Black Faith Matters

Black Faith Matters

Matthew 15:22-28

by Daniel Harrell

This story is about a stranger crashing Jesus’ church supper. In Mark’s gospel she’s a Syro-Phoenician Gentile. Matthew calls her a Canaanite. By labeling her a Canaanite, Matthew connects her to those promiscuous and pernicious Promised Land pagans God commanded Israel to exterminate on account of their idolatry, women and children included. “You must not let anything that breathes remain alive,” the Lord decreed in Deuteronomy, “lest they teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and thus you sin against the LORD your God.” The name Canaan belonged to the son of Ham, Noah’s youngest, who upon finding daddy drunk and naked back in Genesis, dishonored his father by telling his brothers, perhaps to get a good laugh. Furious at the slight, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan (what did he do?) saying “the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” This so-called “Curse of Ham” provides the backdrop for the Canaanite genocide, but in later centuries, the narrative was exploited as divine warrant for enslaving generations of dark-skinned Africans, arbitrarily labeled Ham’s descendants.

In the eyes of most slave traders and missionaries, Africans were uncivilized Canaanites, dogs undeserving of mercy even from God. In the United States, few efforts were made to convert slaves to Christianity until the eighteenth century, and only then once it was guaranteed that baptism would not alter their status as “property.” Award winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his black son, “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.”

At Fuller during Black History Month, I met Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Associate Professor for Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt, and heard her teach this morning’s passage in modern context. As a black woman in America, despite her credentials, Dr. Floyd-Thomas felt Matthew’s sting. (Malcolm X once asked what you call a black person with a PhD. It starts with an N-). In context, its impossible to dismiss Matthew’s label as anything but a racist slur—nobody else in the New Testament ever gets called a Canaanite. Bad enough that Matthew calls her Canaan. Jesus calls her canine. He infers it proverbially, but that hardly helps. To him she’s a dog, and no commentary can clean it up. She is the worst of outsiders, an enemy of Israel, cursed by God, marked by her color with no hope of anyone seeing her character, not even Jesus. Some say “black lives matter” may be as old as this encounter, though here, her black life does not matter. And yet she persists, undaunted and relentless. Dr. Floyd-Thomas said her black life may not matter, but her black faith does.

It’s been a year since a hate-filled white boy murdered nine black Christians at a Bible study in Charleston. Attending a white Southern Church in North Carolina that following Father’s Day, I joined prayers prayed for the victims, but heard nothing more about it come sermon time. You may remember me describing how the preacher that day did not do like so many did; namely, rip up whatever they’d planned for the pulpit to address the massacre. I’m guessing this preacher wasn’t sure what to say. Racism, guns and religion tensely intwine in white Southern life. Instead, the preacher stayed with his Father’s Day theme, relying on some mawkish cock-and-bull about a scared little boy perched on a precipice, searching for his dad in the dark. Daddy stands below and beckons junior to jump. Junior jumps. Trusting the Lord means making the leap. God caught Jesus, he’ll catch you too. Amen. Now go eat lunch.

Sitting over fried chicken and grits, we ate lunch and talked about this sermon, about Charleston, and about trusting the Lord and about whether God ever really caught Jesus. If the cross is any measure, Jesus’ trust fall only got him crucified. Jesus jumped and God didn’t catch him. Christ died and we praise the Lord for it and call it good news. This is the enduring mystery of the gospel. And it is the heartbeat of black faith.

At Emmanuel AME Church that fateful night, eleven faithful believers attended Wednesday night Bible study with their senior pastor. The angry boy joined in for an hour before gunning down nine, including the pastor. Throughout the long and tragic history of Christianity, to die innocently and unjustly as you profess your faith is its own act of faith, both holy and horrible, a direct participation in the righteous and wrong suffering of Christ at the hands of evil. The killer was quickly captured and arraigned, and the relatives of the slain with other church members pronounced their forgiveness as the country watched in awe and disbelief.

To see the power of black faith is to be astonished by its collective capacity for forbearance. “The litany of its great leaders—Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Howard Thurman and Fannie Lou Hamer among them—is vastly outnumbered by the anonymous millions who encountered the noose, the lash, the cattle prod, the attack dog, the laws of Jim Crow, and answered it all, so often, in the same spirit effused by the survivors and the congregation at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Clear-eyed about their oppressors, they answered most often not to the understandable urge for vengeance, but with a higher resolve to trust the Lord to dispense justice and do mercy.

Black faith was forged in the crucible of slavery. Slave-holding Christians trotted out a Bible they had chained to a culture that diabolically defended the maltreatment of those judged as hardly human. The word of God says, “Slaves, submit to thy masters with all fear, not only to the good and the gentle, but also to the perverse.”

And yet these words of God exploited by men to enslave black lives liberated black faith. Slaves heard tell of a God who is Lord of the oppressed, of Jesus, dark-skinned and poor, born to an out of wedlock teenager, wrongfully arrested and hung on a tree by a state-sanctioned mob; but then rightly raised from the dead and victoriously vindicated, all to God’s glory. The horror of the cross bears its strange fruit in a wondrous and inexplicable capacity to rise above hatred, above prejudice, above injustice and evil with true love, pure grace and genuine joy. “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

White Christians suffer and wonder why God has abandoned us. Black Christians suffer and say Sunday is coming. They persevere and put on their praise.

Here in Matthew, the disciples urge Jesus to send this crazy woman away, that dog won’t stop barking. And yet she perseveres, undaunted and relentless. Her black life may not matter, but her black faith does. She presses past barriers for the sake of her sick daughter. She knows what Jesus did for the diseased, the dispossessed and the downtrodden. She knows Jesus’ position; his privilege as a Jewish man on Jewish land, a shepherd for his sheep only. She praises him as “Son of David,” speaking his language, even though King David the shepherd killed Canaanites too. But she will not consider Jesus her enemy. Hate is too heavy burden and she’s burdened enough. She falls to her knees and calls Jesus Lord and says help. But Jesus demurs. “It is not fair, nor is it right,” he replied, “to take children’s food and throw it to dogs.” Yes, Lord, she agreed, maybe I am a dog, but by God I am here. She perseveres, undaunted and relentless. She tenaciously presses past Jesus the Nazarene to see Jesus the Christ. She presses past his humanity to grab ahold of his divinity and pull out her miracle. She knew he’d healed the sick and got rid of demons. She knew he’d miraculously fed five thousand with a little boy’s bag lunch. Twelve baskets of bread were left over. “Master, I know you got a crumb for a dog like me.”

“O woman!” Jesus exclaimed, with a gleam in his eye, mercy on his mind and joy in his heart. “Great is your faith!  Let all be done for you as you want.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

In Charleston this Easter, at Emmanuel AME Church where the killings occurred, Pastor Betty Clark preached, “We mourn those who died, yes, but we celebrate the survivors who lived to tell the story. Our faith is what gets us through. Because you know, we are Christians and we have to believe.” As Howard Thurman once prayed it, “Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve, Lord, that in fair weather or foul, in good times or in tempests, in the days when the darkness and the foe are nameless or familiar, may I not forget that to which my life is committed.” Black faith matters.

Here in Minneapolis, black faith mattered on both sides of Wednesday’s Jamal Clark decision. Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his black son, “All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.” On the front side of the decision, black faith prayed for justice and peace. On the back side, it perseveres, undaunted and relentless, still praying for justice and peace. In deciding not to press charges against the white officers, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman went to unprecedented lengths to hold himself accountable for the decision, including for­going a grand jury and laying out for public view the mountain of evidence he reviewed. Congressman Keith Ellison applauded his transparency, though he said systemic disparities facing the residents of North Minneapolis remain among the worst in the nation. There’s so much work still to do.

At Fuller, following Dr. Floyd-Thomas’ remarks, there time for reflection afterwards. As one of the few white men who stayed afterwards, I felt troubled and shamed. When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like persecution. I felt moved, even pressed, to confess, to say something as a privileged white man in America who can simply dislike the taste of his fancy fried chicken and the kitchen will take it back and not charge him. So I stood and said I was sorry that I love my privilege as much as I do. I asked for forgiveness, and the church said amen, but also said that I had a lot of work still on my plate.

Right after, a black sister in Christ, a theology student, walked over to introduce herself and told me she appreciated my honesty, but that I scared the hell out of her too. Old white man standing up talking about loving my white privilege. How could she know I didn’t have a gun?

What? How could she say that? I was offended. And mad. Who was she to judge me based solely on the color of my skin?