There was a time when the word “stereotype” confused me. To me, a “stereo” was a record player with a left and right speaker. A step up from “mono” record players. Silly me. We all know that a stereotype is a broad stroke, often derogatory, assumption that a group of folks act, speak, or are motivated in a consistent way. That group could be defined by any number of identifiers. Race and gender quickly come to mind. But it could literally be anything.
Here are some stereotypes identifiers that I’ve encountered: race, gender, nationality or tribe, employer, job/career, education level, degree program, and political alignment. Also, choice of car, motorcycle, tractor, or truck, geographic location, lifestyle, religion, denomination, doctrinal positions, physiological or physiological differences, age, identified generation, hobbies, body weight, exercise regiment, hair color, language, disability, branch or rank of military service. Tired yet? And that’s only the beginning.
So far, all we’ve proven is that something in our makeup leads us towards tribalism and stereotypes. Now, to be fair, stereotypes can be in jest or harmful. They can identify positive or negative traits. Some have a nugget of truth, some are blatant lies meant to stir emotions or dehumanize. Either way, however, they take a shortcut and devalue each other’s individualness (if I may coin a word).
What does the Bible say about it? Consider this from Paul, “For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain. One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith.” (Titus 1:10–13, NASB95) Paul provides a stereotypical statement concerning people from Crete as being rebellious, empty, upsetting, and worthy of strong disdain.
Just to clarify one point. When Paul says, “this testimony is true” he wasn’t endorsing what the quote said but that the quote is what he heard and is not just a rumor. But continuing the thread about Cretans, we can add one more grain of truth.
Most are familiar with Acts chapter two and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. In verses 8-11 of that chapter, we read, “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” (Acts 2:8–11, NASB95) Did you see it? Cretans are included in the list of languages the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to speak that day. If Cretans were all so unworthy of the kingdom of God (according to the false prophet Paul quotes), why then did God include them in that special Pentecost moment? Could it be that God sees the heart, and we only go skin deep?
A bit further in Acts, we see a stereotype fall. Before this point in time there is an assumption that the Gospel was only for Jewish folk. Non-Jewish, called Gentiles in the Bible, were not acceptable. But through a series of events, God opened a door for Peter. He went, entered a Gentile house (breaking Jewish Law), and began to preach. But, before he finished, the Holy Spirit showed up and those Gentiles spoke in tongues as the disciples did in Acts 2. Peter exclaimed, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality.” (Acts 10:34, NASB95)
Whether a stereotype has a seed of truth or is an outright falsehood holding it keeps us from seeing what God sees; individuals with value, uniqueness, talents, abilities, gifts, and experiences. Each one different, each one loved by God. Just like Paul’s statement to Titus, ill-meaning folks will use stereotypes to divide and devalue to gain money, power, and respect. As followers of Jesus, we must recognize and rebel against stereotypes of all forms. We start by removing our own blinders of assumptive bias and begin to see others as individuals loved by God. Perhaps they are flawed and a sinner – so are you, so am I. God knows that far better and loves them (and us) just the same. That’s our rebellion against stereotypes, we choose to love, engage in listening, and to value each other. Something our divided world desperately needs to experience right now.