The last thing I read on my sabbatical was “Between the World and Me” by the amazing author and journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up on the mean streets of Baltimore, the son of a Black Panther party leader. It a striking book about being a black man in America, in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son.
Ta-Nehisi Coates refers often to “people who believe they are white.” This is a phrase he borrowed from James Baldwin, who used this term in his book, “Being White and Other Lies.
Believing you are white in this context has nothing to do with the illusory concept of “race.” It has to do with what you believe you are entitled to. It has to do with societally sanctioned power and oppression.
As I read the book my belief that race is a social construct, and not a physical fact was confirmed for me. Ta-Nehisi Coates says, early in the book, “Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism- the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them- inevitably follows from this unalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake or a tornado…”
It is interesting that Coates departs from his religious forbearers in the Civil Rights struggle. A college friend of his died at the hands of police, as so many have, and it radicalized Coates. He urges his son to protect his body- not to be overly concerned with his soul. He decries the concept of non-violent resistance, because of the devastation he sees of the bodies of black people. He identifies himself unequivocally as an atheist, and he says that for him, spirit and flesh are the same thing. It made me think that he would make a very interesting Christian, as he is so very incarnational in his thinking.
Our gospel story today, surprisingly, is about discrimination- you could even say it is about racism. But it is also about transformation. Jesus, in the beginning of our story, believes that he is white. He vehemently describes the Syrophoenician woman as one not of his tribe, and therefore a second class citizen- not deserving of the “bread” that is due his own children.
In the very similar story in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus explains that he was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel. Calling the Syrophoenecian woman a dog (although the Greek word here is softer- more like “puppy”) was a racial epithet, and was intended to put her in her place. But the Syrophoenician woman was not about to be put off. She incorporates his slur into a verbal judo move that any rabbi would admire. Claiming the title of “dog,” agreeing with the primacy of his children, still she says, with great humility and respect, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She gets her dearest wish- her daughter is healed.
It is not entirely clear why Jesus grants her wish. In the story in Matthew it is because of her “great faith.” He grants her wish even though he has just told her that he was sent only for his own tribe. I think that Jesus came to realize that he was not only sent for the lost sheep of Israel. Perhaps she taught him that. He may even have stopped altogether believing that he was white, just as he begs us all to do.
Ta-Nehisi Coates gives us a chilling analogy to the use and abuse of black bodies. He points out that when the oppressing class could no longer plunder black bodies for profit, it began to plunder the black body of the earth, stripping it of its life blood and drawing the very air from it’s lungs, causing a fever to rage. It is a sad fact that when we suffer the effects of global warming, or “calentamiento global” as they call it in Guatemala where they know all about it, it is always the oppressed people who suffer.
While I was in Guatemala this summer, I visited an Episcopal church where my friend and colleague the Rev. Phyllis Manoogian was assisting for a year. This church is in a wild and wonderful pueblo in which I was the only person in the whole town who believed she was white. The congregation of the church was a group of Mayan families who had been evangelized by Fr. Salanic, and they were extremely kind and welcoming. After the service Fr. Salanac offered to drive me home. They dropped me off, as it happened, near the most expensive hotel in Antigua. This was an exquisite place, carved out of the 17th century ruins of a monastery. There is a museum and incredible sculptures there, and it was the one place I hadn’t managed to visit yet.
Of course I wasn’t staying in that hotel, but I sailed past the armed guards at the gate, floating on the belief in my whiteness like I was clutching Dumbo’s feather. I was very aware that none of my dear fellow passengers could have entered so easily. I was back with the gringos- or maybe we who thought we were gringos.
Later in my sabbatical, I experienced a loss of white privilege in one of the only ways a person like me can. I became disabled. Although only slightly, and thank God temporarily. I had been in a kind of ecstatic dream of whiteness, on the second trip of my sabbatical, in Ireland with my daughter, skipping across wet rocks on a beautiful beach on the Northern tip of Ireland. In an instant I fell, broke my wrist, and suddenly the world’s systems were no longer arranged for my convenience. Everything was hard. People looked at me differently. Their eyes would move from my cast to my face, trying to figure out my story. I almost immediately internalized the shame, cursing myself for my clumsiness and slowness. Several people asked if alcohol had been involved in the accident. A drunken Irishman in a pub swore that he would fight the man who did this to me. Many assumptions were made. I turned the accident over in my mind obsessively: Was God trying to teach me something? Were malevolent Irish Sea sprites involved? Was this a necessary cosmic adjustment, since I had been at an apex of such joy? The underlying question, I later realized was, how could this happen to me, in all my privilege, in all my whiteness?
We who believe we are white are so used to being privileged that it is difficult sometimes even to perceive it. Even couldn’t see it either. At first. But then God sent him the Syrophoenician woman.
We have all been deaf to her cries. We have all had an impediment in our speech, keeping us from receiving her. But with the grace of God, our hearts and our ears and our eyes might be opened to her, and to all our sisters and brothers whose cries just might transform us.