Rector, Casey Shobe Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
February 3, 2019
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Unconscious Bias


This week’s story picks right up where we left off last weekend: Jesus has returned home to Nazareth after several months away to be baptized and then fast and pray alone in the wilderness. When he returns home, he stands in the synagogue and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor;

he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.”

“Today,” he then says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke tells us that everyone seemed to like what he had to say. Nazareth was a very small town, and so it’s not hard to picture them swelling with pride at the sight of Mary and Joseph’s boy demonstrating such righteousness and maturity. Rumor had also apparently reached them of some of the amazing things he’d done in Capernaum, so they were probably eager to see for themselves how he was changed from his travels. Anyway, they like him, and they like what he has to say. At least for a moment.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He is not going to be their hometown boy made good, who does what everyone expects, always says nice, polite things, and is sure to root for the home team. He didn’t come home to run for mayor. Which is why Jesus doesn’t just roll up the scroll and sit down. Instead, Jesus reminds them of two extremely uncomfortable stories from Scripture: that time the prophet Elijah helped a Gentile widow during a devastating famine, another about the prophet Elisha healing the leprosy of a man named Naaman, who was an officer in the army of one of Israel’s greatest enemies. These are stories about God’s power to heal and save, but inconveniently they happened to the absolute wrong sorts of people. It is not an exaggeration to switch “widow of Zarephath” with “widow of El Salvador” and “Naaman the Syrian” with Naaman the Islamic State fighter, in order to get a sense of the shock value of the stories.

The people of Nazareth are not bothered by the passage from Isaiah, with its vision of healing and liberation. Nor are they bothered when Jesus seems to connect himself with the fulfillment of that vision. What sets them off is that he has the audacity to say that God’s vision has anything to do with people they view as detestable – that God cares just as much about healing and liberating them as he does their own tribe and nation. The mere thought of it is so shocking, so appalling to their sensibilities that, in the blink of any eye, this sweet little congregation gathered for weekly worship turns into a lynch mob, ready to throw Jesus off a cliff.

It’s important to pause and remember that these are not bad people. Jesus grew up in this village, and even though the gospels feature him in places like Capernaum and Jerusalem far more, nearly all his 30+ years of life were spent in Nazareth. They really must have been wonderful people in a great many ways. And yet, they simply couldn’t fathom that the mercy and justice of God’s reign might have something to do with people they considered to be enemies. It seems not to have occurred to them that God may have something bigger in mind than simply freeing this long-suffering regional ethnic and religious group from a series of occupying regimes. They weren’t bad, but the poison of bias was seeping through their souls and strangling their spiritual and moral imagination.

We might like to think we’re much more advanced and evolved than those ancient people – that we would never be so small-minded – but the sin that lay at the root of their anger still haunts humanity today: the sin of bias, of preferring people “like us” to others. Even in this proudly modern age, we typically see others through mirrors dimly, to quote St. Paul, and we allow that clouded vision to affect our judgement and hinder our willingness to love everyone freely and equally.

The problem is that we have too small a notion of what bias looks like. We tend to think that bias is only about big, overt acts, things like Jim Crow laws, or the Japanese internment, or Muslim bans. But scientists who study the effects of bias say that for every external act of prejudice, there are countless other acts of what is known as “unconscious bias” happening all the time.[1] Unconscious bias is a more subtle form of prejudice that occurs beneath the surface. It’s when our brain makes quick, sometimes instantaneous judgments based on past experiences or ideas that we internalized without even being consciously aware. What’s more, scientists have found that unconscious bias can actually cause us to act in ways that contrast with our stated principles, which means that unconscious bias has an effect on all of us, even if we would loudly condemn prejudice of any kind.

Let me give you just a couple of examples of how scientists have seen this sort of bias at work in our society.

Hiring. In thousands of studied cases, applicants for jobs who had white sounding names received significantly greater rates of call-backs and hiring than applicants with black or foreign sounding names.[2] Employers were not necessarily aware that they were making these choices, but somehow, all factors otherwise being equal, they disproportionately selected candidate whose names sounded more like people from their own racial or ethnic group.

Likewise, scientists studying the effects of bias in the health care industry have found that white men receive disproportionately better health care, including far greater rates of referrals, more likelihood to be prescribed medication when they are in pain, and much higher rates of life-saving intervention than female or non-white patients.[3]

And in the arena of law enforcement, study after study, including those by police forces and the Justice Department, shows that rates of arrest and use of aggressive or lethal force are significantly more likely when a suspect is black or brown than if they are white. Not that all police officers are racists, but that there is an unconscious form of bias that affects the split-second decision-making required of these men and women, causing them to resort to violence much more quickly when engaging non-white citizens.

Think about unconscious bias this way. Because of the way our society and media have discussed terrorism for the last 20 years, we almost can’t help but conjure a particular image when we hear the word “terrorist:” a bearded Arab man shouting “Allahu akbar!” And yet, nearly all of the most major acts of domestic terrorism in the last decade, including the mass shootings in Las Vegas, the Pittsburg synagogue, the church in Sutherland Springs, and all the school shootings, have been perpetrated by white men.

And lest we think that the church is immune from bias, a 2015 study set out to examine how churches relate to people of different races.[4] More than 3,000 congregations received an email ostensibly from someone moving to their community and looking for a new church. The study’s conductors varied the sender names, so that they conveyed different racial and ethnic identities, and then they measured whether the churches replied, and, if so, what they said. Episcopal churches had a relatively impressive 82% response rate to emails…when they appeared to come from white people – higher than any other church surveyed in the report. But when the email suggested a black, Hispanic, or Asian enquirer? The rates dropped to 71%, 65%, and 63%, respectively. What does it say about our churches that 4 out of 5 times we wrote back to people we thought were white, but only 3 out of 5 times to people we thought were brown?

When Jesus goes home to Nazareth, he is beginning his mission to resist the sinful grip of bias and challenge the overly narrow human idea of who God’s liberation and peace is really for. The people of Nazareth were happy to hear the good news proclaimed to them, but they couldn’t stretch their imaginations wide enough to see just how big a thing God desires for our world.

My friends, the Church is Nazareth. We are Nazareth. And Jesus is calling us to rethink our understanding of the border lines of the Kingdom of God. We have to look at the plank in our own eyes, and repent from all the conscious and unconscious forms of bias that lurk in our minds and hearts. It is important and holy work, and it’s work we must do. Because, while Jesus wants us to hear and understand his vision, if the story is any indication, he is not waiting for us to get it. He’s passing through us, going ahead of us, headed to the next place, the next town, the next hurting or lost or lonely person or community, to offer his love and healing.

The question for us is, will we join him?