All people are products of our culture. Despite the modern emphasis on claiming our individuality, none of us is strictly an individual. No one stands alone. For better or worse, we are all formed and shaped by our culture, especially our cultural stories. This insight led the anthropologist René Girard to claim that we humans are not individuals. Rather, we are inter-dividuals.
There is an ancient Christian tradition that claims Jesus was fully human. This tradition dates to the earliest forms of Christianity. Interestingly, every few years a modern scholar will write a book emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. People often think the scholar is “edgy” and pushing the bounds of Christianity. In fact, the earliest Christians, especially the writers of the Gospels, would agree that Jesus’ humanity should be emphasized.
Jesus and the Canaanites
Because Jesus was fully human, he was inter-dividual. He was formed by the cultural stories of his day. Like every culture, Jewish culture had some stories that were based on prejudice. For example, the Canaanites were one of Israel’s traditional enemies. One story said that God commanded a military leader named Joshua to destroy the Canaanites. The command amounted to a call for divine genocide.
This and other negative stories about the Canaanites were part of the culture of Jesus’ day. They formed Jesus in a prejudicial way to think that Canaanites were bad and unworthy of acceptance.
For example, the Gospel of Matthew reveals Jesus’ prejudice concerning the Canaanites. A Canaanite woman confronted Jesus, pleading, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!”
Jesus refused to answer her, but she persisted. He then told her that he came only for the sheep of the house of Israel. But she continued to beg Jesus to help her. Jesus again refused, but this time he took it a step further by referring to her as a “dog” – “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus, Prejudice, and Justice
You might be scandalized that Jesus called this woman a dog. I think you are meant to be scandalized by it. Again, Jesus was fully human, formed by the prejudices of his culture. What matters is that Jesus overcame his prejudice and work for greater justice.
Jesus stated that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This passage is essentially about fairness, about justice. What is fair? What does justice mean for this woman and her daughter? At this point, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ human view of justice was rather small. It was based on a limited and human view of “us” and “them.”
Some commentators claim that Jesus is just playing games with the woman. They downplay his full humanity by saying Jesus is divinely omniscient, so he already knew how the Canaanite woman would respond. I think this is wrong. Matthew wants us to see that all humans, even Jesus, need to have our culture prejudices challenged and uprooted.
After Jesus referred to her as a dog, the Canaanite woman responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
The woman persisted in claiming her rights as a human being for justice. She softened Jesus heart by insisting that she also deserves to eat the spiritual food of healing that Jesus offers. Jesus healed the woman’s daughter and learned from her that Canaanites are more than his cultural stories proclaimed. Canaanites are humans, worthy of love and compassion.
Judaism and the Capacity to Be Self-Critical
As a fully human being, Jesus stood within the culture of his day. But what makes Jewish culture unique is its capacity for self-criticism. Yes, the Jewish stories that formed Jesus consisted in part of a prejudice that divided the world into “us” and “them,” the “worthy” and the “unworthy.” Of course, it’s not just Judaism that tells those stories. Every culture contains stories that divide the world into “us” and “them.” But throughout the sacred Jewish stories runs a counter narrative that criticizes this human tendency. Deuteronomy speaks of God’s command to love the foreigner in your midst. The prophets also refuse to divide the world into us and them, as they seek a world where all people share in the love of God. And the Bible begins with one of the most important stories of all time, where all people, even the Canaanites, are created in the sacred image of God.
So there are two basic story lines that run throughout the Bible. One is based on prejudice, violent sacrifice, and exclusion. The other is based on love, nonviolence, and inclusion. The difference can be summed up by the prophet Hosea, who stated that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
So, Jesus, following his own tradition, was self-critical about himself and the stories of violence his tradition told. The Canaanite woman helped him to see even further into the prophetic statement that God desires mercy, and not sacrifice. Jesus saw the Canaanite woman had great faith in the God of mercy described by Hosea. His prejudices were washed away by a Canaanite woman’s faith.
Jesus, Justice, and Charlottesville
To follow Jesus, Christians need to be self-critical about our cultural stories. In particular, American Christians need to be self-critical about the racism that continues to infect the United States. Like everyone else, the white supremacist who fomented hatred and violence in Charlottesville are inter-dividuals. They were formed by American cultural stories of racism. Many politicians and pundits claim that the hatred and violence of white supremacy have no place in America. The sad truth is that the founding story of the United States is based on racism and it’s a story that continues to infect this nation.
But there is hope. God’s justice demands that we do more than just denounce the white supremacist who showed up in Charlottesville. We need to denounce the racism that infects the foundational story of the United States. Like Jesus had his eyes opened to his cultural prejudices, white Americans need our eyes opened to the racism that poisons our culture.
What You Can Do About Racism
Where should we begin? I recommend listening to our black siblings. In her book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Kelly Brown Douglass writes about the racism that runs through the U.S. She states that racism is an unconscious response in white America. She writes, “There are numerous … studies that reveal almost ‘automatic, unconscious’ responses to black bodies as if those bodies are threatening or criminal in and of themselves” (83). This automatic and unconscious response of racism influences everything from housing to education to business to politics.
As fully human, Jesus had an “automatic, unconscious” response to the Canaanite woman that caused him to see her as less than worthy of justice and healing. But I also affirm that Jesus was fully divine. His full divinity was shown, in part, by his ability to be self-critical about the prejudicial stories that infected his culture. He didn’t respond with feelings of guilt when confronted by the Canaanite woman. He just worked to heal her. In the same way, white Americans don’t need to feel guilty about racism. Rather, we can work with our black brothers and sisters for a day when all people are treated as the children of God that they are.
The Canaanite woman helped Jesus see that God desires we treat one another with mercy, not sacrifice. It’s time for white American Christians to be self-critical about our prejudicial cultural stories and see that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
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