Imagine a guy who looks like a member of Hell’s Angels—tatted, scruffy, big-bearded, and all black leather—walks into a corporate headquarters in downtown Chicago. Think of a kid in a Bernie Sanders shirt that gives off the scent of weed sitting down in a Young Republicans club meeting. Picture a preacher who looks and talks like John Piper stepping into a gay bar, or that a bartender at the gay bar wandering into a church. In each of these situations, what would happen?
Maybe, if we are hopeful—and if our culture has come as far as we’d like to imagine—all of these outsiders would be treated with respect. The biker, the socialist, the pastor, and the gay guy might all be received kindly.
Shake hands. “Welcome and thanks for coming!” Small-talk.
Wouldn’t that be nice.
It really would be. And, in our better moments, it’s not even that difficult to imagine. Especially in public settings like offices, schools, restaurants, and churches, people tend to lean toward good behavior.
I know, I know; there are plenty of exceptions we could point to, but, in general, respect and tolerance are the order of the day.
Assuming all goes well in each of these situations—encounters with “the other”—my next question is: would the same respect and hospitality play out when there’s no one else around?
Arm’s-length prejudice is the idea that people treat outsiders respectfully in social settings, but avoid or ignore them everywhere else. This means in-group members might present kindness and empathy in public, but they are not likely to form real relationships with members of an out-group.
Arm’s-length prejudice is being fine with “them” at work or church, but restricting them from your home.
Many Christians—and people in general—carry this kind of prejudice. We are very capable with social etiquette. We know how to behave in public. And we are polite and open-minded. Many of us may downright enjoy meeting new and different people. (Sometimes this is just trying to demonstrate our goodness—putting on airs—but much of the time it’s a genuine enjoyment.)
And yet, in our personal lives, that eager welcome of “otherness” vanishes.
Jesus Didn’t Keep Us at Arm’s Length
Arm’s-length prejudice is common. As willful and systematic bias slowly declines, it retreats into a brand of prejudice that is publicly charitable, but personally resistant.
In public, we may be one way. In the privacy of our homes, families, and friend-groups, are we distant?
Jesus did not live this way. He was consistent. He did not discriminate.
When crowds flocked to him, he cared for them. In his public ministry, in the synagogues, on the hillsides, he welcomed and did not repel. Otherness did not control Jesus. Jesus controlled his response to others.
But Jesus’ model did not end in the public square. It extends to the private living room.
Jesus befriended tax collectors and lowly fisherman. He ate with prostitutes and criminals. He invited intimacy with centurions and Pharisees.
Jesus didn’t keep Gentiles at a distance. He did not keep the lowly, lame, and different at arm’s length. He welcomed them all, communing and loving and befriending.
Jesus welcomes us, too.
Perhaps you would be comfortable with someone markedly different sitting the next desk over at work. Maybe you’d be fine with them moving into the neighborhood.
But would you invite them to coffee or the movies? Would you go on vacation with them? Could you imagine marrying him or her?
Jesus didn’t just stomach sinners when they amassed around him. He sought them out and lived every day and night among them.
We must not shun in private who we stand for in public.