New Testament Anti-Racism: Bitches and Hood Rats in the Kingdom of God

Everybody’s a little bit racist, or so the song goes. But what about Jesus? The more time I spend with Matthew 15 (and I’ve been spending a lot of time with it), the more clearly it becomes a racially-motivated exchange. It’s one of the problem passages of the New Testament where Jesus comes out looking racist. It’s the story of the Syro-Phonecian woman who needs a miracle. To call her Syro-Phonecian is putting it nicely; Mark puts it nicely in his parallel version (7:24-30).  But Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman, a derogatory, outdated term that recalls a long history of racial tension between Jews and Canaanites. Where Mark tries to de-escalate the situation, Matthew reports that sparks were flying and tensions were high.

Jesus was only in Tyre and Sidon–a non-Jewish territory–because he’d gotten into a kerfuffle with the Pharisees and was laying low. Jesus left his rural Jewish homeland to spend a couple weeks hiding out with the Gentiles (read: pagans and hedonists). It’s not that Jesus and the disciples want to be around the Gentiles, it’s more that they don’t want to put their lives at risk by standing too close to an angry Pharisee. In short, Jesus moved from rural Pennsylvania to Baltimore because circumstances required it, and now he’s surrounded by people who, to put it mildly, have a different culture and sensibility.

[Aside: that metaphor does imply that Jesus is white; Jesus was definitely not white. The Jews were brown-skinned Mediterranean people, but in the Roman system, their privilege fluctuated over the centuries, vulnerable to pogroms but also at times receiving certain privileges. Perhaps a better parallel is of Latino-African American racial tensions. At any rate, I’m aligning Jesus with white privilege in this scene because Jews seem to be privileged over the Canaanite/Syro-Phonecians.]

While minding his own business in foreign territory, a woman–a Canaanite woman–approaches Jesus and the disciples asking him to heal the demon haunting her daughter. She’s loud; disruptive; rude; out of line. We can blame her for disturbing the peace and starting the conflict, which is certainly what the disciples do. They tell Jesus to send her away.

Instead, Jesus’ response is to turn to her and, by way of explanation, say, “I was sent only to the lost children of Israel.”

The woman now responds with creative nonviolence, which is after all a tactic that Jesus uses on the regular. As if putting her hands up and saying ‘don’t shoot,’ she prostrates herself, exposing her neck and her vulnerability–the Greek word, proskyneo, also implies kissing the hand of a superior, a gesture that imitates a dog licking his master’s hand. And so the woman professes her vulnerability and humility, saying “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds, “It is not suitable to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs are not cute; they’re not clean; most Jews would refuse to keep dogs as pets. Jesus is insulting her. In this story, to this point, the woman has been called a Canaanite and a dog–perhaps more aptly and colorfully translated as a hood rat and a bitch.

This conversation is a fast-paced series of accusations and comebacks, a pattern that Matthew uses throughout his gospel. Usually, it’s the Pharisees or bad guys who begin the argument and Jesus who shuts them down with a witty response. This time, Jesus offers the argument, and the woman has the clever response. I have to wonder if Jesus does this intentionally–perhaps he sensed that the disciples were tired and confused by his lectures, that for this teachable moment, the best way to communicate was by imitating the disciples back to themselves. Perhaps Jesus knew lectures don’t dismantle racism. Genuine dialogue, subtle exposition of discrimination, creative nonviolence, transforms racism. Perhaps Jesus engages with the woman for the express purpose of giving the disciples a transformative experience. Jesus does not use any words the disciples were not already thinking. Instead, he reveals the pain of those words.

Or he allows the woman reveal it, with her response. She says, “Yes, sir, and even hood rats will eat the crumbs dropped by the suburbs.” She stays calm. She doesn’t rise to the insult, but exposes the structural inequality that puts her in this position. She says, “I’m not too proud to take your cast offs, if it will save my daughter’s life.”

So the disciples face their own prejudice, that they are denying the value of her daughter’s life because to them, Canaanite lives don’t matter. Jesus says, “Great is your faith. Let your will become reality.” And so her daughter is healed.

I don’t think the woman got her wish because she was, as we might say, a house slave who cowered to her master. She is humble, but only after she has caught the attention of the disciples. She knows how to wield the tools of yelling and humility to catch the attention of the privileged. She doesn’t allow stereotypes to dominate her identity, but as she realizes her identity, exposes the pain of stereotypes. She is on a mission to save her daughter’s life. She will oppose injustice, even if it means swallowing insults. One might even argue that this is the first biblical example of appropriating insults. She owns the words and turns them into positive terms. She says, “and so what if they call me a bitch because I speak like a man?”

If Jesus is a Messiah-doctor who heals those in need, the Canaanite woman has a need and she will demand healing. She will transgress the Jim Crow rules of her society to set right the things that need setting right. The woman says to Jesus, “You said this place was for sinners and outsiders, will you scoot over and make room for the bitches and hood rats?”

This does not mean that Jesus died so white folks could use the n-word. It’s just the opposite. Jesus exposes why these words are not ours to use–because if we are indeed all sinners, why should we judge anyone else for sitting at the table? As Christians, we have a moral imperative to throw off racially charged terms and call out those who use them. We also have a theological framework to reclaim them, if they are ours to reclaim.

Jesus, a brown-skinned, poor, Jewish man finds himself sitting with a poor, pagan, dark-skinned woman and saying: yes. These ethnic lines are not boundaries we will enforce, they’re structural sins perpetuated by the Roman Empire to keep ethnic tensions high and divide the poor. The Kingdom of God is for even the bitches, the hood rats, the trap queens and the trailer trash, those who bear insults and appropriate or dismantle them. They are all part of the Kingdom.

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