I have reworked this post after the feedback I’ve received here. I’ve edited out some rather problematic portions of it that seemed to cast Jesus in the role of a white man. After receiving pushback and criticism from people of color, I too began to see the deep problems with that frame. So I keep listening and learning. Please visit the updated post as well here.
Was Jesus a racist?
This might be an uncomfortable question for Christians to ask, but, given this week’s lectionary text, I think it’s one we must ask. And we must ask it unvarnished.
Our immediate response likely is, “Of course not! Jesus couldn’t possibly have been racist!” But Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems to tell a different story. In it, Jesus calls the woman, who was desperate for a miracle for her child, a dog, a dehumanizing ethnic slur common at the time. No matter what theological tap dance we might create to avoid this uncomfortable truth, eventually, we have to face this stark truth.
Jesus uttered a racial slur.
Part of the difficulty of this passage is that as Christians, we want Jesus to be the simple, easy answer to all our problems and to all of society’s problems. When faced with the complexities of personal and institutional 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.
After all, that’s what our children’s song teaches us. Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.
But what of the little dogs? Does Jesus love them too?
The difficulty of this passage particularly for white Christians is that we want Jesus to be colorblind. We want Jesus to be colorblind because that’s what we want to be or think we should be. But, in truth, at least in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is anything but colorblind. In fact, rather than being part of the solution to racism or ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story.
So what does it mean, exactly, that the Son of God, the Incarnation, the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, utters a racial slur?
Because that is exactly what Jesus does in his exchange with the Syrophoenician woman. 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 – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.
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.
A number of scholars whistle past this ghastly put-down by explaining that perhaps Jesus called the woman a dog with a twinkle in his eye, as if he winked at her knowingly in order to say he didn’t really believe her to be a dog. Like she was in on the joke when he uttered this well-known racial slur. Others emphasize that the word for dog that Jesus uses isn’t the typical strong language usually associated with this racial slur. They explain that the word Jesus uses takes the diminutive form, implying perhaps a beloved pet or a lap dog, and therefore takes the sting out of the slur.
Of course, white Americans have had their own diminutive versions of racial slurs to imply endearment. Still unconvinced? Perhaps we can put this story in better context, my current context, the Deep South. Imagine the Syrophoenician woman as an African-American woman who comes to Jesus, a white male, seeking to be healed. In response, Jesus dehumanizes her, calls her an animal, a female dog, a bitch, even! Maybe he goes further, criticizes her for seeking a medical handout and labels her a welfare queen. He asks her why the good things meant for whites only should be given to the sweet little n*****s.
If those slurs are too harsh, choose a different one: a House Negro, an Uncle Tom, an Oreo. Boy. Dominant, oppressive cultures have a long history of assuaging their own latent guilt with terms of endearment for those they are abusing.
Do these diminutive forms, even when they have been used affectionately by whites, soften the sting of raw racism in the words? Clearly not, and I don’t think Jesus’ diminutive case of “dog” in this text softens the bite of his own racism either.
So what are we to make of this exchange? Clearly, racism is a sin, an evil, systemic sin which Christians everywhere should stand against. But how are we to do stand against racism when our own Lord and Savior has so clearly uttered such a heinous racial slur? Does it make Jesus a racist? Does it make him a sinner? How can we ever think of him the same again?
This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of racism, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. As a good Jew, Jesus would have been reared to give thanks daily that he was born a Jew, not a Gentile, a man and not a woman. Jesus could not help but become entangled by such a sexist and racist snare.
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, reveal who we truly are. Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside as dogs?
Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, be changed by the power of the truth of they are speaking?
When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his racist, sexist slur, Jesus listens, and hears. 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 complex response often required of the member of the “lesser race” who stands up to dismissive racism even while accepting its instituted, ugly, dehumanizing order.
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, a moral exemplar, his teacher.
Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into the unfortunate privilege of dominance or prejudice.
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. For me, this happened in graduate school. Having grown up in the racist culture of the Deep South, I found myself disarmed in my African-American Women’s Literature class, by the writers we were reading, by the reflections of my classmates, by being the only male and by being a minority as a white person. It happened listening to the stories of Oakland-area ministers explain the realities of being Black in urban America. It happened as I learned to be quiet, to listen and to allow myself to be changed.
If your experience is like mine, it will be disorienting, disturbing, traumatizing perhaps. For in that moment of transformation, we see, as I’m convinced Jesus did, the racism deeply embedded within us, planted within us by a dominant culture without our permission.
You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality. Both must happen in order to confront racism. We must be able to hear the realities of the oppressed and disenfranchised as true. This, in and of itself, can be difficult for those of us who are members of a privileged race or gender, to accept a foreign reality without qualifications, to listen without interrupting, to hear without reworking their experiences into the dominant cultural narratives embedded within us. But we must also be able to hear the brokenness of our own realities and of our own stories. We must hear our own incompleteness. We must hear how our knee-jerk responses to “the dogs” perpetuate oppression.
The problem is that it is an uncomfortable direction which, if we have the courage to follow it, will bring us face to face with our own racism, that embedded culture that rises to the top like rancid cream at the most inopportune moments.
So, in the end, Jesus’ exchange offers us perhaps the most powerful story for those of us in privileged classes as we stand against racism. It compels us to listen to the narratives of the oppressed we devalue implicitly. It requires us to listen to our own prejudice.
It asks us to do the unthinkable: to own our racism and to be changed by society’s most marginalized.
Having followed Jesus this far, perhaps we can do no better than he did, and that is to learn to listen to those with such different realities than mine and to let that new reality change my own reality – who I am and who I will become.
When I first started blogging in 2008, my friend, The Rev. R.G. Wilson-Lyons, introduced me to this reading of the text. Over the years, I have returned to it again and again, each time appreciating his wisdom and courage to listen in this way.