Breaking down barriers

Prejudice. It’s what happens when we pre-judge, when we make snap judgments about people before we take the time to know them. We make assumptions about their moral character. About their intelligence. Their intentions. Their future.

Their worth as human beings.

But those assumptions are just that — assumptions. We take people’s complex and many-layered stories and reduce them to punchlines. We reduce the people themselves to caricatures and categories. We are “us,” and they are “them.” (And sometimes, we’re not even that sure of the “us.”)

All of this is violence to another’s humanity, even if no punch is thrown and no weapon fired. We take someone created in the image of God and make them over in the image of our expectations. And we do it every day.

Lately, I’ve been reading about Father Greg Boyle’s ministry to the gangs of East Los Angeles, the ministry that birthed Homeboy Industries, a place of refuge for homies looking to escape the hopelessness and violence of gang life in impoverished neighborhoods.

Before getting involved with Father Greg — whom the homies lovingly call “G-Dog” or even just “G” — and Homeboy, gang members would think nothing of beating or shooting a member of a rival gang. Working at Homeboy, however, requires former rivals to work together. At first, they do so only begrudgingly.  Eventually, to their surprise, they become friends and even family to one another, forging bonds of loyalty that can run deeper than any they’ve ever known. They’ve got each other’s backs, like they know G has theirs.

Breaking down the barriers erected by prejudice and reinforced by one’s social group takes sharing some space and getting to know each other as real and complex human beings, as people who can’t be reduced to stereotypes.

Of course, an act of God might also help.

Such stories, I think, help us grasp the next great step in Peter’s development as an apostle. As we saw in the previous post, God sent an angel to a Roman centurion named Cornelius who was stationed in Caesarea. He was instructed to send for Peter, who was staying in Joppa. Cornelius obeyed immediately. As a Gentile, he had little reason to be concerned about sending for and associating with a Jew.

The reverse, however, could not be said about Peter. He would need a bit more convincing. As Cornelius’ men approached Joppa,

Peter went up on the roof [of Simon the Tanner’s house] to pray. He became hungry and wanted to eat. While others were preparing the meal, he had a visionary experience. He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”  Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven. (Acts 10:9-15, CEB)

Scholars note that the description of the animals in Peter’s vision suggests that not all of them were considered unclean. Then why, if Peter was hungry, did he refuse? Did he think he was being tested? Ben Witherington interprets Peter’s response as both a refusal to eat unclean animals, and a refusal to eat clean animals that might be contaminated (“impure” as opposed to “unclean” above) by being in contact with the others.

Three times he was commanded to eat; three times he refused. Then the sheet was taken away and the vision was over, leaving Peter to puzzle over its meaning. And as Witherington also notes, one has to wonder if it occurred to Peter that he had also denied Jesus three times in the courtyard of the high priest.

But not to worry. As we’ll see, Peter will learn what he needs to learn, and the lesson will start taking effect immediately. Peter will be breaking down barriers even before he meets Cornelius.