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Bishop Monday Message: Racism is Incompatible with Christian Teaching

Posted: June 8 2020 at 09:56 AM

One of the annual conference’s strategic goals is “to live out the conviction that racism is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This is a tall order as we come to it with four centuries of baggage.

Recently I was asked what it means: “racism is incompatible with Christian teaching.” We all need to wrestle with what it means in our own lives, communities, churches, and certainly our nation. We’ve seen how deeply embedded racism is in our nation and culture, in micro-aggressions (as they’re called) as well as aggressions that lead to the death of people based on the color of their skin.

So let me begin. One of the key scriptures in my estimation on teaching anti-racism comes from Matthew 15:21-28. I encourage you to look it up and read it for yourself, but let me walk you through it as we reflect together—especially those of us who are white and also identify as Christian.

There’s a woman. A Canaanite woman. Jesus has gone to the region of Tyre and Sidon, outside of Israel, to the land of the Canaanites…so no surprise that he runs into a Canaanite woman! The Canaanites were an ethnic and religious group very different from the Jews; there was antagonism between the people. She’s a Gentile, and Gentiles and Jews were antagonistic toward each other. It was racial, ethnic, religious and national.  

The Canaanite woman doesn’t have a name. It’s so easy to objectify others if they don’t have a name. Names make people real to us. “Say the name!” we hear chanted when people protest the violence and death against black people. Without a name, it’s easy to just categorize them: those people, black people, Asian people, Hispanic people or any other categorization based on some part of their identity. Maybe we should give the woman a name. I looked up ancient Canaanite female names and the first one I found was Donatiya. Let’s call her Donatiya.

Donatiya’s identity is not only being a woman and a Canaanite but also a mother.  And she’s a mother with a very sick child. A girl child, as it turns out. Girl children were at the bottom of the status poll in the ancient near east; maybe right above a field animal. Who cares whether this girl child lives or dies? Oh, Donatiya does! And the girl child needs a name, too. The second name on the list of Canaanite female names: Hurriya (say the name). Donatiya and Hurriya are human beings…and Donatiya is desperate that her daughter be made well.

So she goes to Jesus. We don’t know why. It seems unlikely that he had been healing in this region, since he’s reluctant to heal Donatiya’s daughter. But she goes to him and calls out for mercy. She cries: “Mercy!” Her daughter is suffering from “demon possession.” I don’t know what demon possession is, exactly, but it seems like racism would qualify! I do believe that the demons of hate, white privilege and implicit bias can grip our bodies (through violence—a knee on the neck), minds (seeing others as less than a person of sacred worth), and spirits (the ugly original sin of our nation). The people who were possessed by the demons of racism inflict and infect others with our oppression, injustice and violence, to the point that it makes others literally sick and die from our demon possession.

In fact, that’s the impact of racism on people of color; specifically, whole communities of black people. Four centuries now of living with the effects, the fear, the discrimination, the killing of people based on the color of their skin have caused black people to suffer at a higher rate than others due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Years of inadequate health care and living in food insecurity zones have heightened numerous underlying medical conditions. The redlining of housing—which affects education, which affects the ability to even hope for a better life—those effects of our demon racism are making people suffer and die. 

In fact, just this week, the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society issued a statement, saying: “we must also acknowledge that structural racism is more harmful to the health and well-being of children than infectious diseases, including COVID-19.” ( Infant and maternal mortality rates are significantly higher with people who experience racism every day, and have done so for generations.  

Maybe that’s what happened to Donatiya—she didn’t have a healthy pregnancy and birth, affecting her beloved child. That’s the experience of countless women and children today, afflicted and affected by the demons of racism.

So we cannot turn away.

Oh, except Jesus did. It says, “he didn’t respond to her at all.” But the Jesus I know and love is incompatible with such non-responsiveness! Incompatible means two things that can’t exist together. A silent, seemingly uncaring Jesus is incompatible with the Jesus I believed he was…I believe he is! 

So what’s going on here? The disciples try to incite Jesus to send her away; “she keeps shouting out after us.” How embarrassing! How annoying! Can’t she just shush? But she’s shouting out for mercy, mercy! Due to other cultural taboos (like she’s a woman), maybe she couldn’t get any closer to him. And from across the street, through the marketplace, she calls for mercy! Just mercy! Justice and mercy.

But he’s silent. Silence is violence, we’ve come to understand. Jesus is doing violence to her and, of course, to her daughter. He’s silent. We—I’m talking to white folks now—have been silent too long. Our brothers and sisters of color have been calling out for mercy, just mercy, justice and mercy.  

Jesus seems pretty resolute, however, and says that he didn’t come for people like her. That’s often the basis of silence. “Just preach the gospel, don’t talk about things like racism, poverty, injustice. Keep silent.” Ours is such a polarized, politicized culture right now and that culture can fill our hearts, spill over into our relationships, especially those with whom we disagree, blur our lens on the scriptures, gag us in our pulpits, and muffle what we’re willing to at least wrestle with from the pulpit as laity.  

Jesus stakes his claim that he didn’t come for the likes of her, but only for his own. I guess there are no cross-racial appointments for him! But she’s persistent. People who want just mercy will be persistent. Sometimes for themselves—“I can’t breathe.”  Sometimes for their children. Privilege is not having to worry every time your man-child leaves the house that he will be killed just for being black. Even the black mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, describes how “as mayor, the chief of police reports to me…in that moment (when she was trying to get her son on the phone), I knew what every other parent to a black child in America knows: I could not protect my son.” (NYT, 6/3/20) Her son was out doing normal life activities but fear gripped her in the face of the demon possession in her own city.

Donatiya simply asks for help, for mercy. Maybe understanding. Healing. She and Jesus banter about how even the dogs get some crumbs that fall from the master’s table. That’s not an overwhelmingly generous image for Jesus. But he relents…and he recognizes her faith, for that matter, her persistence, her humanity and (dare I say?) her sacred worth. And the healing begins. For both of them.

Matthew was a gospel written for the Jewish people who became Christian with Gentiles. It was hard for them to accept Gentiles into their lives, their Christian fellowship, their faith, their communities and around their tables. It was racism taught—maybe even to Jesus. And Jesus had to un-learn his prejudice toward the Canaanites, toward the Gentiles.

I believe that this gospel story is foundational in understanding how any racism toward another is incomprehensible in light of our faith.  What if this story was meant to shock the early Christians: “What?  Jesus did what?  That isn’t the Jesus we know and follow!” they might have said.  

And then they had to hold up the story like a mirror to their own actions, their own table fellowship, their own practices, their own attitudes deeply engrained, firmly entrenched by teaching. “I’m doing what? As a follower of Jesus? This is incompatible with what it means to be a Christian!” We need such mirrors in our lives.

Racism is incompatible—it cannot co-exist—with our Christian faith and living. It’s deeply ingrained in us by centuries of sin; it is America’s original sin. We have to bring healing to our communities (better health care, better access to good food, police reform, and all kinds of systems, policies and practices.). But also to our churches, our annual conference, our denomination, the Christian witness. We want our story to end with a change of heart and mind, just like Jesus. Are we—I’m talking to white people now—willing to have a changing heart and mind—we don’t just change once but we must keep on changing to become more like Jesus “in our hearts, in our hearts. Lord, I want to be like Jesus, in my heart.”

I have another concern that is closely related. In some churches that are wanting to return to worship and in-person meetings, I am disturbed to hear that differences of opinion about state and conference guidelines for preparation and precaution have devolved into demeaning, rude, and angry exchanges—especially directed at clergy who are trying to provide a safe return to in-person gatherings. A high percentage of the reports that I have received have to do with cross-racial appointments and/or women clergy. You can disagree; you can even negotiate steps to ensure good preparation and precautions, but you can’t exhibit bad behavior, racist and bullying behavior. 

Lord, make us an instrument of your peace. Let us be a witness to your just mercy toward all. Help us to have a change of heart and mind.  

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