Did he just say that? That racial slur? It’s time to take a stand. To take him aside and teach him that hateful comments coming from a prominent leader reinforce prejudice. To remind him that from our faith perspective, we will not allow statements that demean a person of another race, gender, or religion.
Did he just say that? Did Jesus just say that in Matthew 15:21-28? Did Jesus just call the Canaanite woman a dog?
Even before Jesus makes a derogatory comment, it seems like he is ignoring her. And the disciples want to send her away. Is it because she is a woman? Because she is shouting and making a commotion? Because she is of another race—a Canaanite, a foreigner, a Gentile?
What do with this conundrum? One traditional answer would be: Jesus didn’t really mean it. He didn’t mean to demean the Gentile woman. He was merely testing her faith! But whether we are dealing with the human Jesus that walked this earth, or the situation when Matthew wrote the gospel, there is a more thought-provoking approach.
Maybe the human Jesus learned something from this assertive, demanding, even pushy woman? Could Jesus’ insensitive comment show how he—like us— inherited a worldview with certain assumptions about privilege? Most of us are more comfortable around people who think, act, vote, and worship like we do. Remember that the Messiah was expected to redeem Israel. To Matthew’s listeners, Jesus comments about the scope of his mission to the Jews is what they would expect.
But what’s different is that Jesus ventures beyond the normal boundaries. He’s on her turf. And her people were considered pagan and godless. Yet from such an unexpected source comes some learning for Jesus and for us. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Everyone is worthy of dignity and respect.
How can it be that we have come so far, yet issues of difference and diversity are still tormenting us as a people, as a church, as a nation? Perhaps some things never change, like human sin, divisiveness or tribalism? Last year activist and author Adrienne Maree Brown remarked that racist realities in America “are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
At a staff retreat, we watched the documentary “I am Not Your Negro.” We look back on the state of our troubled country fifty years ago through interviews and other writings of the African American activist James Baldwin. To see the placards with hateful epithets from then and think of what we saw in Charlottesville was chilling.
One quote by Baldwin stood out for us: “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.”
As has been made clear these past weeks, this is not a time for nuanced positions. White supremacy and all forms of hate must be condemned.
In some ways, texts like this are rallying cries for a congregation like ours that treasures diversity and radical welcome. An Isaiah text (Isaiah 56:1-8) mentions foreigners and outcasts and insists that God’s house must be a house of prayer for all people. And all means all. How do we relate to Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths or no faith? How do we hear these words amid new waves of hateful anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and Xenophobic rhetoric?
It is easy for us to say that we are not extremists like those who marched in Charlottesville and then miss the ways that we are part of systems that are racist and sexist. Yet it seems that everybody has something to say these days and we are bombarded by thousands of words and opinions. Did he just say that? Did she just post that? It is easy for us to spend all our energy reacting to the stupid things people are saying instead of listening to the voices of those on the margins, the very people that are the victims of hate. How easy it for us to fight hate with hate, and become the very thing we detest. We have a lot to learn about the effective use of nonviolence by MLK, Mandela and Ghandi.
As one Lutheran theologian (Anne Milliken Peterson) notes: the story of God sharing our human story in Christ is always wrapped in “economic realities, political histories, religious struggles, and formidable social boundaries.”
During this Reformation 500 year, I have given your three pastors a challenge: each week find a nugget of wisdom from Martin Luther or our Lutheran heritage. And here’s mine for the week. In 1993, our denomination, released a social statement on “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture.” It calls racism a sin that fractures both church and society. This year another proposed statement, “Faith, Sexism and Justice,” is being studied and has been the topic for our Wednesday morning bible study group. The Lutheran principle always begins with God’s gracious action. On our own we will not be able to save the world and bring healing to these tormented times.
Yet because of God creates all people with dignity—see how it begins—we respond to injustice. Jesus listens and learns from an assertive woman of a different race and religion.
Did she just say that? Even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table! What about today? So as we consider issues of sexism and issues of gender, we listen and learn from the voices of women and
girls who experience physical and sexual abuse at tragically high rates . . . who face economic disparities in income and opportunities. We listen and learn from people who were not born fitting easily into categories of male or female . . . who may be intersex or transgender. We listen and learn from a young lesbian who faces guys at school, teasing: “you’re too cute to be a lesbian. We listen and learn from a woman who had been raped as a teenager and still struggles with the predominant male images for God in the Bible.
And we listen and learn from one another in this community and in our own relationships for each one of us has complex, complicated life stories. There is always some kind of pain and contradiction for all of us—in all that it means to be human.
And yet we all trust, that like the Canaanite woman’s daughter, there will healing for us, for our city, for our country, for our world, for our earth. And so we come to be anointed for healing. We come to the table, not with crumbs beneath it for some. But with bread and wine for all. Holding each other tight, ready to face the future together.