A reporter was interviewing a famous actor and asked him why he felt most of the Hollywood community was so philanthropic and politically active on behalf of the downtrodden and marginalized.
“It’s because we are storytellers,” he said. “It’s hard to hate somebody when you know their story.”
He’s right. It’s almost impossible to look at somebody who may be acting out and not feel compassion for them if you know the struggles, pain, and trauma of their past. Instead of judging them, you seek to understand them, and understanding fuels empathy.
As a kid, I had three buddies who were like family to me. We played sports together so there were always opportunities for their parents to come and watch them play, show support, and pile on the reasons why they were proud of them. But that is not what happened.
All three of these friends had virtually no parental involvement in their lives. Their parents never attended their games or award ceremonies. One of them lost his parents when he was just 10 years old. All of them had struggles directly related to this void in their lives.
To most on the outside, they were regarded as thugs to be feared. But to me, no label like that was appropriate—not even close. I knew who they were, their hopes and dreams, their tender hearts, their pleas, their frailties and fears. They were whole people with scar tissue on their hearts, the likes of which most will never know. Thug is a one-dimensional label on a three dimensional soul. It just doesn’t work.
I can’t tell you how many guys I have come across as I visit prisons and juvenile detention centers, who want to prove that they’re monsters - the baddest of the bad – when in fact, they’re actually scared children with injured souls underneath all that bravado. They have full stories that don’t start with I was born a monster. Rather, they got to where they are today through years of pain and trauma.
I would like to challenge you to do something. The next time you find yourself placing a negative “label” on someone, stop and consider the possibility that if you sat down and heard all that they’ve been through, you might have ended up in the same predicament as them. The truth is, “those people” are wounded people, who are trying to manage the pain in their hearts.
Can you allow yourself to have empathy for that?
Jesus did. In fact, Jesus ate with those considered by some as outcasts so frequently that people began to actually complain about it. Even when Jesus saw Zacchaeus, the despised “little man” who, as a tax collector, strong-armed his own people to take their money, He called him down out of a tree and told him that he would be having dinner at his house that night. Was Zacchaeus a greedy monster? Or someone trying to deal with a tragic past—and maybe a debilitating shortcoming?
As Americans struggle to heal from our racial divisions, remember that prejudice is ignorance par excellence. Prejudiced thoughts towards a people group or person take shape when we malign or fear people whose stories we don’t know. I’d be willing to bet that if we took the time to dig a little deeper, knowing them would change our opinions. I challenge you to honor someone who doesn’t look like you by learning more about their story. You may find that you have more in common than you realize…and you may even make a new friend.
You're invited to join me at A Race for Unity, a FREE event on September 15, where we will identify racial "blind spots" that prevent us from honoring the image of God in others and initiate meaningful conversations on race within and beyond the walls of the church.