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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 5, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

My mother, it turns out, was right. I was in ninth grade when I announced that I wanted to become a minister when I grew up. While my parents thought this was just the latest in a string of professions I wanted to pursue (in third grade, I wanted to be a forest ranger), my mother took full advantage of the announcement.

The public high school I went to was large enough and well funded enough that it offered several options and several levels for classes in many subjects. Several languages were taught at various levels. Everything from math basics to second year calculus were taught by the math department. The social studies department offered several choices of subjects.

I was taking World Civilizations I in ninth grade and had no desire to take World Civilizations II in tenth grade – too much reading and writing. But my mother said that if I wanted to be a minister, I needed to know my history so I needed to take World Civ II in tenth grade.

That’s right: my mom knew how to take advantage of whatever resources were at hand to get her kids to do what she wanted. And, yes, she was right: Understanding history is important for doing theology.

Today, we’re going to do a little history because it’s a necessary part of understanding the church’s role in normalizing racism in the United States. Oh, but the history we learn versus the history that actually happened …

For instance, in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And what is Columbus famous for? Well, I was taught that Columbus discovered America. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We actually need to start before Jesus. We need to start back with Aristotle. Aristotle thought that all living things (plants, animals, humans) have a structure. Plants have a vegetative structure that is primarily about taking in nutrients, reproducing, and such. Animals have this structure plus a sensitive structure that interacts via the sense with the environment and that creates desire. Humans add to this a rational structure – which, according to Aristotle, makes us unique. Thus, Aristotle thought there was a hierarchy of living things, with humans at the pinnacle.[1]

slide1Saint Augustine of Hippo took Aristotle’s argument and restructured it into a theological construct. In his famous Confessions, Augustine held “… a perfect man to be in Christ – not the body of a man only, nor, in the body, an animal soul without a rational one as well, but a true man. And this man I held to be superior to all others, not only because he was a form of the Truth, but also because of the great excellence and perfection of his human nature, due to his participation in wisdom.”[2]

If I’m reading this correctly, Augustine held that humans were superior to other creatures because of our connection to and our participation in wisdom. That is, humans are special because of our rationality. And I think he may also be suggesting (or at least he could be interpreted to be suggesting) that Christians (that is, those who are in Christ) are more connected to rationality than other humans.

“Thomas Aquinas furthers Augustine’s work of setting the ‘rational soul’ of humans against that of the ‘animal soul.’ Aquinas holds much of creation has a soul, yet there is clearly a difference between the rational soul of humans and [the soul] of, say, a dog. This standpoint places the rational human soul as better than and therefore above all other created souls. Thus, Aquinas argues for soul layering where the human rational soul is above all other created souls. This soul layering argument allowed Christianity to create a structure of belief where not only does the animal soul reside at a level lower than that of the rational human soul, but also, those humans who are not rational have a soul that resides somewhere between that of the rational person and that of a dog.”[3]

A couple hundred years before Aquinas, “in 1095, at the beginning of the Crusades, Pope Urban II issued an edict – the Papal Bull Terra Nullius (meaning empty land). It gave the kings and princes of Europe the right to ‘discover’ or claim land in non-Christian areas. This policy was extended in 1452 [a couple hundred years after Aquinas] when Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorizing the conquest of their nations and territories. These edicts treated non-Christians as uncivilized and subhuman, and therefore without rights to any land or nation. Christian leaders claimed a God-given right to take control of all lands and used this idea to justify war, colonization, and even slavery.

“By the time Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was a well-established idea in the Christian world. When he reached the Americas, Columbus performed a ceremony to ‘take possession’ of all lands ‘discovered,’ meaning all territory not occupied by Christians. Upon his return to Europe in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Cetera, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands that Columbus had already ‘discovered’ and all lands that it might come upon in the future. This decree also expressed the Pope’s wish to convert the natives of these lands to Catholicism in order to strengthen the ‘Christian Empire.’”[4]

Keep in mind that all of this is happening before the Reformation. So this is action by our direct spiritual ancestors. And I can’t escape a connection to this Doctrine by saying that I’m a Mayflower descendant, not a descendant of the Spanish. You see, the Doctrine of Discovery is baked into our United States culture (and I’ll get into that next week).

No, this Doctrine of Discovery, which allowed European kings and princes to send armies into non-Christian lands (that is non-European lands), allowed Europeans to come to the Americas and subjugate the peoples already living here, for they were judged to be insufficiently rational to be equal to the European conquerors.

I find this philosophy that allowed Christians to come and kill people just because they were not Christian to be directly contradicted by the brief section of the Sermon on the Mount we heard today. When Jesus said, “Love you enemies,” I don’t think he meant we should kill them, or enslave them, or commit genocide against them. Yet that is what Christians did when they “discovered” the Americas.

But maybe that’s too easy, too glib a biblical response to this history of ours. The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman invites us to a little more nuance, in part because the story is troubling. The story is troubling because Jesus comes across as a bit of a jerk. A desperate woman with a seriously sick child comes to Jesus seeking help, and Jesus response is an ethnic slur. No theological tap dance can avoid it: Jesus calls this unnamed woman a dog, and that’s an ethnic slur. And though the modern concept of “race” had not yet been developed, this ethnic slur is pretty close to being a racial slur.

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman by Rembrandt

“Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman” by Rembrandt

“To be clear,” writes David Henson, “while there is some debate about the social and cultural dynamics at work here, Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus [racial] prejudice equals racism.”[5]

When faced with the complexities of the sin of personal and systemic racism, it is much easier to think of Jesus as transcending them all and loving all peoples regardless of skin color or culture of origin. We want Jesus to be the simple, easy answer to all our problems and to all of society’s problems. Jesus loves the little children of the world, and their little dogs, too.

In truth, at least in Mark’s gospel, rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout our country not too long ago, and seems to be echoing still. It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus explains, to take the banquet prepared for his people – the children, the humans – and give it to gentiles – the dogs, the less than human.

If it does nothing else, the story of the Syrophoenician woman teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity (I’m talking Jesus here) can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Just as we are today in our culture, Jesus was reared into the prejudiced worldview of his culture. He could not easily escape it. And neither can we.

“But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist.  It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed or the Other, reveals who we truly are. Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside with dismissive prejudice as dogs?

“Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, be changed by the power of the truth they are speaking?

“When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his ethnic slur, Jesus listens. And he hears.

“[I think] it is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.

“‘But even the dogs get table scraps,’ she replies, a subtle calling out of his dehumanizing language.

“Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith.

“Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into prejudice and power.

“He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.

“When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never be the same, will never be able to listen to the lies of the dominant oppressors the same way again.”[6]

The movie The Mission (a movie that connects to the sin of the Doctrine of Discovery deeply) ends with the slaughter of a group of native peoples in South America by European “discoverers.” Then, in the penultimate scene, Señor Hontar, the governor of the Portuguese-claimed territories and the Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano are together in a room when they get news of the slaughter.

Hontar says to the Cardinal: We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.

The Cardinal corrects him: No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world.

The Christian church, through the Doctrine of Discovery, has made this corner of the world racist. So what do we do about it?

My goal in this sermon series is to give you something concrete you can do individually or we can do as a congregation to address some aspect of racism. Here’s what I have in mind this week. Because the church has normalized the sin of racism by espousing the Doctrine of Discovery, it seems to me that the first thing we can do it to repudiate the Doctrine.

And we actually have an opportunity to do this as a congregation. The Disciples of Christ will hold their General Assembly this summer and one of the resolutions that will be voted on will be a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. We can, as a congregation, endorse this resolution formally and send word to the General Assembly of our action. Copies of the resolution are in the fellowship hall, I believe on the snack table.

I think that, if we are to endorse the resolution, endorsement should be done by a formal vote of the congregation, and there are three ways we can do that:

  • One or more of you can request that the Cabinet call a Special Congregational Meeting, which could be held in April, for the purpose of voting on endorsement.
  • One or more of you can ask the Cabinet to put endorsement of the resolution on the Annual Meeting agenda (which will be held on May 7).
  • Or, if it’s not on the Annual Meeting agenda, one of you can make a motion at the Annual Meeting that we endorse the resolution.

How we proceed – if we proceed – is really up to you.

[1] John G. Messerly, “Summary of Aristotle’s Theory of Human Nature,” Reason and Meaning, http://reasonandmeaning.com/2014/10/17/theories-of-human-nature-chapter-9-aristotle-part-1/ (posted 17 October 2014; accessed 4 March 2017).

[2] Quoted by David B. Bell, “When Reason Becomes Faith,” Bent Grass: DoD and DOC History, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 2 July 2011; accessed 4 March 2017).

[3] Bell, “When Reason Becomes Faith,” op. cit.

[4] “Lewis and Clark: The Unheard Voices,” Anti-Defamation League, http://archive.adl.org/education/curriculum_connections/doctrine_of_discovery.html (posted 2005; accessed 4 March 2017).

[5] David R. Henson, “Crumbs: Jesus and the Ethnic Slur,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/crumbs-jesus-and-the-ethnic-slur-lectionary-reflection-mark-724-37/ (posted 2 September 2015; accessed 4 March 2017).

[6] Ibid.

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