With so many people entrenched and seemingly ready to fight to the death over the upcoming election, scrolling social media or turning on the news can feel hopeless. The voices I hear are loud. Some of them are my family and close friends. Some are co-workers, a few are total strangers, some are on the radio or TV or podcasts. The one thing they all have in common is that they are deeply passionate about their point of view and often completely unwilling to see things from another perspective. I am ashamed to admit that I recently found myself caught unconsciously perpetuating the kind of polarizing stereotypes that are a part of the problem when I received a seemingly benign email from a new co-worker:
“I know we haven’t met yet, but can we meet up after our staff meeting next week?” Even though his message was vague, I knew in my gut why he wanted to talk. I had been in a large team meeting where I sat staring at a black backpack at the feet of a guy I recognized vaguely as being a part of our team from Kentucky. It was a big, bulky military-grade bag that sported a bold velcro patch with an image of a dangerous looking handgun. As I sat there—perhaps like many of us sensitized to guns due to mass shootings—I wondered, did he have a gun in his bag at this very moment? Why did he love guns so much that he had to tell the world about it? These thoughts and the images they conjured must have still been on my mind as I walked into another meeting.
I work on a predominantly male creative team that can sometimes feel a bit like a locker room full of jokes and funny stories shared to entertain and connect with teammates. Usually, I am more wet blanket than a participant in this banter, but for some reason on this particular day, I decided to throw my hat into the “I can make you laugh with my funny story and witty social commentary” ring. Waiting for everyone to arrive, we were joking around and making conversation. We were talking about stereotypes, and I brought up the backpack. In a sarcastic and jokey way, I said something to the effect of, “Well, folks from Kentucky are really not helping kill stereotypes when they walk around with big black bags advertising they are packing heat.” This led to some chuckles and some other comments in the room about other stereotypes like people who put political bumper stickers on their cars etc. It wasn’t mean spirited. It was just an easy way to get a laugh using cultural commentary.
I knew everyone in the room, and none of this struck me as inappropriate in the present company until the meeting was called to order. “OK, I think everyone is here, let’s get started, we have our team from KY with us.” I looked around the room. No one I could see was from Kentucky. Then I noticed “The Owl” sitting in the middle of the conference table and realized we were video conferencing. The Kentucky team could see/hear us, but we could not see or hear them. I experienced a brief “ping,” wondering if anything I said could have been hurtful. I felt fine joking with my peers in the room who I knew and knew me and my good intentions, but if someone didn’t know me, how would they feel about what I had just said?
As I suspected from his email, my Kentucky teammate had indeed been on the video conference and heard me talking about his backpack without knowing who he was as a person, what he cared about, or believed. He heard himself getting shoved into a box, made a stereotype by a person who had not bothered to ask him directly about why he sported that patch. Of course, that hurt. No one likes to be misunderstood or labeled or judged. It made him feel unknown and like an outsider like he did not have a place at the table. I would have felt exactly the same way had the tables been turned.
I felt terrible and wondered what had come over me? I follow Jesus, who, according to the Bible, gives every single person immeasurable value, including everyone who doesn’t look or act like me. I pride myself on being cross-culturally sensitive because growing up, I had been the minority. I learned early on that people who were different than me—skin color or accents or experiences and backgrounds—had an equally important place at the table. People I love and respect own guns. So why was I using a stereotype to get a laugh at someone’s expense? Had I unwittingly been drinking the Kool-aid of a country who is increasingly divisive and divided? In consuming my daily dose of FB opinions with a side of national news, had I slowly been poisoning myself with toxic thinking like—if you love guns and want the world to know it, you are irresponsible and do not care about mass shootings? Or deeper than that—the idea that people who are not like me can’t be trusted. Had I caught the disease of polarization without realizing it?
I had two choices. I could try to defend myself and say, “it was just in good fun, lighten up,” or I could own that using stereotypes to make people laugh was more important to me at the moment than exercising empathy and do something called, “repent.” This is a word that is often misunderstood and might even come with negative associations for many like having to sit in shame or punish yourself. But repentance is actually an incredibly powerful secret weapon that when practiced correctly brings freedom. It’s bigger than an apology—it’s seeing where you went wrong and choosing to change directions.
Thankfully my co-worker had the maturity and grace to reach out to me to talk about it. I realized that I would likely not have done the same if I was in his position. I might have been offended and stewed on it. Maybe I would have told some friends and my husband what had happened and developed a small, silent grudge. It is possible I would have allowed my heart to become more polarized by having been judged by someone who didn’t know me. It required great spiritual maturity for him to confront me and pursue the kind of healthy community outlined in the Bible.
There’s a verse found in Matthew 18:15 that says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” I listened. He won me over. I repented. He forgave me. Now instead of being polarized by cultural stereotypes, we have a relationship. We can even joke and laugh together about it.
What I learned is that it’s so easy first to notice our differences and push away from things we don’t understand. It can be intimidating to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know who might make you uncomfortable because they are different from you. It may be outside of your comfort zone to do the work of finding commonality–things that could be true of very different people like what I discovered when my co-worker and I did sit down and talk. We both have young kids. We both sometimes feel out of place around new people. We both care deeply about our communities, our country, and following Jesus.
Could it really be that simple? For me? For our country? Yes and no. Repentance is not always easy. It requires large doses of humility. Forgiveness can be really difficult when you have been wronged and requires an abundance of grace. But both are possible when you have experienced receiving a gift of mercy you didn’t deserve. In my life, the most radical act of mercy I have ever experienced is the gift of Jesus giving His life to pay the price for my sin. The healing power of receiving and then giving this kind of unconditional love and forgiveness is the only cure I have found for the polarizing stereotypes that ail us both personally and as a nation.