There are two things about racism that should be clear by now—what it is and what it is not. Critical race theorist Alan Freeman defines racism as an intentional, albeit irrational, deviation by a conscious wrongdoer from otherwise neutral, rational, and just ways of distributing jobs, power, prestige and wealth. This unjust distribution of power is based on the premise that one race is superior to all others, and that alleged superiority must be maintained by any means necessary. Therefore, racism is not simply a biased, preconceived opinion about a race of people. That’s prejudice. Prejudice can indeed fuel racism. But racism is more systematic as it infiltrates and influences systems and structures controlled by the powerful.
So, what is the Christian Church’s business with racism? How should the church respond to an evil ideology that has been present—particularly in American society—since the “founding” of this country? Maybe the better question is why should the church respond to racism? Of course racism has been violently and discreetly claiming the lives and daily wellbeing of Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics in this country for years, decades, and centuries. Of course racism is a threat to justice. And of course a basic belief in numerous religions is to love thy neighbor. But what other reasons compel the Christian Church to respond?
The answer to this question became apparent to me during my tenure as a seminary student, and its implications run much deeper than quoting Ephesians 4:3 and the Golden Rule. During the first semester of my final year in seminary, as I sat in Social Worlds of the New Testament, I listened as one of my classmates discussed her final paper topic. As an international student from St. Lucia, she was interested in Jesus’ encounters with foreign women—particularly the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 whose daughter was tormented by a demon. After “exegeting the text,” the St. Lucian student arrived at the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t perfect and without blemish or error as Christians so often believe. And the reason why Jesus wasn’t perfect is because Jesus referred to the Canaanite woman as a dog.
I sat straight up in my seat when the St. Lucian student said this. I wasn’t at all shocked at the claim that Jesus wasn’t perfect. I mean, he was human. What shocked me was the fact that I never paid much attention to this particular biblical passage. “So, you’re saying Jesus referred to the woman as the b-word?” I asked. “No,” the student responded. The student pointed to her research, which revealed that the Greek term for “dogs” as used in the text—kynaria— really means “puppies” or “household of dogs.” More specifically, the designation was not a Jewish term for Gentiles; it was a standard insult as also evidenced in Euripides, Aristotle, Quintillian, and others.
“Jesus used a racial slur to identify this woman. Jesus was a racist,” the student claimed. Jesus? A racist? Really? As the thought raced through my mind, I reminded myself of what a racist is and what a racist isn’t. For Jesus to be a racist, he has to be in a position of power and deny this woman of another ethnicity something that she needs, and this denial has to be based on her ethnicity. Otherwise, Jesus would be simply exhibiting a prejudicial sentiment Jews had long possessed toward Canaanites.
My silent mental line of inquiry about the claims this student made about this alleged racist nature of Jesus suddenly intersected with the topic of my own final research paper—the socio-political context of demon possession and exorcism in first century Palestine. Based on research inclusive of decades of social scientific and anthropological studies on the topic, I found that anthropological studies show a close relationship between demonic possession and social tension, such as class antagonisms rooted in economic exploitation, conflicts between traditions where revered traditions eroded, colonial domination and revolution. Therefore, demon possession is defined as an ancient form of mental illness, and the situation in Roman controlled Palestine allowed for frequent demonic possession.
Based on these findings, New Testament scholars and I concluded that the Canaanite woman’s daughter—for example—could be experiencing mental illness as a response to abject poverty caused by colonial domination. And because of this illness, the Canaanite woman is in search of something or someone that could aid in healing her daughter. For the Canaanite woman, that something or someone was Jesus. The Canaanite woman who found herself at the intersection of poverty and her status as a female widow begs for favor from Jesus.
But Jesus called her a dog in response to her request, as the St. Lucian student stated. And not only did he call her a dog, but the Canaanite woman is also initially rejected by Jesus who is in a position of authority. He’s the one that many in his community have referred to as the messiah. He’s the one who has gained a huge following among poor, destitute Palestinian Jews. And he’s the one who allegedly has the power to heal the woman’s daughter. But he irrationally and intentionally denies healthcare to this woman’s daughter based on her ethnicity, based on the preconceived notion that Jews are superior to Canaanites.
However, as the St. Lucian student later pointed out, the Canaanite woman helped Jesus to see something about himself that had been embedded in his Jewish psyche long before he found himself in human flesh in first century Palestine. She helped him to see that he allowed his prejudices to keep a child from receiving healthcare. She helped Jesus to see that he could not continue to limit his message of justice, liberation, deliverance, reconciliation, and healing to the house of Israel. It was as though the Canaanite woman handed Jesus a mirror that not only reflected himself singularly but reflected himself as the summation of his historical racial bias. The St. Lucian student arrived at the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t perfect, but through listening to the voices of the marginalized, he did learn from his mistakes.
And it wasn’t just the St. Lucian student who had arrived at this same conclusion about Jesus’ once racist nature. The following semester, I cross-registered at another seminary to take a Politics of Jesus course. The issue of harsh Jewish treatment of foreigners according to the biblical text arose once again. While the instructor and other students cited Old Testament examples, I cited Matthew 15:21-28 in which Jesus was the perpetrator. This response didn’t sit too well with a few students. I had succeeded in “messing up their Jesus.” But a white female student approached me during the lunch break an expressed her gratefulness for me citing Jesus as an example. “I brought that up a few years ago in a bible study on that text. Jesus called that woman a dog. He racially slurred her, and that’s like calling a black person the n-word. We gotta deal with that.”
Why should the Christian Church concern itself with the business of racism? Because the leader of our movement who although, according to Luke 4:18, proclaimed in a synagogue that the purpose of his ministry was to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recover the sight of the blind, and let the oppressed go free, was once himself a proponent of the systematic superiority of one race at the expense of another.
But where do we go from here? Although it may not be accepted by many, what do we do with this information and revelation about Jesus the Christ? Revisiting Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail provides insight and direction to a solution for this question. From his jail cell in Birmingham, King expresses his frustration with members of the white Church as he writes on a roll of toilet paper “I felt that white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
Like King, I too have recognized the silence and complacency among members of the white Church, many of whom I know as friends. Ironically, I’ve found more support from my white friends who are atheist. Either my white Christian friends divert attention away from the issue of racism by stating “all lives matter” and “I don’t see race,” they proclaim the cliché that “Jesus paid it all” which doesn’t really say much, or they are silent altogether. But King lets us know that it is not enough for the black church to be the sole opponent of racism. To exorcise the corporate demon of racism and begin the healing process, there must be a collaborative response and action.
Just as Jesus listened to the cries of the Canaanite woman and her ill daughter, members of the white Christian Church must recognize its role in the maintenance of white supremacy and institutionalized racism by listening to the battle cry “black lives matter.” And the white Christian church must then move to listening to now acting, responding, standing in solidarity, and fighting.
Like Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28, the white Church must move beyond the ideology of choosiness and embrace the ideology of Christian universalism which helps groups persevere despite persecution. After all, this is how the early Christian Church survived oppression and persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. And like Jesus, the white Church must learn from its mistakes. Learning is vital to survival. And lives are at stake if you choose not to learn.
Crenshaw, Kimberle, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds. “Introduction.” In Critical Race Theory: the Key Writings That Formed the Movement, 1. New York: The New Press, 1996.
Hendricks, Obery. “Call the Demon by Name.” In The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. Reprint ed, 1. New York: Three Leaves, 2007.
Newsom, Carol A., Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. “Commentary on Matthew.” In Women’s Bible Commentary. 3rd ed, 1. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
Wogaman, J. Philip, and Douglas M. Strong, eds. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In Readings in Christian Ethics: a Historical Sourcebook, 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Reverend Amber Lowe is a 2012 English graduate from the University of Mississippi. She is also an ordained travelling deacon in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and serves on the ministerial staff at the historic West Mitchell CME Church in Atlanta, GA. Amber is a recent graduate of Phillips School of Theology at the Interdenominational Theological Center. From there, she received her Master of Divinity with a concentration in Ethics, graduating Summa Cum Laude.
Amber is currently in the application process as she plans to obtain a PhD in religion/ethics/public policy. She plans to begin coursework Fall 2016. In the future, Rev. Lowe also plans on pastoring, teaching seminary and university courses on social theory and the intersections of public policy and religion. In addition to her commitment as a minister of the Gospel, Amber enjoys writing poetry, reading, and Zumba.