The Syrophenician Woman: Pondering Racism and Reconciliation
This week our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and our diocesan Bishop Wendell Gibbs invited all Episcopal Churches to participate in an ecumenical movement to work toward ending racism. We were asked to dedicate this day to pondering the sin of racism and how we can work for reconciliation.
Many years ago when I was in seminary the students and faculty had to participate in an anti-racism workshop. At the time anti-racism training was a new concept. One common refrain from a number of seminarians was, “I am not racist.” We all wanted to believe that and to believe that we really wanted equality and justice. The thing is, blatant racism is easily recognized and usually met with outrage, but more often racism appears in subtle ways, so systemic to our institutions, culture, faith, and politics that we fail to recognize it.
For example Christians often speak of the “dark night of the soul.” It’s meant to describe a desolate time when God feels distant and life feels particularly difficult. How we use the word “dark” has a way of reinforcing the idea that dark is bad, anything dark is bad and that influences how we perceive dark skinned people. Conversely it is also true that darkness is where life begins, darkness is where God often appears, darkness is transformative.
Here's another example. Years ago Dan and I were looking to buy a house. While house hunting I had the impression that one house, based on the lingering odor of cooking spices, was owned by an Eastern Indian or Pakistani family. I remember having a visceral response, like the house was “dirty” and then thinking, that’s a racist response - I would not have had that response if the odor had been cinnamon and apples for example.
Have you ever thought about the messages we receive that perpetuate the subtle forms of racism? For example, have you ever noticed that the “bad guys” on television or in movies are almost always the person of color while the white people are heroes?
Now, all these years later I find myself pondering, again, the phrase, “I am not racist.” I don’t remember, but I think in seminary I was one of the people who raised my hand to this statement. Now I’d never say that, I’ve learned more about racism and the subtle ways it rears its head in me.
The Bible offers us a few examples of God and of Jesus being changed by the human condition. Both Abraham and Moses argue with God and eventually change God’s mind. In our reading from Mark, Jesus encounters a Syrophenician woman, she is dark skinned, of a race that the Hebrew people of the day perceived to be outcasts and dirty. Jesus brushes her off and tries to ignore her plea. But she won’t be ignored, she speaks up, and ultimately changes Jesus’ heart and mind. The story of the deaf mute which follows shows us what happens when one is opened up, when we begin to see and hear, when we recognize how we are blind and deaf to the prejudice that lives within us. Most of us do not want to be racist, but we need to be open to the reality that we are, its part of the human condition, and we need to be willing to become aware, grow, change and move beyond our prejudices in all the ways they manifest.
To that end Bishop Gibbs has invited us to participate in a task force on Race Relations and Diversity. In response we are hosting a meeting here at Christ Church on Saturday, Sept. 12 from 10am until noon.
Of this initiative Bishop Gibbs writes: “My hope for the Race Relations and Diversity Task Force is that it will lead the diocese in our corporate ministry to respond to the disease of hate that continues to infect our country through all the “isms” and “phobias” – racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. and move us toward an ethic of respect and gratitude for the incredible beauty of God’s full and diverse creation…”
I hope all of you will make an effort to attend this event on Saturday and learn how you, how we, can take an active role in this diocese to help heal the brokenness in our world, and therefore how we can be the hands and heart of Christ in the world.
Reflecting on the readings for Proper 18B