Overcoming Stereotypes by Listening to People

When I was in college one of the campus ministry groups sponsored an event that was advertised as a discussion between a Christian and a Muslim.  They were clear it was not a debate, instead it was a time for each person to share what their religion believes about a variety of things.  I attended, excited to see what would be said.  I left thinking that it was a good thing it was not a debate, for the Muslim would have won.

Just on appearance, the Muslim student had a leg up.  He wore a casual sweater and jeans, dressing and talking like a typical, though above average intelligent, college student.  The Christian student wore a tie and clearly did not fit in at the college setting.

I had a few classes with the Muslim student.  We had spoken a few times and he was very friendly.  If I recall, he was going into medicine.  The class we had together was Intro to Islam, so being a Muslim he had quite an advantage going in, but I guess I had an advantage in Bible classes!  Talking with him and a few others was eye-opening simply because I had never known any Muslims before.  It is one thing to read about a group of people in a book, another to become friends with them.

I think of that today at times, especially when I see posts on social media about how all Muslims are terrorists or all ______ (insert group here) are ________.  It is disheartening to me to see such simplistic generalities, because I know when you meet actual people they do not all fit in.

You do not just need to meet them.  There was a liberal Bible scholar I heard a lot about while in seminary.  He was often mentioned as someone who does not trust the Bible, who takes apart the faith and who is all wrong.  I am sure I regurgitated some statements later on when his name came up.  Then, years later, I read a few books by him.  And while I disagreed (I disagreed on a lot!) I also saw that the stereotype was wrong.  He was not the faith-destroying monster I had been taught.

I am surprised that Christians are often so quick to engage in stereotyping, since Christians are often on the other end of stereotyping.  A few years back a study came out that found the majority of 16-29 year olds said Christians are hypocritical, judgmental and other such negative things.  I discussed this with the Christian students I work with on campus and other students over the following months.  What was interesting was that many students would admit that their Christian friends were not like this, but most Christians were.  I wanted to ask how many times a stereotype has to be contradicted before you give up on it?

There is a human tendency to surround ourselves with voices that affirm what we already believe.  I try to be aware of this and to read diverse opinions on things.  I hope I have friends on different sides of issues to keep me honest if I slip into stereotyping one group.

In the end, we need to talk to actual people and listen to them rather then generalizing about what we do not know.  As we do that, I think we’ll find that most people we meet do not fit into the stereotypes we’ve inherited.

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