What's the issue?
Britain in the 21st century boasts a diverse population, representing different nationalities and ethnicities, beliefs and values. Technological advances have meant that the world is at our fingertips, waiting to be explored and encountered. Many would agree that increasing diversity and multiculturalism is a positive development. After all, ‘variety is the spice of life.’
However, another old proverb teaches that ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ Sociologically, people tend to group with others who are in some ways ‘like themselves’. And when groups form, they tend to base their identity as much on what they are not, as what they are. This often leads to prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination against people who are different to ourselves – whether that difference is based on race, gender, sexuality or religion.
Over the last 50 years, British society has woken up to the reality of prejudice and discrimination and taken steps to change things. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 stated that discrimination on the grounds of gender (i.e. male or female) and marital status was now illegal. The Commission of Racial Equality 1976 was set up under the Race Relations Act of 1975 to deal with complaints of discrimination.
The Act made it:
- Unlawful to discriminate against anyone because of race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins in the sphere of jobs, training, housing, education and the provision of services.
- Unlawful to use threatening or abusive or insulting words in public, which could stir up racial hatred.
- Illegal to publish anything likely to cause (incite) racial hatred.
Schools and employers aim to promote tolerance and acceptance as their key values, ensuring that no-one feels discriminated against on grounds of race or gender.
Where do Christians stand on the issue of prejudice?
The Bible has a lot to say about treating people well, regardless of background or difference. In the Old Testament laws, God repeatedly commands people to particularly care for widows, orphans and “the foreigner in the land” (e.g. Zechariah 7:10). At the time, these people groups were marginalised because they were the poorest, and treated badly or exploited by those with more money and therefore power. (You could argue this still happens today.)
Jesus gave clear teaching about our attitude towards others. One of his most famous sayings is ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ The Good Samaritan – a parable about love crossing racial boundaries – was told in response to a lawyer’s need for clarification of Jesus’ command – ‘but who is my neighbour?’
Finally, the first apostles learnt very quickly that God’s love is for everybody, and the new church community was to be truly inclusive. St Paul writes to one church,
‘Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all’ (Colossians 3:11).
In other words, all the labels people put onto each other about race or gender had no place any more. The picture of the church as a ‘body’ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) makes it clear that everybody is different but of equal value, and St Paul warns against any arrogance or devaluing of people’s contribution. In his eyes, it is that difference working together that makes the Church special.
Despite these positive examples in the Bible, however, the Church over the years has had more than its fair share of criticism regarding prejudice and discrimination. Its changing attitudes over the last couple of centuries shows that is has not got things right, and is learning along with the rest of the world what it truly means – not just to tolerate and accept – but to love.Bookmark