Voices in the streets
This week I was glued to Twitter on more than one evening, watching the events in Ferguson, Mo., unfold in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder. In light of these events, today’s gospel passage (Matt. 15:21-28), one that always frustrates and challenges me, has mostly saddened me. Here we are again. Mourning another life cut short, yearning for a gospel that can make sense of the senseless.
In Matthew 15, we read that Jesus is with his disciples when a Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting for mercy, asking for help, for healing for her demon tormented daughter.
And Jesus? At first, he doesn’t even answer her. His disciples urge him to send her away, and he responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. He uses a kind of insider/outsider language that seems to tell only half the story of who he is and why he has come.
Why, Jesus? Why do you blow off this child of God who wants nothing more from you than the healing you have offered so many others? Why do you call her an outsider?
I imagine the story going down so much differently. I imagine Jesus listening to the woman immediately, rather than waiting for her to call him out. I love it when eventually she does, though, this Canaanite woman who supposedly has no place bringing her request to Jesus. She challenges him, even as she restates what she knows others think of her: that she is no better than a dog, eating scraps from the master’s table. And he listens, albeit belatedly.
I thought of this passage this week, as I watched horrific footage from CNN of an officer in Ferguson referring to the largely peaceful protesters as “animals.” I thought of it again and again as we saw proof in hateful language and violent images of all the things that have not changed in the last fifty years. I thought of it while reading about the history of race, class and education policy in Ferguson, about the series of choices and laws over long periods of time that shaped this city to be what it is today: a town where a police officer killed an unarmed boy with his hands in the air, asking for mercy he should not even have had to ask for in the first place.
Ferguson’s story, and Mike Brown’s story, is an American story. This is not the story the dominant voices in this country like to tell — it’s not the story of American exceptionalism, of a “City on a Hill.” It’s a story of sin, of brokenness, and in response to that sin and brokenness, of a deep need for healing and hope in the face of despair, anger and violence.
Returning to our text from Matthew, my frustration with Jesus eventually turns back onto myself, as I wonder how many cries, like the Canaanite woman’s, we close our ears to. Why does it take a cold-blooded murder, a body bleeding in the street, to capture my attention like this? This event wasn’t isolated; this story isn’t new. Perhaps what is most frustrating in Jesus’ behavior is how easy it is to act similarly, to play the insider/outsider game, or to simply believe the lie that we’ve moved on. We would have listened, wouldn’t we? Yet a headline this morning described how images from Ferguson bring up “memories” of historic racism — when in fact, they reveal our racist present.
Even the language police and news reports used this week tried to turn a blind eye to moral responsibility, stating that “bullets were fired,” and “violence escalated,” as if the gun somehow fired itself, as if a person — a white police officer — did not make the decision to execute a black boy for walking down the street. “Who did what?” I would write in red ink next to that sentence, if any of my students were to write it, trying to help them see why passive voice matters, why they need to clarify who is responsible for the action in their narrative.
Though Mike Brown was shot over a week ago, it took several days for the story to make its way into national news — and even then, much of what was reported was grossly skewed, if not downright wrong. But the stories from tweeting reporters and online news outlets were plentiful, and I have tried if nothing else this week, to listen: to be a sponge, soaking up as many words from as many sources as I could, such that I didn’t know when I would ever stop and write, what words I could add to the chorus on social media, what truths scripture might speak to what we’ve seen and heard.
Roxane Gay uses the language of this Matthew passage (whether intending the connection or not) in an essay where she describe the kinds of representation black folks are expected to settle for in movies, literature, media — scraps from the table, she says. And when I look at Ferguson, I can’t help but think that perhaps, if I were to have the audacity to make any sort of statement about what it is to be black in America, perhaps part of it is that one is expected to settle for the crumbs, for the scraps from the master’s table. Things are better, people will say — so much better than slavery, so much better than Jim Crow — look how far we’ve come! We even have a black president!
Settle for the crumbs. Don’t ask for a seat at the table.
I’m still not sure what it means to try to compare a Canaanite woman kneeling before Jesus, saying “Have mercy on me!” to a boy in 2014 St. Louis kneeling with his hands up, saying “Don’t Shoot!” — a posture of surrender, a posture that should have been more than enough to save an innocent young man, but was not, and never has been.
If I’m honest, sometimes Jesus’ response in this passage doesn’t seem like enough. There will be no instant healing here, as there was for the daughter in this passage. Yet this is only part of the story. Just a few verses later Jesus is healing everyone who comes to him, and turning a few small loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. There is enough for all.
Romans 11 asks, “Has God rejected [God’s] people?” No, as Jesus said, he is sent for the lost sheep of Israel, and in God’s acceptance of Israel we — we Gentiles who are not God’s chosen people — we are grafted in, their salvation a salvation for the rest of us. We become kin. The Canaanite woman is not an outsider; we are not outsiders; the people of Ferguson are not outsiders.
As our Psalm declares, it is good to dwell together in unity.
But the world we live in today is one in which that unity is unrealized, and the cries of many go unanswered, at best, and at worst, are answered with bullets and tear gas and riot gear.
It’s tempting to talk of unity in order to escape the evil in front of us, to say that Jesus is the answer, as if that were the end of the conversation instead of the beginning.
What glimmers of hope I saw this week came from people who, like the woman in Matthew’s gospel, refused to settle for same old stuff. People who refused to be overlooked. Parents and children singing and dancing in the streets in memory of Mike Brown, and others continuing their protest into the night, asserting their right to gather. Reporters on the ground in a city where they knew full well they might be shot, where some were arrested, enveloped in tear gas, nonetheless committed to making sure the rest of us saw the truth of what was happening, committed to revealing the harsh reality, the new normal of militarized police, committed to telling the story of racism in America that isn’t over — not nearly. And then there was a St. Louis alderman tirelessly working in the streets with legitimately angry young black folks fed up with the world they’ve been handed, not trying to placate them, but trying, rather, to redirect anger into constructive action — to refuse violence, yes, but not to stand down. Haven’t we all settled for long enough?
These voices calling out from the streets of Ferguson remind me that the unity Christ calls us to is reached by a long and winding road that we must tread together. Our feet have many more miles to walk — some in protest, some in penance, none of them easy — before we will see our sons and daughters healed, and truly dwell together in peace.
Meghan Florian gave this sermon at Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, where she is a member, on Aug. 17. She is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She lives and writes in Durham, N.C. She blogs at femmonite.com.
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