I live along a country road that winds through a coastal river valley starting at one bay and reaching another. At one end of this idyllic road sits a shingled cottage with a hand-built stone wall out front covered each summer in tiny magenta flowers, and a large camellia bush presently blooming, dropping pink petals by the minute. At this house, a greenhouse takes up most of the yard. When you drive past the house at night you see a peace sign, crafted of large string lights, emblazoned on the side of the house, greeting you as you travel south into the lush valley.
At the same end of my idyllic road is a house situated behind a tall privacy fence that largely blocks the view of the house to passersby. The small driveway is home to a white muscle car with racing stripes, and a prominent flagpole sits at the front of the property. Each day on this flagpole waves a red and blue confederate flag—visible to every daytime traveler turning onto my road.
What do you think about these houses based on the descriptions? How do they make you feel? What images do you sketch around the details I have offered, images that come from your own assumptions and experiences? Perhaps you envision the first cottage being home to a NPR listener who teaches yoga and grows her own sprouts. And maybe the second house to a gun aficionado and Trump supporter who consumes a lot of Big Macs. Our brains are skilled at rapid association; we barely think about the details as our brains fill in the gaps.
What I have not told you is that all of the aforementioned details describe the same house. One and the same little cottage—an amalgam of symbols and images. An abode that waves a confederate flag by day and shines a peace sign by night. Those who pass the house after dark see only the peace sign. And those passing by day see only the flag, as the lights of the peace sign are dark. I do not know the residents of the house, but I’m fairly certain they aren’t social-scientists cleverly messing with our heads. They are simply an American family who favor two symbols that many struggle to reconcile.
The little cottage on the corner intrigues me and forces me to wrestle with stereotypes. All of our brains use stereotypes as cognitive shortcuts that compact complex information into highly efficient, quick thought-packages. One time these mechanisms served our evolutionary survival. For whatever reason, stereotypes, or implicit biases, are rampant, and researchers find they literally alter our vision. They can cause us to see an image of a white female face as happy and a black face as angry, even when the images flashed before our eyes convey the exact opposite expression. Somehow we see what we expect to see based on what we’ve learned from the barrage of cultural cues coming at us in various environments.
The parable Jesus told about the man beset by robbers and assisted by a stranger, a story often titled the Parable of the Good Samaritan, takes on stereotyping—even if the brain’s stereotyping mechanism was not understood in the first century. According to the account in Luke, a lawyer was testing Jesus. Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, “what is the key to eternal life,” with an ancient formula: To love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In response, the lawyer—still testing Jesus—retorted, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’ teachings and actions often aim to challenge our preconceptions and transform our consciousness. In the radical and challenging Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus upsets our cognitive apple carts around that question: “Who is my neighbor?”
The story he tells is familiar: A man is traveling through the desert when he is robbed by bandits who beat him almost to death. As he lays suffering, he is encountered first by a priest, then a Levite. Both pass on the other side of the road, ignoring the man’s need. The beaten man, a Jew, is then encountered by a Samaritan.
Now for those from Galilee and Judea where Jesus lived and taught, Samaritans were considered enemies. The very mention of the word “Samaritan” likely conjured feelings of distrust, judgment, and perhaps disgust. Samaria was a region of Israel that had been in conflict with Judea for centuries and had established its own religion—a version of Judaism considered unorthodox by others in Israel. Galilee remained aligned with Judea. Because of their differences and events in the distant past, both Judeans and Galileans shunned Samaritans.
In the story, the Samaritan who encounters the beaten traveler “takes pity on him,” attends to his wounds, transports him to an inn to care for him, and when he leaves, charges the man’s care to his own personal Visa. Therefore, when the lawyer who tests Jesus asks “who is my neighbor,” Jesus answers with this image of neighborliness from someone the audience expects to be nefarious. The beaten traveler and the Samaritan are supposed to be enemies, Samaritans are supposed to be crooked, yet the actions of this Samaritan rattle these stereotypes. In the ears of his listeners, Jesus is saying that the good men acted poorly, and the despicable foe exemplified compassion and neighborliness. So who is my neighbor that I am to love? It is everyone, even the ones I am predisposed to call enemies. Neighbor includes those I am least likely to see as neighbor according to my biases.
If we are sufficiently self-aware, we can transpose this story in our own imaginations, replacing the characters according to our own stereotypes and biases. In your personal version of the parable, who is the “despicable foe” that plays the neighborly helper? We cannot really understand this story, or how Jesus attempts to widen the consciousness of his audience by telling it, until we substitute for “Samaritans” a group we intensely dislike, a group we tend to varnish with an unforgiving, broad brush. A person we have been taught to hate. If you transpose the parable in this way, if you really sit with the challenge of it, I promise you will feel in your cells how confrontational and unsettling was this teaching of Jesus.
Biases are probably no more common today than in the past, but our exposure to so much information makes them seem so. In any case, it is apparent that polarization is rampant. The important thing to remember is that biases can be unlearned and stereotypes dismantled. It takes mindfulness to see when we are operating using stereotypes, and it takes effort to stop ourselves and retrain our brains. “To be transformed by the renewing of our minds” to use a Pauline phrase.
Another issue the little cottage on the corner brings to mind, with its glittering peace sign by night and fluttering confederate flag by day, is how we have only part of the picture. In fact, the details we are given in different situations are often carefully curated to manipulate our emotions and opinions —whether by media, government officials, a friend telling a story, or Russian bots. For example, at the time I wrote this essay the Trump administration was launching airstrikes against the Syrian regime. We were told the US could not sit back and do “nothing” after “beautiful babies,” innocent women and elderly people were gassed to death. Yet when these same human beings fell under the category of “Syrian refugees,” we were manipulated into seeing them as risky, as potential terrorists we must keep out of our country.
Be mindful of the details you are given.
Talk out of Washington regarding North Korea frequently escalates a troublesome, horrifying, seemingly impossible relationship. As the situation progresses, we can be mindful of our stereotypes. We can scrutinize what the term “North Korean” conjures in us, all the biases, all the carefully curated details that give rise in us to certain notions and feelings about the North Koreans. Where do these notions and feelings come from? At times of conflict, it is especially important to stay mindful of the ways we are led around by our biases, easily bent into believing we are “on the right side” in situations we don’t understand, when what we are not told is just as important as the veracity of the details we are given. Causes that are trumpeted by those in power are trumpeted for a reason. Meanwhile, global atrocities we hear little about are downplayed for a reason—for strategic purposes or because they’re committed by US allies or associates of those in power.
“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is asked. What he says in reply unsettles all of us, if we listen.