Here is my draft for my upcoming sermon at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Dallastown, PA. The lection is Matthew 15:21-28 (Jesus and the Canaanite Woman) and I will be using this video of Bill Cosby explaining black epistemology video in the service.
In our scripture reading Jesus encounters the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus for help with her daughter. And he remains silent, and ignores her. And then his disciples ask him to answer, by sending her away, and he does, saying, “I was only sent for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” In other words, you’re not the right race.
Then she fell to her knees, begging for help, and Jesus again makes a racist judgment, “It’s not fair to take the food from us and give it to the dogs!” Clearly, equating the woman as a dog.
The woman replied, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” Jesus commends her for her faith, and heals the daughter, and then moves on.
Now, we can interpret this that Jesus was testing her, but testing her through racial slurs? Clearly, there is an unfair power structure here that requires her to say that she is a dog to be healed as Jesus was healing others.
We can interpret this story as a critique of the Pharisees—Jesus says* unkind things to the Pharisees, too, which we often read through and don’t stop to pick apart the racism that may be involved in these stories. Christians have long argued that the point of the story is that a Gentile woman, humbling herself, has more true knowledge of the Son of God than any of the great scholars and legal experts of the Jews. But still, there is the problematic identification of the woman as a female dog. Once she knows her place, then he helps her.
We can also interpret this story to be a moment where the Canaanite woman calls Jesus out on his racism, too, and then he acknowledges his mistake. That might be the case, though many would be uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus is racist and needed to be called on it. It may be that he made things right, but the ugliness of the story still lingers. She had to call herself a female dog to get his attention. Jesus is human, and being human, he is a product of his human contexts, race and class being just two of them at work in this story. Jesus was not rich, though he wasn’t the poorest of the poor, either, he was privileged as a man who is able-bodied who lived in the same culture and area where the dominant ethnicity is his own. They lived under Roman rule and oppression, but there was cultural privilege at work here.
But it’s still ugly. It’s still racism. What it teaches and why it’s there, or what the literary contexts are that lead to this story all matter. But here we see the ugliness of racism.
It strikes me in the Cosby video about how black children are conditioned to identify themselves and their own bodies as foreign to themselves, let alone their neighborhoods and their countries. I don’t know if you saw the disturbing psychological study of children done very recently where black and white children were given a black and white doll and asked to come up with characteristics for each of the dolls or to describe the background story of the doll. Overwhelmingly, white children felt that the black doll was the bad baby. But the black children thought so, too.
Abdul JanMohamed (as reported by James Cone) wrote a study that black children identify themselves, as “the death-bound subject,” that is, “the subject who is formed, from infancy on, by the imminent and ubiquitous threat of death.” James Cone, the famous theologian, writes that “African Americans did not have to see black bodies swinging on southern trees or personally experience mob violence to know that they daily risked death.” JanMohamed stated that “I had never in my life been abused by whites…but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as through I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings.”**
Social media has been the source of so much of the news coming out of the police riots in Ferguson, MO, this past week. Social media has also been, it seems, the conduit which gives permissibility for white racism to be ugly in public, and get uglier. We live in a country where white people protested an orphanage housing refugees near here with open-carry weapons, but a peaceful prayer protest in Missouri was met with a SWAT team and tear gas. Journalists were arrested with no charges. Information from authorities has been selective and not really clear. There is so much going on in Ferguson right now that we will be studying it for years. But this ongoing episode is indicative of a situation where the we clearly live in a country where people who carry no weapons, but whose skin is a different color, cannot publicly assemble, do not have freedom of speech, and cannot reasonably expect due process or justice from the justice system.
The color of their skin indicates a different set of rules, a different way-of-being that is expected, which will only be accepted by the dominate white culture.
Only, it seems, when they are expected to humble themselves, to lower themselves, to lower themselves to the point of expecting nothing but oppression, to expect nothing but racism, to expect nothing but the crumbs from the table of society, of the justice system, may they then be treated as having a voice. They are told that trickle-down economics are good for them if they just accept the reality of the system—for me this harks uncomfortably close to the image of Jesus standing over the Canaanite woman, on her knees, asking for mercy while identifying herself as a dog hoping for scraps off of the table. This is the situation we have happening right now, not only in Jesus’ time, not only in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, but right now. And it’s ugly.
It’s not the place for us in a predominately white church to tell those who are oppressed how to think, and how to feel. Nor is it the place for us to speculate upon the facts of what is a tragic situation, where an unarmed young black man was shot to death in his own hometown, questions were refused to be answered, and a smear campaign was waged against the deceased by certain individuals in the justice system against the direction of their superiors. That the black body who bled to death got what he deserved harks a system of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth—cheap tobacco for cheap tobacco, cheap tobacco for a life. When black bodies in the streets are justified by the value of cheap cigars, the message is that black bodies do not matter. It may not be the Good News of Jesus, in the story of the Canaanite woman, but it is the Good News of Pentecost, that all bodies matter. And not certain colored ones over others. Black bodies matter.
It is our place to draw up from dry mouths a cry of lament, a prayer for change, and the action to walk out from our worship experiences renewed, with parched mouths whetted, to speak with tongues of fire.
It is the world into which our children enter where some children are taught that every opportunity lays before them, and for some the barriers to that reality are based upon economics and class. But it’s also true that our culture even teaches those for whom a racial barrier exists that this barrier is not only nearly impossible to overcome, but even worse, they are taught to hate their own bodies, to hate their own flesh, to be able to articulate with drawings that they have no real voice, they have no real strength, they have no real chance. They are taught that their bodies do not matter. But the Word of the Spirit is that black bodies matter.
It is our call to desire the Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, where children may actually believe that they are equal to others and that those of us who are standing are willing to lower and abolish the table from which the scraps are thrown. This doesn’t just happen with prayer or an appeal to God to make it right. The Holy Spirit’s presence upon on all flesh calls us to say that my flesh matters, my body matters, and my body can do the work of the Spirit. And just as my body matters, so do black bodies matter, and Hispanic bodies matter, and native American bodies, and Semitic bodies, and Indian bodies, and Chinese bodies, and Arab and Palestinian bodies.
The God of the Bible is described as being with an oppressed people, as walking with and moving through those who are oppressed. Here we meet Jesus, himself oppressed and marginalized, utilizing his own privilege over someone who is seen as lesser on the food chain. Regardless of what historical foundation we might place with the story of “what really happened” with Jesus and the Canaanite woman, through the Gospel story we can meet ourselves as the oppressor moving toward a situation where we may stand with and support with solidarity, the oppressed.
Doing so requires sacrifice, think of the skins we have to shed to do just this. We need to be silent and listen to the voices of those being oppressed, understanding that we become part of the cycle of oppression when we just do nothing. We need to speak openly with fire about our plight for reconciliation, we need to act radically, we need to expect more from our agents of law and officials of policy. We need to take up the cross ourselves and lift it high, proclaiming to all who have feared the lynching tree that the cross is a symbol of liberation—a symbol of liberation for whites and for blacks together.
And we need to teach it to our children. The white church has always placed the burden of racial equality on our children; if you look at the history of American denominations, effort and money has been placed on children to be taught about race and racial justice. The mistake of the past has been to place this hope on the future, without really doing the hard intellectual, spiritual, and physical work ourselves to model for the children, instead we model behavior that just postpones justice, as a kind of atheistic act that believes that we in the Spirit-community disempowered to empower others?
Today we have blessed the backpacks of the children as they will be preparing their homework and building themselves up for the building of the future. How different would this world be if we adults modeled behavior of practicing justice to our children, and had the tough conversations, reconciling conversations, the kind of conversations, and demonstrations, that dismember ourselves? What if we modeled a religious community that teaches them to interpret the world from the interpretive lens of the cross, to see God standing with the poor, and with the oppressed? To affirm the very words of Jesus, that blessed are the poor, and the meek, and the peacemakers, and those who thirst for righteousness?
Ours is not a world fixed easily. The solutions are difficult. The walk of the cross was met with mockery, with collapse, with the cross being dropped. But the walk picking up the cross must be our calling.
*Girardian commentary – http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper15a.htm
**Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 15.