Our minds are constructed to discriminate; to filter out unnecessary information received by our senses. If you doubt this sit quietly for a moment or two and listen. What noises are suddenly obvious that must have been there the whole time. Perhaps you’ll hear the tick of a clock, the whirl of a fan, or the song of a bird. With really good hearing you may even hear your own heartbeat and the sound of your own breath. But turn your thoughts elsewhere and those sounds retreat again to the unnoticed background. Those noises were there the whole time but our minds determined, without our bidding or direction, that they’re not important. The problem is when we allow this wonderful ability to impact our valuation of people.
The New Testament Letter of James practically speaks to this issue of discrimination and judgment which we all must tackle. Please look up and read the entire passage of James 2:1-13, for reasons of space I won’t reprint all of it here.
James writes, “My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?… doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?” (James 2:1,4, NLT) Between verses one and four James provides a scenario, probably an occurrence witnessed or reported to him, of how someone rich visiting a service was given preferential treatment while someone poor was relegated to the corner.
The trouble, of course, is that we’re built to discriminate and make preferential judgments. We prefer our own likes and dislikes. We prefer gain; whether that is monetary, prestige, or even acceptance. We even prefer our own family. There is a God instilled nurturing reason why parents prefer their children. We can’t help but not discriminate, judge, and show favoritism when it comes to our kids. But there are also areas of life where God demands we turn off our discriminating engine.
A bit later in the passage, James writes, “it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.” (James 2:8-9, NLT) Jesus redefined “who is our neighbor” in Luke 10:25-35; the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Bottom line? Everyone is my neighbor. The cashier at the convenience store. The homeless wandering the street. The rich man lost in his accounts. Those living the dream. Those experiencing the nightmare of war, poverty, famine, and discrimination. Even those I’ve filtered from view, they’re my neighbor too.
James describes the joy of impartiality in terms of mercy. The New Living Translation puts it this way, “There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.” (James 2:13, NLT) Or consider “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13, NASB95) I don’t know about you but I need God’s mercy. But there are also other joys experienced in this temporary moment before that time judgment.
Consider the simple act of bringing joy to someone else’s day. Leaving smiles in our wake instead of sorrow. The first step is seeing others as people and not just cogs in the machinery. The clerk at the gas station is a person with hopes, dreams, issues, and struggles. The person in the slow moving car blocking our path is created in the image of God. The janitor that cleans our office space, how can we bring a smile to their face? When we see people as machinery then smiles are not required. What’s the joy in that!? This all begins with turning off our engine of discrimination in regards to people.
We also have this other tendency to overcome. The tendency to judge whether someone is deserving of being valued. We may see them as a person and recognize that they are not just part of the landscape. Perhaps even recognizing the divine spark of God’s creation in them and still judge them as being unworthy of our favor or attention for any number of seemingly rational (but really irrational) reasons. Those irrational reasons could be their heritage, their cultural expressions, their politics, their theology, or their sin. Once judged we toss them into the landfill of irrelevant and unwanted. Mercy denied.
Every generation of the church has struggled with finding the lines between welcoming and valuing the person while not affirming sin. The problem of judging between sins is a discrimination of a different kind. James is clear in this, “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws.” This doesn’t mean that we ignore sin and anything goes. It means we are equally concerned with the gossip as we are the adulterer. We call all to repentance, all to turn from sin and towards Jesus.
The issue of endurance in discrimination and judgment is just that – enduring. It’s easy to do a few things once in a while to make us feel good and confirm we’re not judgemental. Like giving money to a charity or serving the homeless once a year. All well and good, perhaps even an excellent starting place. But if we fail to grow past that we’re not enduring. Turning off our engine of discrimination and seeing value in all people must be an intentional, deliberate, every day and every moment choice.
Our culture tells us that X, Y, and Z discrimination are wrong. But what happens when X and Y collide? Who wins? That’s the problem with culturally defined rules, they must choose winners and losers. One thing must be valued above another which is also a form of discrimination. Sorry if I just killed your sacred cow. As soon as X, Y and Z are identified we emotionally debate their relative merits and lose the foundational message of loving our neighbor. God’s anti-discrimination plan is not the world’s.
If we all truly loved our neighbor as ourselves like Jesus taught, if we all valued one another as beings created in the image of God (even though flawed and stained with sin), if we all left smiles in our wake instead of sorrow, then favoritism, judgmentalism, and discrimination would be no more. This doesn’t mean we would all have equal outcomes but that we would all be valued and treated with grace, kindness, and dignity. Then mercy would indeed triumph over judgment.
Sure, in a practical sense this vision is impossible, the human heart is bent towards sin and self. But for those of who have been forgiven at the cross and received God’s mercy, it is the way of Jesus which we must follow.