Discussing Race in Dominant Spaces

Curtiss DeYoung September 22, 2019
CEO, Minnesota Council of Churches

Scripture Mark 7:24-30

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet.

The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian-Phoenicia.

She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

The Context

Jesus left Galilee and travelled west to the city of Tyre—today in Lebanon. Tyre was a coastal city on the Mediterranean. It seems that Jesus was looking for rest and quiet. He was overwhelmed by the crowds and stressed by the political pressures of Herod and the Pharisees.

Jesus entered a home. I like to think of it as a beach house retreat on the Mediterranean. This was probably the home of one of the few Jews living in Tyre.

Remember Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. Therefore he was living under the occupation and colonial rule of the Roman Empire. Growing up in Nazareth, his hometown experienced heavy taxation, house demolitions, and killings by Roman law enforcement. Romans believed that Jews were “a people born of servitude”[1] and “good for nothing but slavery.”[2]

Jesus would see thousands of crosses lining the highways when he went to Judea. Crucifixion was state-sponsored terrorism meant to intimidate Rome’s Jewish subjects—similar to lynching in the history of the United States.

Jesus had been building a community of oppressed Jewish folks through a healing and teaching ministry. But he was tired. So, he left the occupied Jewish territories and ventured into the Greek city of Tyre—a place fully Gentile and elite.

Word of Jesus’ presence in this Greek city somehow got out. Because Jesus’ healing ministry had included Gentiles who came into the Jewish region of Galilee, he was known outside of his home. Even folks from Tyre had come into Galilee to see and hear Jesus.

Jesus was now in a space where the rules of dominant Greek culture operate. He was outside of his home territory and vulnerable as an oppressed Jew. To use today’s language, he was a person of color in a white privileged space—he had crossed into the white suburbs.

In Tyre, Jesus stepped into a space where he must deal with racism and folks who believed in Roman Empire bigotry and stereotypes. Also, he must speak Greek, the language of dominant culture, rather than his indigenous Aramaic.

A Greek woman from Syria Phoenicia, where Tyre was located, walked into the house where Jesus was staying. A conversation ensued between a racially oppressed person from a religious minority and a person enjoying the privileges provided by a Roman supremacist context.

The Conversation

The conversation began when a Greek woman barged into the house and disrupted the rest and quiet of Jesus. She fell at his feet and begged Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. The woman was intently focused on her child.

Jesus replied, “First let the children eat all they want. For it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

In other words, Jesus was saying that his ministry was with oppressed Jews. He rejected her request because she was not Jewish.

Then he used a racial slur for Greeks, by referring to them as “dogs.” This was not a gender slur as in our day. In first-century Jewish society dogs were considered unclean. They ate scraps of food found on the streets. Sometimes they even ate flesh off of corpses of homeless people who had died.

Clearly this is a most controversial and challenging text for biblical scholars. Some have pointed out that the Greek word translated “dogs” is the diminutive and should be understand as “puppies.” Even then, a softer racial slur is still a racial slur. Perhaps Jesus had acquired certain prejudices from his socialization in first-century Jewish society under the domination of Rome. Therefore, he was expressing sentiments he had heard in his community of origin.

Here is what I think was happening: Jesus did not depart from or diminish his Jewish identity while in a Greek space. Jesus challenged her sensibilities, her parochialism and her privilege. Can she understand what is needed for liberating oppressed people?

When we sit in an airplane preparing for a commercial flight, we are told by the flight attendant that in a case of emergency we must put our own oxygen mask on first before we can help someone else. Jesus was saying that he had to first rescue oppressed Jews.

First to the oppressed!!

First to Jews!!

Jewish Lives Matter!!

Jesus spoke his truth to the Syrian-Phoenician woman using strong racial terms! Perhaps he was testing her.

The woman’s response: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

She persisted! She did not leave the conversation. She did not get defensive. She did not personalize Jesus’ comments. She spoke respectfully, “Lord.” She did not argue with Jesus.

Rather she accepted that he was right; that he spoke truth; that Jews must be his priority.

She did not argue that as a person of privilege she deserved his attention—or that he was being unfair. She did not argue that he should make an exception for her because she was not like other Greeks.

She said, in essence: While the oppressed must be your priority, we Greeks also need liberation and healing. We also need your help. Even those benefitting from systems of oppression need reconciliation.

The late Senator Robert Kennedy campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in 1968. While in Oakland, Calif., he scheduled a meeting with African American community leaders. In this late-night meeting, he was called a hypocrite, out of touch, and a symbol of whiteness in the United States. Kennedy sat and listened. He did not get defensive or try to correct anyone. Kennedy later reflected: “(Black) people have a lot of hostility towards whites and lots of reasons for it. . . . They’re just going to tell me off, over and over. I’ve been through these before, and you don’t do anything. You listen and try to respond thoughtfully. But no matter how (insulted you feel), they’re trying to communicate what’s inside of them.”[3]

Later, Kennedy said, “After all the abuse the blacks have taken through the centuries, whites are just going to have to let them get some of these feelings out if we are ever going to settle down to a decent relationship.”[4]

Whites must listen to truth spoken by persons of color and stay in the conversation. Males must listen to truth from women in this #MeToo season and stay in the conversation.

Do not get defensive.

Do not diminish another’s truth.

Do not personalize.

Do not step away from the conversation table. That is a clear sign of privilege. People of color and women cannot step away.


A Reconciliation Outcome

The Syrian-Phoenician woman’s approach to Jesus changed the conversation. Notice that Jesus said, “For such a reply you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” In the context of Roman oppression, Jews rarely trusted Greeks. The conversation between Jesus and the Greek woman was a first step in trust building. Because she as a privileged dominant culture person acknowledged her privileged position, treated an oppressed Jew like Jesus with dignity, and recognized her own need for healing, trust became possible.

For Jesus, this interaction produced hope that perhaps Greeks and Romans could experience transformation. So he launched a tour of the Greek-populated areas of the region. From Tyre he went to Sidon. Next he spent three days in Decapolis, where he took loaves and fish and fed over 4,000 Greeks. Previously he had fed 5,000 Jews with 12 baskets left over—representing the 12 tribes of Israel. In Decapolis seven baskets were left over—representing the seven Gentile nations. He used Eucharistic language as he broke, blessed and distributed the loaves of bread.

Two feedings, using the language of the communion table, in separate ethno-religious regions, were a powerful symbol of reconciliation.

In contexts of division and tension, conversations that welcome truth and build trust can produce reconciliation outcomes. Amen.

[1]Neil Elliot, “The Apostle Paul and Empire,” in Richard A. Horsley, ed., In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 102.

[2]Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Order (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 21.

[3]Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 252.

[4]Konstantin Sidorenko, Robert F. Kennedy: A Spiritual Biography (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000), 161.