27-29 Talking things over, they went on into the house, where Cornelius introduced Peter to everyone who had come. Peter addressed them, “You know, I’m sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other. So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked. But now I’d like to know why you sent for me.”Acts 10:27-29, The Message Bible
It is impressive to me how quickly and (I’m inferring) nonchalantly Peter visits Cornelius: a Jew hanging out with a Gentile and treating him as an equal in a society where “this is highly irregular.” It’s even more impressive given that Peter was raised in a society where he had undoubtedly developed mental patterns, prejudices, and biases against non-Jews.
I was raised in the Latter-day Saint tradition and am reminded of a passage from the Book of Mormon:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love …Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3:19
The human species has evolved to be extremely group-ish. We have subconscious impulses toward in-group favortism and out-group prejudice and bias. For thousands of years this helped our species survive and become the dominant force on Earth. The subconscious drive to organize our thoughts and behavior in terms of in-group and out-group could be considered a very “natural” characteristic of the human species. But it is also one that leads to drives prejudice, bias, distrust and hatred for those that our brains subconsciously categorize as “other.”
The Book of Mormon teaches that this “natural man” can be an “enemy to God.” Our “natural man” tendencies are often beneficial, but in the case of group behavior and subconscious bias, it leads to racism, sexism, and religious discrimination of all kinds. The impulse to categorize each other into groups and behave accordingly is not something that can flip a switch and eliminate from our thoughts and behavior, but it is something that we can be aware of and make efforts to mitigate and manage as much as possible.
My hunch is that when Peter was invited to visit Cornelius, he may have had a strong initial repulsion to the idea, his subconscious brain saying “Gentile out-group = bad!” But to his credit, the account said that he responded to this by remembering “God has just shown me that no race is better than any other.” Then he acted accordingly: “So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked.” He went and made an intentional effort to humbly broaden his “in-group” to include all human beings and treat them as equals, regardless of their racial or ethnic background.
I don’t know for sure, but if Peter was like any other homo sapiens, he likely carried around his racial/ethnic subconscious bias throughout the rest of his life, as this is something that is very, very, very difficult to “deprogram” in our brains. I appreciate Peter’s example, flawed as it was at times, for the hard work he must have done to try his best so that his actions and behavior matched his convictions over his “natural man” biases through the rest of his life.