I have been alerted to an interesting article: Jesus Was Not Colorblind: Racial Slurs and the Syrophoenician Woman. It’s a reflection based on Mark 7:24-37. The author, David R. Henson, suggests that “Jesus uttered a racial slur” towards the Gentile woman – the “giving crumbs to the dogs” reference. Henson then re-imagines this story in the racial context of the American Deep South:
Perhaps we can put this story in better context, my current context, the Deep South. Imagine the Syrophoenician woman as an African-American woman who comes to Jesus, a white male, seeking to be healed. In response, Jesus dehumanizes her, calls her an animal, a female dog, a bitch, even! Maybe he goes further, criticizes her for seeking a medical handout and labels her a welfare queen. He asks her why the good things meant for whites only should be given to the sweet little n*****s.
If those slurs are too harsh, choose a different one: a House Negro, an Uncle Tom, an Oreo. Boy. Dominant, oppressive cultures have a long history of assuaging their own latent guilt with terms of endearment for those they are abusing.
Do these diminutive forms, even when they have been used affectionately by whites, soften the sting of raw racism in the words? Clearly not, and I don’t think Jesus’ diminutive case of “dog” in this text softens the bite of his own racism either.
So what are we to make of this exchange? … This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of racism, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. As a good Jew, Jesus would have been reared to give thanks daily that he was born a Jew, not a Gentile, a man and not a woman. Jesus could not help but become entangled by such a sexist and racist snare.
Jesus, given his embedded culture, could not be colorblind. And neither can we.
This created a little stir among my Facebook friends, which was how I was alerted to the article in the first place. Was Jesus racist? My position is that, YES, Jesus was not colorblind (in the way that most people use the term in North America in relation to racism) – Jesus would acknowledge and affirm everyone’s ethnic and cultural backgrounds – God created them as such! BUT Jesus (and God) shows no partiality to any persons or groups or peoples (Deuteronomy 10:17; Luke 20:21).
Henson’s main point is to recognize the systemic nature of racism in our culture, and not get bogged down with the “blame game” of labeling racists but to focus on how ALL of us need to be willing to change and respond positively:
But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist. It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed, reveal who we truly are. Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside as dogs?
Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, be changed by the power of the truth of they are speaking?
In this, I agree with Henson. What I disagree is having to drag Jesus into the mud of racism, so to speak, in order to get that point across. Basically I disagree with Henson’s interpretation of the biblical passage, even though I agree with his hopes and intentions. But before I get into that, a note on the concept of colorblindness and why I agree with Henson that Jesus was not colorblind.
Christian sociologist George Yancey defined colorblindness this way:
The core argument of the colorblindness model is simple: to end racism, we have to ignore racial reality. Laws concerning racial issues must aim for the completely equal treatment of people of all races. Such equality means that we must outlaw old-fashioned racial discrimination of the Jim Crow type. However, modern efforts to correct the historical effects of Jim Crow must also be curtailed if they include any component specific to one race, because if we emphasize racial issues, then we will continue to have racial problems. (George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock, p. 29)
Yancey goes on to list some strengths of this model but also highlights some major flaws in the colorblindness model to racism:
Its first weakness is that advocates of colorblindness are, at best, naive about their ability to deal with the historic effects of racism by pretending that race no longer matters. They tend to underestimate the lasting effects of historic racism. (p. 34)
A second major shortcoming … is that the attempt to ignore race leads to distortions which actually perpetuate racial strife. For example, members of many racial minorities have written eloquently about the pain they suffer because of their racial status. Advocates of colorblindness tend to ignore this pain. The pain will not go away merely because it is ignored. … The model of colorblindness has no answer for how to help minorities deal with the pain of racism. The only answer it provides, which is to minimize the importance of the pain, serves only to intensify the harm. (p. 35)
Yet while there is truth in colorblindness … it is built on individualistic ideas of sin. The Christian advocates of this model often do not address the structural aspects of racism. … By doing so they ignore our society’s structural racism. Sin is not only individualistic; a society can also suffer from structural sin. (p. 39)
And this is why I believe that Jesus was not colorblind because Jesus did not ignore or minimize people’s pain. Neither did he ignore the structural and systemic aspects of injustice and oppression. He may not have dealt with those systemic problems with public policy – was he ever in any social position to do so? – but he is keenly aware of them as my sermon below of the parallel biblical passage shows.
With all due respect to Henson, I believe he got the context reversed. My take is that in this particular case, Jesus is actually more accurately in the role of the oppressed ethnic minority. I preached on the Matthew version (Matthew 15:21-28) of this passage back in August 3, 2008 at Friendship Community Christian Reformed Church. Here’s my sermon and, hence, my “take” on the passage:
Going to the Dogs Sermon
This short story is one that many Christians find a little puzzling. Because it seems to show Jesus in a very harsh light. It doesn’t seem to jive with our picture of Jesus as a merciful and kind Savior. In fact, it makes Jesus look almost borderline racist. Why wouldn’t Jesus help this woman right away – just because she’s not Jewish? Why call her a “dog”?
As I did my research on this story, I find it is richly multi-layered. To help us understand this story and to find its significance for us today, I am going to look at this story from three different angles or three different perspectives. First, I will look at this story from the angle of “What Was Jesus Doing?” – as in “what ON EARTH was Jesus doing?” Why did he do that? Secondly, I will look at this story from the perspective of the Canaanite woman – what kind of faith did she portray, and how can she be a model for us? Thirdly, I will look at this from the Disciples’ perspective – what did they learn from witnessing this exchange between Jesus and the Woman? So, let us start with WWJD:
WWJD: What Was Jesus Doing?
We are tempted to compare this story with the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. It seems like two similar situations: in both stories, Jesus was in Gentile territory; he talked to a Gentile woman; both women have needs. But there are significant differences: in John, Jesus took the initiative to start a conversation with the Samaritan woman. Here, the Canaanite woman came seeking Jesus. There, Jesus was the one who kept pushing until the Samaritan woman believed; here in Matthew (and Mark), the Canaanite woman was the one doing the pushing until Jesus relented. Why the reversal? What was Jesus doing? Shouldn’t Jesus be receiving a seeker, especially a mother who loves her demon-possessed daughter, with wide-open arms? Why the seeming reluctance by Jesus?
I think the women’s different ethnicities and backgrounds make a difference. You see, in John 4, Samaria was in the kingdom of Israel. So the Samaritan woman was an ethnic minority among a Jewish majority. Jesus, in that situation, belonged to the majority group, the group in power, the group with privilege, and frankly, the group oppressing the Samaritans. It is very risky and difficult for the oppressed group to initiate breaking barriers. Because they risk suffering more from the consequences; it’s easier for Jesus, as part of the privileged group to initiate contact, to break the barrier – even though it is still risky for him, the consequences are usually not as bad for those in the majority power group. For example, it would be less risky and easier for a white man to break the racial divide and go sit at the back of the bus, than it was for Rosa Parks, a black woman, to sit at the front of the bus. You know what I mean? Who was likely to get more flak and suffer bigger consequences?
Now here, in Matthew 15, we are in a different country. The cities of Sidon and Tyre are major ports and commercial trade centers for the country of Syria-Phoenicia. This is Gentile country with a Jewish minority living within it. And the Phoenicians consume, buy and trade all the agricultural products of Jewish Galilee. And you know how that kind of business works – most of the money end up in the pockets of the Gentile traders, not the Jewish farmers. Sidon and Tyre are rich cities compared to cities in Galilee. So here, Jesus belongs to the ethnic minority and the marginalized. The Canaanite woman belongs to the majority group, the privileged group in power – not that she herself is rich but she belongs to that group. I believe this explains why Jesus behaved so differently.
Imagine if you are an African-American faith healer visiting South Africa during the height of Apartheid. And while you are there fellowshipping with the Black African Christians, a white Afrikaner woman, a stranger, came to you asking that you come and heal her sick daughter in uptown, white Johannesburg. How do you respond? Especially in light of the history of oppression, segregation, and racism. And this is your first visit to South Africa, and you haven’t even got a chance to heal any black Africans yet, and here’s a white Afrikaner asking you for a favor. How would you respond? Do you simply help a possible racist without strings attached?
I believe there’s a similar dynamic happening here with Jesus and the Canaanite woman. She belongs to a rich majority Gentile group who have benefited from a systemic commercial oppression of Galilean Jews. Remember, Jesus grew up in Galilee and is very familiar with this part of the world, and its socio-economic condition. I think Jesus behaved the way he did because he wanted to make sure that this woman is not simply assuming that she can benefit from a Jewish healer, consume another Galilean product, the way so many of her countrymen consume or benefit from Galileans. He wants to see that this woman truly has faith in him, and is not one who simply supports the unjust status quo. So, let us now take a look at this woman’s faith.
The Woman’s Great Faith
First, this Gentile woman somehow knows Jesus’ true identity. Her faith gives her genuine insight. She calls Jesus “Lord, Son of David”, which is the title for the Messiah. And she obviously believes that Jesus can heal her daughter.
Her faith also gives her boldness. She crosses the ethnic and socio-economic lines to come looking for Jesus, probably leaving her own comfort zones, her own neighborhood for a foreign neighborhood. It’s risky business for a woman alone. And she cried out in public to him – shouting shamelessly. Her faith was such that she disregarded what public opinion might think of her actions.
How did Jesus respond? His first response was silence. Jesus did not answer a word. Intentional silence to a person is an act of exclusion. Jesus is making this woman feel what it’s like to be totally excluded, something that someone from a privileged majority group may never have felt or experienced before. But this woman’s faith is great. She didn’t let that stop her. She didn’t get angry and leave, or start cursing and swearing at Jesus for his exclusionary behavior. Instead, she just keep on shouting and crying after Jesus. So much so that the disciples now are getting annoyed with her and asks Jesus to send her away, “for she keeps crying out after us.”
Now, Jesus answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. This is true in the sense that Jesus’ earthly mission’s priority was to Israel. Later, he sent his disciples on the great commission in Matthew 28 to make disciples of “all nations”. But, at this point in time, he and his disciples are focused on Israelites. Although, the fact that Jesus traveled all the way to the region of Sidon and Tyre, which is known to be pagan territory, suggests he seems to be going out of his way to bump into Gentiles. In any case, Jesus’ answer here has shifted from the experience of exclusion to the experience of segregation: I am a Jew and I am sent ONLY to Jewish lost sheep. In other words, “Sorry but you will have to find a Canaanite healer.” How did she respond to the concept of segregation?
She persisted – didn’t give up – came and knelt before Jesus – she humbled herself before him, and said, “Lord, help me”. Earlier, she was making noise and shouting from a distance to catch Jesus’ attention. Now that she got his attention, she drew near – no longer a distant object but a real life person who needs Jesus’ help and mercy. Segregation is often nice in theory until you see a flesh and blood person in front of you, close to you, appealing to your human kindness – it’s a different story.
The Canaanite woman has passed the exclusion experience and she passed the segregation experience. Now, Jesus puts her through the patronizing assimilation experience. He says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” The people of Israel are the children, and the Gentiles are the dogs. This is, of course, an insult. It is written in a Babylonian Talmud, “as the sacred food was intended … not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given … not to the Gentiles” (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 13a). Now, Jews do not regularly call Gentiles “dogs”. Only rarely. But there is some precedence. In Jewish Palestine, dogs were regarded as scavengers but in well-to-do households influenced by Greek custom (more familiar to the Syro-Phoenician woman), dogs were sometimes pets. So, for Jews, dogs are usually street dogs, stray dogs – unclean, eating unclean food. For example, Exodus 22:31 – “You are to be my holy people. So do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts; throw it to the dogs.” Also, Matthew 7:6 Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”
But here in Matthew 15 Jesus was not talking about street dogs or dogs in general, which is “kyon” in Greek. Instead, both Matthew and Mark used the derived word, “kynarion”, which means “house dog” – a pet dog. Now, as I have said, most Jews don’t own dogs as pets – dogs are unclean. Dogs do not belong in the typical Jewish house. They belong outside. Dogs are not included in the typical Jewish family. But Gentile families do. So, for Jesus to use the metaphor of “house dog” to insult her is already saying that this Canaanite woman is inside the house, is already part of the family, albeit in a demeaning role – as a pet, with no power or privilege or status. This is why I call this the experience of patronizing assimilation – “okay, you can be included but we include you on our terms, you are only at best a pet, a house dog – and as such, you don’t get any privileges, you still cannot have food that is meant for the children of Israel.”
And here, the woman’s faith is not only bold and courageous and willing to endure humiliation but she also is very clever. She noticed that she is now a pet dog, she is included in the house, so she sees an opening that Jesus has left for her, so she says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She accepted the demeaning role but turned it against Jesus. This is probably the only time that Jesus lost a debate. But I think he was a happy loser.
Jesus has put this woman through the experience of exclusion, segregation, assimilation and now, finally, he can give her the experience of full affirmation. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Jesus affirmed this Gentile woman’s faith, in front of all the disciples. In front of Peter, whom Jesus called, “you of little faith” in Matthew 14 in the walking on water incident. The disciples have little faith but this Gentile woman has great faith. What did the disciples learn from all this?
What Did the Disciples Learn?
I think this is the first lesson for the disciples in including Gentiles in God’s kingdom. They learn that Jesus’ mission involves saving the lost sheep of all nations, not just Israel. Here is a Canaanite woman who has insight into Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah, as Lord, as healer, and who will not take “no” for an answer – with great motherly love for her sick daughter – with great faith that is humble – even bearing humiliation – humble but bold and courageous, even bargaining with Jesus for crumbs. Can the disciples still be upset at Jesus for helping such a Gentile?
Just before this, in verses 1 to 20 of Matthew 15, Jesus was arguing with the Pharisees about ritual cleanliness, about purification rites, about what makes a person clean or unclean. Jesus taught, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean’, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ “ (15:11) And Mark understood this to mean that all foods are now essentially ‘clean’ (Mark 7:19). The Canaanite woman taught the disciples that there are probably no clean and unclean people either. All people are essentially ‘clean’.
There are a lot we can learn and apply for our world today. Let me end by asking some questions for application. What demons torment our daughters, our sons, today? What demonic powers are oppressing our youth in Jane & Finch? Do we have enough faith to advocate and work for their healing? Do those of us who are privileged have enough faith to break down the walls of exclusion, segregation & assimilation in order to bring affirmation for the marginalized? Do we cultivate faith that is not blind but faith that has true insight, persistence, courage, humility, as well as cleverness and creativity? Do we cultivate the wisdom of Jesus to know how to transform people and communities even as we help them in their immediate needs? Let us pray.