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The Politics of Charlottesville and the Canaanite Woman—Matthew 15.21-28 (J. Leavitt Pearl)

21Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 27“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 28Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

This past weekend was marked by the stunning violence and terror of white supremacy. The largest American hate-gathering in decades, the “Unite the Right” march drew together American Neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, and other hate groups renewed by the recent popularity and influence of the Alt-Right.

The weekend kicked off with violence as these white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville with torches, chanting “the Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” before encircling and attacking a group of counter-protesters at Emancipation Park’s Robert E. Lee statue.

This violence would continue to escalate through Saturday morning, culminating in the murder of a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, by James Alex Fields Jr., an Ohio man known for his Nazi sympathies and “fondness for Adolf Hitler.”

President Trump was widely condemned for his failure unambiguously to denounce white supremacy on Sunday, choosing instead to critique the violence coming from “many sides.” Defending these comments, Vice-President Pence stated that “we have no tolerance for hate and violence, white supremacists or neo-Nazis or the KKK,” and sought to distance the administration from these “fringe groups.”

Nevertheless, these comments, even the stronger words of Pence, miss a disconcerting reality: these groups may no longer be “fringe.” As Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in the Atlantic, “suddenly, the ‘far right’ doesn’t seem so far.” But, perhaps Damon Young said it best:

The men and women who marched last night, chanting and hashtagging #unitetheright, and the men and women in Charlottesville today, are not fringe. They are not unique. Perhaps they exist in the crevices and butt cracks, but they’re in the coffeeshops and boardrooms too. They are your neighbors. Our neighbors. My neighbors. They’re schoolteachers and Little League baseball coaches; bartenders and accountants; architects and marketing directors; registered nurses and police officers. They wait on your tables, they answer the phones when you call tech support, they fly your planes when you travel to Phoenix, they deliver your UPS packages and leave notes when you’re not there and they perform surgeries on your broken limbs. And for the white people who believe they’ve done enough, who believe their hands are washed, they’re at your kitchen tables and happy hours and bbqs and weddings. They’re in your families. They’re on your couches. They’re on your T-Mobile family plans. They’re in your beds.

What does it look like to be an American Christian in the midst of this pervasive violence? What does it mean to be Christian in a nation seeing a resurgence and emboldening of Nazism, the Klu Klux Klan, and white supremacy?

Much of the New Testament is dominated by a Pauline theology of Gentile inclusion, confirmed by the early church at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), and reflecting the prophetic anticipation of a day when the Lord would “change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9-10).

In his Saint Paul, Alain Badiou commends this breakthrough as the emergence of a “new universality” (23)—where “there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Galatians 3:28)—a counter-position to “French identitarian fanaticism” (in Badiou’s context) or the emergence of an emboldened white supremacy (in ours).

But this perspective—wherein fidelity to the Lordship of Christ overwrites ethnic identity—was not immediately apparent to much of the early church. Acts 15 confirms the prominence of those who were teaching that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1), and the entire letter to the Galatians functions as a polemic against “a different Gospel” that “compel[s] the Gentiles to live like Jews” (Galatians 1:6, 2:14).

Even Jesus himself appeared to have experienced a conversion to Gentile inclusion. In this week’s passage, Jesus withdraws into “the region of Tyre and Sidon” (v. 21). There he encounters a “Canaanite woman” (v. 22). The term Canaanite refers to the Ancient enemies of the Israelite people, but historically speaking, the Canaanites had long since disappeared. Nevertheless, this unnamed woman’s designation as a Canaanite here serves to mark her as a resident of these Phoenician cities; she is, for the 1st century Judean context, a mere gentile.

Even facing this double marginalization—a woman and a gentile—this unnamed woman nevertheless expresses a profound courage, recognizing Jesus as the Son of David, and calling upon him to fulfill the messianic responsibilities of the role; save my daughter. But, Jesus responds to this courage with what can only appear as a callous silence: “he did not answer her at all” (v. 23). The disciples likewise fail to respond with mercy, attempting to shoo away the needy woman, and prompting Jesus’ response: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24).

But the woman refuses to relent, “Lord, help me” (v. 25). Jesus’ subsequent reply is one marked by a disturbing ethnocentrism. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26). Jesus, we might say, has quite literally called her a bitch (it is perhaps not surprising that this is a lection often passed over in silence).

But the woman takes Jesus’ accusation upon herself and refuses to stand down, pleading her case a final time. Finally, Jesus himself relents; “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v. 28).

Often this passage is read as an affirmation of fortitude; “he is impressed with her persistence” (Mitch and Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, 198). But perhaps something more profound is happening here. The third response of this Gentile woman directly mirrors Jesus’ callous words back to him—“even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). This mirroring reflects the violence of Jesus’ own ethnocentrism back upon himself. It reveals his own failure in this moment to manifest the full glory of his messianic mission. The words of this gentile woman function as a call to responsibility that call Jesus into a conversion (Latin: convertere, to turn around) to Gentile inclusion.

Here, Jesus does not offer a doctrine to be affirmed or actions to be emulated. Jesus here models the necessity of an openness to the call of the other and the conversion that this call can provoke. Jesus models the reality of failure—that we often fail to think beyond the limited categories of our culture—but also the possibility of redemption through the reinstitution of justice.

On Saturday morning Virginia’s Governor McAuliffe “declared a state of emergency to aid state response to violence at [the] Alt-Right rally in Charlottesville.” But in the coming weeks we must resist the temptation to think of this past weekend’s white supremacist violence as an isolated state of emergency, as a “fringe” movement. Instead we must recognize the harder truth, that our society is cut through with the sin of white supremacy, racism, and their attendant forms of violence.

If white supremacy is an emergency—and it is—then we live in a perpetual state of emergency. We must come to terms with this reality, for it is only then that we can seek justice and reconciliation.

But, if we are to take Jesus’ conversion as a model, then this conversion to justice must begin with ears that listen to the call of those who have been marginalized in our own midst. We must allow these voices to mirror this injustice back to ourselves. We must see who we are, who we have become, and who we could be, in the voices of another. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9).


J. Leavitt Pearl is a PhD candidate at Duquesne University, and adjunct professor at St. Vincent College and Seton Hill College, currently completing a dissertation on the phenomenology and theology of the sexual body.

(2) Comments

  1. Your article is very timely. Racism, hate, exclusivity, prejudice, and indifference are prevalent not only in the USA, but in many parts of the world; not only in the street, but even inside the Christian church. I am fascinated by the fact that you are able to relate the passage Matt. 15:21-28 with the current events. Your interrogative statement, “What does it look like to be an American Christian in the midst of this pervasive violence?” does present a very valid and important inquiry to all your readers, not only in the American context, but in our respective life situations. I agree that our profession as a Christian must be reflected in the two most important commands of Jesus, i.e. to love God and to love our neighbors.

    However, there are some points, particularly in your interpretation of the passage, that presented questions to me as a reader rather than answers. I listed them below.

    1. “Even Jesus himself appeared to have experienced a conversion to Gentile inclusion.” Are you saying that prior to this scenario, Jesus thought that his ministry was for the Jews alone and not to the Gentiles also? Does the context support your observation?

    2. “But, Jesus responds to this courage with what can only appear as a callous silence: “he did not answer her at all” (v. 23).” The concerned verse states that, “Jesus did not answer a word.” What is your hermeneutical basis to say that Jesus’ response is callous?

    3. “Jesus’ subsequent reply is one marked by a disturbing ethnocentrism. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).” Assuming that Jesus’ reply is ethnocentic, why describe is as disturbing? Have you considered the meaning of “the dogs” here in contast to the Jews’ common perception of gentiles as a dog?

    4. “But the woman takes Jesus’ accusation upon herself and refuses to stand down, pleading her case a final time. Finally, Jesus himself relents; “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v. 28).” When you said that Jesus relented, it assumes that Jesus didn’t know before hand the case of the Canaanite woman thus what happens to his being divine and his attribute as the omnipotent God?

    5. “Jesus, we might say, has quite literally called her a bitch (it is perhaps not surprising that this is a lection often passed over in silence).” Isn’t this absurd especially if you have done a word study on the word “dog” (i.e. kynarion in Greek)?

    I believe answering the questions I posed would give you a different interpretation of the text. God bless you!

  2. the gospels are “faith remembered not history recorded” or something like that as stated by either Crossan or
    Borg and here we read faith remembered which seeks to tell the hearer/reader that faith is not bound by history and its barriers between but rips them asunder when even the lowest of the low dare with courage to challenge it, to imbue it with the possibility of justice. Perhaps in the first century of the Common Era, this is inserted in Matthew to remind folks that justice isn’t given, it’s struggled for and that struggle starts with the very ones suffering, despised. In our time, it’s a reminder to listen especially to listen to the poor, the out caste, the unwanted and be reminded that their lives matter!

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