A stereotype can be defined as a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. Stereotyping is a by-product of the way we process information in our minds. Naturally, we create mental categories, where we group similar objects into the same category e.g. we group household objects together as “furniture,” flying animals as “birds” etc. We also tend to group people into categories e.g. when meeting young children, we speak in simple words; when meeting elderly people, we speak with respect; when meeting Chinese-speaking folks, we may switch to Mandarin; when meeting non Chinese-speaking people, we switch back to English. Hence, such mental categorizations are part and parcel of our daily interactions with people of different age, race and language.
However, by definition, stereotypes tend to be oversimplified, and even untrue. Hence, unfair stereotyping leads to prejudice, racism, and even xenophobia. In a multiracial society like Singapore, such issues about stereotype and racism come up often. In order to live harmoniously with one another, we have to learn to understand one another better, instead of stereotyping others unfairly. The church is also made up of people of diverse background; therefore, it is also important for us to be wary of unfair stereotypes, and to treat one another fairly.
Stereotyping is not a new phenomenon, but has been around since ancient times. Even in the Bible, we can read about stereotyping happening. Let us learn from the Bible on how we can deal with the problem of stereotyping.
1. AVOID PREJUDGMENT
“Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see” (John 1:45-46)
When Philip first tried to tell his friend Nathanael about Jesus, Nathanael had his reservations. He asked, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” What a stereotype! This reflected the prejudice that some had concerning the place Nazareth, and concerning those who lived there. Factually speaking, there does not appear to be evidence that Nazareth was a worse city than any other. Nevertheless, such prejudice existed. Knowing that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathanael immediately associated Jesus with “nothing good.”
Obviously, Jesus did not fit that negative stereotype; quite the opposite, Jesus is everything that is good! Jesus is the Son of God, as Nathanael would soon discover (John 1:49). We need to learn not to make the same mistake as Nathanael. Stereotypes are often oversimplified or untrue; hence, we should not be quick to put unfair labels on people. Even if it were true that Nazareth was a place full of bad people, it surely does not mean that every single Nazarene was a bad person! Just because a few ladies are terrible drivers, it does not mean that every single lady is a bad driver! Hence, we must also be careful not to fit a general truth onto every single person – that is unfair stereotyping.
2. IMPROVE PERCEPTION
“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24)
When we make unfair stereotypes, we become guilty of unrighteous and superficial judgment. As Jesus warned us, we must not judge “according to the appearance.” Samuel almost made that mistake when God instructed him to choose a king from Jesse’s house. Samuel saw Jesse’s firstborn, a big, strong man, and immediately thought he must be the chosen king. However, God reminded Samuel that “man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). We should not judge based only on outward appearances, and certainly, we should not look down on those who are of different race and skin color.
In order to avoid prejudice and unfair stereotyping, we should seek to improve our perception of people. As the saying goes, “Looks can be deceiving.” We may not be able to see the heart as God can, but by getting to know a person better, we can make a better judgment as to his character. We need to do two things:
Be acquainted with different cultures. Lest we make an unfair stereotype about other races or nationalities, let us educate ourselves through research, and through conversation, so that we can be enlightened about the DNA of other cultures. Nazareth may have had a bad reputation, but maybe if we took a closer look, it was not such a bad place after all?
Be acquainted with different individuals. Nazareth may be a bad place, but surely not every Nazarene is a bad person. Every individual is different. Before we put a label on a person, we should get ourselves familiar with the person first, or else, we may make the mistake of making unrighteous judgment.
3. AVOID PITFALL
“One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. This testimony is true…” (Titus 1:12-13)
Although many stereotypes are oversimplified and unfair, some may be based on truth. The apostle Paul himself labelled Cretans as “liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons.” Surely, not every single person from Crete was a lazy glutton, but that was the general truth. A Cretan himself admitted as such (Titus 1:12). By divine inspiration, the apostle also knew this to be true (Titus 1:13). Today, we do not receive direct revelation from God about these things. Hence, the best way to know if a stereotype is true is via a person from within the culture itself. To know the characteristics of people from Malaysia, we should ask a Malaysian. To know the characteristics of people from Thailand, we should ask someone from Thailand. As a Singaporean, it may be prejudicial to put labels on persons of other nationalities, but it may be more appropriate for me to identify the stereotypes of my own people.
If we can identify the negative qualities of our own cultures, then we can know where the pitfalls are. There may be certain qualities of Singaporeans that are not desirable: we must avoid those! Having grown up in this culture, it is easy to be blinded and to be influenced to follow those around us. However, as Christians, we must remember that our true citizenship is in Heaven, not on earth (Philippians 3:20). We may be in the world, but we do not belong to the world (John 15:19). Our fellow Singaporeans may be kiasu (a selfish behavior arising from the fear of losing), but we should not learn the same behavior. Our fellow Singaporeans may be materialistic and worldly-minded, but we must not fall into the same trap!
4. IMPROVE PREACHING
“… This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-13)
Since Cretans were identified as “liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons,” the apostle Paul instructs Titus to rebuke them, so that the Cretan Christians can be sound in the faith. It was unacceptable for Christians to tell lies and be lazy gluttons. Though other Cretans may behave as such, the Christians ought not to follow suit! Such behavior goes against the Christian faith. Hence, in order for them to be sound in faith, they had to receive correction from God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16).
It is always important to preach the truth, and to call for men to repent from sinful practices. If it is known that specific sins are rampant within the community, and even in the congregation, then preachers must preach against such. If certain undesirable behaviors are known to be part of the prevalent culture, then there is a high likelihood that Christians would be affected by it as well. If Singaporeans tend to be kiasu, then there is a high chance that Singaporean Christians may struggle with the same issue. Hence, we need to preach sound doctrine and faith!
As Christians, we are blessed to be part of a diverse family, where, despite being of different gender, race and nationality, we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). In order to live harmoniously together, and to be pleasing in God’s sight, let us not make the mistake of unfair stereotyping. Let us not be prejudiced against one another. Instead, let us improve our perception of others. Let us avoid the pitfalls that may be prevalent in our own culture. Let us preach the truth, so that we can help one another to be sound in the faith.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)