So why is it that many people of color feel marginalized by privileged Christians? In his devastatingly accurate account of a common black experience in white evangelical America, Edward Gilbreath quotes Bruce Fields, a black professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. “People sometimes ignore you. Or, if there is attention directed toward you, it is subtly communicated that you are not to be taken as seriously as a white person of similar status, experience, and credentials.”
“It’s the thought that counts” is a belief that permeates Christian culture. Cultural psychologist Adam Cohen* has studied differences between Christians and Jews and found that if a married man thinks about having an affair, Christians consider this adultery, but Jews do not. Cohen concludes Christians believe that thoughts are equal to or more morally important than actions, but that Jews believe the opposite. For many Christians, having a heart in the right place is the most important thing.
The Christian overemphasis on attitudes and intentions wouldn’t be a problem if people’s attitudes and intentions generally matched their behavior. But unfortunately they do not. Research on the link between attitudes and behavior has consistently shown that attitudes often fail to predict people’s specific behaviors.** Privileged folks with good intentions can believe that it’s important to honor diverse people and then fail to act in a way that is consistent with their beliefs and intentions.
Research suggests that attitudes/thoughts/intentions are more likely to match their behavior when both the attitudes/thoughts/intentions and behaviors are specifically spelled out.*** For example, a person’s attitude in favor of general health will not predict their likelihood to jog four times a week. (Plenty of couch potatoes believe that exercise is generally a good thing.) However, a person’s attitude toward jogging four times a week will absolutely predict their likelihood to jog four times a week.
Following Jesus’ example, privileged people with good intentions must find ways to demonstrate them in ways that resonate with oppressed people. Good intentions alone will not suffice.
Continue to part 5...
*Cohen, A. B. (2011). Religion and Culture. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 4(4).
**Wicker, 1969; Kraus, 1995; Glasman & Albarracin, 2006
***Azjen, 1987; Azjen & Fishbein, 1977