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A Case Study:
Racism in the Bible

by LINDA H. HOLLIES


   From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

   Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs."

   Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go -- the demon has left your daughter." --Mark 7:24-29

 

CALL HER a persistent woman. Call her a determined woman. Call her a bodacious woman. For she was! She refused to allow race, culture, traditions or gender to keep her from obtaining her goals. She pushed past established boundaries to find relief. She knew the customs. She was well aware of acceptable roles of behavior. She understood the contempt for "her kind."

Yet, she was determined life could be better, more just and fair. She knew there was help available. She becomes a case study in the art of pursuing liberty and justice. The inward call to wholeness in life urged her forward. She was relentless in her search for "First Church"!

CALL THEM hidden. Call them weary. Call them sexist. Call them racist. For they were! They were bigoted, narrow-minded, inhospitable and rude. Call them "First Church." We know them as Jesus and the disciples. They were secreted away from the needy, hungry, maddening crowds. They wanted some downtime. They needed space. They coveted this private time.

THEN in barges this darker-colored gentile woman.

"Who does she think she is?" must have been their question as they looked at each other. For even gentile women knew "their place." How dare she enter a room filled with Jewish males?


No welcome

Racism and sexism rear their ugly heads in many of the stories within our Christian canon. This particular incident found it’s way into two passages -- Mark 7:24-29 and Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus has had one of those awful encounters with the temple leaders over the unorthodox behavior of the disciples. Tiring of petty conversation, he and the disciples slip away into the region of Tyre and Sidon. Mark records:

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet (Mark 7:24-25).

The woman was a foreigner, a Canaanite.

Canaan had become the Promised Land of the Israelites. They lived in houses they had not build, drank wine from vines they had not planted and ate food they had not produced because they "took" property from the Canaanites. The former landowners became refugees, forced to flee their homes and lands.

Division and racial hatred was inevitable. Wholeness and happiness for one group meant homelessness, hopelessness and despair for the other. Knowing the walls that separated them, the woman found Jesus and the disciples and immediately began pleading with Jesus, Have mercy on me. Lord, Son of David (Matthew 15:22).

She is very specific in whom she addresses. She does not use a plural designation to include the disciples in her appeal. Yet, they are the first to reject her.

She was "the other." She was not even a proper Jewish woman who knew her place. She was not a member of the temple. She did not serve their God. She didn’t fit into their group. And, surely, she was not informed of protocol.

So these men, in training to be witnesses of a loving God, behave in a most ungodly manner. The church failed to welcome her.

The First Church had no written rules, regulations, bylaws or mission statements about how to do outreach ministry to "the other." So, while she pleaded for divine intervention, the Church said, Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us (Matthew 15:23).


Jesus says nothing

As United Methodist Women engages a two-year study of the Bible, it is essential for us to note the racism captured within these sacred pages. Years of oral tradition have passed. The canon has been circulated through Christian communities around the world, accepted as apostolic truth, used by bishops and church leaders, and is now closed to new stories. Racism within the Church has been apparent, obvious and continuing for centuries. The painful truth has been and remains that racism is an ugly issue to be dealt with by the Church. By our actions and inactions, we continue to say to God about the other: "Send them away."

This woman has no name. We just know she’s of a different race. This woman has a need. We know that she is insistent that her daughter live in a "new" way. She needs help.

This woman is aware of First Church being "closed" in its select membership, but she presses ahead. You would think that these Jewish men, who are familiar with being scorned, defamed and rejected by the more educated Greek and Roman rulers of their day, would identify with this woman’s pain. Yet, they are the very ones who urge Jesus to dismiss her without aid.

Jesus says nothing. As a woman of color, this bothered me, troubled me, confused me. Why was the Savior silent at such a critical time?

Then, the teacher in me came alive! When you have been teaching a lesson over a period of time, you expect your students to master it. Jesus came and gave unselfishly through his ministry. Jesus included those who many considered "ner-do-wells" and gave them a primary position in First Church. Did the disciples comprehend this essential lesson of loving inclusion? Perhaps Jesus was waiting to see if they had internalized the lesson. If so, the fellows flunked the test.

In Jesus’ silence, the Church had ample opportunity to show loving compassion. It had a chance to enlarge the circle and draw the woman inside. The disciples had the privilege of becoming helpful, big brothers.

Instead, their ethnic pride and macho egos blotted out the message Jesus had been teaching so persistently. In the silence, without resolutions, petitions and debates; without conferencing, caucusing or counciling; without checking the political pulse or the cultural climate, they could have been charitable and stepped over the walls that separated them. But they could not see the woman as a person. She was too different -- "the other."


Dialogue of justice

Even Jesus, a product of his cultural upbringing, responds, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15:24).

This woman did not concern herself with his agenda, the disciples’ snub or the divisions between them. Her child deserved a new beginning. She desired to be free herself. So she cries out again, Lord, help me! (Matthew 15:25)

It’s not nice. We don’t like to admit it. It doesn’t sound like the Jesus we love, but as a Jewish male, even he refers to her as a dog -- the common Jewish reference to gentiles.

Biblical commentaries often try to soften his answer by saying that Jesus’ use of this word was in reference to a little house dog. But, a dog is a dog is a dog!

Girlfriend, is not angered, embarrassed or shamed. The stinging rebuff does not shut her up. She engages in the dialogue of justice. She stresses the point that she may well not be a lost sheep, and, indeed she may well be a "little, female dog." But, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table from God’s amazing abundance, she boldly declares (Matthew 15:27).

Jesus agrees!

He praises her great faith. He steps outside the established agenda and provides deliverance for her and her daughter. The inclusion of "those people" turns on the relentless pursuit of a woman of color.

Thank God for women who continue to cry out for the liberty for which Jesus Christ died. Praise God for women who long for the day when their children might inherit freedom, equality and equity in every system. Praise God for Jesus who saw her need, felt her pain and included her in God’s amazing grace.


First Church changed

It is interesting to note that the disciples make no more response. Perhaps they were shocked into speechlessness. They could have been too ashamed, or simply consumed trying to absorb the way in which Jesus has responded to a woman. It could have been a teachable moment.

But First-Church members were fairly slow learners. This is evidenced years later when Peter is asked to come and minister to gentiles. He finds himself conflicted. Even as the new church was evangelizing converts, they challenged Peter about eating with the "uncircumcised" (Acts 11:1-18).

Peter considered the uncircumcised’s unorthodox methods of eating and cooking unclean. He struggled with how he could authentically do ministry with "them." Their ways were entirely too different from the way he had been raised.

So, as he wrestles with methodology, God comes to him in a dream and says, Do not call anything impure that God has made clean (Acts 11:9). After hearing this three times, Peter concludes, The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them (Acts 11:12).

It was this same powerful, awesome Holy Spirit who worked within our Canaanite sister, sending her to seek help from a silent Jesus. Notice her expectations of him. Although he was "the other" to her, she expected him to help her. She focused her need -- her child’s need -- even when she was scorned and reviled. She continued to plead even after being told no.

The walls of division began to fall because of her faith in one who was different. The stones began to tumble as she lay at his feet, waiting for grace and mercy to fall upon her.

First Church changed that day. This woman of color -- "the other" -- was extended the right hand of fellowship, joined the membership and became included in the biblical canon’s record of great faith.

My prayer is that it continues to be so then, now and always.


The Rev. Linda H. Hollies is minister of missions for West Michigan Conference. She is author of several books including her latest, Jesus and Those Bodacious Women, Pilgrim Press.