This past week’s lectionary reading from Mark tells the story of the Syrophoenician woman who approaches Jesus seeking healing, and of Jesus’ response to her. It is a difficult story. It portrays Jesus—the central figure of the Christian faith, the one called the Son of God—in a negative light. Not only does he deny the woman healing, but he negates her humanity by obliquely referring to her and her daughter as dogs. He shows a lack of respect and awareness for her that feels appalling, particularly unlike the Jesus we are taught to emulate. In fact, in the five or more times I encountered this story in worship this week, I found myself confronting a rather uncomfortable interpretation—that Jesus was racist. This might seem like a horrible and rather depressing conclusion, maybe even blasphemous to some sensibilities, but I want to share briefly why Jesus’ racist response to the Syrophoenician woman gives me some perhaps unexpected hope.
In doing anti-oppression work I find it important to separate the personal from the structural, (while holding in tension the important cry of 20th century feminism that the personal is political.) In my experience around this work, I have found that too often folks who find themselves in positions of societal power feel uncomfortable talking about racism or classism or heterosexism, finding it difficult not to take the structural realities as a personal attack on their character. But I am not racist! I am nice! This story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is powerful precisely because it illustrates this difficult point. Of course I’m nice. Jesus was pretty nice, too. But we are all products of the social contexts in which we find ourselves, and the cultural oppressions that enmesh each and every one of us affect us deeply. They even affect the Son of God—a prophet, healer, and holy man, as he utters a racist response to a woman seeking his healing.
Maybe this isn’t sounding too hopeful yet…even Jesus is racist?! But what happens next in this passage is powerful. The Syrophoenician woman flips Jesus’ racist rhetoric on its head and talks back to him, claiming her agency from a marginal position as a woman and as a person of a different racial-ethnic group than this famous healer. And Jesus actually listens to her. He seemingly finds it in himself to practice holy listening, against the cultural ethos, and to hold the truth she professes. He heals her daughter and he affirms her publically.
A few lines down in the Mark passage, Jesus heals another man, commanding him to “be opened” (Ephphatha). This healing mirrors the way in which Jesus himself has just been opened by the bold woman he met in Tyre. Even Jesus had internalized the oppressive structures of his time, just as we all have and do: those of us who are in marginal groups, and those of us in groups of historical power, and those of us who find ourselves in complex constellations of both in different aspects of our identities. But like Jesus, we have the opportunity to radically encounter another human being, and to be moved to change. To be opened. To practice holy listening, which is open to self-transformation.
Engaging with one individual in an authentic dialogue may not alter longstanding structures that include and exclude, that invisibilize, that set norms and expectations, but it can radically change us. We can allow ourselves to be undone, to be seen, to see ourselves with more clarity, and that self-awareness and awareness of the other plants the seed for a broader societal transformation.
We don’t know the worlds of our fellow human beings. The struggles and traumas and joys and memories that mark each other’s lives are a mystery. Our histories are intertwined, but so irreducibly distinct. And yet, in a true encounter with another’s mystery a connection of hearts is possible. In the words of the anonymous Tamil poet called Cempulappeyanirar, who wrote in the time of Jesus:
What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father
to yours anyway? And how
Did you and I meet ever?
But in love
our hearts have mingled
as red earth and pouring rain.*
May our hearts mingle in love as we become opened, as we listen with holy presence, risking our vulnerabilities, exposing our lineages of pain and joy.
I should mention that I ran into a similar argument to this one on this blog. Please read here for a somewhat different, and longer, take on this same theme of Jesus’ racism in Mark’s account of the Syrophoenician woman.
*from the Tamil anthology “Kuruntokai”, translated by A.K. Ramanujan, in The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1994, Oxford University Press)
|by Brother Robert Lentz|