I know. He doesn’t look all that angry. There just aren’t any good angry black Jesus photos available on the internet. But the real Jesus in the Bible gets angry a lot more than most Christians really feel comfortable acknowledging. And he definitely wasn’t white, physically or culturally. We generally gloss over things Jesus says that are offensive to modern white Enlightenment sensibilities. One of the most offensive stories in this regard is Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, which was the lectionary gospel reading for last weekend.
One of the basic Enlightenment principles on which our country was founded is the idea that all human beings are supposed to be equal, and no one race is supposed to get preferential treatment over any other. As I expounded in a different blog post, the quest for a “color-blind” humanity is strangely and ironically a primary source of modern racism, because the races that are considered unable to transcend their culture and become part of the imaginary universal humanity are viewed as inferior to the race that pretends like it doesn’t have a culture of its own (white people). In any case, Jesus doesn’t subscribe to modern white culture’s “color-blind” ideals, at least not in Matthew 15.
When a Canaanite woman comes to beg for healing for her daughter, Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Now usually when we read this story, we make ourselves into the insiders and the Canaanite woman into the outsider. We say, “Oh come on, Jesus, we know that you came especially to save us, but you really should show kindness to this poor old black lady because that’s what we would do.”
But what if the Canaanite woman is “white” and Jesus is “black”? Ancient near Eastern scholar Gerd Thiessen relates that the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon where Jesus was visiting had been a major trading hub where merchants took advantage of the poor Galilean farmers from whom they procured grains. So there was the basis for underlying tension between the two cultures beyond the normal Jew/Gentile divide. Tyre and Sidon is the Canaanite woman’s turf. As a Jew, Jesus is the outsider there. Thiessen further suggests that for a Gentile woman to walk unaccompanied into a Jewish home and demand healing for her daughter shows the presumptuous chutzpah of an upper-class social status. So how does it change how we hear the story if we make the Canaanite woman a rich white lady and Jesus a poor black faith healer?
When the black slaves identified with the Hebrew slaves in the Old Testament, they were making an appropriate analogy. Not so when white colonists of America tried to claim a “manifest destiny” to conquer native Americans just like Israel conquered Canaan. Israel’s conquest of Canaan was the miraculous divine deliverance of a rag-tag band of freed slaves carving out a space for themselves by fighting against a much more powerful, established wealthy civilization. The Israelites never dominated the world the way that the European empires have for the past half-millennium. So it’s not appropriate for white people to think of ourselves as being analogous to Israel. We are like the powerful empires of Babylon or Egypt or Assyria who oppressed Israel. We are the Canaanites who need to be conquered and brought to our knees so that the freed slaves God picked as his chosen people can have a safe place to live.
When the Canaanite woman is persistent, Jesus gets a bit ugly with her. He says, “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s not the Jesus we snuggle with in our daily quiet time! How can he insult a woman with a sick daughter like that? But what the Canaanite woman says back is remarkable: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Her radical humility and willingness to go along with Jesus’ insulting metaphor is what makes Jesus say, “Woman, great is your faith!”
Now we can come up with all kinds of explanations for Jesus’ behavior. Maybe he was testing the woman’s faith. Maybe he was testing his disciples to see if any of them would speak out against his abusive behavior. But what if instead of worrying about exonerating Jesus for his apparent rudeness, we consider the Canaanite woman’s posture of radical humility as a model for how to listen when people of different races are saying things that offend and bewilder us.
I would consider it absolutely inappropriate to use this story to tell oppressed people to suck it up and be good little crumb-eating dogs when cops and politicians and other powerful rich white folks treat them unjustly. But if the dynamics are flipped, then I would say the Canaanite woman is a good model for the radical humility with which privileged people should listen to what oppressed people have to say, even when it offends our sensibilities.
A black woman named Austin Channing Brown wrote a post that offended a bunch of white people because she said that “until there is collective shame for who white America has been to people of color, white America will not choose to be something else.” Now the cheap and easy Jesus-jukey response to this is to say, “Jesus died for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to be ashamed. How can a Christian call for other Christians to experience shame?”
But what if white people submitted to this uncomfortable critique the same way that the Canaanite woman submitted to Jesus? Do we have the courage to ask whether our doctrine of sin in the white church has been shaped by our need to justify amnesia about our racist legacy? What if the shame is part of the healing? What if Jesus’ cross doesn’t so much sweep the past under the rug as give us the courage to face the past with integrity? When white Christians are defensive about our racism, we show that we have not yet put our complete trust in Jesus’ cross to justify us.
Another black woman Christena Cleveland wrote a piece called “The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail” in which she challenged people to listen and learn from not only the nonviolent protesters but also the violent ones:
The young black men who launch Molotov cocktails at the police are misappropriating God’s justice by taking it into their own hands, but the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world. Seeing the suffering Christ in these young men isn’t achieved by theological gymnastics, deep pity, or altruism. It’s done by listening to their stories, sharing life, standing in solidarity with them, and experiencing their rage.
How dare she? Is she justifying their violence? Before you hyperventilate, let’s again assume the posture of the Canaanite woman and try to think about this. Do you believe that God feels rage against sin? Does that include getting mad every time a young black man is unfairly treated with disrespect by cops, teachers, and other authority figures because of racism? As a high school teacher, I sinned against young black men in this way frequently. Few white people acknowledge their disdain for young black men as sinful, and our theology has been perverted by our need to justify this sin.
One of the most devastating perversions of white theology in the US is the way that God’s anger against sin is completely divorced from any notion of solidarity with those who are oppressed by sin. The white church has made sin into an individualistic demerit system that concerns whether or not you break God’s rules, not whether or not you hurt someone God loves.
God’s love for the victims of sin is the source of God’s wrath against sin. As creatures who image God, when we get angry about injustice, we are channeling God’s wrath. Now the key question is whether we are going to channel the wrath in a holy way or in a sinful way. When we react to the injustice we’ve received by lashing out unjustly against others, we are in the state that the Bible describes as being “covered in wrath.” We may be right to be angry, but we make God angry at us along with the people who hurt us when our wrath makes us sin. Paradoxically, God’s wrath against sin is often revealed by subsequent sin in accordance with the formula Paul lays out in Romans 1.
So even though the young men throwing Molotov cocktails are doing something sinful, they are also expressing a rage that God shares against injustice. And their rage is worth hearing out. Even if we feel like raising a thousand objections, we need to listen with the same humble submission that the Canaanite woman showed to Jesus. Jesus may not be throwing Molotov cocktails. But he is angry. And he’s black too. At least in August, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri and every other town like it.