Thursday, August 17, 2017

Grandma's Racism Isn't Ok

I'm not scheduled to preach on Sunday. If I were, I think I might open my sermon by saying something like, "That blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus sure does know how to put a filthy Canaanite woman in her place." Sunday's gospel lesson is from Matthew 15 and includes the encounter between Jesus and the Gentile woman who begs him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. After first ignoring her and then resolutely refusing to help, Jesus says to the persistent mother, "It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." Of course, the woman takes Jesus' words and uses them to demonstrate that faith belongs not only to the children of Israel but potentially to all peoples, but let's not celebrate her faith without also questioning Jesus' motives.

I've heard plenty of people use a number of explanations to excuse Jesus' harsh words. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he didn't mean it the way we hear it. Maybe he knew what sort of response the woman would have, so he treated her harshly just to provoke that reaction from her and, through it, make a point to his disciples. Maybe, like a parent who, when asked by his children why he gave one child a bigger piece of cake, responds, "Because I love your sister more than you," Jesus actually meant the exact opposite of what he said. If it makes the preacher and the congregation feel better, we can hide behind any one of those excuses, but, if so, we will not have done the gospel lesson justice nor will we have been faithful to our call to participate in the transformational, unconditional love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ.

We use excuses like that to let our racist grandmother off the hook. She grew up in another era when no one understood what equality was. She only uses that term because she doesn't know the proper, politically correct way to speak about persons of color. She says things like that because no one ever taught her anything else. It's not like she goes to rallies or actively discriminates against anyone; she's just an old, southern lady who is stuck in her ways, and there's not much we can do about that. We say those things to ourselves and to other people because we don't like the alternative. We don't like thinking of our dear, sweet grandmother, who always doted on us and showered us with affection, as a prejudiced, bigoted, racist like the kind we see making Nazi salutes and wearing white hoods and shouting hate-filled things in Charlottesville. But what's the difference between David Duke and Grandma and Jesus?

For starters, let's admit that there is actually a difference. There's a difference between an individual who espouses racist views and a person who passively participates in a racist system. Jesus isn't lining up at the alt-right demonstration, and neither is your grandmother. The transformation that God is enacting in the world isn't facilitated by labeling everyone who has ever failed to call out a friend for telling a racist joke as the same kind of racist as the neo-Nazi skinhead who advocates the murder of minorities. But we undermine that transformation when we fail to identify and excoriate the systemic racism that leads Grandma to think about her African-American neighbors as a threat to her safety and security and that leads Jesus to call this Canaanite woman a dog.

I preached about this gospel lesson at a midweek service last week, before Charlottesville had made the headlines. In that sermon, which you can read here, I discussed the anachronistic label that Matthew uses for the Gentile woman who sought Jesus' help. In short, there were no Canaanites back then. Using that term was a way to remind the readers of those people who, long ago, had literally stood in the way of God's people entering the Promised Land. By bringing us back to that chapter in Israel's history, Matthew is inviting us to see this woman as someone whom Jesus wasn't supposed to help. Her faith, therefore, comes as a surprise to everyone--even Jesus. Her statement about gathering up the crumbs under the table and Jesus' change of heart represent the kind of reversal that God is enacting in the world through God's Son. There can be no bigger reversal of fortunes than this "Canaanite" woman receiving salvation at the hands of the "Son of David." In the end, therefore, there must be transformation. The outcome of this gospel lesson--in the story itself and also in our lives--must be the radical equalization of universal and undifferentiated access to God and God's love. But we can't get there unless we embrace the fullness of the racism that otherwise would stand in its way.

Jesus may be sinless, but he is bound by his humanity, and that includes the shortsightedness of systemic, cultural racism. (My friend Steve Pankey wrote beautifully about that on Monday, and his post has been an important part of my prayers and work this week.) To a faithful first-century Jew, this Gentile woman--especially when labeled as a "Canaanite"--is nothing more than a dog. That's just the way it was. And that was as true for Jesus as it was for anyone else. Of course, that isn't the way God's reign looks when it is fully manifest. In God's eyes and in God's kingdom, the Canaanite woman is as beloved as any of God's children. We can see that now in ways that Jesus couldn't see and, perhaps, that our grandmothers couldn't see either. Even in the first century, however, Jesus represented the possibility that God's love could extend beyond traditional cultural, religious, and racial boundaries. It is in Jesus, therefore, that this barrier is shattered in this encounter with the Gentile woman. It is through Jesus that the world begins to see a little more clearly that racism of any kind--personal, cultural, inherited, systemic--stands in the way of God's reign.

If we pretend that racism only affects those who travel to Charlottesville to "unite the right," we will be guilty of perpetuating the same racist theology of privilege that led white preachers to issue their "Call for Unity," urging civil rights demonstrators to abandon their "unwise and untimely" provocation that had upset Birmingham in the spring of 1963. If we deny the racism that affects the culture and systems that we inhabit, we are guilty of the same racism that led southern states to secede from the Union in order to preserve their slavery-supported economy and lifestyle. If we refuse to confront the racism upon which our lives--our education, our wealth, our access--have been built, then we are guilty of the same exclusionary approach to God's blessings that led Jesus to turn that Canaanite woman away.

In each of those moments, God's kingdom is breaking through, but it is breaking through not in the stories of those who have power and authority and control but in the lives and witness of those who are oppressed, enslaved, and excluded. If we are going to see that kingdom and participate in the transformation that it has brought to this world, we must not remain silent any longer. We must not let passive participation in the unjust structures of society go unchallenged. We must forsake the racism that has shaped our ancestors, our institutions, and ourselves, and follow the one who unites all peoples through his death and resurrection.

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