By Norris Burkes
Posted Mar 18, 2018
“Why can’t THESE people drive?” asked a frustrated American worker taking me through rush-hour traffic in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last week.
His question surprised me for two reasons. First, his driving wasn’t much better. He was using his American truck to block intersections, cut people off, and run red lights. “That just how it’s done here,” he explained.
But secondly, he sounded a tad racist to me. I know that’s strange because he’s committed to helping THESE people.
Nevertheless, when we use the demonstrative adjective “these” or “those” to describe people of different cultures or socioeconomic background, our inflection can suggest something about our heart.
Of course, I really can’t criticize my friend, because I’m plagued with the same “grammatical problem.”
I suffer from it every time I visit a particular relative who took a Russian bride a few years ago. Now she’s taken his money. Honestly, she’s so abrasive and dishonest that I find myself muttering like my friend did, “You can’t trust these people.” Or, “I can’t eat THEIR food.”
There is a sociological description for what we’re doing. It’s called “Racial Essentialism” and it happens every time we categorize a race by their behaviors.
We like to tell ourselves that our grammar doesn’t matter, so we dismiss the concept as the gobbledygook of political correctness. We say we’re not racists because we think racism is limited to the 1960s when blacks were humiliated, persecuted and even murdered because of their skin color.
But the truth is that racism isn’t limited to a time or geography. It happens every day we choose to see people’s behavior not as learned or purposeful behavior, but as biologically inherited behavior (i.e., the way they drive or manage money).
In so doing, my friend can dismiss an entire people by saying, “THESE Honduras aren’t even capable of learning to drive.” I can justify my discrimination by claiming, “THOSE Russians are all dishonest!”
We all do it, but I can suggest one person who used the demonstrative adjective with a clean heart. He wasn’t a racist or a grammarian. He was Jesus.
In Luke 18, he told a parable of a man who positioned himself in the front of the temple to voice a prayer bursting with volume and piety.
As he prayed, he singled out a nearby tax collector, the most hideous of all the Roman collaborators.
He spoke in a stage voice, hissing for all to hear. “Thank you, God, that I am not like thissss man.”
He was so proud of his own social standing that he failed to hear the tax collector’s prayer.
The Message translation describes the tax collector as someone “slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up.”
He whispered a simple prayer: “God, give me mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.”
Jesus hammered the demonstrative adjective in his closing observation by saying, “THIS tax man, not the other, went home made right with God.”
Jesus then said something that squelches all our racist excuses to exclude people unlike ourselves.
“If you walk around with your nose in the air,” he promised, “you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Next month, we return home to the U.S. where I’ll be visiting the Russian relative. Please pray that I’ll be able to follow Jesus’ advice and avoid falling on my face and breaking my uppity nose.
Follow Burke’s U.S. homecoming at www.burkesbums.com. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone 843-608-9715. Twitter @chaplain.