This article was originally published in The Journal Gazette.
Once when I was a student at Louisville Seminary, one of my classes was canceled and the only substitute that fit my schedule was “Feminist Interpretation of the Bible.” It was not a class I had ever intended to take – who, me, a feminist? – and yet there I sat in a class of only seven students:
• One from Hungary, who grew up under communism.
• One from Nigeria, with tribal scars on his face.
• One each from South Korea and Taiwan.
• One American, who had worked among Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank.
• One who had been active in Atlanta politics and civil rights.
• And me, someone who had never been outside Indiana and thought this class wouldn’t have much to offer! Maybe God already knew I had a lot to learn.
In an early class, our professor, Johanna Bos, asked each of us to share an experience of prejudice. I told about being a new freshman at Indiana University-Bloomington and meeting girls on my dorm floor. Later one of the girls commented about another one, saying, “Boy, she sure is Jewish!”
I didn’t know anyone who was Jewish, so I asked: “How do you know?”
Her: “Well, because she looks Jewish!”
Me: (pause) “What do Jewish people look like?”
She continued to express her views in an unhelpful way, and suddenly a bad seed had been planted in my mind about people of the Jewish faith. As the saying goes, “We have to be carefully taught.”
After telling this story in my wonderfully diverse seminary class, I ended by saying I was saddened that my innocence had been shattered by that early university experience. A seed of prejudice was planted where previously there had been only a seed of ignorance.
My professor’s response shocked me: “What gives you the right to be innocent and unaware of prejudice?” What I didn’t know about my professor was that she was from the Netherlands and grew up under Nazi occupation during World War II. She had seen the power of individual and systemic prejudice and evil. She had seen others put their lives on the line to save Jews in her Dutch village and others who collaborated with the Nazis or simply did nothing.
I gradually came to understand and respect her outspoken voice on the seminary campus on behalf of the rights of disempowered others – women, prisoners, minority groups and the LGBTQ community. Her words and actions all began to make sense. And I thought I had nothing to learn in a class about feminism!
An unknown author once said: “Don’t tell me what you know until you tell me where you’ve traveled.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that, and while traveling the world can broaden your perspective, sometimes all we need to do is travel across the street or around the block to learn something different or meet someone new.
Only by getting to know others – those with different experiences, who come from different cultures and faith traditions, and especially those with different opinions – can we broaden our own understandings and combat the prejudice that continues to persist among us. But more than that, we must also ask ourselves how we contribute to oppressive systemic injustice that is damaging to the lives of others.
As an educated, upper-class white woman, am I not only blind to the oppression and injustice faced by others, but also part of the problem because my security is invested in the world not changing?
As a person with money in the bank and retirement investments for my future, am I afraid to make changes to our local and national economy that might benefit others or cost me something?
Instead of being afraid of what will happen to me if I act, shouldn’t I be more afraid of what will happen to others if I do not? I not only have a responsibility to help eradicate prejudice in the world and my community, but also the responsibility to change my behavior in perpetuating prejudice and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves.
What gives any of us the right to do anything less?