“Sawubona.” This Zulu word for hello is much more than a simple greeting. Translated, its intention means “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being.” Understood this way, this word has the potential to reshape the way we see ourselves and others, particularly influencing our social constructions of race and nationalism. Seeing one another appropriately requires the affirmation that all humanity is created in the image of God and thus possesses inherent dignity, value and worth even as we acknowledge our total depravity and dependence on God. This visioning shapes orthodoxy and orthopraxis, which is to say that we pursue right thinking and action, loving God and neighbors as ourselves because we are inextricably linked. Why is it, then, that humanity, and Christians in particular, struggle to connect our biblical principles with our embodied behaviors? Why do we struggle to love others as ourselves? Answers to these questions are emerging as we better understand how the brain works in creating and reinforcing an us-and-them mentality.
Our socialization plays a crucial role in our mental imaging and subsequent behaviors.
Recent scientific discoveries in the field of genetics affirm humanity’s shared ancestry. So any presupposition that one race is superior to another not only denies the truth of the “imago Dei” and the salient equalitarian principle in the biblical doctrine, it also denies sound science. The ways we view and treat one another must align with the truth that all are made in the image of God and therefore deserve the highest level of dignity, value and worth. Unfortunately, the link between our thoughts and our actions are often disconnected when it comes to ingrained socially constructed and conveyed distinctions between us. Our socialization plays a crucial role in our mental imaging and subsequent behaviors.
BLINDED BY VISION
When I was younger, my best friend had all the things I wanted. From name-brand shoes, clothes and bikes to the latest gaming systems, a trampoline and parents who fully funded the purchase of his first car, he had it all. Still, to me, the primary difference between us was our skin and hair color. His being a light peach and easily scorched by the sun, was paired with red, slicked-back “greaser” hair. My middle-brown skin, less susceptible to burns, was matched with wavy black hair cut in a classic chili-bowl design. He got me into wealthy, mostly white, suburban communities through baseball leagues and tournaments, while I got him into lower-socioeconomic-strata inner cities across the United States, where we played high-level AAU basketball with primarily black kids. The financing of our basketball team came through community contributions from change collected on street corners and funds from corporate donors.
Our friendship was rare for many reasons, but mostly because it exposed the two of us to varied racialized lived experiences. It transformed our categorical mental associations, as our brains were riddled with positive experiences that afforded us a gift of cognitive flexibility about race, wealth and poverty. I often wondered if others in our neighborhood had similar mental agility regarding the Other. As we grew older, however, we encountered disconcerting responses that eventually facilitated our drift apart. Our social groupings led us to buy into a racialized, economic us-and-them dichromics, even though we attended some of the most racially, ethnically and financially diverse schools in our city.
Vital religion and true faith must be continuously and collectively cultivated to function in unison.
In retrospect, this drifting is not surprising. Psychologists have identified our brain’s hardwired natural tendency to favor our own group over others. These implicit biases are attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, decisions and actions in an unconscious manner. They are activated involuntarily without awareness or control and have been found to inconsistently align with beliefs or values that many would explicitly endorse. For instance, the Implicit Associations Test shows that when it comes to associating black and white faces with good or bad concepts, the majority of participants associate white with good and black with bad more quickly.
IMPLICIT BIAS IN REFORMED THOUGHT
To be sure, followers of Christ are prone to succumb to negative implicit biases that produce gaps between intentions and actions, particularly in the Reformed tradition as it relates to race. The question that reverberates for me is where Reformed theology went wrong in connecting word with deed in orthodoxy and orthopraxis related to race and nationality. The question is only appropriately presented after affirming the doctrine of humanity and acknowledging the likelihood that early Reformed theologians possessed implicit preferences for whites.
Reformed theology represents a unique branch of the protestant Christian lineage. Stemming from Martin Luther and other theologians such as John Calvin, it advanced a tradition centered on the sovereignty of God and pursuit of precise, scholarly theology. At its core, the Reformed and Calvinist movement contended for biblical tradition and truth that unfortunately, and perhaps because of natural human tendencies toward implicit bias, fostered traditionalism and factionalism. This in turn afforded the foundations of nationalism and racism, embodied in apartheid and scientific racism, which were biblically affirmed in the dehumanization of black and brown peoples.
When Dutch explorers, missionaries and farmers encountered the Koi-San people of South Africa and saw them as more bestial than human, theological biases emerged from unintended yet deceitful exegeses of Scripture. Over time, these theological glitches grew in validity in part because of Abraham Kuyper’s reflections on pluralism, sphere sovereignty and, ultimately, natural theology. The latter should come as no surprise, given what we know now about implicit bias. The Dutch theologian argued that each race had a God-given responsibility to maintain its identity and that each people were chosen for a specific calling with a natural right for survival and self-determination. In the context of South Africa, initial contact with the locals resulted in hierarchical reflections from theologians on the indigenous people’s kinship to beast rather than themselves. This ideology led to the separation and egregious marginalization of Coloured, Indian and indigenous black South Africans and paradoxically restricted the unifying Christian tradition of communion.
In the American narrative, Samuel Morton, a prominent scientist and doctor from Philadelphia in the first half of the 19th century, argued that races had distinct characteristics that corresponded to their divinely determined place in the human hierarchy. Morton’s perspective stemmed from “craniometry,” the measuring the brain space of skulls from around the world, in which size certainly mattered, and showed, from his limited sample, that Blacks or Ethiopians, along with Native American and indigenous peoples, were on the bottom, building toward East Asians and finally whites as the most intelligent of the races.
The lasting effect of such conceptualizations can be seen in a review of the Kerner Commission Report, which shows that biases related to race persist longer than explicitly sanctioned racialized laws, policies and practices. Gains from the civil rights movement saw impressive progress for 10 years. But those gains have stalled and in some cases reversed now that we are 50 years out. Child poverty and wealth gaps have increased, schools and neighborhoods are resegregating, academic achievement gaps have increased, a growing prison population disproportionately contains minorities, and racial and ethnic discrimination is again worsening.
RECOGNIZING OUR BLIND SPOTS
Even though bias is in each of us, we can change our perceptions in hopeful directions of inclusion, justice and peace. The Belhar Confession aids Reformed theology greatly in moving toward God’s intention to restore the world to right relationships. But real commitment not only requires right doctrine but also right deeds – deeds that reflect a beloved community and facilitate reform of the heart and mind. Implicit-cognition research helps us understand the how and why of this phenomenon with the potential to help us begin restoring our vision.
Vision is a deeply valued capacity of the human experience. The ability to see is shared by all vertebrates. But on the retina of each eye there exists a scotoma, or blind spot. In these areas, no light-sensitive cells exist to provide the light a path to the visual areas of our brains. The incredible thing about our minds is that the missing information is filled in using contextual data that help us make sense of what we see. Like visual blind spots, bias blind spots that are hidden leave us unaware of the biases that guide our brains to fill in missing information. Pieces of aggregate knowledge about social groups are gathered in our minds as we encounter information in our distinct national and racial cultural environments. Once they are ingrained in our minds, we become oblivious to their influence on our behavior. Their role is particularly intriguing when we engage various social groups.
Throughout Scripture and history, we see results of blind spots related to seeing and perceiving along with hearing and understanding the truth that Jesus delivered through parables and action. Reformed theology must address its blind spots to be true to itself and the to the gospel it professes. Part of the process is to reject the mental habit of whitewashing or revising history that intentionally and unintentionally dehumanizes dark-complected Others for the sake of uplifting light-complected races. Whitewashing has come in the form of theological storytelling and artistic expressions of divinity with very little acknowledgment of the work of God in other peoples and parts of the world outside of European contexts.
Admitting to the whitewashing of Christian history and scholarship would mean affirming the theological, political and social influence of people outside of Europe on Christianity from inception through today. This is significant particularly because of the surging growth of Christianity globally, which has shifted from Europe to the global South. The Gospel must remain rooted in its purpose, which is good news for all, not just those of a particular race or nation. From Genesis to Revelation, we learn of God’s use of diverse peoples to redeem the world, many of whom we would hold an implicit bias against based on their skin color or nation of origin.
My relationship with my childhood friend caused me to see white people as complexly diverse rather than as homogeneously monolithic. My engagement with white people outside of intimate personal relationships built through environments of education, church or athletics left me as a youth in a position similar to Trayvon Martin’s. My experience admittedly set the foundation for my bias against some white people, which was based on unexplored stereotypes based on treatment I received from racialized Others. Transitioning my heart and mind toward love and affirmation of the “imago Dei” required much work, especially if I were to affirm the truth of my humanity rather than see myself as a threat to and detractor from human progress because of my race. Such change requires persistent reformation in both the viewer and the viewed and results in transformed thoughts, feelings and actions.
Some might argue that this quest to reform the mind of the viewer and the viewed is unnecessary, as our distinctions are a result of natural tendencies to group with similar others who keep us safe. In essence, the argument suggests that God intended humans to function in separate groups. The logic of separate but equal has been espoused by people inside and outside the Christian faith, but for those who profess to follow Christ, orthodoxy must align with orthopraxis. Given our blind spots, we must continue to grow in our understanding the person, nature and role of Christ while increasingly valuing intercultural engagements to ensure the dismantling of depraved theology that counters God’s reconciliation through Jesus.
Tangible steps forward based on the latest brain science suggests a threefold solution of detection, reflection and rejection of habitual implicit biases. The detection and reflection stages center on identifying when and where biased reflections occur and intentionally thinking about where they came from and why. Rejection is simply ensuring that we disallow ourselves to be convinced that the initial thought is the complete story, and the next step necessitates a replacement thought to fill the well-worn mental pathway.
When you see an Other, perhaps detect and reflect on your thoughts, feelings and possible actions. Consider what might it feel like to be them in light of your thoughts. Those initial thoughts help retrain our vision and our behavior for more appropriate alignment with our intentions. The beauty of this practice is that anyone can do it. This process is one of the most rigorously tested and confirmed methods of remedying the mental habit of prejudice. Our quest to affirm the truth of the “imago Dei” depends on our willingness to renew our minds and reform our actions.
A PERMANENT STRUGGLE
What is known of implicit bias is that even with detection, reflection and rejection, it does not go away. While the science has not perfected our understanding of groupiness or overcoming implicit bias, this is the best we can do on the individual level. It’s the best process we have to move us toward systemic change, and it is working. But for followers of Christ, the day we long for, where humanity and creation at large is flourishing, won’t come through science alone but through grace and our subsequent faith in the life, death, resurrection and persistent effect of Christ in and through our lives.
I pray that as we begin digging into our own anthropology and learn to view others as made in the image of God, our treatment of one another will become more inclusive, peaceful and just. Our relationships with others can no longer be separated from our relationship with God. Conforming to the principalities, powers and customs of the world is not an option. We must build relationships that not only cause personal change but also cause reform of the systems within which we function. Close the distance between you and the other mentally, physically and spiritually. The integrity of the gospel is at stake, and we learn from church history that Reformed theology benefited greatly from influences outside of itself. Quakers, Presbyterians and Methodists aided reformers’ opposition to and abolition of slavery. The Presbyterian Church, the Congregational Church, the Methodist Church and the Anglican Church, liberation theology and black theology jump-started the opposition to apartheid that led to the Belhar Confession. Reformed theologians such as Barth, Jonker, Rossouw, Durand and Bosch can still be valued highly, alongside these external contributors if the body of Christ is truly recognized. Implicit bias will continue to infect our reflections on the truth of the “imago Dei,” yet steadfast mindfulness of the call to reform our hearts and minds will serve us well in loving God and our neighbor as ourselves individually and systemically for justification and justice. My prayer is that our optics are forever reformed and always reforming.
Rahn Franklin is director of intercultural student development, Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.
Photo: Vlad Tchompalov, Unsplash