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Taking Responsibility for Inherited Prejudice

It was an incredibly hot day and I was selling Jesus junk at a Christian bookstore when she came in. She had on a pretty, eggshell-colored sleeveless summer dress and she was asking about a Donald Miller book.

And from under her arms burst more armpit hair than I had ever seen anywhere. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but it looked like she had a 1986-era Jon Bon Jovi in a headlock.

It quite literally made me nauseous.

Let’s be honest

Hopefully I am not going to reveal any secrets or give away any genetic spoilers relating to gender here, but her ability to grow underarm hair is just as natural as mine. Right!?

So why would I expect her to present herself differently?

As far as we can tell it wasn’t until the earliest twentieth century that American women started shaving under their arms. You’d be hard pressed to find many photographs of shaven women in the U.S. prior to 1915. Some credit Canadian-born filmmaker Mack Sennett to encouraging women to shave for swimming scenes in his films.

For whatever reason, it became the norm. I’m not sure why. Is it because men like to imagine that women exist in a constant state of prepubescence? I honestly wouldn’t be surprised. Many fashionable trends seem to perpetuate a male fantasy of feminine timelessness.

How culture shapes us

It’s obvious how culture would encourage us to choose one thing over another—even something that’s completely unnatural.

If you see something enough, you begin to presume that it’s natural—and begin to question things that are completely normal. It wasn’t just the fact that I was turned off by this woman’s underarm hair that surprised me, it’s the fact that I had an actual visceral, physical reaction to it.

This is how culturally conditioned I was. (This was nearly two decades ago. I’m much more sophisticated now—I hope.)

The problem with church culture

I see this same phenomenon constantly in Christians. The environment we grow up in dramatically colors the way we respond to things, but we don’t necessarily see how much we’re conditioned.

We assume that our responses to things are informed by our faithfulness to Scripture, but it’s often shaped just as much (if not more) by our background.

When many Christians approach poverty culture, homosexuality, feminism, racial issues, or any number of topics, their internal/physical/defensive/combative reaction is often colored by marinating in a self-perpetuating stew of prejudice.

It’s not your fault that your culture of origin colors your ability to be objective. But eventually it becomes your responsibility to be self-aware enough to question it. One way you do this is by becoming a student of your physical/emotional reaction. When your response is more dramatic than simple intellectual opposition, it’s time to ask yourself why.

Why am I having such a strong response to this issue, idea, or person? Why do I feel this fight or flight response welling up in me? You’re going to find that you’re perspective is colored by cultural group-think.

Have you ever found this to be true of you? Are there areas where you’ve discovered that your strongly held feelings were more inherited than earned? Leave me a comment and tell me about it.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. This post is incredibly insightful and I will have to admit I believe I am influenced by culture group-think dynamics as well! Wow. This post is a must share! 😊Thank you!

    August 13, 2014
  2. This is so true, Jason. We tend to think our negative emotional response to anything we encounter that’s different than us is “natural.” It’s not. So much of what we feel is culturally influenced. Our “gut reactions” are not always reliable.

    I’m old enough to remember how I used to feel about things like corporeal punishment, the legitimacy of authority, and the role of women, for example, and I notice how, even subconsciously, my attitudes toward these issues have changed. It’s totally a result of changes in my culture.

    This would not be a problem if our culture were shaped by God’s truth. Since it’s not, we need, more than ever, to be self-aware, culturally aware, and biblically aware. We have to be able to carefully sift through what the world around us thinks about truth, evaluate it according to what God’s Word says about truth, and deliberately choose to embrace God’s view of every issue or situation, even when our gut, fight-or-flight, reaction, shaped by our culture, urges us to react against it.

    This works both ways, however. We need to be careful on both fronts. For example, our Christian culture has indoctrinated us to react negatively toward homosexual people because of our aversion to the particular kind of sin they indulge in. But if our culture is truly Christian (biblically shaped), we should feel a comparable aversion to every sin the Bible speaks about, especially the ones we each commit on a regular basis! And we need to be very careful to separate out our negative response to SIN from our responses to PEOPLE (like us) who commit sins.

    We need to recognize the influence of the secular humanistic culture in North America on our thinking, for sure. But at the same time we need to recognize that there are wrong influences that have crept into our Christian cultural views as well. Our version of truth, as Christians, is not always biblically based. What we assume are “christian” influences in our culture are too often contaminated by our sinful human nature.

    Perhaps more than ever in the history of the human race we need to become as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. We need to seek Truth, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, based on the Word of God, and apply this truth to our thinking from both a secular and a “christian” cultural perspective. But one of the biggest truths in God’s Word is the supremacy of Love. We need to speak the TRUTH in LOVE. Neither of these two truly Christian ideals should be sacrificed to the other. That means we need to LOVE those who differ with us, even as we hold on to the unchanging reality of God’s TRUTH, in our culture as in all cultures, past, present and future.

    August 13, 2014
  3. froginparis #

    Why? is the best start to any adventure of discovery. For me, it was something I grew up asking in order to keep my sanity within my family of origin.

    BUT, the real epiphany started after I moved out. Living in a college town at 20, working a full time job I asked myself this question-why would a girl choose an abortion. The result was an hour filled with thoughtful scenarios which all began with the word “If.”

    If I hadn’t been raised in a Christian home…
    If my parents were more abusive…
    If the life the child would be born into was…

    I haven’t stopped asking “Why” or answering with “If…”

    August 13, 2014
  4. Funny. I had an encounter with this just this morning. A driver had misjudged and was stopped in the crosswalk at a red light so we pedestrians had to go around his van to cross the street. It was rush hour, so he couldn’t back up to get out of the way. When I noticed the driver was Asian I rolled my eyes thinking “of course”. Then I caught myself. I blushed. When I have confessed to friends that I’m a racist, they are quick to argue. I have disciplined myself well enough to not say things out loud and to questions others when they do, but in my heart of hearts, I’m a low down stinkin’ racist. I was raised by unabashed racists, and man, some stuff is tough to unlearn. I guess that makes me an abashed racist, but a racist none the less. God help me.

    August 13, 2014
  5. Tim #

    My reactions to homeless humans have been unsavory as of late.

    A few years ago, I was working in Indiana for a predominantly middle-class, hard-working church. A man called the office and asked for money to wash his sheets at a laundromat because the garage he was staying in leaked and got all his stuff wet…the first reaction was, “Awesome story dude. How about I just drive you to the liquor store myself?”

    The man took public transport and arrived at the church. I gave him $30 to wash his stuff. I shook his hand. We spoke for about 20 minutes. I asked to pray with him. We joined hands and I began to pray. After saying, “Amen,” I expected him to thank me and walk off. He gripped my hands tighter and prayed to God saying, “Thank you for my new friend.”

    I don’t really remember what else he prayed, but I do recall feeling loved by a nearly complete stranger and it gave meaning to my day and life…FAR removed from my jaded, prejudiced thoughts from earlier that day.

    If CHRISTIANS have prejudiced thoughts towards the very people God calls us to tend to, we are wearing a completely different yoke than Jesus gives.

    August 14, 2014
    • Thank you for that completely transparent story. It’s true.

      August 14, 2014

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