Beyond Stereotypes

The sad history of hostility and even violence among people with different religious and socio-cultural views continues. Some of it is rooted in the ignorance and fear some persons or groups have of others whom they perceive as different from them. From what is being reported, those peaceful, law-abiding families who went to their Sikh temple in Wisconsin last weekend to be confronted with yet another crazed gunman have good reason to think they were targeted for reasons of racial or religious stereotyping.

Incidents of so-called “gay bashing” are equally deplorable and represent an egregious lack of understanding of the experience of people who may live with same-sex attraction. The Chick-Fil-A flap adds another wrinkle. How does one respond to the assumption that whoever disagrees with a belief, passion or important life decision of another hates them? We all know this dilemma. A friend’s non-marital relationship results in an unintended pregnancy that fuels a decision to abort. In decrying the action itself, one does not reject, let alone hate, the person for doing it. One need neither abandon the friend nor the moral conviction that sexual intimacy belongs in a committed marital relationship where children are welcome and not a disposable inconvenience.

By a comparable logic, one may have and cherish friends with same-sex attraction who firmly assert a right to enter a civil union or what is currently termed a “gay” marriage. Opposing such options does not make one “anti-gay.” To uphold traditional marriage as a permanent relationship between one man and one woman, oriented toward the procreation and education of children, is no hate crime. Is it a sign of bigotry to express publicly one’s support for policies and conditions fostering traditional marriage and understandings of family life, which is a conclusion some seem to draw? There are more reasonable explanations. One may love the sinner but not the sin, sustain a friendship while following one’s conscience.

Many Americans suffer from being included in stereotypes which, ironically, often increases tensions and even the risk of violence among everyone. People have been ridiculed, attacked and persecuted for merely looking “gay” or “dark-skinned” or “Middle Eastern” – whatever the stereotypes may mean. Some of the Sikhs interviewed last week feel they are often mistaken for Muslims, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Our highly politicized climate seems to exploit these and other stereotypes, which include just about all of us when we are placed in some religious, economic, racial, ethnic, or sex- or gender-related category.

Certain stereotypes about women are quite prevalent now, like the assumption that state-funded contraceptives and abortion on demand provide the economic and physical autonomy that secures freedom for women, though the evidence does not support this. If anything, the feminization of poverty seems to be on the rise along with single-parent households. From a purely pragmatic perspective, who “profits” more from this outcome than the non-committal male companion or the deadbeat dad, responsible to no one for nothing?

One of the more egregious “off the radar” stereotypes are whispers about Catholics – another frequently typecast group – is that we are somehow dense and anti-intellectual, passive and unable to think for ourselves. The canard is that our teaching really has nothing but authoritarian anachronisms to ground it, with little relevance or reasonability – and not the liberating and humanizing Gospel that it truly is. In other words, our critics would have their public accept that the only reason we stay Catholics is through a blind, docile allegiance. That our faith really works is validated time and again in every person who embraces it fully, in our personal life experience and the witness of the saints and martyrs.

So we have a choice. We can all become the stereotypes into which the world seduces us to fall. We can reinforce any stereotype by voting as a bloc, believing that our thought-processes and decisions are determined by the fact that we are black or white, male or female or of this or that brand of ethnicity or sexuality.

Or we could live the Gospel freely and fearlessly, beyond the stereotypes, using the intelligence God gave us and His grace to live the Christian virtues. In the end, we die alone and face our only Judge – without rank or trophy or union card – as the person we really are. Who that person is may not be what the stereotypes are telling us. Dare we live life freely?