Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Two Thousand Years of Prejudice

I watched Blazing Saddles the other night and again laughed my way through Mel Brooks' satirical criticism of the unvarnished racism typical of Hollywood's portrayal of the American west. I laughed both because the movie is hilarious and also because, in a way, Brooks is making fun of me and the dominant culture with which I identify. Although sometimes it masks the truth, laughter also can be disarming. In the film, Brooks finds a way to get people like me a little closer to the mirror of self-scrutiny. He hasn't finished the job, but he's advanced the cause.

Among the dozens of mock-racist references in the film is a scene in which the black hero, Sheriff Bart, encounters Taggart, played by the legend Slim Pickens, who questions the sheriff's authority by calling him "Boy." Taggart says, "Now what the hell do you think you're doing with that tin star, Boy?" Without hesitation, the sheriff quips back, "Watch that 'boy-shit,' Redneck. You're talking to the sheriff of Rock Ridge." Taggart's answer sums up the whole purpose of the film: "Well if that don't beat all! Here we take the good time and trouble to slaughter every last Indian in the west, and for what? So we can appoint a sheriff that's blacker than any Indian. I am depressed." 

Even though I'm a generation removed from desegregation, as a southerner, I recognize the reference. "Boy" was (and still is) a term of derision used by whites to refer to black men of any age. It has been used for centuries as a way of emasculating, dehumanizing, and humiliating people of another race. It is primarily a way of denying a black man the decency of his name and the respect appropriate to an adult. In the Jim Crow south, white men and women were referred to as "Mr. This" or "Miss That."  Blacks were not shown that courtesy. They had last names, but the white community disregarded them. First names were common, and "boy" was a way of further exerting dominance over blacks. Even as a child of the 1980s, I was taught to address older white men and women by their last names, but I called most (if not all) of the black men and women I knew by their first names--even those as old or older than my parents. I was never taught to say "boy," but still the exclusionary culture lingers. I was in college before anyone bothered to ask me what that unconscious and inherited practice represented. That was twenty years too late.

On Sunday, as we read Mark 7:24-37, we have an opportunity to address head-on the pervasive effect of lingering prejudices that are not confessed and from which we have not repented. In the first of two encounters in the gospel lesson, Jesus will look at a woman of Syrophoenician origin, which is Mark's particular way of referring to her as a Gentile, and say, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Those are difficult words to hear from Jesus. They aren't the sweet, accepting, gentle words we expect from our Lord and savior. But it's even worse than that. It's tough enough to hear Jesus be mean to a woman in need--someone who is begging him for help. It's harder still to hear Jesus espouse a theology of salvation with ethnic/religious priority reserved for Jews (see yesterday's post). But the hardest part of all is to hear Jesus call the woman a dog--a racial epithet used by Jews in that day to refer to the subhuman class of people known as Gentiles.

Take a moment to let that sink in. Jesus chose a commonly used racist word to identify the woman. This wasn't just a common household image from a culture in which dogs ate the bits that people dropped on the floor. In fact, Jews would not have kept dogs in their homes. Dogs were thought to be unclean as they might easily get into religious mischief like digging around graves or rustling through non-kosher refuse. This was a specific term of derision. It was the parlance of the day. No, he doesn't say it directly to her as in "You're just a dog!" And, yes, the Greek word Mark uses is actually the diminutive for dog, which is kind of like saying "puppy" or "little dog," so it's not as bad as Matthew's version. But we're still left with Jesus using a word that we can't explain away.

To refer to the Gentile woman as a "dog" was like me referring to a black man as a "boy." Culture is everything. We might want to think that Jesus didn't mean it in a derogatory way, but that's like me trying to explain a joke about a "boy" or a "mammie" as not being racist. I cannot say those words when referring to a black person and not convey the racist baggage that come with them. Likewise, think what you want, but Jesus can't drop the d-word and not be heard by his contemporaries as reinforcing racist stereotypes.

So where does that leave us--with a bigoted, racist Jesus? Surely not. Racism is a sin, and I believe with every fiber of my being that Jesus lived without sin. But the words he said and the way he used them were a reflection of a racism that he inherited. Jesus might not be a racist, but, from two thousand years of hindsight, we can judge that what he said was racist, and that's what we really need to deal with. Sometimes the sacred things we carry with us from the past have their roots in the racism. We must address those roots. We must repent of them. No, Jesus is not guilty of the sin of racism. No, we cannot travel back in time and condemn him or others for what he said, nor should we try. I am not suggesting that the "I didn't know better" defense is a get out of jail free card, but Jesus lived at a time when racial equality wasn't even a consideration. Jesus and his contemporaries were not rejecting the dignity of every human being because they wanted to use discrimination as a way of preserving their position of power. They were operating in a culture that could not recognize racism as a sin. But our culture is different. And we would be mistaken to let this passage come and go without stopping to identify within it the roots of racism.

Perhaps it is no accident that Sunday has also been declared "Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday" by several denominations. This effort is "spearheaded by the AME, AME Zion, and CME Churches," but Gay Clark Jennings, the President of the House of Deputies, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop, have also published a letter calling on the Episcopal Church to join in the observance. What does that mean for us? What does all of this mean for me?

As with so many things, the healing of racism begins with confession and repentance. Don't shy away from the issue of race as portrayed in this passage. There is hope here. This isn't a passage that calls upon us to perpetuate our racist past. In the end, the woman's refusal to let Jesus' dehumanization be the end of the story leads to her salvation--the healing of her daughter. She is a strong character. She has a place in a Mel Brooks movie. She takes Jesus' label and turns it upside down. She uses craftiness and nimbleness to undermine his intentions. Jesus isn't necessarily the bad guy in the story, but he isn't necessarily the hero either. Let the Syrophoenician woman tell the gospel this Sunday. Look for ways to celebrate her strength. For racism to be healed, we must look at our past--moments like Mark 7--and find ways for the reversal of a racist moment to ring true in the present day.

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