Lessons on Grudge-Holding
by Pastor George Van Alstine

The other day I was at an event featuring LA County Sheriff Lee Baca as the keynote speaker. In informal conversation before the Sheriff arrived, I found myself taking a very petty swipe at him for something he did more than ten years ago.

Here’s the story. I had served two four-year terms on the Pasadena School Board, and I was running for a third. I was opposed by two relatively unknown candidates, and I felt quite secure. There was a runoff, and suddenly I realized that Tommie McMullins had growing support and that the election would be close. Near the end, a surprise mailing came out in support of Tommie, and it included an endorsement by Sheriff Lee Baca. This was shocking, as Baca had just been sworn into office three months earlier, in December, 1998. He hadn’t had a chance to become acquainted with either me or Tommie, and he didn’t know anything about the needs of the Pasadena Schools. He must have taken somebody’s advice (I think I know who) that this would be a politically wise thing to do. Of course, I lost the election by a whisker.

Now, Sheriff Baca has had a good career in office. I think he has done a lot to professionalize and humanize the Department. But every time I see his picture or hear his name, my first thought is about how he impacted my election. You can see that I don’t hold a grudge!

At least, my grudge against the Sheriff has some basis in fact. I hold lots of other grudges without any memory of what precipitated them. This doesn’t happen with people near me, with whom I have continual contacts. Rather, this phenomenon is reserved for people I hardly know, or haven’t even met at all. There are certain celebrities, public figures, politicians and world leaders: I know I have something against them, but I can’t remember what. At one time, I must have read something about them, maybe saw a picture of them with someone who was already on my grudge list. This left a negative impression that comes up every time they are brought to my attention.

I suppose this is part of a necessary protective device I share with all humans. I can’t start from zero every time I encounter a person, as if I had no previous knowledge or experience of them. A certain set of expectations comes into my mind based on previous meetings or based on their reputation. This establishes either trust or distrust, which can often keep me from becoming too vulnerable to the wrong people. I probably share this, not only with all humans, but also with wild animals, who regularly have to make fight-or-flight decisions that can determine their survival.

However, it’s not hard to see how easily this can slide over into prejudice. Prejudice is, literally, “pre-judging.” Based on certain bits of information, such as race, or gender, or physical handicap, we put a person into a box in our mind, labeled “OK” or “Not OK.” It’s hard for them to ever escape the box we put them into. In a sense, prejudice causes us to start our relationships with certain people already holding a grudge against them.

I’m encouraged to know that the Apostle Paul had a problem with grudge-holding. He had some difficulty with Mark, who later in life wrote one of the four Gospels. Mark was a young man when he enthusiastically followed Paul and Barnabas into the worldwide ministry adventure (Acts 12:12, 25). But he was probably too young, as he turned back at a crucial point in their first missionary journey. This stuck in Paul’s craw, and a couple of years later, he refused to take Mark along on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). Ten years later, when Paul wrote his letter to the Colossian church, Mark was with him as an assistant. However, Paul referred to him, not as “my beloved Mark,” but as “Mark the cousin of Barnabas” (Colossians 4:10). This may indicate that Paul still kept Mark some distance away emotionally—maybe a little grudge-hangover.

But if he had some inclination to hold personal grudges, Paul confronted and overcame any tendency toward prejudice. He turned from being zealously committed to the purity of his Jewish race and religion, to being the leader in embracing Gentiles into the early church. He had been brought up to see Gentiles as “sinners,” as “others” or “aliens” to God’s true people. He traded in his natural fight-or-flight response for an all-welcoming embrace into the fellowship of faith. That’s overcoming prejudice!