Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Syrophoenician Woman Exists Today, and Her Name is Michael Brown

In my preaching class at seminary, I was assigned a doozy of a text for my first graded sermon: Mark 7:24-30, which conveys the story of an otherwise anonymous Syrophoenician woman confronting Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter back home:

24 Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” 30 When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone. (Common English Bible)

"The children have to be fed first.  It isn't right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs."

"Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

"Good answer!"

What the hell kind of a back-and-forth is that to have over exorcising a demon-possessed little girl?

In short, a racist one.  Or, at least, an ethnocentric one.  This is from the sermon I ended up preaching, with my knees a-knocking behind my lectern:

Still, this woman comes to Him. She comes to Jesus with her desperation and her fear, but above all else, she comes to Jesus with her deep and abiding love and loyalty to her precious daughter. There is no other reason given for why the woman would have done something so out of the ordinary–to address a foreign man without being in the company of another man, and then having the tremendous courage to rebut this foreigner in the face of what is a horrific racial slur, for, when Jesus continually makes note of how He is sent to tend to the “children,” to God’s children, there can be little doubt who He is referring to when He uses the word “dogs.”...

Still, this woman comes to Him. And here is where God is, perhaps, more human than we would ever want to believe or imagine, because God is, through Jesus, exhibiting not what is best in us, but what is worst in us. We want to believe that God will watch over us, protect us, walk beside us and love us wholeheartedly as we live as God’s children in the creation, but that simply is not what happens here. What Jesus initially shows this powerless woman is not love. Instead, God, through Jesus, is forced to learn openness and inclusive, positive love from an anonymous, faceless, nameless woman, the dog who must beg for the children’s crumbs, who must beg for her daughter’s life. 

Yet as soon as God does learn this, God does right by this woman, and in so doing, we can take reassurance in the knowledge that eventually, somehow, someway, God will do, within God’s power, what is right by God’s children, not merely what is easy or convenient. 

Hopefully you can understand now why I was so nervous.  I was a 23-year-old seminary student getting up in front of a class full of fellow holy rollers and basically accusing the Son of the One True God, the Messiah, my Lord and Savior, of uttering a racial or ethnic slur by inferring that the Syrophoenicians (or Canaanites, in Matthew's version of this story) are dogs.  It was only slightly presumptuous of me.

The problem for me was, I couldn't figure out any other way to interpret the story without some serious mental gymnastics or the outright inserting of my wants into the text.  I read commentaries that basically said, "Jesus was probably being facetious here" with absolutely zero reasons as to why, or that basically said, "Jesus was testing the woman" with similarly no reasons as to why, and I wanted to scream at all of the scholarly cop-outs I was seeing when in reality what I was reading in Scripture was an unfair put-down of this no-name woman.

While Jesus learns in a split second the openness and positive love, we--his followers here today--are still struggling on the uptake and have been for the past two thousand years.  We--and by we, I am referring primarily to white, predominantly Christian, Americans--haven't gotten it that what we so often offer to our differently colored brothers and sisters are the crumbs from our table, and then we act outraged when our magnanimous crumb-offer is understandably rejected.

I don't know if Officer Darren Wilson is guilty of murder or manslaughter when he shot Mike Brown that day in August.  But the whole point of the grand jury--of any grand jury--isn't to determine guilt, but to determine if there is enough evidence that one's guilt or innocence needs to be a topic of further conversation in our courts.  And I have to think it does, because otherwise, not even the crumbs will have fallen from our table of justice.

Which is exactly what happened last night.  Not even a crumb of justice was proffered to a people who have been starved of it for so very, very long.

Ever since emancipation, we have demanded of the African-Americans whose ancestors were hauled here in chains, whose families were broken off and bought and sold at market, whose women were raped, whose bodies were beaten and whipped and scourged, that they stand up solidly while we kept kneecapping them at every opportunity with segregation ordinances, poll taxes, literacy tests, and, today, voter ID laws (yep, I went there).

The crumbs of justice, meanwhile, have dried up, even as the names of the African-American dead from incidents with law enforcement stack up.  Amadou Diallo.  Kathryn Johnston.  Henry Glover.  Oscar Grant.  Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr.  Ayana Stanley Jones.  Kendrec McDade.  Trayvon Martin.  Eric Garner.  Michael Brown.  And now, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice.

And this list is by no means exhaustive.  Not even close.

Law enforcement are oftentimes our heroes.  I vividly remember the immense gratitude I felt for the Boston PD when it was announced they had safely apprehended Dzhokar Tsarnaev after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, in no small part because my younger sister lives in Boston.

But can we have our heroes minus the racially tinged taking of human life?  Can we enforce and serve justice by giving far more than the crumbs to the people who were once viewed in this country as the Syrophoenician dogs?

Can we continue to live and love and kingdom-build in a country where one standard of justice exists for the Israelites and another standard for the Syrophoenicians?

Or are we forever condemned to a life of comparing those different than us to the dogs beneath our kitchen tables, begging us for scraps?

That choice, like most spiritual choices, is ours, fellow white Christian Americans.  Believe it or not, it really is.  We can choose to stand up and say that justice was not done, to demand changes from the elected officials of Saint Louis County, Ferguson, and all of Missouri.  We can threaten them with our votes, our donations, and our column inches.  We can do all of that, because we have the privilege to do so.

But choose wrongly, choose the side of the oppressor--the side that benefits us at the expense of our brothers and sisters of color--and I genuinely fear that we will have succeeded only in ensuring our own damnation.

Last night in Ferguson was no exception to that.  We rightfully condemn the rioting and its attendant destruction, and yet we fail to see the plank in our own eye that helps to uphold a racist and broken system in which black lives are simply not valued as much as ours are.  And for that, I have no doubt that the God who made heaven and earth--and not as a white man--is judging us.

Jesus moved past the preconceptions of this other people who shared the land with Him.  But will we ever do as He says--to do likewise?

We have found our role model in Scripture.  And if we fail to follow His example now, the devaluation of the lives of people of color in this nation we share isn't just on our slave-holding ancestors, it is on us as well.

Are you prepared to have to live with that burden?  And if not, what are you prepared to do to unshackle our kingdom from it?

Yours in Christ,

PS: Below are several links to words penned on Ferguson by people of color whose writing I respect and follow.  I cannot act as though I am prepared to give voice to my brothers and sisters without doing so on the one platform I have that has the largest breadth of reach--here, on my blog.  Each of these folks has a much bigger platform than I do, but this isn't about page clicks.  Hear their words, and please do not try to drown them out or contradict their experiences.  Just listen to them.

Jamelle Bouie

Jonathan Capeheart

Christena Cleveland

Charles M. Blow

Tracie Thoms

No comments:

Post a Comment