The unjust murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin has sparked outrage and protests across the country. This is a narrative that has happened all too often. It is painful and discouraging to those who have been mistreated. It is demoralizing to those in law enforcement and citizens who have spent their lifetimes trying to build working better relationships among the races and the institutions we share.
My generation has watched laws be passed, programs created, institutions be transformed, and still we keep falling short of the goal of liberty and justice for all. Just about the time we think progress is being made, it only takes one selfish, angry, out of control person to blow it up. It is a time for listening and introspection for all people. Am I going to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution? Words and actions have consequences. Will I love my neighbor as myself or will I live only for my sinful self?
Our problem goes back to the beginning of mankind and the fall. According to the biblical view, the first family yielded to sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel that led to the first murder. Greed, envy, anger, selfish ambition, vanity, impatience, ignorance, and prejudice permeate the human heart and give birth to every evil action.
There is partiality and prejudice within families, tribes, nations, and against all the above. James, the brother of Jesus called out Christians for showing partiality among one another: “For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
The picture behind partiality and favoritism is transliterated by the word prosop/lepsia. It can be divided into the Greek words for face and the word, receiving. James was saying, “Don’t be a receiver of faces. Thayer’s Lexicon gives a third meaning of the word after partiality and respect of persons: “the fault of one who when called on to give judgment has respect of the outward circumstances of man and not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers, as the more worthy, one who is rich, high born, or powerful, to another who does not have these qualities.
The ancient world was not as hung up on color as we are. We are called not to reject a person or treat them differently based on externals: their color, looks, social standing, or economic circumstances.
James reasons that God is no respecter of persons and neither should we be. He is calling all mankind to be rich in faith and to fulfill the royal law of loving your neighbor as yourself. “My beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
The royal law of loving neighbor as yourself harkens back to the law of Moses (Lev. 19:15-18) and was recited several times a day by faithful Jews. After loving God with all your being, Jesus called loving your neighbor the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-34).
Not only are we guilty of receiving people on the basis of externals, we are guilty of playing favorites with the commandments. The ones that we find easy to keep, we judge others for breaking. The ones we break, we overlook in our lives. James reminds us, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:2-13).
Do we apply the same standard of judgment toward others that we apply to ourselves? Do we selectively follow the golden rule of treating others the way we want to be treated or do we apply it with favoritism toward our circle? Stop receiving faces by prejudging people by externals. Everyone who desires respect and mercy should be willing to show that same respect and mercy toward a person, family, and their property. Everyone who wants to be heard should be willing to listen. Let the introspection, conversations, and constructive neighborly words and actions begin.
Joe D. Rushing is a Springfield minister who serves on staff with Main Street Church of Christ.