistent with Christian beliefs. But I would never claim that being a Christian saves me from bigotry -- I've personally seen how the twisted beliefs of some Christians have wreaked havoc in the world.
It's because I read the Bible and I know that my own capacity for sin is deep and subject to many layers of denial. And Matthew 7:3 says, I know that it is easier to spot a speck in my brother's eye than it is to see the plank in my own.
When I am feeling very courageous, I pray to see myself more clearly. I ask God to expose the layers of my own self-righteousness and the places where I have a hard heart or a bad attitude; it's the one prayer it seems God is always too quick to answer.
Jesus set an example by associating with prostitutes and tax collectors and those who were the subject of prejudice in his day. He did not teach others to say nice things and have politically correct manners. He taught them to be with those people and to love them.
Truly rooting out bigotry will never come from disciplining ourselves into political correctness or even from admitting our own racist tendencies. Stereotypes are not dissolved just by getting them out in the open. They only dissipate as we open up our hearts to those who are not so much like us -- and find they are not so different after all.
Dale Hanson Bourke, a frequent contributor to Religion News Service, is the author of "Second Calling."