I first met Gary about 15 years ago. He was an alcoholic. He would come to the church drunk, and often had alcohol, disguised in a lemonade bottle, in his coat pocket, which was removed at the door before he came in. He would sit at the back and mutter on and off throughout the service. Although I didn’t know anything about him, I quickly decided that he was “a waste of space” and someone to be avoided.
However, God had a different plan, because after about a year of first coming into contact with Gary, the minister, Dane Baker, phoned me and said that he’d heard that Gary had a doctor’s appointment and asked if I would make sure that he kept it. He said that it was important that he saw the doctor, and felt that “unless someone went with him next Wednesday, he wouldn’t go”. OK. But not me, surely, I thought. Nevertheless, the minister had asked me to do it, so I did.
I arrived at Garry’s bed-sit an hour before the appointment, and of course, he was drunk. He invited me in, and the place was a complete mess, with empty bottles of cider (aka “white lightning”) everywhere. We went to the doctor’s surgery at the right time but it was a day late. He should have been there on Tuesday! A new appointment was made and this time we did get to see the doctor who refused any consultation or treatment because Gary was drunk. However, he did tell me that there was a specialist organisation based in Slough that I could contact, and who might help. I did this, and Dave (from the Slough organisation) agreed to visit Gary with me.
Following the visit, Dave said that he would make arrangements to get Gary into Heatherwood Hospital to detox, but that Gary would have to be sober or he would not be admitted. So Dave and I agreed a plan……….
Admission time at Heatherwood was 9.00am, and so we told Gary that we would collect him at 8.00am but agreed between ourselves that we would actually arrive at 7.00am – before Gary started drinking.
Of course when we got to Gary’s bed-sit at 7.00am, he was drunk! Dave said that there was still a chance if we got a big-breakfast and lots of black coffee into Gary he might be still be admitted. This we did and he was admitted.
Naturally, after just 24 hours of no alcohol he was sober. Over the next week, I visited Gary every day, and I found that Gary, sober, was an intelligent man who had a story that I was completely unaware of. He had been in the army and had served in Northern Ireland where he saw things that would make most of us extremely disturbed.
At that time, in that place, the army had a “drinking culture”, and of course, Gary was part of that. When he left the army he carried on drinking, and by this time he was an alcoholic. He was married and had two children, but his wife soon had enough of the drunken stupor that he would often be in, and, understandably, she left him. He wasn’t allowed to see his children and this made him very sad, he had tears in his eyes when he told me about this, and so did I.
He came out of Heatherwood on the Saturday of the same week, which was the same day that I went on holiday for two weeks. When I next saw him he was drunk, and he didn’t even recognise me.
In fact, I later learned that he began drinking again on the Saturday that he came out of hospital. Following that, I would see him from time to time around the town, and although I stopped to talk to him, he had forgotten our time together in Heatherwood. About 18 months later, I heard that he had died, which made me very sad.
From this experience I learned two things, and the first is obvious I suppose. Unless people decide themselves that they really want to stop any addiction, then however hard you might try, it will probably fail.
The other lesson was to do with prejudice (a preconceived opinion). I had decided that Gary was “a waste of space” based on very little evidence or knowledge about him or his “story”. In fact, after getting to know him, I realised that I was completely wrong in my prejudice and assumptions.
We do this all the time, don’t we? We make judgements about individuals or groups of people based on our particular prejudices.
Football is an obvious example. When I was in my late teens I can remember going to watch Arsenal play West Ham at Highbury. I was supporting West Ham and I stood in amongst a group of Arsenal supporters, and although there was much banter, there wasn’t any hint of violence. However, I wouldn’t dream of doing that today, and in fact wouldn’t be allowed to by the stewards. They know that because of the extreme prejudice of some fans violence could well follow.
Politics is another good example. If we learn that a person has a particular political view, we immediately make assumptions about them based on prejudice. If we agree with their political view then it’s likely to be a positive assumption, and if we don’t agree, then it will probably be negative.
There are many other examples and some of them are extreme: a persons sexuality, race, gender, nationality, and of course, religion.
However, this is not what Jesus taught, because not only did he say, “love your neighbour as yourself, but he went much further when he said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) But did he practice what he preached?
To determine if he did, I am going to look at some verses from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Before I do that, let me remind you, or perhaps inform you of the prevailing economic and political reality of Israel at the time of Jesus.
In 63 BC, after much turmoil and civil war within Israel, the Romans invaded and conquered Jerusalem. In order to keep control over the Galilean and Judean peoples, Julius Caesar and the Senate installed Herod, who was a Jew, as client king. Herod expanded the Temple in Jerusalem to be more grandiose and Roman in style, and also imposed a sacrifice that the priests would give on behalf of Rome and the emperor (idolatry). Additionally, Herod had whole cities named to give reverence to Caesar as well as imperial temples and fortresses to reinforce Roman control. These ambitious building campaigns were not possible without taxing the people of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea greatly; leaving the majority in poverty. Therefore, not only were they required to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, but also because they continued to function as a “temple-state” they were required to pay the tithes and sacrifices that the Jewish religion demanded.
This demand for tribute to Rome and taxes to Herod in addition to the tithes and offerings to the Temple and priesthood dramatically escalated the economic pressures on peasant producers, whose livelihood was minimal at best. After decades of financial demands from multiple layers of rulers many village families fell increasingly into debt and were faced with loss of their family inheritance of land.
To say that the Romans were not liked by most of the Jewish population would be a great understatement! As far as they were concerned, Romans were a bunch of Italian foreigners who had invaded their land and had caused great hardship and distress. So, you get the picture?
Now let’s have a look at these verses in Matthew that I referred to earlier. Jesus has just finished what has become known as the “sermon on the mount”, where amongst other things he warned people about judging others, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, and giving to the needy (from Steph’s talk last week). He arrives in Capernaum, on the shore of lake Galilee, when a Roman Centurion walks up to him: Matthew Chapter 8 Verses 5-13, which you can read here.
I think that before I go on, I should make the point that “engagement is not (necessarily) endorsement”. What do I mean by that? Jesus doesn’t hesitate to engage with the centurion, he shows no prejudice at all. However, that doesn’t mean that he endorses the Roman occupation of Israel, or the fact that they crucified anyone who didn’t obey their rules.
So, where do you see yourself when it comes to the issue of prejudice? I’m sure that you recognise it in others, but what about you? I referred earlier to the sermon on the mount and not judging others. Jesus famously said, “why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” He’s saying, examine yourself, and we all need to do that. The first step is to recognise that you have prejudices, and you do – so do I. Once you have done that, the next thing to ask is where have they come from, what is the source? Often the underlying source is fear, particularly when a person, or a people group, is different. They don’t look like me, they don’t dress like me; they don’t speak like me. And because of that prejudice forms, labels are applied and you find yourself saying or thinking things like “You can’t trust them, they’re all the same”, or “I’m not a racist, but……..” or “I’ve got nothing against the French, but……….” When you do that, you stop seeing people as individuals, which makes it easy and comfortable to continue with your prejudice.
We need to challenge our own prejudices. We also need to challenge prejudice in others wherever we see or hear it. It doesn’t have to be confrontational, but it does need to be checked. If you hear someone say something like, “they’re all the same”, you can respond gently by saying something like, “really, all of them, exactly the same?” This is non-threatening, but it will make people stop and think about the words they use and what they’re saying. If they persist, you might say something like, “How did you come to that conclusion, what are your reasons for holding that view?”
When our behaviour and thoughts, based on our prejudices, become as habitual as brushing our teeth there is a danger because after a while we don’t even think about them.
Prejudice is not harmless because it can lead to extremes; rejection, exclusion, persecution, hatred and violence. The truth is that prejudice is like a cancer, which is rarely benign. It needs to be identified and eliminated from our thinking, speech and behaviour. Which is exactly what Jesus told us to do and what he demonstrated when he met the Roman centurion.
Do you think that it’s true that we all have certain prejudices? What are yours?
Where do think people’s prejudice comes from? Upbringing, culture, media, other?
Can you think of any obvious prejudice that our national broadcaster (The BBC) has? Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump?
Do you accept that engagement doesn’t (necessarily) mean endorsement of someone’s behaviour? Can you give an example?
Can you think of an example of prejudice that you have seen recently? Perhaps on the television, radio, newspaper, friends, family?
Have you ever challenged someone over a remark or comment that was clearly based on a prejudice?
Is prejudice always wrong? If yes, why? If no, can you give some examples?