Driving around the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area can be a near occasion of sin. The roads are crowded. People are in a hurry. Patience is in short supply and tempers flare. But in addition to all the aggressive driving and its ensuing angry responses, there can also be reminders of how difficult it is to see our brothers or sisters on the road as unique individuals and to love them as our neighbors.
Painting with a Broad Brush
One of the ways I cope with the driving habits of my fellow travelers is to pray for them. “Dear Lord, that driver is very agitated right now. Give him peace and safe passage to his destination. Please calm his frenetic driving style so that he does not harm himself or anyone else.” It is very difficult to curse and question the parentage of someone for whom you are praying.
Yet, if I am honest with myself, I must admit that in spite of my prayers I am very quick to negatively paint the drivers with a very broad brush. For example, a driver cuts in front of me, forcing me to slam on my brakes. I notice his car is sporting bumper stickers for political candidates or causes that I oppose. My first response is to think, “Well, it is not surprising that anyone who supports XYZ drives like an idiot!” Or the car that zooms up and tailgates me before roaring past me, only to be stopped right next to me at the next stoplight, is driven by a scraggly-bearded twenty-something with a messy man-bun. I am very quick to label him as a spoiled brat millennial who got way too many participation trophies in his past.
The interesting thing is that, if the driver who cut me off displayed a pro-life bumper sticker or an endorsement of a political candidate I favored, I would not have said, “Oh, pro-lifers are just so rude and such idiotic drivers!” I know lots of people who are pro-life, and they are not rude. I know lots of people who are pro-life, and they are great drivers. Because of my experiences I know the broad-brush characterization to be false. So why should I think that such gross generalizations should be true for any other demographic or ideological division?
What is even sadder is that I am not equally likely to generalize when someone does something kind or generous. If that same man-bun sporting driver had let me easily merge on to I-495, I would not have thought, “Millennials are such thoughtful and polite souls.” Our biases make it so much easier to condemn a whole segment of the population than to praise.
Us vs. Them
Currently, our country and our world are roiled with divisions. Every issue is placed into an “Us vs. Them” narrative. We talk about men versus women, gay versus straight, natives versus foreigners, black versus white, Republicans versus Democrats — the list goes on and on. Whatever camp we find ourselves in, we demonize the opposing side. This ignores the truth that good and evil exist across all arbitrary divisions. No demographic or ideological conviction is free of either saints or sinners.
The problem is that when we reduce others to mere labels, we dehumanize them. We are commanded by Christ to love our neighbor. But, like the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), we are trying to parse that commandment and restrict the definition of neighbor. Those people over there are spoiled, racist, rich and shallow. They are not my neighbors, are they? Those people are poor, lazy, and uneducated. Do they count as my neighbors? Those people sin more than I do. I don’t have to be neighbors with them, do I? Christ’s answer is “Yes, yes, and yes”. They are all our neighbors.
I have felt the sting of being swept up into stereotypes. One of my male classmates in medical school commented to me that it must be nice to be able to get by on a pretty smile and not have to know so much. One of my attending physicians in medical school was unusually brutal in his daily critiques of my patient care. At the end of the rotation he told me that he treated me differently than my male peers because women in medicine needed to be “toughened up”. My mother is Hispanic. My father is white. I have been treated with rejection and suspicion because I am too “white” for some and too “brown” for others.
I teach a very diverse group of college students. I have had the good fortune to spend time with many of them as individuals as well as in the classroom. I am sure that I can find many significant ideological differences between their world views and my own. But I also know we have many fundamental values in common. We love our families and want the best for them. We appreciate kindness. We value education. My personal interactions with them pick apart my preconceived ideas of who they are.
What I find both challenging and frustrating is that based on my own experiences, I am certain that no stereotype can accurately explain any individual. Yet I still find it all too easy to pretend I know another person’s story based on their appearance or what bumper stickers they put on their car.
Seeing Christ in Our Neighbors
St. Paul warns us against putting people into categories:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
Instead of seeing black or white, rich or poor, young or old, conservative or liberal, or any other division, we are called to just see Christ. Every person we meet, whether we like them or not, is a child of God formed in His image. Instead of making lazy assumptions about people, maybe we should take the time to know them as the unique individuals they are.
Loving my neighbor does not mean I will like my neighbor. Christ does not expect me to want to spend my Saturday afternoons with every person I meet. Some people are more enjoyable company than others. However, He does command me to treat every person I meet with respect and dignity. I am required to extend kindness, generosity, compassion, and forgiveness to all who cross my path. There is no category that can be excluded from love.
A little farther in his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says:
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. (Colossians 3:15)
It is time to concentrate on being that one body. It is time to catch ourselves every time we think or speak about “those people”. We need to focus more on “we” and less on “us versus them”.