“She’s a ‘criminal!’ ”
Such was the harsh comment and intended conclusive description of my new friend after I described our recent visits to an acquaintance. Unlike this self-righteous confident observer, however, I actually knew her personally as a fine and model individual locked in a current set of unfortunate circumstances. Regardless of her past and why she was incarcerated, my friend dealt quite well with not only how to survive but actually truly to live in a rough environment.
Thus, I found the stereotyping and inability to see beyond the “criminal” classification revolting. I thought disdainfully of the accuser: “What a myopic idiot.” I realized my hypocrisy, however, because I might have rushed to the same dismissive conclusion about my friend before I really got to know her.
Classifying people is unavoidable in our culture. Groupings in some circumstances are helpful and even protective. Labels also can serve an introductory role, such as “she’s a runner” or “he’s a teacher.” Interestingly, people often prefer to introduce or identify themselves with reference to one or more groups, using the tags like brand names of sorts.
Unfortunately, however, branding others also can be used to stigmatize them. The practice sometimes reeks of condemnation and discrimination, including in religious settings. Characterizing someone in a harsh tone as a “conservative,” “zealot” or “liberal” typically is not a sign of endearment or wanting to spend quality time together.
At a minimum, group characterizations such as these can inhibit meaningful dialogue and true relationships.
“The Faith Club” is a beautiful and refreshing autobiographic account of open and respectful communication between a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian. The three authors are all mothers of small children in post-9/11 New York City. Theirs is a compelling story of courage, self-examination and growth. It is a model for constructive interfaith and intrafaith dialogue.
One especially telling section of the book is entitled “Stop Stereotyping Me!” The women each wrestle honestly and courageously with their preconceived images of the other two. At the outset, instead of unique individuals, they are instead respectively “Christian,” “Muslim,” and “Jew” accompanied by certain negative and unfair culturally induced images.
Further, each woman realizes to some extent self-conscious attempts to avoid being victimized by imagined stereotypical judgment of the others. One of my favorite, watershed type lines in “The Faith Club” is when Suzanne Oliver says: “…now it was time to take off our uniforms and begin talking about the real people underneath.” It was true of how they viewed one another as well as themselves. As a result of their deliberate interaction, the authors end up becoming true and supportive friends with an authentic, real-life appreciation of their own and other religious traditions.
I have been writing my “criminal” friend for several years. I also visit her periodically at the prison. She is a model Christian in many ways. She is humble, thankful and kind. She listens more than she talks. She has more genuine and caring interest for me than many people I have known in my life. Although she does not understand a lot of what has happened to her and she lives in a very challenging setting, my friend does not appear bitter. She often thanks me for my time and friendship, but I am the primary recipient of God’s grace through her.
Before my friend initially wrote me a letter, we did not know anything about each other. I worked though false perceptions and images, as I expect she did about me. Essentially, I was afraid of moving ahead with communication, and later, after months of writing, I feared even more going to the prison to visit with her. Fear drives and moreso inhibits so much in life, including the negative use of labels for people and failure to work beyond them to really see the person.
Christian and Jewish scriptures are full of the admonition: “Do not be afraid.” As we encounter others who seem different or foreign to us, if we sense these gentle words to relax and open ourselves a bit, we might well encounter unexpected blessings and end up understanding and bettering ourselves in the process.