So Jesus seems to think that his identity as an Israelite sets him apart from this Gentile woman who came to him for help in the seventh chapter of Mark. Even Jesus apparently was not immune from the human tendency to think less of those outside his group. I’m not here to suggest that you wallow in guilt about this human tendency. It’s not like you had much control over it. Science suggests we have a genetic tendency to distrust those who are different from us. If you were an ancient hunter gatherer belonging to a small tribe and you encountered in the forest someone who didn’t look like your people, you had better be wary. If not, you probably wouldn’t live to pass on your genes.
So don’t wallow in guilt, but take a lesson from Jesus. Be ready to learn. Be open to new ideas. Be ready to change when you see that as a society we can do better. Our genes influence us, but we are not slaves to them.
It is fascinating to watch Jesus. Not only does he push aside this woman who comes to him because she is not Jewish, but he goes on to call her a dog. Try fitting that into your Sunday School image of Jesus. Make Jesus a white cop in Ferguson and the woman a Black teen-age Ferguson male who’d just like a little respect and less profiling and everything fits much better, doesn’t it?
But back to the Gospel for a moment. When Jesus says to the woman, “You don’t take bread meant for children and feed it to the dogs, do you?” I think that putdown would have sent most people packing. But she lingers. Why? Perhaps some trace of warmth in Jesus’ eyes took the sting out of the comment. Maybe it even suggested to her that deep down inside he wasn’t satisfied with his own answer. Perhaps she could see him struggling to throw off the cultural biases he had been born into. In any event she sticks around. And even argues with Jesus.
And Jesus seems deeply touched by that. Perhaps he begins to question the conventional wisdom of his day about how it is God wants Jews to relate to others. Could it be that Jesus asks himself, “Can I really withhold from anyone the love of God I have known within me?”
Of course, he didn’t think through all this in the seconds he had to respond to the woman. No doubt these were issues he had been struggling with for some time, and the encounter with this Gentile woman may have been the catalyst for him to make a break with the conventional wisdom of the day.
So back to Ferguson. If Jesus is that white cop, what is the modern day parallel to Jesus and the Gentile woman? Maybe he had already been struggling with the racist jokes told in the police headquarters. Maybe he had been struggling with the knowledge that every Black kid he arrested was going to get more jail time than a white kid for the same offense. Perhaps he’s ready to make a break with the conventional wisdom of the day that sees the Black teens as nothing but trouble and begins to look at them as he would want someone to look at his own kids, even if they had done something wrong. The way he looks at his own kids when they do something wrong: namely, with unconditional love. Maybe he’ll reach out to one Black kid in the neighborhood and try to learn to know him as an individual who’s angry because his parents have been turned down for apartments and jobs because of the color of their skin. And maybe for once he’ll join him in his anger. And maybe that kid, seeing a white cop befriend him, will think twice before throwing that rock through the window of the QT. Multiply that scenario by a hundred cops and a thousand kids and you’ve started the work of turning around a neighborhood.
And now for the other side of the coin. Because the single-sided coin has never been invented. If Jesus is the Black Ferguson teen-ager and the woman is a white cop, what is the modern day parallel to Jesus and the Gentile woman? Maybe he begins to struggle with the question of why these white people would risk their lives to try to maintain some peace in his neighborhood. Maybe he begins to ask of himself that question so many white people are asking of him, “Why don’t I take to the streets in protest when a little girl in her bedroom is shot by some guy up to no good on the streets? Why doesn’t that make me as angry?” At least his Black friend who was killed was first given the chance to drop to the ground. That little girl got no such chance. And maybe he’ll remember hearing that Black adults who stay married have a poverty level in the single digits. And maybe he’ll think, “You know… I can make some choices that affect my life. I’m not some helpless pawn in a game I have no chance in.” Maybe he’s ready to give up the conventional wisdom of his neighborhood that preaches nothing but hopelessness. Maybe he needs a Jesus figure (perhaps a white cop who shows him some kindness) to gather the courage to take that step. Or maybe any white person who rises above his or her racism. It doesn’t have to be a cop. Multiply that scenario by a thousand kids and a hundred who befriend them and you’ve started the work of turning around a neighborhood.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt once said, “A good place to look for wisdom, therefore, is where you least expect to find it: in the minds and hearts of your opponents. You already know the ideas common on your own side. If you can take off the blinders of the myth of pure evil, you might see some good ideas for the first time.”
If it seems a struggle to get yourself to that point, does it help to know that apparently it was a struggle for Jesus, also? But he got there. The calling to follow Jesus is not a calling to be perfect. But it is a calling to engage in the struggle. The struggles of others, included. It’s the struggle to walk in their shoes. If a mile is too far for you, try a quarter of a mile. That’s what you would do if you were starting a program of physical exercise. Spiritual exercise if not so different. Amen.