Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Wagging the Dog

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Trudy Smith of the Huffington Post asks, “Was Jesus racist?” Her answer, of course, is yes.

That’s hardly surprising. The HuffPost is the online poster-rag for the New American Left. In their exceedingly well-defined and ideologically-pristine PC world, even the Son of God takes the knee before the official progressive racial narrative.

A Jewish Man in First Century Palestine

Thus Smith elects to explain the Lord’s admittedly difficult reference to a Canaanite woman as a “dog” this way:
“Jesus spent his time on earth as a Jewish man in first century Palestine who would have been taught to give thanks in his daily prayers for being born a Jew rather than a Gentile, and a man instead of a woman. As immersed as he was in that culture, Jesus could not have avoided the effects of sexist, racist narratives which had shaped his identity from childhood.

Like so many throughout history who have internalized their low status in society, the woman does not question Jesus’ dehumanizing language. Yet she challenges his assumptions nonetheless, and is the only character in scripture whose repartee ever stumps Jesus in a debate.

The looks that passed between them at that moment, and the thoughts in Jesus’ mind, are not recorded. Perhaps there was a moment of surprised silence as Jesus reexamined the stereotypical assumptions he had made about this representative of ‘the other’ standing in front of him. He even seems to have his perspective on women and gentiles changed by her argument.

We’ll never know the details of that pivotal moment, but the next words Jesus utters demonstrate a change of mind and a change of heart: he agrees to heal the woman’s daughter.”

A Monumental Problem

That’s certainly one possible way to deal with deal with the apparent difficulty of the Lord using a racial slur: conclude that the Lord was wrong, and that he learned his lesson.

It is also an epic case of the tail wagging the ... er ... dog. The theological and continuity issues raised by such a reading of the passage are considerable.

Here, instead of allowing Christ to shape our view of race and gender, Smith invites us to allow the wholly unsubstantiated modern narrative about racial and sexual “equality” to shape — or rather, wildly distort — our view of Christ. It was Jesus who in offering himself on our behalf most eloquently demonstrated the value of all human beings to God. That’s the substance of the matter, the “head” and “body” of it. The rejection of racial and gender-based partiality is a distant, comparatively trivial conclusion we may arrive at from a right understanding of the person, work and words of Jesus: a theological “tail”. Take away the deity and perfections of Christ, and we lose the sacrifice that gives our treatment of others in this world all its power and purpose. That’s so preposterously backwards there are almost no words for it.

The reader who affirms the deity of the Son of God not unreasonably concludes that Ms. Smith’s self-description as a “Jesus follower” means something on the same level as the declaration “I follow NFL football.”

Pleasing the Father

Ms. Smith’s reconstruction of the passage requires a racist, sexist Jesus steeped in false assumptions he had never questioned and outmaneuvered by a desperate and clever woman; a Jesus who, stumped by the woman’s adroit and self-serving response, subsequently discards his offensive, patriarchal worldview at the drop of a hat.

It must be his adaptability Ms. Smith finds admirable, since there are few other qualities in her version of Christ to be admired.

Those of us who believe Jesus was more than a mere product of his culture and generation are inclined to reject such a deliberate and agenda-driven misconstruction of sacred scripture, of course. We need not go on at length about the unique and profound Spirit-led insight the Lord displayed throughout his ministry, or stop to belabor the fact that he always acted in complete harmony with his Father’s will. If “I always do the things that are pleasing to him” is indeed a true statement, then the idea that the Son of God’s views on race and gender were anything less than a pixel-perfect representation of the Divine Wisdom is patently absurd. He pleased the Father in that very moment, we can be sure, and not because he showed unusual willingness to bow before newly-revealed “truth” other members of the “patriarchy” would have overlooked.

If Not Racism, Then What?

Whatever was happening here, it was not driven by the clever response of the woman. In fact, I would argue that Jesus himself provoked it, and deliberately. But if the Lord was not racist, how do we explain the passage?

For one thing, the “surprised silence” and subsequent reexamination Ms. Smith so blithely posits are nowhere to be found in the text. They are entirely read-in. Mark records this from the Lord in response: “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” Matthew adds, “Great is your faith!” We rightly observe the Lord’s approval and commendation of the woman’s answer, but calling him “surprised” is daring to say a great deal more than either gospel writer does.

One possible conclusion — and some certainly hold it — was that the Lord was indeed “racist” by the broad and inconsistent standards of our day, but it is our judgment that is in error, not his. If that is the case, holding a low view of other cultures and peoples is not wrong when one’s evaluation correctly mirrors reality. Some cultures and the habits of behavior that go with them actually are more morally debased than others, and people who grow up in such environments are often characterized by immoral assumptions and practices that have been largely filtered out of the West by the widespread influence of Christianity over the centuries. (The reverse, by the way, is also true: the West is corrupt in areas of life the East is less inclined to be.) Either way, it is not wrong to point this out, and if “dog” serves as an apt metaphor for an individual whose people have been noted to behave in a particularly evil way, then “dog” it is.

In this view, the Lord did not change his thinking about Gentiles at all, but he did make a gracious exception for a needy woman who humbled herself before him in faith.

Plausible, and More Plausible Still

That is certainly a plausible interpretation, and at least it has the virtue of letting Christ shape our definition of racism, rather than the other way round. As offensive as many readers will find it, I vastly prefer it to Ms. Smith’s conclusions, which fly in the face of orthodoxy where the person of Christ is concerned. If we accept this latter view, it follows that we would have to reexamine what we mean by racism, deciding how best to apply the Bible’s incontestable teaching about impartiality in the church to our everyday relationships with people from other cultures and nations, saved and unsaved.

That’s not a bad exercise in any case, and I recommend it. The word “racism” is not a biblical term and there is no universal agreement as to its meaning. If we are going to use it at all, we had better define it very clearly first, preferably along with a spate of serviceable examples for clarity, otherwise we will be talking past each other.

It is not necessary to go that far, however. If we accept that Jesus — who “needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” — was fully in command the entire time, not only aware of the racial dynamics and potential for personal offense the situation would inevitably produce both then and now, but also wholly cognizant of his own disciples’ prejudices and Jewish foibles about race, it seems to me quite in-character for the Lord to say something apparently outrageous to test the faith of the Syrophoenician woman, and to allow her the opportunity to enjoy his blessing.

Rhetoric, Argument and Hyperbole

After all, Jesus said offensive things regularly in the interest of provoking his audiences to reexamine their assumptions. He suggested his followers gouge out their right eyes and cut off their right hands. He taught that they ought to hate their wives and children, fathers, mothers and siblings. He called people foxes and vipers. If it effectively served the spiritual point he was making, hyperbole and metaphor were very much fair game.

Moreover, the Lord frequently allowed others to wrongly frame an argument without objecting to it in order to later turn it back on them. When accused (in-parable) of reaping where he had not sown and gathering where he had scattered no seed, the Lord accepts the specious critique rather than argue the point, then replies, “You ought to have invested my money with the bankers.” In saying this, the Lord is not endorsing usury; rather, he is astutely pointing out the bankruptcy of the slothful servant’s argument. On another occasion, the Lord answers the Jews with a quote from “your Law”. He responds with, “I said, you are gods,” in order to defend himself from the criticism that he is blaspheming by calling himself the Son of God. In no way is he really arguing that all men are literally gods, nor is he minimizing his own relationship to his Father by placing it on the same level as theirs. Rather, he is using their own frame to confound them and make them reflect on the truth of his words.

The Dog Wags the Tail

In view of the obvious rhetorical character of many of the Lord’s statements, there is no reason to assume from his use of the word “dog” anything consequential about his personal beliefs concerning the relative value to God of individuals from other cultures.

Certainly we need not imagine for a moment that this encounter taught Jesus a single thing he didn’t already know.

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