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Jonah, Ishmael, And Moby Dick: Finding Mercy in Melville’s Maritime Masterpiece

Avast! There Be Spoilers Ahead!

Aboard The Pequod

“Call me Ishmael.” So begins Herman Melville’s maritime masterpiece. So too began my journey aboard the Pequod as I set sail from the harbor of the Lookingglass Theater this past Sunday, swept away in their matinee performance of Moby Dick. The whole of the theater enveloped the audience in the eerie depths of the haunting tale, taking us into the bowels of the ship or the whale himself; it was impossible to distinguish which. The formidable sea came to life, and the brilliant cast lured the audience like a siren into the seafaring adventure. It was a faithful rendering of Melville’s classic, interpreted not only through masterful acting but also through fluid acrobatics conveying the motions of sailors on – and under – the sea. The play sails for another month before docking for good, and for those in the Chicago area, I highly recommend climbing aboard!

After the curtain call, I continued to plumb the transcendent depths of this nautical literary treasure as a panelist for the Reflect post-show discussion on religion and spirituality in Moby Dick. The fathoms of meaning beneath the myriad symbols of Biblical allusion are as deep as the ocean itself, and I can but faintly skim the surface in this article. However, I would here like to touch on themes of the human understanding of God, vengeance, and mercy by contrasting two Biblical outcasts alluded to in the novel and play: Jonah and Ishmael.

Jonah and Vengeance

 “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator extolls, implying that he has chosen such a name for himself. Ishmael calls to mind the outcast son of Abraham alone in the desert, and from the beginning our narrator expresses the loneliness of one with nothing to cling to and the freedom of one with nothing to lose. One might ask why he has chosen this Biblical outcast as his identity when a more obvious choice, for a seafarer, might be Jonah, who is cast out onto the open sea. Indeed, Biblical Jonah features prominently at the beginning of the story, but a look at his story in scripture reveals that there is another sailor aboard the Pequod who more closely identifies with this nautical prophet than does our narrator.

Before Ishmael sets sail, he ducks into the sailor’s chapel on Nantucket Island and hears Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah. In the sermon, God is depicted as a harsh taskmaster demanding obedience and chasing a foolish, sinful Jonah – who tried to escape his commandments and his wrath – to the ends of the earth! As Fr. Mapple says in his sermon:

But what is the lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God – Never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed – which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that – and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade.

So Fr. Mapple goes on to chastise fleeing, cowardly Jonah, upbraiding him as a miserable man “contemptible and worthy of all scorn.” In the process, he implies that God is vengeful, demanding the sacrifice of Jonah’s life for his disobedience and sending a storm to drown him and all who would come to his aid. Those aboard with Jonah only escape death when Jonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a great monster of the deep. Only when Jonah prays from within the belly of the whale does God’s heart soften, because, Fr. Mapple tells us, Jonah prays not for his life to be spared, but for his soul. “He feels that his dreadful punishment is just.”

I must take exception to many of Fr. Mapple’s implications in this sermon, starting with the notion that it does not matter what commandment God gave to Jonah, but only that Jonah disobeyed. It makes all the difference in the world that God called upon Jonah to deliver a word of warning to the people of Nineveh, and that Jonah fled not on account of God’s vengeance, but on account of his own. Even being delivered from the belly of the whale and experiencing salvation from his own doom could not soften Jonah’s heart toward his enemies, the Ninevites whom he despised. When they repent and are spared, Jonah cries out to God in rage:

O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4: 2-3)

The story of Jonah shows a transition in the understanding of God by the Hebrew people who told the story. On the one hand, God relentlessly pursues Jonah, and it is implied that God will destroy Nineveh – and Jonah too – if they do not repent. Yet a reading through the lens of mimetic theory shows that Nineveh was in a mimetic crisis, a crisis in which the people, lashing out to prove themselves over and against one another, were blending together in a frenzy of violence. While traditionally a crisis of violence is resolved by a sacrifice, in which the mutual hatred of the populace converges on an unfortunate and innocent scapegoat, this story is different. Jonah has already been sacrificed, cast out, and he comes to Nineveh with an exhortation of repentance, counseling of God’s mercy. Receiving the message, the Ninevites turn from their violence and the crisis is resolved without bloodshed. Although the scripture says that God “changes his mind” and does not visit wrath upon Nineveh, it is clear that Nineveh was on the brink of self-destruction without God’s wrath. Taking the trajectory begun in Jonah further, one can surmise that God never intended wrath toward the city, and sent Jonah to preach a message of repentance not so that God could forgive (for God’s forgiveness is free and unconditional), but so that the people could receive a change of heart and not destroy themselves.

The one who is cast out into the utter doom comes with a message of mercy. Could this be the “sign of Jonah” to which Jesus refers in Matthew 12 and Luke 11?

Fr. Mapple appears to miss this trajectory and overlook God’s mercy in his focus on God’s power and wrath. And this focus on God’s outrageous might and unquenchable fury — an understanding of God that is turned upside-down by the Gospels – still tends to dominate the minds of many people today, and appears to be the dominant view of God at the time of our tale. This dominant theology plays a subliminal role, I believe, in the psyches of our characters. Believing in a vengeful God can reinforce an engrained human propensity toward vengeance.

But even belief in a merciful God does not necessarily incline one toward mercy, especially if one is hellbent on running from that mercy to sustain one’s own merciless desires. Such was the case with Jonah, who fled not for the sake of God’s wrath, but for his own.

Who aboard the Pequod most resembled Jonah? Captain Ahab himself! Unrelenting, unrepenting Ahab, following his relentless bitter fury to the ends of the earth. In pursuit of the monstrous white whale Moby Dick, who devoured his leg and his pride upon his last voyage, Captain Ahab is ready to sacrifice not only himself, but all he holds dear. All traces of mercy, all tenderness and affection, Love itself, must be forsaken to his madness and rage. Like Jonah, Ahab fled from Love into the jaws of death, though unlike Jonah he was never delivered out. The white whale consumed Ahab long before the fatal battle that swallowed up his crew.

Ishmael and Mercy

Our narrator, by contrast, experiences the mercy of God in the most unexpected manner. The name Ishmael is apt, for Ishmael means “God hears.” God indeed hears Ishmael in his loneliness, and I would venture to suggest that Ishmael’s “salvation,” his deliverance from the dejection he apparently feels when he describes the restless state of mind that drove him to the sea, begins before he even climbs aboard the ship. God mercy comes to Ishmael in a form many might miss, yet Ishmael, attuned to God’s compassion, receives it as a blessing, even if unconsciously. For I believe that the mercy of God is made manifest to Ishmael in the person of his pagan friend, Queequeg.

Queequeg is described as a cannibal, one with whom Ishmael would probably not choose to associate but for a circumstance that brought them together in a most intimate manner just before they set sail together aboard the Pequod. Unable to find an empty room at any inn near the Nantucket harbor from which he would depart, Ishmael must share a room and bed with this strange stranger from a remote (fictional) island in the South Pacific sea. Dark skinned, tattooed, unbaptized and “savage,” Queequeg first frightens Ishmael, but soon proves not only innocuous, but kindhearted and eager for Ishmael’s friendship. (Their relationship, taken from the book but enhanced by the play, is one of the most delightful aspects of the performance.)

In a passage of the novel that will scandalize some but endear others, Ishmael explains how, to honor the will of God, he joined Queequeg in prayer to an idol, rationalizing thusly:

But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.

Many in Melville’s time and today might balk at Ishmael’s logic and accuse him of blasphemy for taking the Golden Rule too far. (Oh, the irony!) Yet through the lens of mimetic theory, it is clear that the idolatry most blasphemous to God is the worship of violence, the nurturing of enmity, the judgment of one human being over and against another. Ishmael’s intuitive recognition of God’s mercy helped him to discard the prejudices that had seeped into him through his culture and extend humility and grace to Queequeg, who mirrored it back to him. The mimetic logic of the Golden Rule is that, as we imitate one-another’s kindness, we reorient ourselves toward the all-embracing love of God and better magnify God’s image. So in humbling himself, though he knelt before a wooden idol, Ishmael offers true worship to God, cultivating a friendship with a fellow image-bearer of the Divine.

Ishmael recognizes Queequeg as a fellow bearer of God’s image, though many of his time, and even now, would not. I would even go so far as to say that if any character could be interpreted as a Christ figure, it would be Queequeg, salvation in an unlikely package, subverting all expectations of where God is to be found!

Queequeg even proves to be Ishmael’s salvation in a far more literal way. At one point in the novel, Queequeg falls ill, and, believing himself to be dying, has a coffin fashioned. He goes so far as to lie down in the coffin, but, recognizing he is needed, arises and shakes off his fever. In the end, it is Queequeg’s coffin, floating as a life buoy, to which Ishmael clings to escape from drowning! One might then say that Queequeg’s death (and the death of so many others) was a sacrifice that ultimately allowed Ishmael to live, since the life-vessel to which he clung was only big enough for one. And yet, like Jesus, it was not so much the death as the empty coffin itself that saved! Queequeg climbed out of his coffin, and the empty tomb became the saving grace of Ishmael! He lived not because Queequeg died, but because he lived, and their friendship saved him first from depression and then from death!

Conclusion

It would be easy to look at Moby Dick and see the wrath and abandonment of God. Yet as in the story of Jonah, the fury and vengeance of Moby Dick is human in origin, residing in Captain Ahab, “an ungodly, god-like man.” God-like was Ahab in terms of our perception of God – vengeful and formidable. Yet God subverts our expectations of vengeance with mercy, mercy personified in the most unlikely of persons, where those who have an exclusive, harsh perception of God would never think to look. Such it is with Jesus; such it is too with Queequeg. God comes to the cast out in the form of an outcast.

Jonah, sailing the seas to nurse his vengeance, is embodied by Ahab. Our narrator, the outcast who found mercy, is aptly called Ishmael. Jonah is the outcast who refuses to hear God; Ishmael is the outcast whom God hears.

Yet, one might ask, where is the mercy for the crew of the Pequod who fall pray to the heartless sea? It is a worthy question, and there may not be a satisfying answer. But as God’s love is stronger than death, I wish to conclude with the words of the Psalmist:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139: 7-12)

Image: Queequeg, from the playbill for the Lookingglass Theater production of Moby Dick.

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American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part I)

All cultures scapegoat others. It is just something we do, unfortunately. Our religions are founded on scapegoating—Christianity included. The scapegoating that is currently taking place in America, much of it from within the church, is astounding. Just take a look at some of the recent rhetoric regarding the LGBT community from some self-declared Christians.

You’re going to see gunfire . . . “ Preacher Rick Wiles, comparing the recent SCOTUS decision to the institution of slavery.

When homosexuals begin lining up to adopt those children, they will literally disciple them into an early grave called Hell.” – Baptist pastor Rick Scarborough

Personally, I believe from a perspective of reading Romans 1, that this nation is under judgment from God ( . . . ) The wrath of God revealed against those who rebel against him in Romans 1. And one of the signs of even God judging a nation and withdrawing the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit, one of the signs is the sign of homosexual behavior, as it says in Romans 1. And I believe we’re seeing that in this nation, I believe this nation is under judgment.”Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum (I will save my comments on how to exegete Romans 1:18 – 32 for another time.)

So, in the minds of these men and countless others, because of the LGBT community and our compliance with their desire to share in the same rights heterosexual couples enjoy, judgment and wrath will befall this “Christian” nation. I would like to make a few comments regarding this type of thinking.

First, for sake of argument, let’s assume that homosexual behavior is sin (I do not believe that, but hear me out.) Even if the citizens of this nation allow this “rampant sin” to enter her borders, is this the first time? Is this the first instance within the past 50 years where the United States of America enacted laws that many would find immoral? Well, let’s take a look…

“Jim Crow” laws (1890 – 1965) stated that black and white segregation is a mandate when it comes to public schools, transportation, restrooms and water fountains, and even restaurants. And no judgment befell this” great” nation.

Interracial marriage was only legalized in 1967. Prior to that, blacks and whites could not marry. Yet, no judgment came . . .

How about current drug laws? In a piece from July 1, 2015, I discussed the current drug laws in American and how racially biased they are. However, we see no one thumping a bible from a pulpit, warning of some terrible judgment. I know, I know: drugs are bad so God is okay with these laws.

I could drone (pardon the pun) on and on about which laws I find “biblically objectionable” but I think you see my point—and I didn’t even go far back in history. I need not remind anyone of the institution of slavery. The fact is: the laws of this nation have little to do with Christian values. Never have, never will.

My second point is this: if you want to use the bible as an authority on how to enact law, at least begin with Jesus Christ. If someone wants to view homosexual behavior as “sin,” then are they not to view that “sin” as a speck, and their own sin as a “plank”? (Matt. 7:3 – 5) Jesus also tells his disciples to not declare themselves above the other, but in order to be “great,” they must be servants. (Matt. 20: 25 – 28) Jesus himself did not come to be served, but to serve. How is using the political process to enact marriage law based on “biblical values” not “lording over another?” In this passage, Jesus invites his disciples to imitate him in serving—putting others ahead of themselves. How can Christians be called to serve all, while at the same time using the political process to interfere with thousands of loving couples (even if they think it is ‘icky’)? How can a follower of Jesus place him or herself over and above anyone, for any reason?

I cannot help but cringe when I hear the justifications for stopping the oft-used pejorative, “homosexual agenda.” All too often, “protecting the sanctity of marriage” seems more important than living “at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18)—“voting for God” more important than being “last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

If the bible makes anything clear, it is that we are called to love—called to serve others as Christ loved and served. Those who take a Christocentric worldview will not wage war with the LGBT community. Rather, we will follow Jesus and treat all with love, kindness, and compassion—just as we want to be treated. Christians who take Jesus seriously will work diligently toward ceasing scapegoating others. The LGBT community will not be to blame for the wars and rumors of wars brought about by an “over and above” foreign policy. They will not be to blame for the blowback due to rampant nationalism. They will not be to blame for future terrorist attacks that are exacerbated by the expanded drone program or our propensity toward “nation building”. The scapegoat never is to blame for the problems of the community, the culture, the nation. Our violence is.

 

Image Credit: The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt. Public Domain. Available through Wikipedia.

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40 Questions For Rainbow Flag-Waving Christians, But Only 1 That Matters

A few weeks ago, Kevin DeYoung of the Gospel Coalition posted an article in response to the Supreme Court’s decision bemoaning the fact that we can no longer discriminate against people who identify as LGBTQ.

The court’s decision has people like DeYoung in a bit of a depression. He writes, “There are many reasons for our lamentations, from fear that religious liberties will be take away to worries about social ostracism and cultural marginalization.”

I sympathize with DeYoung on this point. I mean, social ostracism and cultural marginalization is a painful experience. Just ask the LGBTQ community.

DeYoung goes on to ask 40 questions to Christians who support the Supreme Court’s decision. 40 questions! Surely, with that many questions bombarding us, there must be something wrong with Christians supporting marriage equality for gays and lesbians!

Allow me to simplify things and boil those 40 questions down to one. It’s the question that Jesus asked and it’s the only question that matters when it comes to the Bible.

Jesus was confronted by religious authorities who didn’t like the people he was hanging out with. According to their interpretation of scripture, Jesus was hanging out with sinners, which, in their eyes, made Jesus a sinner, too. Jesus responded to them with a reading instruction. He quoted the prophet Hosea as saying,

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”

This is the key that Jesus provides for interpreting the Bible. Anyone can quote scripture, even the devil can do that. The only question that matters is whether we are going to interpret the Bible through a sacrificial hermeneutic that leads us to exclude others or a merciful hermeneutic that leads us to include others.

Theologian James Alison has emphasized Jesus’ instructions on biblical interpretation in his adult education series Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. James’ approach to the only question that matters in biblical interpretation is so important that I’m going to quote it in full.

Jesus is not saying to them “I think you should go and look up the text of Hosea.” Rather he’s saying “You all know that what God says in the Prophets is ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ But this is not just a particular commandment. It is a reading instruction, a hermeneutical key. Whenever you interpret anything, you can read it in two ways: in such a way that your interpretation creates mercy, and in such a way that it creates sacrifice. Whenever you interpret anything morally, whenever you engage in any act of religious discrimination, as in your disapproval of the people I hang out with, are you obeying the word ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice’? It is perfectly possible to interpret the law in such a way that it demands sacrifice, creates a group of the good and casts someone out. As also it is perfectly possible to interpret the law as something always to be made flexible for the benefit of those who need reaching and bringing into richer life, leaving the good to look after themselves and going after the lost sheep. But only one of these two is acting in obedience to the word in Hosea.”

When we understand Jesus’ hermeneutical principle to interpret through God’s mercy, it means that we won’t discriminate against the LGBTQ community for any reason, but especially not for a religious reason. Why? Because Jesus teaches us to interpret the Bible through merciful love that seeks to include, not through the sacrificial mechanism that seeks to exclude.

And so we don’t need to ask or answer 40 questions. When it comes to the Bible, according to Jesus there is only one question we need to answer. Will we interpret with a merciful hermeneutic or a sacrificial hermeneutic?

 

Image Credit: Flickr, NathanMack87, Rainbow America, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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Why God is Your Mother

Beware!

People like me are out to get you with our radical feminist agenda! What’s that agenda? I call God Mother.

As Father Dwight Longnecker warns, people like me “will continue with this radical feminist agenda until they are actually holding hands with witchcraft and worshipping devils.”

What?!? I guess calling God Mother is a slippery slope, right? First it’s “Hi Mom! You sure are swell.” Then it’s off to the House of Satan for a little devil worship!

Father Longnecker is critiquing an Anglican movement that wants to call God Mother. He claims the “feminists” in the movement are mean because “their tactics are clearly not of the Holy Spirit…They started pressure groups, ran publicity campaigns, bullied their way into political positions, used tactics of playing the victim combined with emotional blackmail to get their way.” According to Father Longnecker, “This is the way progressives work everywhere, and [you should] never appease these people.”

But apparently the Holy Spirit is totally okay with creating fear among your audience by claiming that those who disagree with you practice witchcraft and worship devils because they call God Mother.

Right.

Here’s the thing. God is your Father and your Mother and God transcends those categories because God is neither literally male nor female. But Father Longnecker thinks calling God Father and Mother is just too confusing for people. Apparently, the fact that God is One, yet Three, but really One…that isn’t confusing at all. But to call God Father and Mother…we can’t wrap our minds around that.

Father Longnecker is right that when his disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, he responded that they should pray to the Father. Father Longnecker claims this is his slam dunk against calling God Mother. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray to our Mother, but to our Father.

But it’s not a slam dunk against praying to God our Mother. After all, Jesus never said, “You can’t call God Mother. That would make you devil worshippers!”

In fact, Jesus referred to God as a Mother-like figure, just as he referred to God as a Father-like figure. He refers to himself, who Christians believe to be the second person of the Trinity, as a mother hen. He also claims God is like a woman in search of her lost coin.

Of course, we could take Jesus literally when he calls God Father. But he was speaking metaphorically. When Jesus spoke of God as Father, He didn’t mean that God is a male. He meant that God is Father-like in His love for His children.

But Jesus also claimed that God is Mother-like in Her desire to find and care for Her children.

And then there’s the Old Testament. Take Job, for example. God asked him a series of rhetorical questions, “Where were you…when the sea burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap?…From whose belly does ice come; who gave birth to heaven’s frost?”

Whose womb is God talking about? Not Job’s. Every biblical scholar will tell you that God was referring to Himself, err, in this case, Herself.

And then there’s Isaiah where God refers to Herself as being “like a woman in labor.” And, in one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture, Isaiah continues to declare God’s Motherhood. While in Exile, Isaiah’s people thought God had forgotten them. But God responded that She hadn’t forgotten them. In fact, God comforted them by telling them about Her motherly compassion, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

If you need the words attributed to Moses, then a little Motherly reprimanding from Deuteronomy will suffice, “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

Did you know that the Old Testament uses the word “spirit” 84 times in ways that Christian tradition assumes to refer to the Holy Spirit? From those 84 times, the context refers to the spirit in masculine form nine times. The other 75 times the context refers to the Holy Spirit as “explicitly feminine or indeterminable (due to lack of a verb or adjective.)” In Judges, for example, the spirit is always feminine. In Genesis 1:2 where the term “Spirit of God” first appears, it is in feminine form. And in Proverbs, the Wisdom of God, which Christian tradition understands to be the Holy Spirit, is personified as a woman.

To refer to God as Mother isn’t part of some modern feminist agenda. It’s the Bible’s agenda. And Christian tradition isn’t afraid to continue this biblical agenda.

Julian of Norwhich, whom the Catholic Church calls a Doctor of the Church, claimed in her book, Revelations of Divine Love, that God is our Mother. She even claimed that Jesus is our true Mother!

It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good.

Jesus Christ, therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts. And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.

If calling God your Mother confuses you like it confuses Father Longnecker, then please feel free to continue just calling God Father. It is a great way to approach our Heavenly Father.

But, if you can hold together the metaphorical paradox that God is our Father and Mother, then go ahead and call God your Mother.

It doesn’t mean that you’re a devil worshipper. In fact, She who gave birth to you will appreciate it.

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Image copyright: tanaonte / 123RF Stock Photo

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Black Forgiveness, the Hypocrisy of White America, and Atonement

“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.”

Those words of accountability and forgiveness were spoken to Dylann Roof at his bond hearing by the daughter of one of his victims.

How are we to understand such radical forgiveness?

The spirit of forgiveness and accountability was on full display during the bond hearing by the family members of the victims. Many have seen that forgiveness as shallow, even calling it a “parade of forgiveness [that] is disconcerting to say the least.”

Forgiveness isn’t disconcerting. What is disconcerting is a hypocritical response from white America.

Many white Americans interpret black forgiveness as absolution for the racist attitudes that led to the attack. We distort that forgiveness in a way that doesn’t hold us accountable for changing the racist political, economic, and educational structures that infect our country.

If white America celebrates the forgiveness that was on display in Charleston but refuses to be transformed by it, then we are hypocrites. If that forgiveness doesn’t break our hearts to make them grow bigger, if that forgiveness doesn’t become a model for white America to follow, if that forgiveness doesn’t make us work for racial justice and make us more gracious and forgiving in our lives, then we are just a bunch of hypocrites.

When we celebrate black forgiveness but refuse to be accountable to that very forgiveness then we are doing nothing more than creating an aura of deniability. By celebrating black forgiveness of those persecutors like Dylann Roof, we can safely deny that we participate in and benefit from racist structures that persecute black people. In other words, we can so twist the blessed act of forgiveness that we manipulate it to deny that we are persecutors, too.

In her Washington Post article, Stacey Patton speaks to the hypocrisy of white America. We celebrate and even demand black forgiveness in the face of violence, but we do not offer our own forgiveness to violence committed against us. She connects it to 9/11, “After 9/11 there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. America declared war, sought blood and revenge, and rushed protective measures into place to prevent future attacks … As the Atlantic Monthly, writer Ta-Nehisi Coats noted on Twitter: “Can’t remember any campaign to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ in the wake of ISIS beheading.”

Patton and Coats are absolutely right when they point to the hypocrisy of white America when it comes to forgiveness. Black people aren’t allowed to show rage, to be “an angry black man.” But white rage in the face of violence is thought to be a perfectly normal response.

What’s true about forgiveness on a personal level is true about forgiveness on a national level. We are the “angry white man” who too often responds to violence with mimetic violence of our own. The “angry black man” stereotype is a projection of our own white anger and hatred.

Atoning for White Racism

In the Christian tradition, Atonement happened on the cross when Jesus offered forgiveness to those who killed and persecuted him. The Atonement was about changing hearts, but it wasn’t God’s heart that was changed. Jesus didn’t appease a wrathful god; he appeased a wrathful humanity. But he didn’t just appease a wrathful humanity, he transformed a wrathful humanity into a more loving humanity. The Atonement doesn’t absolve us from the harm that we’ve cause. Unless we are hypocrites, it leads us to take responsibility for changing our lives so that we work for justice, healing, and love.

The consequences of that Atonement are best seen in the story of the conversion of St. Paul. Before his conversion, Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian community. Like all persecutors, he was blind to his victims. He thought he was keeping his way of life safe from his enemies. But on the road to Damascus, the resurrected Jesus came to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was then blinded by scales that covered his eyes, which were symbolic as a sign to his blind persecution.

Saul would soon repent of his violent persecution and the scales that blinded him fell from his eyes. His name would change from Saul to Paul as he took on a new identity. Instead of persecuting the early Christian community, and Jesus who identifies with all victims of persecution, Paul became one of them. And he worked within that community for justice so that all people – Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free – were included into a community of love and acceptance.

White America needs to have our Saul moment – and I pray that in the wake of the terrorism in Charleston that we are having it. The scales need to fall from our eyes so that we can clearly see the harm we have caused through the racist structures that permeate the United States. Like Paul, we need to hear those words from Jesus, “Why are you persecuting me?” because when we continue to uphold racist structures in America we are persecuting black people and we continue to persecute Jesus who identifies with them.

The blessed forgiveness that was on display in Charleston is the same blessed forgiveness that was on display on the cross. If white America doesn’t allow that forgiveness to hold us accountable to the transformation of our lives and the racist structures of the United States, then we are mere hypocrites who don’t truly believe in the Gospel.

May the scales fall from the eyes of white Americans. For we are blind persecutors, forgiven, and in need of transformation.

Image Credit: Vigil for the Charleston 9 (Photo: Flickr, The All Night Images, Creative Commons license, some changes made.

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Is Jesus The Way, The Truth And The Life? A Progressive Interpretation

You know the passage. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This passage from the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is one of the most controversial passages in all of scripture. Conservatives tend to interpret this passage in an exclusive way. They claim it as a concrete truth statement that means if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to hell, because there is no other way to the Father.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to fear the passage’s truth statement about Jesus. They either ignore such passages or pull their hair out when reading them. Some liberals perform the Jiu Jitsu of post-modern biblical criticism. With the Jesus Seminar in mind, many liberal Christians will ignore this verse by claiming that Jesus probably never said anything like this. It was John who imposed these words on Jesus. That truth statement was a reflection of John’s issues, not the meek, mild, and humble Jesus.

Problems with Conservative and Liberal Interpretations

As a progressive Christian, I think Jesus was radically inclusive. A conservative interpretation of this passage that claims it excludes people from heaven has to deal with the whole passage. Just four verses earlier, Jesus stated, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” If Jesus wanted to be exclusive, he would have said, “There are very few rooms in my Father’s house. So, be sure you behave!” But Jesus didn’t reveal the scarcity of God’s generosity. Rather, Jesus revealed the abundance of God’s generous, all-inclusive love. Thus, an exclusive interpretation of Jesus statement that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” fails to incorporate the abundance of God that Jesus revealed. There are many rooms in God’s house.

And yet I can’t go along with liberal interpretations that fears the truth statement of the passage. I’m uncomfortable throwing out such verses. Even more, I believe in truth. Whether or not Jesus actually said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” I trust John’s Gospel enough to believe that the passage tells us something important about Jesus and his mission.

A Progressive Understanding – How is Jesus the Way, and the Truth, and the Life?

Jesus made the statement while having a conversation with his disciples. Jesus said to them:

…you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

This passage is frequently called Jesus’ “farewell discourse” because, as the New Interpreter’s Bible explains, “it resembles the common literary form of the farewell or last testament of a famous man.” That matters because it answers Thomas’s question, “How can we know the way?”

Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples because he knows where the way, and the truth, and the life are leading him. He knows they are leading him to the cross.

Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life in a very particular way. It’s the way, and the truth, and the life of nonviolent love. As he was saying goodbye to his disciples, he was preparing them for his death. Jesus said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Where was Jesus going? He was going to the cross. He was going to become the victim of human violence.

As James Alison states, Jesus was the Forgiving Victim. Instead of mimetically responding to violence with violence, Jesus did something different. He revealed that the way, the truth, and the life responds to those who killed him with all inclusive love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Progressive Christians need to reclaim this passage. It’s a truth claim, but it’s a truth claim that reveals the nonviolent and all-inclusive love of God that embraces everyone, even those we call our enemies.

After all, if you know the truth about the nonviolent love of Jesus, you will know the truth about the nonviolent love of his Father also. As Jesus said, “From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

That is the way, and the truth, and the life.

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tibetan-monk

Buddhism And Christianity — On Loss, Grief, And Atonement

Life is not permanent. It’s frail. As much as we want to deny this truth, at some point we all experience the impermanence of life. In those moments, we often universalize our loss. We can get stuck in our grief, believing that this loss of a career, a loved one, a marriage, a wayward child, or our reputation now defines us.

What we do with loss and grief matters. Quite often, we make the situation worse by scapegoating. As René Girard claims, some of us externalize our pain by blaming it on someone else. We accuse others – a co-worker, a spouse, or even God – for causing our problems. We justify our anger at others by condemning them for our loss.

On the other hand, some of us tend to internalize loss by scapegoating ourselves. Some of us play an audio stream in our heads that torments us the voice of shame. “Why did you even try? You knew you were going to fail. See, you are a loser.”

If you are like me, you do both. I have a pattern of scapegoating others and myself. As long as I can blame someone else for my problems, then I can let myself off the hook. But that’s just a temporary fix, because I also have the voices in my head that taunt me with shame. Whether I blame someone else or myself, scapegoating is very destructive. It creates a cycle of blame that threatens relationships and personal health. And so I wonder if there’s a third way to manage the loss we inevitably experience in life.

Is there a way to atone, or reconcile, with our losses that doesn’t involve scapegoating? Yes. Buddhism and Christianity offer that important third way.

Buddhism, Loss, and Mandalas

A group of Tibetan monks make an annual trip to Laguna Beach, California. They gather at a neighborhood church to create Sand Mandalas. Also known as Compassion Paintings, the intricate Sand Mandalas take 6 days to create. Visitors come from all over the world to watch the Buddhist monks create their Mandalas. One visitor describes the process as “meticulous and seemingly back breaking work.”  These monks work hours on end, only taking short breaks from their work.

At the end of those six days, after all that hard work, the monks carry their stunning creations to the beach and do the unthinkable. They throw them into the Pacific Ocean.

Why on earth would they do that? To teach us a lesson about the impermanence of life. The monks spend days doing back breaking and often mind numbing work to create something beautiful and in an instant, it’s gone.

The Mandala is a metaphor. It represents those things that we work hard to create. A career, job, marriage, children, the list goes on. But we know those things aren’t guaranteed. We know those things are impermanent.

Whatever our Mandala is, there’s a good chance we will lose it. But the monks teach us how to manage ourselves during those losses. We don’t have to atone for our losses by scapegoating others or ourselves. Rather, we can reconcile with our losses in a third way. The monks believe that our losses don’t have the last word. They trust that in the face of loss, there will be more sand. There will be other opportunities to create more Mandalas.

Christianity, Loss, and Resurrection

The early Christians had to deal with the loss of their most important Mandala – the one they called Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isn’t Christianity weird? I mean, Christians revere Jesus the Messiah, the King. That’s weird because the one Christians revere as the incarnate word of God was killed. He became a victim of human violence.

How do you atone for that? How do you reconcile with the fact that the one whom Christians worship became a victim of human violence?

The early Christians reconciled that fact through faith that loss and death don’t have the last word. They trusted that their experience of loss and grief didn’t have the last word because they trusted in resurrection.

Christians have placed so much of the Atonement on the cross. And rightly so, but many of us have neglected the resurrection. Atonement, the reconciliation of the world, runs through the cross and into the resurrection.

In the resurrection, Jesus didn’t atone for the loss of his life by scapegoating others for their violence against him. Neither did he scapegoat himself for being a conquered King, and thus a failed King. Rather, for Christians, the resurrected Jesus responded as the true King of the world. He made atonement by offering peace to those who betrayed and killed him. In this sense, Jesus was, as James Alison claims, the Forgiving Victim.

Conclusion

The losses in my life are often like a vacuum that sucks my soul dry. But I’m realizing that I’m the one who’s holding the vacuum’s hose.

So I’m learning to turn off the vacuum. It’s a slow process, but I’m learning to not scapegoat others or myself for the losses in my life. Instead, I’m learning to trust with the Tibetan monks that there will always be more sand by the oceanside. And I’m learning to trust with the early Christians that on the other side of loss there will always be resurrection.

Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner's Twitter page.

A Transgender God: Reflections on God and Caitlyn Jenner

Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner's Twitter page.

Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner’s Twitter page.

 

 

The Internet is in an uproar about Caitlyn Jenner. And, if you’re like me, you have some Caitlyn Jenner fatigue. You may be thinking, “Not another Caitlyn Jenner story.” So, let me tell you, this isn’t another post about Caitlyn’s transgenderism. This post is about God’s transgenderism. God is transgender.

Why God is Transgender

Some may be offended by the idea that God is transgender, but it’s actually a theologically orthodox statement. “Trans” is a prefix that simply means “across,” “beyond,” or “through.”

God is neither male nor female. God transcends gender. God goes “beyond” the binaries of male and female gender. Thus, God is transgender and if we are created in God’s image, as we read in Genesis 1, then we are transgender, too. Remember the creation story:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

The God who transcends gender created humanity in God’s gender-transcending image, male and female, not male or female.

God goes across the human binaries of male and female gender to include both genders and every gender identity in between. Gender identity is fluid and much of gender identity is dependent upon cultural norms to tell us who we are and who we are not.

We often use the dualities of “male and female” gender to create a distinction of who is included and who is excluded from certain roles in society. For example, I was born a male, but what does it mean to be a man? For many people, to be a man means that you must fight and protect yourself and your family. When danger comes, men must “man up” and defend themselves, their family, or their country. The manliest of men aren’t afraid of anything. According to many in our culture, that is the universal truth of what it means to be a man.

A Transgender Jesus

If that’s the truth of what it means to be a man, then Jesus wasn’t manly. He didn’t “man up” by protecting himself. Jesus was transgender in the fact that he transcended cultural standards of gender. Jesus’ culture had diverse messianic expectations, but many in his culture, including his disciples, expected the Messiah to be a manly warrior king who would free Jerusalem from their Roman oppressors. No one expected the Messiah to be killed. That just wouldn’t be manly.

If Jesus were manly by cultural standards, he would have led an army against the Roman occupiers. He would have defended his homeland, his family, his friends, even his Manly God against the Romans. But Jesus transcended any manly expectation that would have him lead a violent army against his enemies. Rather, he lived out his teaching to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.” He didn’t fight back with violence. Rather, when this King was high and lifted up on his throne of glory, he decreed his final judgment upon those who killed. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus said from the cross, “for they know not what they do.”

Jesus Is Not the King We Were Looking For

Jesus confuses my expectations of gender roles. I don’t want Jesus as my King. I want a King who will man up. I want a King who will fall into the gender norm of being a man and defend his people against evil oppressors. I want a King who will reinforce gender norms and my desire to kill the bad guys.

But that’s not the King that Christians get. Christians get a King who nonviolently nurtures humanity into a future of love and compassion.

Does that mean Jesus had feminine qualities? Yes. And did he have masculine qualities? Yes. Jesus took upon himself the fullness of humanity. With a literal reading of Genesis 1, we can say that Jesus was the truly human one, whom God created to be male and female.

What about Caitlyn Jenner?

What does this mean for Caitlyn Jenner? God is transgender, which means that God crosses over our dualities of male and female to include those binaries and everything in between and beyond. That means that Caitlyn Jenner is part of the human and divine experience. But really, I’m not concerned about Caitlyn Jenner. I’m more concerned about our cultural responses.

Why are so many scandalized by her story? Some say it’s a publicity stunt that she hopes to get paid for. Others claim she is deliberately sinning against God’s will. Others claim she is just confused.

As Benjamin Corey states, none of us is in a position to judge Caitlyn Jenner. We don’t know her whole story; only God does. So we shouldn’t be judging her.

Rather, we should embrace her and all transgender people. Why? Because God already has. It is we humans who use categories such as gender to exclude and include others in loving community, but God doesn’t work that way. God seeks to include everyone, no matter anyone’s gender identity. In fact, God revealed at creation and through Jesus that to be truly human means to transcend cultural norms of gender. To be truly human means to be transgender.

I don’t know whether Caitlyn believes in God or not. But I do know this, the God who transcends gender embraces everyone, especially those who, just like God, are transgender.

For more, read my article Bruce Jenner and God’s Response to Transgender People.

Jesus, Drawing Muhammad, and the Idolatry of Free Speech

Pamela Geller had every “right” to host a conference in Texas that mocked Muhammad with a “Draw Muhammad” contest. The United States gives her that freedom – the Freedom of Speech, which includes the freedom to defiantly ridicule whomever she wants.

Geller is apparently not a Christian, but many Christians have come to her defense of the conference.

Let me be clear: There is no Christian defense of a conference that mocks Islam, Muhammad, or Muslims.

Please, tell me, when did Jesus ever endorse ridiculing others? Let me answer that for you: Never.

In fact, Jesus says the exact opposite. When he was asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

As if there were any doubt, Jesus extended the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” law to include even those we call our enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not event he Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If Christians are going to take seriously Jesus’ command to follow him, then we need to stop this absurd defense of drawing pictures of Muhammad. And if we defend the practice of ridiculing our fellow human beings by hiding behind the Freedom of Speech, then we have made Freedom of Speech into an idol.

Pamela Geller, as a non-Christian, has the right to host the conference. But Christians do not have the right, or the freedom, to support the conference. For Christians, freedom comes from following Christ in loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. The obvious implications of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors means that we should not mock them.

Jesus’ Challenge to Progressive Christians

And here’s where Jesus’ words about love come back to haunt me. I disagree wholeheartedly with Pamela Geller and the Christians who support her. Disagreeing is fine, but scapegoating isn’t. As a progressive Christian, I easily get caught up in scapegoating them; in thinking that they are everything that’s wrong with Christianity and that they need to get their act together.

In other words, progressive Christians are easily swayed by the same principle of hatred that we condemn in conservative and fundamentalist Christians. I start feeling hatred in my heart for Geller and her supporters, especially her Christian supporters. That hatred is my way of scapegoating those I deem to be scapegoaters.

And scapegoating doesn’t help. It only adds fuel to the fire of the scapegoating mechanism.

But if I’m going to seriously follow Jesus, then I need to own the fact that I have a strong tendency to scapegoat those I deem to be enemies. And that’s the problem. Each side is thoroughly convinced that their scapegoats are guilty and deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

For progressive Christianity to make any progress, we need to repent of our tendency to scapegoat fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservatives. If Jesus is right, which I am thoroughly convinced he is, then our fundamentalist, evangelical, and conservative brothers and sisters do not deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

They deserve to be loved.

That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. And so, as we follow Jesus in standing up for justice, let’s repent of our own inclination to scapegoat and demonize the other side. Let’s repent of our own impulse to unjust actions. Let’s name injustice where we see it. Let’s work for a more just world. And let’s love our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.

What About the Canaanites?: On the Bible, Violence, and Genocide

Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Suzanne and I recently delivered a workshop on the Bible and violence at the Faith Forward conference in Chicago. We highlighted the differences between the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus and the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

You can read the description of our workshop here, but to summarize, in the Roman myth, Romulus kills his brother Remus, founds the city of Rome, and the god Mars vindicates Romulus by welcoming him to heaven and divinizing him as the god Quirinus. The biblical account is similar, but has important differences. Cain kills his brother Abel, founds a city, but God doesn’t vindicate the murderer. Rather, God actually vindicates the victim by hearing Abel’s blood crying out from the earth.

In the Roman myth, the god vindicates the persecutor’s violence and ignores the victim. In the biblical account, God hears the voice of the victim and seeks to heal and protect the repentant persecutor from a cycle of violence that might turn against him.

The differences couldn’t be more profound.

But as we talked about those difference, someone asked an important question, “You are telling us about the compassionate God of the Bible, but what about the Canaanites?”

It is the most troubling story in the Bible. As they enter the Promised Land, God commands the Israelites to kill everything that breathes – including women, children, men, and animals. As if God wasn’t clear enough, God instructs Israel to kill more than just the Canaanites. God says to “annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perrizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God commanded, so that they may not teach you to do abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you do thus sin against the Lord your God.”

Our questioner was right. How can we talk about a biblical God of compassion in the face of genocide and Holy War? What about the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites?

Great question.

Peter Enns does a remarkable job exploring some answers in his masterful book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Peter discusses the various answers historically offered to justify God’s demand for genocide, but there are two answers in particular that interest me.

Did God Actually Command Genocide?

First, it’s important to note that while the Bible tells a horrific story of the conquest of Canaan, there is no evidence outside of the Bible that the conquest actually happened. Generations of scholars have known that there are no textual sources to corroborate the conquest. So, scholars looked to archeology to support the biblical claim. But archeology has come up empty, too. Peter states,

Biblical archeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes it did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded.

Archeologists could be wrong, of course. Maybe archeological evidence of a conquest will emerge. Still, with such a massive conquest, you would expect archeological evidence to be easy to find. The lack of archeological evidence sheds serious doubt on the historical facts of the conquest. But if we claim that the conquest never happened, we’re still left with an important question – Why is the genocide in the Bible? Peter postulates,

It seems that, as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1,000 BCE) stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of old…What most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened. And that puts the question, “How could God have all those Canaanites put to death?” in a different light indeed. He didn’t.

In a similar vein, James Alison talks about the “conquest” of Canaan in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim. James also highlights the lack of archeological evidence and provides another explanation for the violent story. He states that the story as we have it was finally solidified by the ancient Jews, known as Judeans, who were returning from the Babylonian exile. As they entered into the Promised Land, they told the story to those who remained in the land during the exile. Understandably, those who remained in the land feared those who were returning from exile. James states that the story’s purpose,

[W]ould have been a way of letting the current occupiers of the land know, among other things: “You needn’t fear us returning Judeans from Babylon, for, as our text shows, so completely did Joshua extirpate the former occupiers of the land, many centuries ago, that if you are there now, you must in fact really be part of us already.” In other words…the account of the ancient conquest becomes a backdrop to a modern co-opting without conquest.

If Peter and James are right, God didn’t call for genocide. Nor was the point of the story to strike fear in Israel’s enemies. Rather, the point was to alleviate the fears of those who were left behind in Judea during the Babylonian Exile.

Jesus and the Canaanites

Which leads me to Peter’s second point – Jesus and the Canaanites. Interestingly, there were no Canaanites in the first century. They were long gone as a people. And yet, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus met a Canaanite woman. Peter claims this “Is the only time Israel’s ancient foes are mentioned in the New Testament.”

The woman wasn’t actually a Canaanite. In fact, Mark and Luke claim she was a Syro-Phoenician. But Matthew intentionally called her a Canaanite, not because he was lying, but because he had a point to make about their “ancient foes” – that the Canaanites might actually have been exemplars of faith.

The Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, but Jesus refused by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She persisted and Jesus refused again, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Dogs?!? Ouch. Jesus, that wasn’t nice.

But the Canaanite woman softened Jesus’ heart, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Like Joshua destroyed the walls around Jericho to defeat the Canaanites, this Canaanite woman destroyed the wall around Jesus’ heart. “Woman,” Jesus replied, “great is your faith. Let it be done as you wish.”

What about the Canaanites?

In the end, I don’t know if these answers are satisfying. Whether or not it actually happened, the story of Israel’s conquest over the Canaanites is horrific. But the last word in the Bible about the Canaanites belongs to Jesus, and it’s a positive one. Peter claims that Jesus was fully immersed in his Jewish context when he healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets lead us to a different view of, and a different ethic toward, our enemies:

Jesus, taking a page from some Old Testament prophets (like Isaiah) would complicate things. God’s people are a light that shines into dark places, or salt that makes the whole meal taste good, or a pinch of yeast that makes the entire loaf rise. Wherever God’s people are, it makes a difference—for better, and without violence.