God is no respecter of persons (2 Chr 19.7; Rom 2.11). He is never partial nor is He prejudiced. God is righteous in all His judgments. He knows our hearts and motives and does not deal with us in different ways or hold us to different standards because of language, culture or gender. Sadly, the same cannot be said for many people, including Christians. Perhaps now more than at any time in living memory the world is scarred by the consequences of prejudice and "respect of persons" (Rom 2.11, etc).
According to the easily accessible yet sometimes unreliable Wikipedia, "Prejudice is prejudgment, or forming an opinion before becoming aware of the relevant facts of a case. The word is often used to refer to preconceived, usually unfavorable, judgments toward people or a person because of gender, political opinion, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race/ethnicity, language, nationality or other personal characteristics". That seems a reasonable definition of what has become a very popular word.
Research has suggested nearly a third of people in Britain admit to being racially prejudiced. The British Social Attitudes recent survey found the proportion had increased since the start of the century, returning to the level of 30 years ago. Older men in manual jobs were the most likely to say they were prejudiced, but the group recording the biggest rise was educated male professionals. Levels of racial prejudice increased with age, at 25% for 17 to 34-year-olds compared with 36% for over-55s.
Prejudice has been around for a long time in one shape or form. It is obvious from the conversation that the Lord Jesus had with the woman at Sychar's well that there was a great deal of prejudice between Jews and Samaritans: "Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans" (Jn 4.9). Apart from the cultural behaviour between men and women at that time, there was evidently an issue about a Jew speaking to a Samaritan and making such a request. It was this historic animosity between Jews and Samaritans that made the story of the Good Samaritan so powerful (Lk 10.29).
In the church at Jerusalem a problem arose that seemed to highlight existing racial prejudice in the church. "And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration" (Acts 6.1). This continued to be a big issue among Christians as the gospel spread beyond Jewish communities into Gentile areas. The Apostle Peter received a special revelation from the Lord about this matter and travelled to meet Cornelius to bring good news. "Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10.34). As a result Peter spearheaded the change in attitude towards Christians with a Gentile background. There were no longer to be any distinctions made based upon birth, race or religious background. Although the Apostles in Jerusalem accepted this change there were times when the issue raised its head again. Peter got involved in such a dispute at Antioch when he was intimidated by the arrival of brethren from Jerusalem and stopped eating with the Gentile Christians. He was guilty of the same partiality that he had done so much to overcome (Gal 2.11-15). Such prejudice is hard to shift, especially when it has been taught from early years.
Scripture does deal with other forms of prejudice. For example, James wrote about the sin of economic prejudice that is illustrated by the example of evidently rich and poor men coming into the synagogue where the Christians still met in the early days of the church (2.1-4). James points out that it is sinful to discriminate between the two men on the basis of their wealth or social status.
Although the world is becoming a smaller place due to rapid advances in communications and travel, the problem of prejudice remains. There are numerous conflicts throughout the world that are based upon race, religion, wealth and nationalism. Communities are hardened in their prejudices by conflict and the perpetuation of stereotyping. In the UK we have deeply rooted religious and racial prejudice that exists between Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist communities with Protestant and Catholic communities remaining entrenched in their historic animosities. Added to this potent mix is the immigration issue that particularly affects the cities of England.
Does racial prejudice among Christians impact our evangelism? The answer to that question would be hard to determine. There is no doubt that there are difficulties bringing the gospel into communities which have a different language, culture and strong religious hostility to the gospel. There is far less likelihood of apathy compared to the white, working class, nominal Christian communities which have been the traditional areas of evangelism in the UK. The gospel can be an unfamiliar and threatening message with unwelcome associations. It can be seen as the Western religion of the colonial past. In some areas of the UK the gospel is sadly associated with political conflict and the evangelist may face that barrier when spreading the gospel. We ought to challenge our hearts in this matter as immigration, asylum seekers and the European Union have brought people from all around the world to our doorstep. Rather than going into all the world, it does seem that all the world has come to us. Are these new communities isolated from the gospel due to our prejudice? Will people with different ethnicity or religious backgrounds be welcomed or kept at arms length?
Jonah's experience is instructive. As we read the story and seek the challenge from the Lord it may be helpful to change "Nineveh" into whatever ethnic community is nearby. Why not try that area which is populated by Indian, Asian, African, Eastern European or Catholic people. By so doing it will bring Jonah's issues closer to home.
There were historical reasons for Jonah's fear and loathing. Nineveh was the formidable capital of Assyria, one of Israel's greatest enemies. It was founded by Nimrod the great grandson of Noah (Gen 10.6-12) and is described as "an exceeding great city of three days journey" (Jonah 3.3). It had a population of at least 120,000 (Jonah 4.11). However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Jonah's reluctance to go was not a result of Nineveh's intimidating size, nor even the wickedness practiced within its walls. "But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil" (Jonah 4.1-2).
Jonah knew his God. He knew all along that if his enemies repented, God would spare them and that made him angry. He was glad to have a relationship with God and to experience His grace, mercy and kindness but that was as far as it went. It made him angry to think that God would act in the same way towards Nineveh. It really is a remarkably selfish attitude to adopt. He had lost his self-awareness and forgotten that he was no more deserving of mercy than the people he despised. Due to his prejudice he was angry at God for possessing the very attributes that had brought him into relationship with God and upon which he relied for everything. His prejudice had made him an angry, nasty, selfish, ungrateful and unwise person. He ended up sitting on his own, fuming at God, and out of touch with the reality of God's grace.
The question that flows from the sad state of affairs at the end of Jonah's story is one we ought to face. Am I reluctant to evangelize people from other languages, ethnicities or cultures because I do not want them to experience God's grace? Would I rather God saved people that I choose rather than the ones that He has chosen? Do I want to be in fellowship with the people that I consider to be different and from another place? I should rather see such fellowship as a wonderful expression of the impartiality of God and scope of the gospel: Sinhala and Tamil in Sri Lanka, Arab and Jew in Israel, Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland - so we could go on, for these are examples of prejudice which exists everywhere in the world, but ought not to be present among Christians. I surely do not want to be sitting on my own, fuming at God, out of touch with the reality of God's grace.
To be continued.