Saturday, September 08, 2012

Was Jesus a Racist?

There are some things in life we just do not like to talk about.  And often we get reminded that certain subjects are not appropriate for “polite company.”  But if we do not speak about them, then how do we grow?  If we don’t speak about them, then falsehoods and misinformation abounds.
Today’s gospel and epistle readings are just such topics.  These are not really pleasant things to talk about, especially in front of congregation of people, and a diverse congregation at that!  But I am going to press on here and hope that I don’t irreparably offend anyone.  I will probably offend someone along the way, but that is bound to happen.  I guess it is better to offend someone and get the topic open than to never ever bring it up because we want to be nice.
The topic I want to discuss is prejudice.
It is really kind of fun to read the commentaries about today’s gospel reading.  People do so many mental gymnastics to try to take the sting out of Jesus’ words to the Syropheonetian woman.  There are attempts to make it into a series of jokes.  (Ha ha, you dog!)  There are attempts to say that the “dog” that Jesus is talking about is a lap dog like a Yorkie or something.  (Which is still offensive, in my opinion.)  And still others who say that Jesus was rude to make a point.  (To make a point at the expense of a grieving mother is just wrong!)  We cannot get around the point that Jesus does something very un-Jesuslike. 
What we need to remember is that prejudice is not a new thing; it is as old as people.  In Jesus’ time, gentiles were considered on a par with dogs.  To be Jewish during Biblical times was to consider oneself on a higher level than non-Jews.  It was just the way things were; it was just part of society.  And I am guessing it was not something people questioned much.
Who are the people we consider below us?  This is a difficult question to ask and an even more difficult one to answer.  I am sure we like to think of ourselves as kind and loving people.  We do not want to consider that we might lift ourselves to a higher level than others.  However much we would like to think we are above prejudice, we all have our biases.  I will admit that I am prejudice toward Caucasian people.  Being born white and spending most of my formative years around white people has instilled prejudices in me.  I am prejudice toward intellectuals.  I have spent many years in college and have grown quite accustomed to people with advanced degrees.  I am prejudiced toward the middle class and toward moderate Christians.  Guess how I grew up?  That’s right!  I grew up in a middle class, Christian, home.  The things that surround us become the things that are accepted and become the prejudices that we really need to work to uncover.
For the sake of argument, since Jesus was fully human while being fully God, we can assume that Jesus also had some prejudices.  Jesus, being part of his society, made assumptions about situations.  And like us, these assumptions may not have been entirely accurate.  Now this may be making some people uncomfortable.  We do not like to think about Jesus having human foibles.  But in seeing Jesus work through one of these foibles, we can learn how we may grow in faith and learn to deal with others around us.
You will notice again, that the interaction with the woman occurs face-to-face.  Jesus must confront the person, she is standing right there.  With the woman standing there, Jesus must put a face and a story to the prejudice he is feeling.  He can’t just call her a gentile dog and move on.  She is there, she has a story, and she has a request.
Our prejudices thrive when we isolate ourselves from the object of that prejudice.  It is easy to think that a transgender person is just a man in a dress, or that Republicans are just old white men.  It is easy to think that black people are lazy or that gay people are all effeminate.   It is easy to think that Muslims are all terrorists or that Christians are judgmental bigots.  I sure we can come up with more stereotypes.  If there is a group of people out there, there is a stereotype for them.  And as long as we don’t ever have to come face-to-face with these groups, we don’t ever need to challenge our prejudices.
I think another danger is the assumption that we don’t have prejudices.  One woman in one of my past congregations said to me concerning gay people, “Most people are not like me.  I have no problem with them…but they better not want to come here and change everything.”  She did not catch it within herself.  In her mind, she was totally open and accepting of THEM.  But also, the people she spoke of would always be THEM.
When the Woman started talking to Jesus, he thought of her as THEM.  And if she would have walked away, Jesus may have continued to think of her as THEM.  But the Woman continued and her persistence helped Jesus to see that the distinction he was making between the Jews and the Gentiles was an arbitrary distinction. At the core, we are all people who need to rely on each other to make it through life.
A trend that you hopefully noticed over the past weeks is the trend toward relationships.  So often we think that all we need to do is throw money at situations and they will get better.  But Jesus invites us into relationship.  Jesus calls us together, to sit down together, to talk together, to listen.  Jesus calls us into diversity, not to impose our beliefs on others, but to learn from each other; Jesus does not force the woman to become a Jew before helping her.  He is reminded of her humanity and therefore changes his mind and helps her.  (This is the only place in the gospels where Jesus changes his mind!)
I think it is wonderful that you are reaching out into the community.  Having meals for the local people is a great thing!  But it is just the beginning!  Going to Haiti is a great thing!  All of these things are wonderful!  But this is not the place stop.  I have seen congregations hang their whole outreach on a Thanksgiving Dinner; it is a good place to start, but we are continually called to reach out into our community.  How else do we get to know people, face-to-face?  How do we move beyond thinking of another as THEM instead of as one of US?
We are called to look beyond our prejudices.  We are called to honestly face judgments and stop making excuses for the ways we belittle others.  Jesus gives us the tools to look beyond our preconceived notions and truly opens our eyes.  We may be uncomfortable with Jesus’ actions in this reading.  We may not like what he does.  But this needs to remind us of our own actions and should make us just as uncomfortable.  In the end, all are still called to the table and all are welcomed by Christ.  But how about us, Christ’s hands and heart in the world.  Are we willing to accept all in the same way?

1 comment:

Harpers Keeper said...

Excellent points. If we are not aware of our own prejudices we cannot make the conscious choice to move past them; or at least recognize the way they alter our perceptions. The way I most often recognize hidden prejudices in myself is when I am surprised by people I don't know. The surprise may be pleasant or unpleasant but it arises because they've communicated something that is different from my expectation. Why did I have any specific expectation of a stranger? For me that is a good place to look.