I’ve been doing a lot of listening lately. Trying hard to listen to the people around me, their stories and their worldview. “Well, sure”, you may be thinking, “We all do this. I read books! I read articles! I talk to my other friends who are the same race, live the same lifestyle, and we talk about these people! It’s like we know them, and I totally know them. I know what they are about, what they probably had for breakfast, and man, we may as well be friends.”
Except not. Not at all. In the past month, I have been hit with the heart-wrenching truth this week that I have biases against people that run deep and are a part of my rhetoric. And the worse part? I didn’t even notice this was the case. The truth is that I constantly make assumptions about people, about their thoughts and lifestyles, and thinking that I know them. What is worse, I think that I love them. I have been defining love as carrying my own assumptions about people with vigor and conviction, placing them below me in some sort of proverbial path that was my good, Christian way.
Because honestly, to be super blunt, I can’t pretend to know what an African-American neighbor is like because I read an article about racism and talked to my white friends about it. And this is one example. I can’t pretend to know my _______ (fill in the blank) neighbor because I am drawing from my own biases and then discussing them with people who think the same.
And so I did some old-school repenting, in my car, just crying and tearful that I have been operating this way for a larger part of my life. It was a real come to Jesus moment. And I started thinking about how, I think we all do this in some form or another. And if this is true, then as a Church, we have to much repenting to do.
It’s time to put down our world view, the way that we think things work and start to listen. Easy right? Wrong. Do you know that the brain is wired to do specific things that we’ve made a habit about? Seriously. We have this thing called “habit loops” in our brains and it’s a three part series that goes something like this: you receive a cue about someone or something, that is a trigger for your brain to go into an automatic mode and then you behave according to the behavior that is a habit for you.
Habits form this way into a part of our brain called the “basal ganglia”. This is also the same part of our brain that plays a major role in the development of our emotions, memories and pattern recognition. This tells us that our habits are much more than actions we are accustomed to doing. They are behaviors that we have so deeply connected to emotions and memories that they become a part of us. It’s like our own breath, we are breathing all the time, our lungs are working and our hearts are pumping blood, but we barely notice it.
So here is what that looks like if you encounter someone that you have a habit of thinking a certain way about, or hold a strong bias against. Your brain automatically begins down a certain path and sometimes, that can look like profiling or stereotyping without us even knowing it:
1.) Your brain sees the person that you have a bias about. Enter: race, religion, job, lifestyle, job, sexual orientation, clothes…you name it. There are plenty to go around.
2.) Your brain is triggered by this person, and your emotions you hold to this bias, memories you have around why this bias was made and patterns you’ve seen of this bias played out are all triggered, and your brain sort of goes on lock down. Once the basal ganglia is triggered, the part of your brain that is in charge of making decisions, the prefrontal cortex, goes to sleep.
3.) You are not acting and reacting not based on logic and decisions, but on habits that were formed long ago by emotions, memories and patterns. And so you act and you think exactly like how you always do: you are scared, you don’t have nice things to say, you are awkward, you are rude, you are angered.
To spot a bias takes a tremendous amount of self awareness and humility. To change that bias takes a literal reworking and digging up of old habits and waking up a part of the brain that is asleep to challenge the part of the brain that is running the show in the moment.
“But Bonnie! What about my biases that aren’t really biases? They are convictions based on Scripture! Does it still count as a bias if the Bible said so? Because then, I don’t have biases, I have Christian convictions and I don’t let that get in the way of how I LOVE. I think LOVE is the best thing, and so I can have these biases and still LOVE.”
This is a statement many of you may be thinking, because I thought this same thing for so many years. This is the narrative of the Church, and it’s total bull crap. Here’s why:
1.) There is no such thing as a conviction to be hateful to someone. There is no such thing as a conviction that treats someone less than human, that lumps a whole group of people under a dehumanizing and judgmental label, or that tells their story before you ask them. NOT ONE. We may come from all sides of the table and spectrums on many issues, but the moment we start believe that Scripture ever calls us to hold a bias of hate and discrimination of someone, then we have gotten it all wrong. This type of behavior is the equivalent of holding our Bibles in the shape of gun and firing bullets the moment we don’t understand someone. And this is especially true when our understandings of people are based on assumptions, stereotypes and not at all their real life, actual stories.
2.) We also must stop saying we are “loving” people because we tolerate them. Love isn’t smiling shyly while carrying assumptions that are dehumanizing and break down people into categories. This isn’t love. This is making humans into labels and objects that we feel we can put wherever we want. This is they type of thinking that turns “love” into some sort of power structure where we are always on top. The way we throw around the term “loving people” in this context, is one of the biggest lies of our faith that we have been tricked into believing. Loving people like Jesus loved people is not having biases against them that force us deeper into our own bubbles, and never being held accountable to the anger, hateful or shameful things we think and act on.
Jesus loved in a way that was consistently and unapologetically characterized by proximity, touch, community and long-term investment. True love, the kind that will create real transformation and make people feel like they are human and accepted as such, is love that commits and does the daily grind of real life, real listening, and real learning. It’s a love that puts down our swords and compels us to pick up our crosses.
But this takes a big amount of humility on our parts. We have to be willing to state that we are apart of the problem. That we have contributed to this, and that it’s going to take effort, repentance and reconciliation in order for it to change.
But we can do it. We can be humble, we can pick up our cross and lay down our swords, and we can retrain our brains to start questioning our biases and our habits. In a post to come I am going to address what’s comes after and how we need to listen to learn not to rebuttal. But for now, awareness is the first step.
My dear readers: this is hard work. This will change your thoughts about people and things and it will unload a ton of crap and ugly that you’ve been carrying around. That will be the red. But together, if we are vulnerable and honest and open we can find blue in it. It will take time, but we will find places of strength that will help us to march forward so that we start seeing people who are different as people and we can being to widen our spheres and love in a way that puts Jesus on display.