It now appears that an interpretation of Jesus’ being cured of racism in his response to the Syro-phoenician woman in Mark 7 has some real staying power among a slice of United Methodists. You can read the story at Mark 7:24-30. In this post I’ll concentrate on the core claim, that, to put it pejoratively, the passage reveals Jesus’ viewpoint needs to be fixed, that he needs to be liberated from racism. Traditional Christians react strongly against this view. Let’s take it seriously and examine the logic.
(Just in case you think that examining logic is an unnecessary distraction, you’ll have to face the fact that that opinion is itself a result of (somebody’s) logic. Logic is unavoidable. Doing it badly has serious practical ramifications.)
If you read the passage, verse 25 gets to the question. Jesus responds to the request for healing with these words: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The reading in question concludes that Jesus’s use of a common stereotype represent his actual opinion about Gentiles. He needs to be freed from it. The woman’s comeback, also taken at face value, is beautiful: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” At this point, Jesus’ eyes are opened and he sees the woman differently. The woman, full of faith and willing to take the initiative, becomes the healer of Jesus’ racism.
For people with a traditional view of Jesus, this conclusion is completely unacceptable. In fact, it’s heretical. It simply does not fit within the church’s examined, tested, accepted, historic teachings about Jesus. How is it, then, that Christians can actually hold such a view?
There’s a long and complex history in the background of this discussion, part involving the nature and work of Jesus Christ (Christology) and the other more generally ideas about scripture that became dominant in the late nineteenth century. Behind both of these histories is yet another set of developments related to what we think of as true knowledge based in science. As they say it’s complicated. The point I want to make here is that there is already a lot(!) going on behind the scenes in figuring out how best to understand this passage in Mark.
Back to examining the logic: To conclude that Jesus needed to be liberated from racist views is based on a prior view (a priori) of who Jesus is, of the nature of Jesus. That prior view serves as the assumption, the premise, the starting point, and sets in motion a chain of logic leading to the aforementioned conclusion. This premise itself rests on prior conclusions embedded in that complex history I mentioned a moment ago and most likely involves some version of an adoptionist Christology. An adoptionist Christology argues in various ways that it makes the most sense to understand Jesus as ontologically (in his being) a regular human like the rest of us, exceptionally different in degree, but not in kind. He had vastly more awareness of God than normal people. He had amazing insight into God’s will and courageously committed himself singularly to fulfilling God’s will. He is, in degree, an exceptional human being, but nonetheless nothing more than a human being. Something like this view must be the premise for the curing-Jesus-of-racism conclusion.
Premises guide and limit subsequent thinking. Once you have a starting point established, you follow the logic where it seems to lead. This is the unavoidable chain of logic that we all use in some way or another. If your premise about Jesus as of only (one) human nature stands firm, then your conclusion about his encounter with the woman in Mark 7 must fit within what we know of human nature, with all its glories and its horrors. It is reasonable, if you hold this view of Jesus, to conclude that he shared all the prejudices that first-century Jews had about non-Jews. And if you have been schooled in a long line of scholarship that has scrubbed the supernatural (theological) to get at the true (historical) core of Jesus’ identity, then you are also convinced that the idea of Jesus’ divinity is a needless and misleading human construct, unless held loosely as a symbol only. If it seems to you that scholarship is on your side, the view grows stronger. The conclusion that Jesus needed to be freed from racism becomes not only thinkable but, especially now that we know more about social structures and systemic oppression than first-century people did, it seems even more compelling, especially if you’re inclined to think that traditional theological beliefs about Jesus likewise are guilty of unwarranted exclusiveness.
Is there a way to hold to the traditional, orthodox, view of Jesus as fully divine as well as fully human and keep to this view about his being healed from racism? Again, we would need to run the chain of logic, which, doing so, would make this post too long. But I will say this much: if we believe that Jesus is also fully divine, then our problem with the story in Mark moves from how we think about Jesus to how we think about God and we are met with the implication that somehow God needs to have his [sic] views corrected. And that we’re somehow in the position to do it.
These chains of logic have very serious implications about how we understand and practice our faith. The work is too important to skip. If you want to be a dedicated follower of Jesus, you are implicated in this work.