In Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, Cora escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia and rides the rails to a succession of different states. Many details, large and small, are imagined, and the story is often fantastical, but it tells truth. When Cora reaches North Carolina, the state has recently passed a law banning all blacks, slave and free, for fear of a rebellion that would overpower the white population. The state enforces its reign of terror through ritualistic lynchings. Every town of any size holds a Friday night carnival that concludes with an execution. The agent for the Underground Railroad who meets Cora at the station in North Carolina is a timid man. Rather than helping her continue to escape, he imprisons her in the attic of his home at the edge of his town’s park. There, in that stifling space, each and every Friday night for months on end, Cora must endure a bird’s eye view of the community’s sinister gatherings.
This week, I can’t get that terrible town square out of my mind. As I watch the videos of angry pale faces leering in the light of fiery torches, brandishing Nazi flags bellowing slogans of hate, I shiver with horror, grief, rage, and… recognition. One of the white supremacists, interviewed in a piece done by HBO, said that the purpose of the march was to show that “this is our country. This country was built by our forefathers and sustained by us. It’s going to remain our country.”
Colson Whitehead sets the record straight, observing that in that North Carolina town:
Colored labor had erected every house on the park, laid the stones in the fountain and the paving of the walkways. Hammered the stage where the nightriders performed their grotesque pageants and the wheeled platform that delivered the doomed men and women to the air. The only thing colored folks hadn’t built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends. (p. 67)
The claim that white people “built” and “own” this country is a lie that sickens our souls and shatters the moral integrity of our nation. It is the supreme hypocrisy that sustains the systems and structures of racism.
Speaking of hypocrisy, there’s Jesus. First he preaches against narrow-minded religious practices that exclude people, that reinforce unjust hierarchies of power, that fail to connect with the heart and spirit of God’s law. Then he turns around and does that very thing that he has condemned. He pointedly ignores the cries of a hurting person, because he does not value who she is. It’s not entirely clear what offends him, her culture or religion? Her gender, the color of her skin?
In any case, he allows, even encourages, his disciples to torment her. Professor James Boyce explains:
Largely lost in translations is the choral contest that Matthew has set up—with the woman on one side and the disciples …on the other. Identified as a foreigner, still this Canaanite woman has all the appropriate language of a true Israelite. She persistently cries out for God’s mercy (the Greek imperfect underscores the repetition, while in her kyrie eleison one is certainly meant to hear the worship language of the faithful). On the other side her pleas are matched by the shouts of the disciples, “Get rid of her!” (In the original Greek their words are an alliterative and ironic echo of the woman’s cry: apolyson). With dramatic effect the story sets before us a Jesus flanked by two competing choruses: on one side one lone creature crying “kyrie eleison,” and on the other a band of bullies shouting her down with their “apolyson.”
From here, it only gets worse. Jesus baptizes his disciples’ bellowing, insisting that his mission of healing, feeding, and loving, is only for people who look like him or worship like him. And then he calls the woman a dog. Now, I freely admit I don’t really know what to do with this racist, cold-hearted Jesus. Interpreters find a variety of ways to explain this story away, since it seems so uncharacteristic. But that’s dishonest, I think. Part of me wishes we didn’t have to know this side of Jesus. Another part of me gives thanks for this story. In it, we see the essential struggle that it is to be human. We come face to face with the lies that delude us, the hypocrisy that tears apart our souls and poisons our faith. And we meet a God who works in surprising ways, to mend us, to mend our world.
In a way, I think it’s a mistake to focus on Jesus. It is the Canaanite woman who embodies God, who becomes, for us, the Christ, the one who saves and heals. She was, after all, the one who noticed the crumbs. Remember, on that hillside, when Jesus acknowledged God’s ever-present blessing in the sky, the earth, the sea, the shining eyes of the people. Remember how he broke the five small loaves of bread, tore them into pieces, ripped them, crumb from crumb. Remember that he then gave the crumbs to the disciples and they passed them to the crowd, and all ate and were full, with crumbs left over. Jesus forgot about the crumbs, it seems, as he ignored the woman, crying out for mercy, as he insulted her and rejected her, as he told her, “There’s not enough for the likes of you.” But she knew better and she boldly, yet humbly claimed her share.
My friend and colleague Oby Ballinger, pastor of Edina Morningside UCC, spoke to Kerri Miller of MPR News this week.
He said this:
As a white pastor serving a mostly white church, it feels like the calling now is to equip our community to keep facing racism despite white fragility, where white folks are tempted to shut down in the face of racial realities.… I continue coming back to this quote from Adrienne Maree Brown last year: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” (from Oby Ballinger’s Facebook page)
“Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.” We have begun to disavow our national lie, to proclaim deep truths about stolen land, stolen labor and stolen lives. We have begun to confront the menacing hypocrisy of whiteness itself. We are not just uncovering the deeds of bellowing thugs bearing torches, of ignorant, desperate people enduring their own class oppression. We are uncovering what is happening in our banks and our laboratories, on our streets and in our courts. We are uncovering the deeds of ordinary people (people like me and you), people who mean well, but whose actions and inactions continue to breathe life into the systems of structures of white supremacy. We are uncovering our ignorance, our unconscious bias, our silence in the face of evil. This work is hard. It is dangerous and disorienting. And yet, I believe with all my heart that this is a time of profound hope. The trouble all around us is but a sign that we have begun to truly repent, to turn around, to turn in a new direction. This transformation will take many more generations. But we have begun to repair the damage. We have begun to make amends, financially, materially, spiritually.
I believe that Jesus was changed, for good, by his encounter with the Canaanite woman and with her faith. When she pointed out the crumbs beneath the table, she exposed the lie he was living, the hypocrisy that was wounding him, binding him. Through her, the divine light again illuminated the world before him, and showed him that the life-sustaining crumbs of bread the people had shared on the hillside were only a taste of God’s full abundance. “Great is your faith!” Jesus praised the woman. Faith is not an intellectual assent to doctrine. Faith is much grittier than that. Faith is the courage and persistence the woman embodied. Faith is standing firm in opposition to violent words and actions and policies. Faith is truth-telling. Faith is the insistence that God’s mercy, God’s healing, God’s power, are not scarce, but plentiful. That it is not just for some of us, but for all of us. Broken, blessed and shared, these crumbs are enough, and more than enough. Amen.