When my maternal grandmother died five years ago, my aunt made certain that I received the family bible. It had been my great-great-grandfather’s initially and was printed in Boston, MA in the early 1890s. It contains very little by way of genealogy. On the inside of the back cover is the name and birthdate of my great-great-grandfather and the name, birth, and death dates of my great-grandmother. Tucked between pages at various points are a few pressed flowers – once pink carnations, now a brittle brown tinged chiffon.
Within the bible itself are a few interesting pages that betray its age: a fill-in-the-blank style marriage record for nuptials which took place “in the year of our Lord, 18__”; a “Temperance” pledge with signatures lines for all members of the household who solemnly promise to abstain from the use of “intoxicating drinks as a beverage.” With good humor, I pointed these things out to my partner, David. And it was with similar good humor that I began leafing through the pages, looking at the artwork in the bible – painting after painting after painting illustrating scenes from the text. With a bit of wry humor, I remarked on just how white the Israelites were, back in the day.
Today, the truth of the whitewashing of our faith heritage is more cutting than humorous. Today, the truth of how white Christianity has become angers and aggrieves me. Today, with mounting frustration and rage, I am disgusted by the ways those in power have co-opted the Gospel message for their own sick purposes, grabbing power and destroying lives in the process. And without a careful reading of a text that is 2000 years removed from us in both language and culture, it’s not hard to see how these gross and grotesque distortions come about.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus makes one thing really abundantly clear: nothing we take into our body has the power to defile our soul. Anything that we eat moves through our digestive system and is removed by the sewer system. Rather, Jesus tells us, it is what comes out of our mouths that defiles us – for what comes out of our mouths proceeds from our hearts. Defilement looks like this: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.
The Canaanites were a people group living in the same geographic region as the Israelites in time of Jesus. From early in Jewish history, there was discord between the Israelites and the Canaanites. The Canaanites were seen as culturally inferior, socially inferior, morally inferior, genetically inferior, spiritually inferior. The Canaanites were listed in the book of Joshua as a people group the ancient Israelites were to exterminate.
In a world split into the “haves” and the “have nots,” in a world marked by the belief in scarcity rather than abundance, in a world where might made right, the Israelites decided they decided that there wasn’t enough to go around, that they needed to lay claim to the goods (taking them forcibly if necessary), and that their ability to do so gave the right to do. All of this was packaged up in the form of religious mandate and tied together with a bow of cultural and spiritual superiority.
The not-at-all-subtle message of the oppressed turned oppressor became, “God is on our side. We are trying to preserve what we have. We want to preserve a future for our children and for our culture.” And all the while, they seem to have forgotten both that a Canaanite is “one who comes from the land of Canaan” and that the Israelites, as a people group, were born in the land of Canaan.
And so, after telling his disciples that eating with unwashed does not defile a person (rather that it is the evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander coming from the heart and spewing forth from the mouth which defile a person) Jesus and his disciples leave Jerusalem. They head down from the literal, physical lofty heights of their mountain of metaphorical cultural and spiritual superiority. They leave Israel behind and head north. They walk into the land of Canaan and settle themselves in the region between the towns of Tyre and Sidon.
The ideology of settlers who created a grand new thing in Israel and the cultural investment in the notions of superiority and exceptionalism follow Jesus and his disciples back to the land of Canaan. For in the land of Canaan Jesus and his disciples are met by a Canaanite woman. This unnamed woman who has heard that Jesus entered her town calls to him:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us.”
Object lesson number 1 in our text today. Jesus’s acclaim as a healer is growing in the regions around Jerusalem. As he travels about, this woman pleads with him to hear her daughter. And from the mouths of his disciples comes their unjust pleas to send her away – despite the fact that they are the ones who have settled into her town for the day. Settler mentality – we can go where we want, do what we want, say what we want, and there should be no consequences for our actions.
[Jesus] answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Object lesson number 2 in our text today. Jesus, having seen the sickness in the hearts of his own disciples, amplified their voices. Jesus chooses to capitalize on the theology of scarcity. “Sorry,” he tells her. “Sure, I’m God. You know that. You’ve called me ‘Lord.’ Sure, we are cousins, hailing from common ancestors. But, there just isn’t enough to go around. I’m here for the house of Israel, not other Canaanite peoples.”
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Object lesson number 3 in our text today. The assumed cultural superiority of those in positions of power. This is the root of the evil intentions that come from the heart. All those who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression are considered “less than,” “inferior,” “a threat to” those who directly benefit from systems of oppression. “We are the ‘haves,’” Jesus tells this woman, “and it would be unfair to give our resources to the ‘have nots’ who are clearly inferior to us.” We begin to slander those we see as competing for our resources – unclean, vile, dogs, worthy of ridicule, deserving ostracism.
She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
I imagine Jesus sat there waiting for his disciples to figure this thing out. I read this text and I can feel his mounting frustration as his disciples miss object lesson after object lesson, forgetting that what makes people unclean isn’t what or how they eat, but the stuff that comes out of their hearts. This Canaanite woman demonstrated a heart of humility, pleading persistently for what she knew was right.
And his disciples, having given up their hope that Jesus would rebuke her and send her on her way, sat silently by and watched him challenger her right to exist and compare her to a dog. They stop their open insistence that Jesus send her away. And they continue to be silent about the injustice of the conversation unfolding before their eyes. Not one of them is willing to use their voice to speak truth to power.
There is much in today’s Gospel lesson that is being echoed in our world today. Just over a week ago, white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, Virginia with shouts of, “You will not replace us” and “White lives matter.” A second march took place the next day, organized the by the same people, in Seattle, Washington. These were followed by marches in New York City and Durham, North Carolina.
One protester from Virginia is quoted as saying, “As white nationalist[s] …. We … deserve a future for our children and our culture … we just want to preserve what we have.” And another, “The goal is to ethnically cleanse White nations of non-Whites and establish an authoritarian government.”
These are not the sentiments of “fringe” members of our society. These same people and their ideologies are supported by doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers, lawyers, journalists, judges. They come from all walks of life and they are maintaining the unjust system of oppression we call the United States of America. And millions of well-intentioned people continue to sit silently by and watch it play out, saying nothing as the events taking place are far removed from their comfortable lives in other areas of the country.
How did we get here? A Yale university social psychologist, Jennifer Richeson, says, “In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach their kids not to be racists, they will be…. It comes from the environment, the air all around us…. Everything we’re exposed to gives us messages about who is good and bad…. The rhetoric for racism is still in place. The environment for racism is still there.”
The environment of racism is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the very fabric of the society in which we live. It’s in the history of pastors and theologians who used biblical texts to justify slavery. It’s in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan which claims to uphold Christian ideals. It is in the representation of biblical figures such as Moses, the Hebrew people, Abraham, David, Solomon, Job, Sts. Peter, John, Matthew, Nathanel Bartholomew, and the women at the tomb as white. It is in the fact that one version or another of Warner Sallman’s lily-white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus hangs in nearly every church in America – a nation that equates Christianity with whiteness and whiteness with superiority, rightness, and righteousness.
The only way to rid the world of the evils of racism is to dismantle the structures that support it. And this means getting clear about how we benefit from its continued existence. It means educating ourselves about how it functions in our society. It means enhancing our awareness of how it exists in every segment of our society – it’s in the air we breathe; it’s in the water we drink.
And when we start getting woke to these things, we have a choice. Like Jesus disciples, we can sit idly by and let others engage in the hard work of dialogue; confronting prejudice’ dismantling institutions and ideologies intentionally choosing to live integrated rather than segregated lives in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces. Or, we can start to speak up and speak out. We can start to do our own work to rid our hearts of the things that defile us: evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander.
Jesus tells his disciples at another point, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do greater things than these.” It is well past time we, as a culture, do only what Jesus did in his object lesson to his disciples. It is well past time we, as a culture, think it is sufficient to feed scraps to those we deem beneath us.
It is time to welcome all peoples to the table as full human beings. And if the table we have constructed is too small for everyone to fit, it is well past time we tear it down and build a new one.