Probability and Prejudice
When the eternal Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), he crossed an infinite chasm—from the infinite to the finite, and from immortality to mortality. He left infinite moral perfection to live among moral corruption. Christ did not despise us. He came to us. He loved us. He died in our place to give us life. And he did all this when we were more alien to him than anyone has ever been alien to us.
When we feel or think or act with disdain or disrespect or avoidance or exclusion or malice toward a person simply because he or she is of another race or another ethnic group, we are, in effect, saying that Jesus acted in a foolish way toward us. You don’t want to say that.
Removing a Subtle Self-Justification
One of the ways we continue to fall short in diverse ethnic relationships is by using subtle self-justifications to protect the sinful prejudice in our hearts. I would like to describe and help remove one of those self-justifications. This is a self-justification that we all are tempted to use either consciously or subconsciously. Knowing what it is, and understanding the truth and error in it, will help us be free from its snare.
The gist of it is this: we know intuitively that we cannot live our lives without making generalizations about people and events and nature (I will illustrate this in a moment). But often we do not make clear distinctions between legitimate and necessary generalizations, on the one hand, and disrespectful stereotyping, on the other hand. One reason we don’t make these distinctions is that it’s not easy to do. Another is that not making these distinctions supports our unloving prejudices.
Life Depends on Generalizing
The way of thinking that generalizes from the particulars of our experience and draws probability judgments on that basis is both inevitable and good. The human brain inevitably works this way. And, in fact, our life depends on it working this way.
You observe carefully that mushrooms with certain features are poisonous. So when someone offers you one like that, you turn it down. You have never tasted or tested that individual mushroom, but you see it as belonging to the general class that in the past has been poisonous, and so you form a probability judgment that it could well be poisonous and so refuse to eat it. Your life depends on not treating this individual mushroom in isolation from your experience of others like it.
Sometimes your judgment seems totally legitimate but proves to be dead wrong. You form a generalization that the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is safe. You have crossed it a thousand times. The state inspects it regularly. But on August 1, 2007, you make the judgment to cross in safety, and it collapses. Your probability judgment was wrong. But it was not a sinful judgment. It was well warranted.
If I pass a man with certain features and dressed a certain way in my neighborhood—at least for this season of our corporate life—I form the probability judgment that he is Somali and Muslim. I could be wrong. But that is what my brain does with the information that I have. Facial features, dress, language, gait, location—all these and more incline me to think he is part of the group of Somalis who live in my neighborhood. However, a conversation reveals he is from Ethiopia. I made a mistake.
I see a white car with red lights flashing behind me. From all my experience, I form the probability judgment that this is the police and not a criminal faking the lights to trap me. I could be wrong. But I pull over.
Generalizations Can Be Horribly Mistaken
Oh, how horribly mistaken we can be. Years ago one of the doctors in our church working the emergency room at Hennepin County Medical Center told me of the most bizarre thing he had ever seen. A man was brought in from deer hunting with an arrow through his back straight through his heart and coming out his chest. One of his own hunting buddies had shot him by accident. How? He formed a probability judgment that something brown moving in the bushes must be a deer. And he was wrong. Dead wrong.
Jesus Doesn’t Condemn Generalizing
Nevertheless, we must think this way. Life is not really livable without interpreting specific experiences in terms of the more general experience we have had. Jesus once commended this way of thinking in a kind of backhanded way. The Pharisees came to him to test him by asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus was not happy about this because he had given them enough evidence of his identity. He knew their request was owing to their hardness of heart. So he said to them in Matthew 16:2–3:
When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.
In other words, you are really good at generalizing about the natural world and forming probability judgments from the way a red morning sky precedes a storm and a red evening sky precedes fair weather. You have studied the world, and you are good at this way of thinking. It works. But when it comes to seeing spiritual reality, you are blind. Jesus doesn’t condemn this universal way that the human brain learns from experience and forms probability judgments.
The Line Between Probability Judgments and Sinful Prejudice
Now here is my point: there is a fine line between legitimate probability judgments and sinful prejudice. It is a real line. God sees it even when we don’t. And my concern is to plead with you not to let the legitimacy of probability judgments function in your heart as a subtle self-justification for sinful prejudice.
To say what I am saying is very risky. It’s risky because there will be some people who read this, and, in the hardness of their hearts, they will take my words about generalizing and probability judgments and use them as a cloak for their own prejudices. I know that.
But I take that risk because there is another group of people—most who are reading this book, I hope—who deep down know we already use this self-justification. We don’t have names for it. We don’t work at it. It just comes naturally, and it feels so legitimate. I am pleading with born-again people—real saints with remaining corruption in our hearts—I am pleading that you read this and say, “Yes, thank you for helping me see the subtlety of my own sin. I must put this to death.”
3 Indications of a Good Heart
I draw to a close with five indications of a sinful disposition toward other groups and three indications of a good heart, as we struggle with the line between inevitable generalizations and sinful prejudice. By “good heart,” I mean the heart that has received Christ, knows forgiveness, and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, even though it is not yet perfect (Phil. 3:12–13).
We have a sinful disposition when:
- We want a person to fit a negative generalization (accurate or inaccurate) that we have formed about a group.
- We assume that a statistically true negative generalization is true of a particular person in the face of individual evidence to the contrary.
- We treat all the members of a group as if all must be characterized by a negative (or positive) generalization.
- We speak negatively of a group based on a generalization without giving any evidence that we acknowledge and appreciate the exceptions.
- We speak disparagingly of an entire group on the basis of a negative generalization without any personal regard for those in the group who don’t fit the generalization.
The evidence for a good heart in relationship to others would, of course, be the renunciation of those five traits. But more positively this good heart:
- Desires to know people and treat people for who they really are as individuals, not simply as a representative of a class or a group. If this were not so, Jesus could never be recognized for who he really is. Do you desire—really desire—to know people and treat people as individuals not merely as samples of their group?
- Is willing to take risks to act against negative expectations and belittling stereotypes when dealing with a person. Paul said, “Love . . . believes all things, hopes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). I think he meant that love strives to believe and hope for the best, not the worst.
- Is ready to repent quickly and fully when we have made a mistake and judged someone wrongly.
God, Help Us
Our hearts are deceitful still. And corruption remains. We must constantly lean heavily on the gospel of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus (Col. 2:13–14). We must persistently conform our minds to Christ in the gospel (1 Cor. 2:16) and adjust our walk to be “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). We must continually “put to death . . . what is earthly” in us because we have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3,5).
May the Lord give us absolute honesty with ourselves and with him. May he expose every remnant of sinful prejudice. May we never use the legitimacy of generalizing to cloak the sin of prejudice. May the glory of Christ shine in our lives.
God, help us.
 I assume that Jesus’s generalizations about the Pharisees (Matthew 23) and Paul’s generalization about the Cretans (Titus 1:12) are not sinful because they did have such regard and did appreciate the exceptions.
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian.