Expanding Beyond Our Bias

Matthew 7: 1-5 (But Now I See, part 1)




So, when I was in college, one night I went to a concert with some friends of mine.  But we went to see a Christian recording artist named Ginny Owens.  Some of you may be familiar with her work.  She’s incredible.  She’s a singer-songwriter.  I loved her music.  I’d listen – this was way back in the day, so I’d listen to her CD.  But because we didn’t really have the Internet, I didn’t know that much more about her.  I just knew that she was great and I loved her and she was coming – in concert to my town.  It was a really small venue, like a church or some other type of small, I don’t know, coffee shop or something like that.  Large enough that you could sit a lot of people, but not like an arena.  So my friends and I get there late, of course, because we’re in college.  The concert has already started.  So the lights are already dim, and we’re shuffling ourselves into some seats.  And we get settled, and Ginny is talking, and she says that she is so happy to be there tonight, even though she doesn’t have any idea how many people are in the audience.  And I thought to myself, “Wow!  Those lights don’t seem that bright, but they must be really bright up on stage if they are shining in her eyes such that she can’t see how many people are in the audience.  So she keeps on going.  She is a pianist for the most part, but she does play guitar.  So at one point she’s telling a story about her song, and she’s getting ready, so she gets her guitar and she pulls the pick out of the strings and gets ready to play, and she drops the guitar pick.  Then she says, “Oop, well, that’s gone!”  And somebody from her stage team brings her out another guitar pick.  And I thought, “Wow, she’s a little bit more of a diva than I thought, if she’s not even gonna lean down to pick up a guitar pick and somebody has to bring her a new one.”  So she plays this song, and it’s great, and you know, this is how singer-songwriters are, right?  They play a little bit, then they stop and tell a story about a song.  So she’s telling a story about being in a meeting with her advisor, I believe, in college, and he’s talking to her, giving her a lecture or something, and she doesn’t really like what he’s saying, and she said it’s inspiring something, so she starts writing a song, and she writes in braille.  And she’s like, “It was great, because he had no idea what I was writing.”  And I thought, “That is so cool, that she knows braille!  It’s like knowing a secret language that you can just write in anytime you want.  I wonder why anybody would bother to learn that?”  The concert continues, I’m enjoying her music.  The concert ends, we give her a big round of applause.  And somebody from her stage team comes on out and brings a dog.  And I smacked my friend on the arm, and I said, “Tyler, Ginny Owens is blind!”  And he looked at me like, “Did it take you this long to figure it out?”  And it did.  It took me an entire concert of not being able to see the audience, not being able to pick up a guitar pick, writing in braille, and an assistance dog before I decided, “Ginny Owens must be blind.”

If we are going to be an expansive church, we have to deal with the things that continue to make us exclusive, as individuals and as a group. Because I trust that we are all basically well-intentioned people, we want to think about the ways that we are exclusive without meaning to be. When we hurt others without intending to do so, it’s often because we have a bias that we aren’t aware of.

When I say bias, I mean assumptions that we make about people or things that are 1. unexamined and 2. potentially harmful, both to us and to others. A bias is different from a preference. I prefer regular Coke to Diet Coke. I’ve tried Diet Coke many times, so I have examined it, and I don’t like it. I’m not blowing up Diet Coke factories; I don’t even want to stop Sam from drinking Diet Coke. So my preference for regular Coke is not harmful to me or anyone else. It’s just a preference.

A bias is stronger and more reactive than a preference. And I’m a pastor, not a psychology professor. So in order to help us understand bias a little better, I’ve asked one of our own to talk with me about it. Sarah, would you come up and join me?

Since it’s been ages since we’ve all been together on a regular basis, remind everyone first who you are and what you do.

Sarah Jackson:  Hi, everybody.  I am Dr. Sarah Jackson. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/smjacksonphd/) I’m a psychology instructor at Wright State University, down in Dayton.  And as Pastor Beth mentioned, this is my TA, Evelyn, so helpful.

Pastor Beth:  So, as a psychology professor, can you please help us understand what was happening in my brain when I was at that Ginny Owens concert?  Why was it so hard for me to put the information together in the right way?

Sarah:  I love that story.  So, to understand that, it helps to understand a little bit about the way our brains organize information.  Human brains are amazing.  They’re wired for efficiency.  They’re always looking for the most quick and efficient and convenient way of piecing together information, like with like, and organize our information.  So everything you experience, everything you learn, gets packaged together in these nice little mental maps called schemas.  So everything you know, and everything you know about everything you know, is all related through these little interconnections in our brains.  So that we can very quickly make quick decisions and put things together.  So like if I say “rainbow,” there’s an image that comes to mind immediately, everything that you’ve experienced about rainbows.  Maybe Pastor Beth’s stole is a mental image that comes to mind.  But also things that you consciously learned, like if you learned the mnemonic Roy G Biv – did anybody else learn that one?  Yea.  That’s part of that schema, right?  And so even if it’s like 20, 40, 60 years later, you still remember those things because schemas are so great at organizing information.  But sometimes because they are so quick and efficient, we don’t realize how they are working, and so we can make mistakes.  Like, have you ever met a little child who’s learning how to talk.  Let’s say they’ve got a dog at home, and they see a new furry four-legged animal, and it’s big and it says moo, but they’ve never seen that before, and so they say, “Dog!” because their schema is still kind of small and it hasn’t really expanded yet, right?  So the more experiences they have, the more that schema can start to grow and expand, and you can start to develop new schemas.  They start to develop a farm animal schema, and those animals get related to each other, because that’s very important when you’re a 1-year-old, right?  So adult schemas work the same way, right?  We have schemas about, what is a musician?  So if I say “musician,” Brian goes “pianist,” right? and master of all music.  Your experience with your past instruments might be something that comes to mind.  If you’ve got an implicit or assumed association that musicians need to be able to see so they can read sheet music, that may be part of that schema.  So it’s really easy to then kind of make that quick mistake and go, “Okay, well this is my experience with musicians.  They’re sighted.”  And it takes expanding the schema, having a new experience, to start to broaden that a little bit and go, “Oh, okay, now I’m gonna make a new connection.”  So now my brain can make those quick, efficient connections, but until you have the experience, it was harder to do that.

Pastor Beth:  Right.  Okay, so that makes sense.  So I didn’t have a mental schema that included blind musicians, so I made up all kinds of other explanations.  And other than the fact that that makes me look kind of dense, it’s not really all that harmful.  But some of our schemas are harmful, right?  Even though we don’t have any intention of harming anyone.  Can you help us understand how those harmful schemas are working?

Sarah:  Yea, so the same way that schemas are formed automatically, just like she (Evie) is building schemas just from her experiences constantly, they’re growing, schemas get activated automatically, too.  And schema activation just means that that packet of knowledge is now woken up, right?  Everything that’s in that packet of knowledge is standing at attention – it’s ready to be used.  So like when I said “rainbow,” all those things get activated; when I say “dog,” those related concepts get activated.  So like the mistake with calling a cow a dog is the kind of thing that we can still do very easily, because we can make these assumptions.  It’s happening automatically.  We don’t feel it happen.  You don’t go, “Oh, I feel a schema activating in my brain.”  It’s just natural.  So we don’t even realize when we start to make those mistakes or we make those assumptions.  And so if we have, even knowledge of stereotypes can be part of our schemas, and that can activate, and we can have an instant uncontrollable reaction, or an emotional response that we don’t even know where it’s coming from.  And if we aren’t aware of that schema activation, that’s when we can start to make mistakes in our judgment.  And, yea, with like the musician example, that’s no big deal.  But what if it’s making a judgment about a person that leads me to exclude them or avoid them in some way?

Pastor Beth:  Right.

Sarah:  That’s problematic.

Pastor Beth:  Yea.  So I can see how that’s a pretty big problem.  But if it’s happening so quickly in our brains, is there anything that we can do about that?

Sarah:  There is some good news there.  That’s actually a lot of the research that I do is looking at how can we ameliorate that, right?  So, one thing, you’ve probably heard this, right? is just perspective-taking, you know, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes is a good first step.  So if you find yourself in that moment where you recognize, like, “Oh, why did I feel uncomfortable in that situation?  Why did I have the urge to avoid that situation?”  Then putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes is that kind of cognitive practice of saying, “What would I feel like if I were in that person’s shoes?”  But I want to point out that no matter how empathetic we are, we can’t ever actually be in another person’s shoes, right?  Like I cannot live another person’s experience.  So we do also need to listen to the experiences of other people.  So if somebody who belongs to a marginalized group says, “This is how I feel when that happens,” my job is not to say, “I don’t think so; I’ve never experienced that.”  My job is to be open to that feedback and say, “Okay, I don’t know what that’s like.”  But I can at least try to be understanding of it, and I can try to adjust my behavior.  

Pastor Beth:  Yea.

Sarah:  The other thing is just recognizing that all of our brains do this.  If you have a human brain – anybody else? not just me?  Okay, cool.  So we all have this unconscious bias process.  Every single one of us.  So we have to recognize and say, “I do that too.  I know that I have those instant, automatic, uncontrollable responses, and I have to be aware of it.”  You know the old saying is, “The first step in recognizing you have a problem is like recognizing you have the problem,” right?  We have to be aware of that.  And that means letting go a little bit of that defensiveness, kind of being humbled to that, and being willing to say, “Okay, maybe I do need to make some changes.”  And building objectivity in.  Getting feedback from other, looking for – you know if somebody is critical of me and says, “Whoa, why did you just say that?”  And as a professor, this happens sometimes.  I’ll make some joke in passing, and then afterwards a student goes, “That was maybe not the best joke to make.”  And my initial reaction is to get defensive and be like, “Well, I didn’t mean anything . . . “  And then I have to go, “Okay, yea, that was not my lived experience.  I just made that environment less safe for one of my students.  And that’s not what I want to do.  So I’m gonna try to make it better.  I’m gonna apologize, I’m gonna own it, and the next time I’m being more aware of it.”

Pastor Beth:  That’s great.  Would you be willing to tell us about a time that you recognized that you had a bias and what you did about it?

Sarah:  One of the things that I’ve worked on, and it’s tied to my research as well, is grading, right?  I’m a professor; a big part of what we do, whether we like it or not, is grading.  And it’s really easy to be grading a paper that somebody’s written, and if the English is not written well, to start making those judgments about that person.  Or if we read a comment on the Internet and somebody misspells something, I’m like, “Well, what do you know; you can’t even spell there right, right?”  We just – automatic associations – and somehow that becomes a judgment.  And a few years ago, I had seen like a meme on Facebook that said something like, “You know, judging people based on how they write is really classist and xenophobic.”

Pastor Beth:  Ooh.

Sarah:  Oh, my goodness.  That was like a punch to the gut, you know, because I’m a stickler for grammar.  Look at me, being so good at my writing.  And it was just like a slap in the face.  And I had a Middle Eastern student whose writing was not good.  And I would get frustrated grading it.  My husband knows what I’m talking about.  I’d be like, “What does that even mean?  I can’t understand a single word you’re saying.”  And I was letting that judgment cloud my view of her and what knowledge she had and what experience she had; and when I was able to let that go, then I could see: What was the knowledge that she had gained?  What was her personal experience that she was able to bring to the table?  How was she able to demonstrate what she was learning in class apart from that?  And then the double whammy, right?  Like, English is her second language.  Where do I get off?  I can’t speak another language fluently enough to go take college classes.  And it’s like – I’m even kind of shaking thinking about it – because it was such a hard thing for me to swallow in that moment.  And I’m still working on it.  That was several years ago.  I’m still to this day, every time I grade a paper, I have to kind of go through this process that says, “Okay, what is the content?  What is that person showing me that they’ve learned?”  And that needs to be the first thing that shines through.  And it’s a life-long process.  We’re life-long learners.  We’re not gonna wake up one day and be like, “I got it.  I’m perfect now.”

Pastor Beth:  Oh, we don’t ever conquer this?

Sarah:  We can get better.  (Laughter).  We just need to keep working at it, you know?

Pastor Beth:  Yea, thank you.  Thanks so much, Sarah.  That was super helpful.  Can we give Sarah some appreciation for that – and Evie?

I bet that after listening to Sarah you can see why it is so important for us to realize our biases if we want to fulfill our calling to be an expansive church. In fact, Jesus talked about this in the Sermon on the Mount. This verse will be part of our framework for the series. I know you’ve all heard it before, but let’s listen to it again this morning, with a focus on realizing our bias. This is Matthew chapter 7 verses 1 through 5:

Jesus said, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.” 

Matthew 7:1-5, Common English Bible

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Realizing our bias builds our self-awareness and our empathy. Self-awareness is key to spiritual growth. If we aren’t aware of something, we won’t examine it; and if we don’t examine it, we will never change it; and if we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we want to continue to grow in our capacity to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God, we must continually become more self-aware, and confronting our biases will help us do that. Realizing our bias builds our self-awareness.

Realizing our bias also builds our empathy. If we are going to change the way things are going in our country and our world, we have to increase our capacity to love people who are different than we are. And I don’t mean love them theoretically. I mean love them actually, which means listening to them even when we disagree, caring about what happens to them and their families, and trying to see the world from their perspective. I’m not talking about condoning their actions or even agreeing with their beliefs. You do not have to agree with someone to love them, and if anyone in the world can be good at that, it should be the followers of Jesus. We follow a savior who put his life on the line to demonstrate God’s unconditional love for all people. Jesus blessed and forgave the people who killed him. Jesus heartily disagreed with the Pharisees on many important points. But he also went to their homes for dinner and had deep conversations with them. Because where else is that going to happen? Not on Facebook that’s for sure. Realizing our bias builds our empathy and our self-awareness. That’s why it’s worthy of our time and attention at church.

Jesus’ words hit us right where we live when it comes to realizing our bias, because our temptation is to make this about what someone else is doing wrong. Over these next three weeks, the challenge for us is going to be to let these lessons speak to us about us. It’s easier to see when someone else has a bias, when someone else has a splinter in their eye. It’s so obvious to us! But if we go through this series saying, “Oh yes, I can so easily see how those people, my brother-in-law, my neighbor, my classmate, my co-worker, I see exactly how they are biased,” but we never notice how we are biased, if we do that, then we have totally missed the point of what Jesus was saying, and we will never be as expansive as we want to be. Over these next three weeks, will you take the extraordinarily brave step to let this be about you? To see the log in your own eye? We must admit that we are part of the problem before we can be part of the solution.

And that’s scary. Many of us have been part of church cultures that were all about telling us how we were wrong. That’s now that this is about. This is about grace. The whole point of grace is that we do need it. We are wrong! We have biases that are unexamined and lead us to be harmful to ourselves and to others. That’s not how we want to live. It’s not what God wants for us. When we realize that, we feel regret. We are sorry. And right there, is grace. Grace that says, “GREAT JOB NOTICING THAT. Now we can change it!” Grace that says, “Shame will never fix anything. What you do is not who you are. No one is perfect and everyone can grow.” Grace that says, “God’s love and acceptance are not based on your getting it right every time. God loves you simply because you belong to God.” 

That grace comes from God, but we must share it. This must be a place of grace. In the next three weeks, as we realize our biases, we must be gracious with one another, loving, caring, accepting, and not shaming. Because how will we ever truly believe that God is gracious with us if we aren’t gracious with each other? Let’s make this a safe place, a grace place. Expansive churches are grace places, where we face the worst about ourselves and each other without flinching, trusting that once we realize it, God will help us change it. Let’s make this a place where no one has to earn love or acceptance. Let’s make this a place of grace, the amazing kind, that makes it safe for us to say, “I once was blind. But now I see.” Amen. 

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