What is the point at which opinion turns into prejudice? I was stunned this morning to find a Christian pastor on Facebook promoting a poster from an American ‘Stop Islam’ campaign. I am very conscious of the fact that I don’t ‘get’ America, north or south, so don’t take what I say as a criticism, I’m merely thinking out loud. Had I promoted that poster, it would have been prejudice; I’m not sure that it necessarily was so for the pastor, but it set me thinking.

In Britain we tend to make jokes about being ‘politically correct’. The media love to seize upon the latest manifestation of ‘political correctness gone mad’, and we usually smile broadly when we hear that something or other may not be done or called by its traditional name for fear of giving offence to someone. For Christians, the smile sometimes wears a little thin when we find that Councils have abolished Christmas in favour of Winterval, or ancient liberties are attacked; but in general we accept that we live in a plural society and have to rub along together as best we can. We do not have to travel very far before we are in a different country, with a different language and culture. Whether we like it or not, we are used to adjusting.

Or are we? One of the disturbing aspects of Britain today is the extent to which extremism of various kinds seems to be flourishing, most of it underground though sometimes it surfaces in ugly ways. Whether we are talking about Islamic extremism or the racially-motivated extremism of other groups, the problem is the same: opinion has turned into prejudice. Opinion may not be based on fact or experience, but it is at least open to questioning. The Latin roots of the word ‘prejudice’, by contrast,  show very clearly that the attitudes it represents are not based on reason or experience nor are they open to question: prejudice is, quite literally, a judgement made in advance of knowledge, and, as such, it is very dangerous.

None of us is free from prejudice, but, as I asked at the beginning, what is the point at which opinion becomes prejudice? As a Christian, I believe that there is only one mediator between God and ourselves, the Lord Jesus Christ. For me, there can be no watering down of that; no casual accommodation to other beliefs and creeds. But I have no difficulty in honouring the truth I find in other religions — not in a wishy-washy, we all believe the same kind of way, but with wonder and gladness that I can learn something about God I might not otherwise have the opportunity to do. When we had a couple of Tibetan monks living with us for a year, we soon realised that the philosophical bases of Christianity and Buddhism, if one can call them that, were worlds apart, but the concept of purity of heart and the monastic quest for it were points of close agreement. The experience enriched my understanding of what it means to be a nun.

This Saturday morning it is worth spending a moment or two thinking about our own opinions and the point where they slide into prejudice. It is good to have firm opinions, to be zealous, to proclaim the truth as we see it; but to be prejudiced is to have a closed ear and a closed heart. And the problem with that is, nothing can get through except the bile we leak out.


Prejudice and Fear

Last night I listened to part of the World Service and learned that another Catholic church in Nigeria had been burned to the ground by Islamist extremists. It reminded me that when I last saw Mother Charles of Enugu (a Benedictine community of nuns) she remarked, very quietly, that she was expecting her community to be martyred. Expected it! I think we in the west sometimes forget that our fear of a terrorist attack, though real, is light years removed from the daily reality of many Christians in Africa, India and the Middle East.

As the fireworks burned and blazed last night in memory of 5 November, I couldn’t help reflecting that very little has changed in over four hundred years. The name of the enemy may have changed, but we continue to be afraid of the ‘other’. Whether we live in Nigeria or New Jersey, London or Lagos, we feel our vulnerability. The only difference is that we in the west have security forces which devote considerable time and energy to trying to keep us safe, irrespective of our opinions and beliefs. Perhaps today we could remember all those who don’t enjoy that kind of security, who fear the corruption of police or army and who live with an ever-present fear of being bombed or butchered by their fellow citizens.