Liberal. Conservative. Christian. Atheist. Illegal immigrant. Black. White. Addict. Preacher. Car dealer. Lawyer. Doctor. Plumber. Roofer. OK, that's enough. What images flashed in your head as the words on this list passed your eyes. It may have happened so fast that it did not rise to consciousness, but I guarantee it happened.

It is equally true that we have expectations of how certain people act. It may be based on where they are from, what they do for work, or to which ethnicity they belong. This is not wrong, it is a result of culture, education and ancestry. What is wrong is to pass unfair judgment on others because of the way they walk through the world that may look different than yours. None of the things mentioned so far have anything to do with a person's heart or character.

The truth is there are stereotypes and prejudices that represent status all around us encoded in how we communicate with each other. I heard another version of it during the Democratic Party debate Tuesday night, and I hear it often from people running for office: "My dad was a (name a trade) and my mom (name a low-wage job), and here I am (no longer one of those)." This is rightly said with some pride, but it works because of our images and relation to status.

Prejudice can also show up accidentally in our adjectives. It happens when a person carries a trait that we consider exceptional for whatever our perception of that "type" of person is. I might even suggest that our prejudices make life more interesting if we can manage to suspend that prejudice long enough to be surprised. In my experience most people surprise me if I do not put them in a box that my prejudgment places them.

The surprise here might be called education. The thing that halts my prejudice might be called grace. I will suspend what I think I should think about you long enough (and that might be months) for you to show me who you are. Think about this in relation to Martin Luther King's famous quote, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

But it is not only negative prejudice that we must suspend. There are also those moments during the day when someone may not respond as we would like. In this case someone surprises us in a negative way because they have not lived up to the prejudgment. The most common occurrence of this in my life has to do with expectations of others. I have in my mind the way someone should treat me, and if they do not live up to that I am disappointed. I am saying to myself, "That is not how a (name your profession) should act."

It is at these times that I need to remember that I am talking to another human being, who may be working through their own prejudices about me. I have seen people's attitude and behavior change rapidly (for good and ill) when they learn that I am a Christian, and even more so when they learn I am a minister.

We live in a world full of people with prejudices. Most of us have some combination of ignorance, denial or justification about our own. All the while we expect others to suspend theirs about us. Perhaps a noble goal for us would be to respond with grace and forgiveness. While nearly everyone would agree that prejudice is not usually a good thing, it does exist for a reason. And whether it is a good reason or a bad one, every meeting between people who have prejudged each other is an opportunity for education and extending peace in the world. And there are no meetings in which people haven't prejudged each other.

We are not blank slates. We are not without our experiences that have affected our perception of others. Some of those experiences turn out to be validated, while others are not. Prejudice is not universally bad, it just is. In some cases, as in someone I have never met before is coming at me with a weapon, it is very useful.

We can't stop prejudice, but we can suspend our reaction to it long enough to learn from each other. Overcoming it is the only way to become friends with those who are outside of the worlds that we create for ourselves. It is true in religion, politics and social strata.

Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at

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