One of my favorite Bible verses appears in the story of Peter visiting Cornelius’ house in Acts 10. In verses 34-35, Peter says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
In this story, Peter was grappling with his categories being blown apart. His long held notions of who he can acceptably associate with or who belongs to God were invalidated. Cornelius was “God-fearing,” but he otherwise did not eat the right foods, worship in the right way, etc.
As I look at our world, I wonder if we should be teaching Acts 10:34-35 during children’s Sunday School just as fervently as we do John 3:16.
There are other verses like it: “God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11). “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism” (Colossians 3:25). “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:8-9).
In these verses, the English word “favoritism” is translating the compound Greek word prosopolempsia, a combination of the words for face/surface and to take/receive. So a literal translation would be: “to take at face value.”
It is sobering to think about how much violence and oppression can be boiled down to hatred of people who are “of the wrong group,” judging their personhood and worth with “face value” criteria. We can at least start to make sense of it—though not excuse it—when someone seeks revenge for harm done to their family, livelihood, etc. “An eye for an eye,” though rejected by Jesus, is at least based on empirical action; a wrong committed. But a far more disturbing human tendency is the way we hate based on an abstract narrative of supremacy. In this space, a person is not guilty because of something they did but because of who they are.
The narratives by which we live are powerful things. David Augsburger once wrote that stories “provide narrative connections and explanations that provide coherent meaning for our lives.”  Stories shape our worldview, whether they are true stories or not. Nigerian author Chimamanda Adiachie masterfully explained these dynamics in a TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” “Show people as one thing and only one thing over and over again,” she said, “and that is what they become.” It can happen in a generation or less. A certain group of people can start believing things like, “They should be subservient to us because of the color of their skin,” or, “This land is ours, they don’t belong here.”
Too often we’re not telling true stories—stories that begin where Genesis begins: that God creates us all, male and female, in God’s image.
April 7 marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, a horrific three-month time span in which hundreds of thousands of the Tutsi people were murdered by the Hutu majority. As it often goes with tribal conflicts, the Hutus and Tutsis had a tense and complicated history. It reached a crucial turning point after World War I when Belgium controlled Rwanda, giving power and legitimacy to the Tutsis because the West perceived them as racially superior. Rwanda’s population is over 90% Christian, and anthropologists don’t even agree on the ethnic and historical differences between the Tutsis and Hutus. But human-defined categories and false narratives had gone on long enough that when a plane carrying Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down (by unknown perpetrators), the systematic torture and murder of the Tutsi people began the following day.
Unfortuately, the Rwandan genocide is not an anomaly. These things have happened all over the world (some on smaller scales, some larger). We’re often disgusted by such things, but hindsight is 20/20. Historically, hatred and violence are not always identified as such as they are happening. It can start slowly or be well hidden behind an ideological veil, charismatic leader, or blind nationalism. Is it enough to condemn atrocities elsewhere and assume we’re not capable of it? Or does any kind of hate, favoritism, or guilt by association have the potential to turn into something major, thus making it essential that we be on our guard?
Here in the United States, we must remember our history and recognize this dangerous mentality in ourselves, even though it has thankfully not resulted in such massive body counts (though the fate of Native Americans during the colonial period may qualify). Think of our enslavement of African peoples. The persecution of Catholics and Jews in the colonial period. The abuse and neglect of the poor working class, like coal miners or Chinese railroad workers. Segregation.
It’s especially hard when we have been threatened or attacked. It’s appropriate and necessary to hold violent perpetrators accountable, but we seem to have a hard time doing so without latching onto a religious or ethnic label and lumping in everyone else of that group. Think of the internment of Japanese Americans during the 1940s, for example.
Today, we continue to create a sad legacy with the way we have treated Muslim Americans after September 11. The NYPD just recently announced it is shutting down its “Demographics Unit,” which illegally spied on U.S. Muslim communities for years without finding a single lead to a terror plot. Even as we remember the Boston Marathon bombing a year ago, few people are aware that white supremacist/nationalist groups have been linked to more deaths in the U.S. since 9/11 than jihadist groups, with Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr. in Overland Park, KS on April 13 being the latest example. With news cameras were rolling, Miller shouted “Heil Hitler!” Consider what national hysteria would have ensued had he shouted, “Allahu Akbar!”
Terrorism is a pressing problem worldwide, with 2012 alone seeing more than 11,000 civilian deaths linked to terrorism. But terrorism is a very complex thing and is not limited to Islam. In the country of Myanmar, Muslims are often the victims, not the offenders. Nor is religion the root of terrorism. Hate is the root of terrorism, and people of any religion are capable of it. We just so happen to live in a time when more of the world’s terrorists claim a Muslim faith. 800 years ago, Christians were the terrorists.
Perhaps the reason God “does not show favoritism” is because God knows all too well that all humans, no matter what group we belong to, are capable of violence (or apathy in the face of it). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23).
In Acts 10, when Peter was first confronted by a world with less boundaries, he first responded, “Surely not, Lord” (Acts 10:14). I fear we still often do the same. But we need more Acts 10 moments—those times when we remember that “the Lord does not look at the things humans look it” (1 Samuel 16:7). Those times when we work, play, and make policy from the standpoint of our shared humanity and Creator. Land borders are man-made. Flags and national anthems are man-made. Ethnic group check-boxes are man-made. But all humans are God-made. What might the world look like if we lived and governed from this truth?