Prejudice Disrupted: Creating Kinship in Our Own Nazareths Together

In the name of Jesus, God Incarnate, and son of Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee. Amen.

David Brooks’ recent New York Times article begins with this statement:

[2020] is the year that broke the truth… the year when millions of Americans — and not just your political opponents — seemed impervious to evidence, willing to believe the most outlandish things if it suited their biases, and eager to develop fervid animosities based on crude stereotypes.

When Philip the Apostle says to Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses and the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,” Nathanael clings to those last two, scandalous words, “from Nazareth,” which, in his mind, completely refute everything else in Philip’s proclamation. The biases, animosities, and crude stereotypes attached to those words “from Nazareth” short-circuit Nathanael’s ability to even begin to imagine the radical possibility that the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed One is “from Nazareth” – that insignificant, lowly, backwater in dodgy southern Galilee. So, Nathanael quips, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I think we’ve all been in Nathanael’s shoes. I certainly have. Those moments when a label, a word or phrase triggers a learned, judgmental, fearful, and ugly response steeped in ignorant prejudice.

David Brooks’ Op-Ed references the social psychologist Gordon Allport’s Contact Hypothesis enshrined in his tome from 1954, The Nature of Prejudice. Brooks grounds his argument in Allport’s conviction that “[p]eople change when they are put in new environments, in permanent relationship with diverse groups of people… doing life together with people of other groups can reduce prejudice and change minds.” This is probably why the Apostle Philip sidesteps all of the pitfalls Brooks describes in failed educational models based on futile attempts to study, teach, argue, or train our way out of prejudice. Instead, Philip the Apostle simply invites Nathanael to, “Come and see.”

Now, before we can accept the Apostle Philip’s invitation and go with Nathanael into Nazareth to commune with the Christ in Galilee, it is important to understand why, in Nathanael’s prejudicial mind, finding God in Nazareth was initially impossible. Biblical scholars tell us that while Nazareth in Galilee was part of the Jewish community, customs there differed from those in Judea, and Judean religious leaders considered Galileans inferior and somewhat impure because of Gentile influences. For “the scandal of the Incarnation” to mean anything at all, Mexican theologian Fr. Virgilio Elizondo convincingly argues that it is essential that Jesus comes from that particular place: “from Nazareth” in Galilee. He writes,

To be a Galilean Jew classified one as an outsider in many respects – geographically, socially, culturally, linguistically, and religiously. Galilee was a region where people of mixed origins lived; an economically marginalized region separated from the center of power in Jerusalem; a region known not only for its distinctive dialect but also associated with ignorance of the religious law and laxity in observing Jewish religious customs and ceremonies.

A brief theology-and-the-arts aside: this is why in church architecture the chapel on the west end of gothic cathedrals was called “the Galilee” ― the space where penitents and corpses waited before admission to the body of the church.

Back to Elizondo, who emphasizes, “The Galilean identity of Jesus concretizes the scandalous meaning of the Incarnation” because in Jesus, “God becomes not just any human being, but the marginated, shamed, and rejected of the world.” Today’s Gospel invites us to be like Nathanael: to confront our prejudices that blind us from seeing God in those unexpected people and unlikely places, like Nazareth, from which we are conditioned to believe nothing good could possibly originate. Allport observed that, “No corner of the world is free from group scorn. Being fettered to our respective cultures, we… are bundles of prejudice.” So, how do we liberate ourselves, like Nathanael, from the fetters of learned hatreds and group scorn, so that we, too, can encounter the liberating Christ?

Allport proved that liberation from prejudice does not come through casual and superficial contact with outsiders. In fact, Allport offers scientific evidence that casual, superficial contact with minority peoples does not dispel prejudice; it seems more likely to increase it. Allport says that while knowledge about and acquaintance with out-groups lessens prejudice, it is not through a “tourist mode of contact,” but only through sustained togetherness with otherized people, that friendly and tolerant attitudes emerge. Allport investigated residential contact and occupational contact, comparing prejudices in housing and work places that were racially integrated verses those that were racially segregated. Racially integrated housing and workplaces removed barriers to effective communication, reduced false stereotypes, and changed fears and hostility into realistic views of shared human differences. He goes on to prove that the type of contact that leads people to do things together is likely to result in changed attitudes… it is the cooperative striving for a shared goal that engenders solidarity. And to prevent his readers from falling into the traps of toxic charity or the “white savior complex,” Allport warns, “No one can ‘improve community relations’ in the abstract. Goodwill contact without concrete goals accomplishes nothing. Minority groups gain nothing from artificially induced mutual admiration.” So, what does work?

Nathanael perseveres in liberating himself from his prejudice. Distinguishing himself from those who remain comfortably shackled by well-practiced hatreds, Nathanael goes with Philip the Apostle to encounter Jesus in Nazareth. Nathanael models for us what David Brooks implores his readers to realize, that,

The superficial way to change minds and behavior doesn’t seem to work, to bridge either racial, partisan or class lines. Real change seems to involve putting bodies from different groups in the same room, on the same team and in the same neighborhood. That’s national service programs. That’s residential integration programs across all lines of difference. That’s workplace diversity, equity and inclusion — permanent physical integration, not training.

When our prejudices get the best of us, like Nathanael, it is time to listen to and to invite others, like Philip the Apostle, to “Come and see” God showing up in the most unexpected places and unlikely people. As Nathanael frees himself from his prejudice by investigating Jesus in Nazareth for himself, he encounters the Christ who transforms him and promises him a theophany. At St. John’s, we must continue to seek and serve Christ in all persons, particularly those who differ the most from us. We must invite those who are jaded or prejudiced against the church to join us in connecting with Jesus by practicing his radically inclusive Way of Love. And like Nathanael, by making real contact through sustained togetherness with the people that this culture has taught us to fear, we may indeed see God’s glory in our flesh.

When we disrupt the cheap reflexes of prejudice and choose the more demanding, satisfying, and delightful work of creatively engaging our moral imaginations in partnership with those society routinely dismisses and rejects, we can elect moral leaders, co-create just policies and laws, build ethical institutions, practice unconditional love, and foster a culture of richly inclusive customs that concretely build kinship across lines of difference. We can actually liberate our interdependent lives from the “bundles of prejudice” which continue to separate and enslave us. When we choose to actively create kinship, in the words of Jesus, we will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Holy One, “who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly.” And perhaps we shall finally see for ourselves that everyone and everything that is, seen and unseen, is indeed fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of Reconciled Diversity. Amen.

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