When I read the Gospel passage, the humanness of Jesus struck me. Pervasive prejudice is part of our human condition. Our challenge is to work past that prejudice. What follows includes my original text plus revisions and additions.
August 20, 2017 Pervasive Prejudice Rom 11:1,2,25-32; Matt 15:21-28
How we see ourselves and the world matters. A friend of mine told us a story about a Chinese friend of his. She made a trip to New York City and wandered into a area in Harlem. She said to our friend, “As I looked around, I suddenly realized I was the only white person there.”
(Some background information: there has been discussion about white privilege: in western society, white people automatically have privileges not available to other people. These are so integrated into our society that most white people do not even realize they are privileged. There is also white collar privilege: in one of my university courses I noticed the instructor put forward the idea that educated people/well-schooled people had the responsibility of showing blue collar workers, poor people, and the wealthy the proper understandings for a good, democratic society. As a student from a blue collar background, I challenged his assumptions many times in that course. I tend to be suspicious of any assumptions about the values of the ideas of people seen as different.)
The Gospel reading shows a human side of Jesus, reminding us that being human comes with biases and prejudices that soak into us from our experiences and culture. While Jesus had room in his heart for Samaritans, Canaanites were another matter – 2000 years of Jews being alienated to Canaanites affected even Jesus. They had always been a threat and a challenge to the survival of the Israelites, then the Jews, and their religious beliefs and practices. Time after time, the ancestors of Jesus chose the Canaanite religion over the Yahweh cult, leading them into trouble with God. In the end, she was one of the few people, if not the only person, to defeat Jesus in debate in the scriptures.
With this in mind, we need a generous spirit for others whose prejudices are offensive to us. We need to be aware of our own prejudices. (For example, I have developed a prejudice against partisan Conservatives. I did not become interested in politics until I was almost 24 and I had the right to vote in the 1971 provincial election. My parents were Socred supporters and Social Credit was given generally good press, so I voted Social Credit. I paid close attention to the election campaign and read about Peter Lougheed making one set of promises in Edmonton, and almost the opposite promises in Calgary. This turned me off, and I closely examined everything he said and did after that, and did the same for federal Conservatives. As a determined follower of Jesus, many of the statements and values of Conservative and Reform candidates and leaders continued to offend me. Deborah Gray won my respect in a community town hall meeting, and lost it a few months later when she publicly made statements fitting the Reform party line but contrary to what she said in that town hall meeting. Michelle Rempel won my begrudging respect in a debate with Elizabeth May at the John Dutton Theater, and lost it when she spouted Conservative misinformation about Omar Kadhr on Fox News. While I try to look for the good in what Conservatives do and say, it takes great effort to suppress my basic prejudice against partisan Conservatives, and this is a handicap for me in trying to view politics in a balanced way.)
There is a wave of righteous anger directed at the alt-right for their racism and misogyny, a wave fed in part by our discomfort of feeling our own prejudices lurking out of sight.
The religious right talks about loving the sinner and hating the sin, even though their actions show they hate both. The religious and political left usually does not bother pretending to love who they see as sinners.
Jesus had some hard words about judging others, words we need to remember as we respond as followers of Jesus to events in Charlottesville and elsewhere. Why would people, mostly young white men, come from many places in the States to Charlottesville to have a rally against the removal of a statue to a traitor committed to continuing making slaves of other people?
Being white, male, and middle or upper class brought privileges and power to white men in the west for hundreds of years. Even today, many men feel entitled when it comes to using women for their needs and wants, to employment, and to status. If a man killed woman or a child, the penalty used to be less than if he killed another man. Women and people of colour need to work harder and be smarter to compete with white men for positions in business, government, and universities. Factor 1 in white male rage is a centuries old sense of self-entitlement.
Factor 2 is the distortion of our economic system and tax laws that helps the super wealthy gain a larger share of wealth. While a few like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates use their wealth generously in helping others, and Warren Buffet advocates for reform of the tax laws and policies that currently favour the wealthy, many other people in this group are primarily interested in increasing their own wealth and power, and their power over elected officials in most countries keeps pushing for changes that help them even more. The economy is growing well, but more of the work force is unemployed or underemployed. I hear stories of skilled and experienced people still struggling to find steady work after 1 or more years of losing good jobs. There are trained people like my son unable to find work in their field because they lack experience. Many of those angry white young men were taught to feel entitled to a good role in society and are made to feel like losers economically.
Factor No. 3 is the democratic shortcomings of our governments. The internet allows more people to see how our governments fail to respect and serve the needs of all citizens. Bernie Saunders earned the support of many Americans because he dared to speak out against the control of government by an elusive establishment. Those angry white young men believe that they do not matter to those who run society. Their racism and misogyny is in part because race and gender are offered as targets for their anger, scapegoats for all that is wrong in their lives.
Other people made angry by factors 2 and 3 direct their anger at other targets: white supremacists, oil and pipeline companies, corporate greed, perceived abusers of animals, and other more socially acceptable targets. The rabid pipeline protesters and organizations like PETA and Green Peace come to my mind. While there is solid ground for criticism of many things happening today, too many people take extreme positions that are not good for anyone. In my days as a peace activist, I was frequently embarrassed by “peace activists” that used violence and destruction to make their points, undermining the work of many others for real peace. Some people direct their anger at themselves or the people they know, which produces other problems for all of us.
So what should we do?
First, avoid condemning people while speaking out against offensive words and deeds.
Second, seek to understand what is underneath and behind. Remember we work for “the world that God has planned where love shines through.”
Third, look for ways for love and compassion to build bridges and provide opportunities for people to connect with the people they believe they hate and fear. There is a video going around on Facebook about a man who, upon being verbally attacked by a woman, took time to connect with and help her, building positive connections. A member of a congregation was deeply opposed to accepting LGBTQ people, watched a film about a Gay person’s experiences, and became a strong advocate for that congregation becoming an Affirming congregation. Small, important, but hard ways of working for “the world that God has planned, where love shines through.”
Fourth, look for ways to build resiliency for ourselves and others. The sermon on the mount and other passages remind us that persecution for choosing to follow Jesus is a normal result. The stronger and more durable we are, the better we will be able to withstand that persecution. Yesterday, I canoed with a few other people, and my canoe partner and I succeeded in successfully meeting many challenges. About 10 to 15 minutes before the end our trip, we came quickly upon our most challenging stretch of river. We made a quick decision about which side to choose (the wrong side), and I made a bad move near the end of the stretch of rapids, and we went for a swim. Other than getting wet and cold, even though we were in one of the fastest stretches on water on the whole river, we got out okay. We had life jackets, almost all of our important stuff was in dry bags attached to the canoe, and we had the knowledge and skills needed to manage our situation and get to shore. Our partners in another canoe were available to provide the assistance we needed. Unfortunately, I lost a bailer and throw bag because I had not tied them to the canoe, and a sunburn because I forgot my hat. Much of what Jesus calls us to do will offend parts of our society, and, if we are faithful, we will be attacked. Our resiliency as individuals and as congregations, like resiliency as canoeists, depends on knowledge, skill, practice, and partnerships along with preparation. Our success in “building the land that God has planned where love shines through” depends on our participation in study, worship, and building connections and communities. When we identify a particular way to go, we need to learn what we need for going that way and prepare, watching for details unlike me in not taking my hat or not tying in my bailer and throw rope. If no one seems to be against us, then we need to question our faithfulness.
Lastly, take everything we read in the press and hear in the media with a teaspoon of salt. Watch for the use of emotional words instead of factual words. Look at whose point of view is being promoted. Wonder why some events are brought to our attention while others are ignored. We hear about events like those in Charlottesville and Barcelona, but little about the more than 10,000 people killed every year in the US by firearms or the beautification of struggling cities by ordinary citizens or the many other events with information we can use to make the places we live better places or to hold our governments and media accountable for their actions.
Jesus said to be as cunning as serpents and innocent as doves. Let us seek wisdom, love, and signs of the Spirit in conversations with each other as we seek fitting responses to hatred and fear in this world.
A Footnote: we attended Evening Grace this evening at Grace Presbyterian, and Roberto identified fear as an explanation for the response by Jesus and his disciples to the Canaanite woman. As 13 Jews, they felt the vulnerability of the Jewish people to the power of Rome, and they would have felt more vulnerable in Tyre and Sidon, places dominated by other peoples, included the Canaanites who were here hundreds to thousands of years before the Jews. The memory of Nazi Germany makes many people feel vulnerable to similar ideologies today, provoking strong responses to the white supremacists. The white supremacists feel painfully vulnerable to the influx of other peoples into the US, Canada, and Europe. It is important to recognize the role of fear in events.