I’ve struggled with the sense of being led to write this blog post. Surely, God, others are better qualified, have more to say, have greater wisdom on the subject of racism and white supremacy! No doubt others are better able to help us find the way toward healing? Yes, of course, I hear. But this is a task for everybody, not just the most qualified.
Since the pandemic was declared in March, my husband and I have been watching both national and world news. On Monday May 25, 2020, along with the rest of the nation—and later the world–we were stunned and horrified to watch video footage of a Black man being murdered on a street in Minneapolis, a policeman pressing a knee down on his neck, calmly looking into the video camera of the young bystander who was recording the event. Equally terrible murders of those in police or state custody and in the hands of mobs have been happening in this country for centuries, but until recently it has been rare to see video footage of such an event. In the days following George Floyd’s death, the tv news reported protests, looting, and burning of buildings in Minneapolis and soon in other cities, as well.
Photo by Tony Zhen on Unsplash
At dinnertime on Friday, May 29, I saw on television that events at the peaceful protests in nearby Philadelphia had turned violent. Police cars had been set on fire, along with a Starbucks beside City Hall. A line of shielded police had slowly moved both the peaceful protesters and violent agitators farther and farther away from City Hall. The crowd began to move into nearby streets. In the next hours, we saw live footage of looters breaking glass storefronts and carrying armloads of stuff out of the stores, setting fire in some places. Similar events were taking place in cities across the nation. By midnight, when the news ended, firemen were pouring streams of water on a tall burning building in Center City; the fire had spread to two other buildings nearby.
Like many other liberal white people in the nation, my husband and I were in sympathy with the peaceful protesters. We would have joined them if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic. Even violent outrage seemed understandable, although counter-productive. To us, however, the looting seemed baffling. We discovered a 15-minute video made by Trevor Noah that was very helpful. Entitled “George Floyd and the Dominos of Racial Injustice,” he spoke of white privilege and how the social contract by which people are supposed to live is so consistently violated in the experience of people of color. They themselves are looted every day, he said.
After the pandemic began, I had signed up for a five-week online course on Healing in the Gospels, offered by the Alternative Seminary in Philadelphia.* Each week we looked at one or two of the healings recorded in the gospels, focusing primarily on those in Mark. We examined several layers of healing, not only physical healing or release from evil spirits, but also healing from oppressive and injurious social structures. We spoke about the social laws that declared people with leprosy or menstruating women “untouchable.” We discussed how Jesus addressed both the physical and social healing needed.
I have long been moved by the story in Mark 5:25-34 of the woman who had been continuously menstruating for twelve years. She had spent all her money on so-called healers who had been unable to cure her. She was now not only ill, but also poor. As an “untouchable,” she was forbidden to touch the rabbi Yeshua, whose healing gifts she had heard about. Nonetheless, she joined a crowd gathered around him, got near, and took hold of his robe. The story is remarkable for many reasons. One is that Jesus did not see her or intend to heal her. The healing simply flowed out of him. He knew it had happened because he felt a power leaving him, and stopped to find out who had touched him. When the woman told her story, Jesus did not chastise her for violating the social and religious laws; instead he praised her faith and called her “daughter.”
The last session of the gospels course took place after weeks of nation-wide and then global protest of racist social structures. We looked at the story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Just before the encounter happens, authorities in Jewish territory have been increasing their challenges of the unconventional behavior of Jesus and his disciples. Needing a break, to rest and pray, Jesus is tired and has traveled out of Jewish territory. A Greek-speaking Syrophoenician woman, whose child is possessed, has heard about his healing abilities and interrupts his quiet retreat. She comes to request that he heal her little girl.
She belongs to a group of people that Jews of the time disdainfully referred to as “dogs.” Knowing this gave our class a new lens to look at what happened in the exchange between the woman and Jesus. I was brought up believing that Jesus was always perfect from the beginning. Yet he responds to her request with an ethnic slur. His idea of himself at that point is that his mission is to the Jewish people only (‘the children of the House of Israel”), not to non-Jews like her. He doesn’t want to waste his gifts on others.
“It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he tells her.
The Syrophoenician woman responds in a remarkable way. She doesn’t dispute his idea about his mission or protest about his rude slur. Wanting healing for her daughter, she lets that go. Instead, she challenges him another way.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she says.
Like the woman healed of the issue of blood, this woman draws a healing from Jesus. She has taught him something, and he acknowledges that she is right. “For this saying,” he tells her, “you may go your way—the demon has gone out of your daughter.”
I once heard a scholar explain that the Greek word Jesus used in this passage for “saying” is “logos.” Logos means more than just a wise answer or saying. In early Christian writings (which were originally in Greek), the word was used to signify the principle of God active in Creation. It’s the word used in John’s gospel to describe the Wisdom of God, which incarnated in Jesus. So Jesus is acknowledging that with her response, the woman has taught him some divine wisdom. The healing God intends extends beyond the boundaries set by religious and social authorities and biases; it is meant for everyone.
One of the primary things that this passage of Mark teaches me is that even Jesus needed help to examine his limited self-concepts and ethnic prejudices. This passage gives a model of Jesus having his biases challenged and changed. This is a model for all of us.
Western civilization is possessed by many evil spirits, traumas, injuries, and illnesses. Divine and human healing of all kinds is needed. We must look inside ourselves, face the racism that has been ingrained and internalized in all members of society, and see the horrific consequences. We must examine our biases and prejudices. Those who have been shielded by social privileges must learn more about how this privilege has been used to oppress people and to keep the privileged from knowing the real effects of collective beliefs, behaviors, social policies, and laws.
In the 1960s, during another time of major social unrest over oppression of black people, James Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time, in which he describes his upbringing in Harlem and the terrible dilemma that faced him and all young black men as they grew out of childhood. He does not mince words in talking about the horror of white supremacy and its effect on his people. Yet he concludes his essay not only with warning, but also with words of invitation to all people to participate in healing:
Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!
Last week, on PBS, I watched “I Am Not Your Negro”, a powerful documentary based on writing by James Baldwin about the lives and assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The documentary includes powerful clips from an interview he gave on the Dick Cavett show. It also provides images to illustrate the horrific history of oppression of Black people in the United States. He insists that the idea of a “Negro” is a creation of the white people who have denied the full humanity, rights and dignity of people they have shamefully oppressed.
As can be seen in this short trailer for the movie, Baldwin insists that racial healing in the United States requires white people to stop being shallow and ignorant, and to see inside ourselves the truth of our prejudices and the way we project onto others.
It’s a painful, humbling, and necessary task. Even Jesus needed to face and overcome his prejudices.
Looking inside ourselves and learning the truth about systemic racism are necessary steps, but many steps are called for. Each one of us must seek individually and collectively to learn how God is calling us to participate in truth, justice, and healing. Quaker Voluntary Service, a Quaker organization “living at the intersection of transformational spirituality and activism” has created a web page to help all of us think about our next steps. It’s entitled What is your right next step? It offers links to resources to follow up in whatever ways each of us is called to action.
Where do we begin healing?
© 2020 Marcelle Martin
*The Alternative Seminary is a program of biblical and theological study and reflection designed to foster an authentic biblical witness in the modern world.