In the House of Friends: Understand and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in the Christian Church.
Cults, spiritual abuse, religious trauma. We might think of things that happen in books or only in extreme circumstances, but Ken Garrett presents a very cogent explanation of what it looks like when this shows up in churches and denominations we might not expect it to. First we must redefine “cult” from a deviant group with an unorthodox or heretical belief system, to a situation (in the book a church, but could also be a political organization, family, or even psychotherapy!) where a leader manipulates those with less power using controlling or coercive tactics. “Spiritual abuse” may be a more digestible term. Garrett shares his personal story of his family’s involvement in a cultish but theologically normative church, and the damage it inflicted on his family. This book is very important for pastors, counselors, or leaders who will likely be providing spiritual care to those fleeing such situations, because they need to be educated on what the abusive power dynamics look like. However, it is also important for anyone who has experienced trauma occurring in a situation with a manipulative, controlling other. The book is engaging, informative, and a fast read. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to understand the danger of narcissism in leaders, thought control, psychological manipulation, or religious trauma.
“It’s not hard. I have my alarm system turned off.”
On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Arlie Hochschild
You know the feeling. My alarm system is on almost all of the time, so much so that I don’t even realize I have an alarm system. My hackles get raised when Fox & Friends plays on the gym’s TV during my morning workout, or when I think people are going to speak derogatorily about immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, Millennials, etc. Such things are my alarm system finely tuned to.
Our church is doing a book study called “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” by Carolyn Helsel. Talk about an opportunity for alarm bells! “Anxious” is an appropriate word: we can be anxious that we will say something offensive, anxious that the conversation is going to devolve into politics, anxious that someone else is going to say something that really gets under our skin and our face will flush and we will try and talk honestly about systemic racism without being written off as a naïve, bleeding-heart liberal (oh whoops, was that just me??).
What would happen if we could just listen to people without alarm systems going off? With the
understanding that others will say things we don’t agree with, but that we don’t
have to let this hurt us. They got to their positions and beliefs somehow, just
as we got to ours.
Don’t think I’m suggesting we just roll over and play dead
when the “other side” starts raising its voice. Not at all. I firmly believe in
the importance of truth-telling, honesty, and objectivity. But I’m also aware
that facts do little to change people’s opinions when their emotions point them
a different way.
Our brains are ruled by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not exactly objective: it feigns objectivity while really just reinforcing what we already believe at an emotional, gut level. We want so badly to understand the world we live in and make it a safe, habitable place. We make it safe by making it small. Once we think we understand something, we try and fit in all new pieces of information into the systems we have already worked out for ourselves. This has been our survival strategy for millennia upon millennia: we had to quickly learn how to categorize stimuli into “safe” and “not safe,” so we could, you know, act quickly and not get eaten by bears or stomped on by wooly mammoths.
So what can help us increase our capacity for feeling safe –
and also for helping others feel safe?
There are many routes to do this. Just being aware of our own hyperaroused alarm system is a step. I would add in cultivating qualities of curiosity, compassion, empathy, and openness.
For me, spirituality helps inform the approach to the “other.” In non-dualistic ways of being (which I would describe, in part, as the place God dwells), the distinction between “self” and “other” is a false dichotomy. We are somehow deeply interconnected even with those who feel like enemies. Yes, that means I’m even connected with Trump. My ego may throw a little fit about that and my surface-level skin might crawl, but the deeper part of me has compassion for the both of us because we’re just human, trying to get by. Our wounds are different. He has a little more power (in the traditional sense) than I do. He has more of a temper than I do. But a belief I hold is that we are both image-bearers of the divine, muddled as that image may be.
Perhaps one of the hardest tasks of spirituality is navigating the path between the contemplative knowledge that we are all connected and everything is, ultimately, okay — with the reality that we are in a world where real-life issues need to be addressed, people’s rights need to be protected, where the poor, broken, and wounded receive real-life healing. I’m not saying I have the answers. But I believe we need both parts to be fully human. Hating the perpetrator while tending to the victims does not actually bring about the beloved community.
These are hard words to swallow. I write them and I want to believe them, but it is so difficult to live into. But if we can, we find the alarm system is suddenly a relic. We don’t have to hate and be alarmed by the other. And then, maybe then, will our world start to become the place we so desperately need it to be.
My best friend and her wife were in town this weekend when we had the happy coincidence of a big, gnarly snowstorm holding us all hostage in our house. This meant we were trapped inside with them, forced to play multiple games of Carcassone and Sequence, eat copious amounts of cookies, cook hearty Southern food, and talk shop about the Enneagram. I know. Rough times, right?
Having them around gives me the chance to have long conversations about topics of interest to me (I love my husband dearly, but he’s more of a doer, not much of a conversationalist…). One realization I had (am having) is the surprisingly little amount of insight I sometimes feel I have into myself. For instance, although I know the Enneagram pretty well, I have the worst time knowing (or staying on) what type I am. I’ve been very good at persuading my listener that I am really a certain type, only to change my mind a couple months later. What that means to me is that sometimes I identify so strongly with an idea of what/who I am, that it is hard to step back and see the stable, unchanging Self that lies underneath all the preconceptions I hold about myself.
In that same vein, this weekend I realized that the tagline I had for my blog is misleading. Not intentionally, of course, but rather because I thought it was what I was about – or what I was supposed to be about. My tagline was “thoughtful explorations of spirituality, psychology, and their intersections,” as you may recall. After all, I’m a counselor, and I feel myself to be spiritually inclined and want to write about it. So that’s what I do, right?
Actually, no. When I take a cursory look at the podcasts I listen to, the books I gravitate to (currently just dived in to Karen Armstrong’s A History of God), and the things I often write about on here, I have a different inclination. I unabashedly enjoy writing about theological issues. I particularly enjoy looking at those issues through a lens of culture: both our modern culture, and the culture in which ancient texts were written.
I have a passion that cannot be extinguished (at least it hasn’t been, yet) for the urgency of not letting constricting theologies and religious views lead society around like a bull on a nose ring. My heart quickens when I think about helping free an enslaved Christendom from its patriarchal, colonial, xenophobic, unbridled capitalistic chains, and help restore it to the justice-for-the-oppressed, freedom-for-the-enslaved, dividing-walls-broken-down, grace-filled emancipator that Christianity was meant to be.
That is what I feel called to write about here. Sure, I might say things that some perceive as polarizing, or too political, in ways that writing about psychology would not have me do. But look at our world around us. Is the time not an urgent now?
What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt you were “supposed” to do one thing but realized your heart was drawn toward another? Have you ever realized your conceptions of yourself were really misconceptions – and humbly chose your new way? Have you ever felt you must speak, but were afraid to, but maybe you did it anyway? My heart extends toward you, anonymous you, because I know your struggles to do so are probably greater than mine. This is no easy work. My hope is we push toward truth and emancipation together.
It will be four years this June since the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in the United States. This post might feel a little behind the times given all the societal changes going on already. But as many of you know all too well, the church often drags its feet when it comes to change, coming kicking and screaming into relevance — if it isn’t already too late when it gets there.
Today’s post is a follow-up to the one entitled “Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile.” It will go through some of the passages used to condemn same-sex relations and talk about why we have the freedom to interpret them in a new way.
There are 6-7 main verses that are used in support of “traditional marriage” and against homosexuality. And for perspective: When we compare that to the amount of verses that talk about the poor, wealth / poverty, and economic justice issues: well, it’s miniscule. Jim Wallis and his peers created a “holey” (haha) Bible when they cut out all verses about the poor: 2000 verses on poverty and justice as opposed to just a handful about same-sex relations. (I got some great info from a guy who already wrote this post I’m writing: here’s his link if you’d like to check it out!). I won’t go through all the verses on same-sex relations – just read his article, after you get through reading mine!
The Old Testament
The first stop on our tour is the Old Testament Levitical
laws. Some Christians use verses from the Old Testament to support their
traditional marriage approach, such as Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with
a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”). Levitical prohibitions are
included as part of “purity code” law. These codes are intended to set the
Israelites apart from other people groups, to preserve their identity. Most
Christians today don’t have any issues mixing their fabrics (Deut. 22:11, Lev.
19:19, etc), and unless allergic or vegetarian, are willing to eat shellfish
(Lev. 11:10); we no longer refer to women’s menstrual cycles as their
“sickness” (Lev 20:18, NRSV), and except for in the Handmaid’s Tale, don’t stone
both parties when a man rapes a woman who is engaged to (and thus the property
of) someone else.
Okay, fair enough. Sounding a little antiquated already.
Later on in the New Testament, Peter has a vision where all the animals are
spread out on a sheet together, and he hears that all is allowable for eating.
The old Levitical laws don’t seem to matter so much when all they cause is discord
between Jews and Gentiles. “Do not call anything impure that God has made
clean” (Acts 10:15) is what the passage says.
This is an important idea. We will come back to it later:
and not just in regards to food and Levitical laws.
One last stop in the Old Testament: Sodom and Gomorrah. Modern-day fundamentalists worry America is turning into a modern-day equivalent, with moral licentiousness, depravity, and excess. I mean, I might agree with them on some points – but not quite the way they are thinking, and probably closer to the real meaning of the story.
Honestly, when I read the Sodom and Gomorrah passage just now in my NRSV (Genesis chapter 19), I had to go consult the internet for why this is used as an anti-homosexuality prooftext (prooftext = passage, often taken out of context, to support a belief the reader holds). In the story, Abraham is basically talking God down from utterly destroying the city of Sodom. First, if you believe in a God who is all-knowing and unchangeable, realize you are also probably not reading this passage “literally” as Abraham appears to literally be negotiating with God. But I digress.
So what is the point of the story? Scholars say the story is about God testing Abraham (making sure he’s the guy he’s cracked up to be) and finding him to be noble, ethical, and worthy. God is able to be argued out of wholesale destroying the city and agrees to save it (temporarily) for the sake of ten good people.
The next part of the story is really disturbing. Lot is now the main character, and he is hosting some angels in his home (like you do) when some evil men (from S & G) come to his door sounding like they are demanding sexual relations – aka RAPE – of the male angels in the home. Instead of his guests being dishonored in such a terrible way, Lot offers his virgin female daughters for the men to rape. WHOA! Call the cops!! And I’m sorry: did you want to make the main point of this story that being gay is wrong? It seems to me the obvious message has more to do with sexual violence, lust and power, and inhumane treatment of others, far more than the particular genders of who is mistreating whom.
So when you hear the story, what part of the passage do you give the most weight to?
The New Testament
Moving on to the New Testament, which Christians generally
give more credence to and really have to consider the weight and meaning of
passages. We’re going to spend some time with our dear friend Paul. Paul is so
formative for Christianity as a whole. Could it have spread as well as it did
without his influence? It seems unlikely. But he can be quite challenging to
many progressive-leaning Christians, because he says some pretty uncomfortable,
seemingly intolerant things.
The passages often used as prooftexts against homosexuality are Romans 1, 1st Corinthians 6, and 1st Timothy 1. We’ll look at Romans 1:26-27: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.” The context of this passage is that Paul is writing a letter to the Christians in Rome arguing that the Jews and Gentiles all need to be reconciled together under one identity of being in Christ. They are needlessly divided. Part of his argument is pointing out that both groups do the same things, including the above references.
Some people argue that since unity is Paul’s point here (throughout the first couple of chapters of Romans), we can smooth over the rest. I do find that important, but also think we can acknowledge safely that Paul appears to be anti-homosexual here. Some people work through interpretative issues by saying Paul is only talking about uneven power balances of men with young boys. I wouldn’t say that doesn’t influence him and how he views homosexual relations, but I don’t think it’s the full story.
So come on, Paul. Why do you make things hard on your modern-day readers?? I wonder if the answer might be surprising.
For those in the “oh my gawwwd Paul, cut me a break!” crowd because of passages like this and why women should be silent in church, etc, ponder this. Imagine ancient Rome and ancient Jewish culture, round about, oh, 60 CE. Women do not belong to themselves, but are the property either of their male relative, or their husband. They have no rights. The society is very patriarchal, and there is a strong power dynamic of how people relate to one another. And especially in Jewish culture, the shame/honor dynamic is especially prevalent. Presenting the right image to others, and not bringing shame upon oneself or the family, is of ultimate importance. A man had to preserve the image of virility and power, honor and status. Women were protected only by the men in their lives. In their society, a man with a man means one of them is dishonored (in the weaker, un-masculine position). A woman with a woman means no one is protecting them.
And aside from all that, Paul seems to be making an argument for the “natural” way of things to take their course, which to him seems obvious that male and female genitals only belong to each other. I wonder if Paul’s mind might be changed if he knew that the “passions” each sex can experience for its own kind (i.e., same-sex attraction) can be as ingrained as eye color, skin color, temperament. He didn’t have the science we have today. He didn’t have the culture of legal equality among sexes and sexual orientation (equality we’re working on, at least). But you know what? I think Paul would be open to changing his viewpoint if he only knew more. Just think about his conversion experience where his whole life turned upside down.
Let’s go back to the passage where Peter hears, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
In our culture today, I think that on the whole Christians get more of a bad rap for narrow views on sexuality (and here I include both sexual orientation and abortion issues). Except, of course, from within certain folds, where those same Christians feel self-righteous for upholding the faith and moral conduct. But society is changing. Gay marriage is becoming more and more normal, and we see these couples living everyday lives like the rest of folks, falling in love, committing to each other in sickness and health, buying homes, having kids.
“Do not call impure anything that God has made clean.” Do we not know that God has called all of God’s children clean, and loves them ferociously? Do we not know that when we can live free of shame and guilt and oppression, we are that much more capable of producing goodness, grace, justice, kindness, faithfulness in our world?
It is high time we stop allowing a narrow reading of the Bible to dictate policy, whether in our country or in individual churches. I can’t force change, but my hope is that with some education and the softening of hearts, people will change. With that change, we can look at our lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, and queer siblings in the eyes and say “you are one of us. You belong here. I belong to you. We all belong to each other.” And then they may at last feel the love, and with a love like that, then might you find the answer is “YES.”
It’s now 2019, and many people have written sweet, thoughtful posts on Facebook or other social media and blog accounts reflecting on the old year and sharing hopes for the upcoming one. I like reading the reflections, but admittedly, I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions. Besides, the only times I managed to temporarily conquer my sugar problem were for a couple of Lents in years past. Apparently religiosity is sometimes more motivating to me than the time of year when you keep writing the wrong date on things…
Reluctance to resolve aside, I was inspired by (naturally) a podcast from Homebrewed Christianity, interviewing Gareth Higgins, that talked about a way to gather in community and reflect on the directions our lives are going. I love reflecting, but being in a routine about it is tough, and even tougher is being in regular relationship with people I would be this vulnerable with. I want to share about the practice with you here, in hopes that I will also find a way to birth this practice into my life.
First: gather a small group of people. At least three, up to 8 or 10, to form a community (as two is just a friendship). This will be something like an accountability group (call it something else if that feels to evangelical-y for you). Gather regularly and ask each other the following four questions:
What’s coming alive to you? What is life-giving to you right now?
What is challenging you, draining you or taking your life away?
How is your purpose for the common good showing up? (What am I here for, what is my vocation, what gift do I have and how can I use it to help heal the community? Your gift is often where your wound was. How am I leaning into this and how am I running away from it?)
Having heard what we’ve heard, how can we help each other? (whether practical or existential; economical or spiritual)
Even just writing out these questions, I feel compelled to start mulling them over. Here are where my answers are leading me this week. What about for you?
What is life-giving to me is my vacation home to Colorado for the holidays, full of abundant sunshine, friends and family, and my beloved mountains (see below!). I am continuing my never-ending Enneagram exploration (currently listening to The Road Back to You), which is fun for me. I am excited for friend and family gatherings coming up in the near/near-ish future, like my brother’s wedding!
What is/was challenging me recently was the feeling I have when I am not my whole self, either because I am not seen for who I am or because I refuse to bring my whole self to the table (for various reasons). I also realized how much I can daydream and tune people out when I am in the presence of others, which was rather startling when my family started pointing this out to me.
My purpose for the common good is showing up when I still make time for my counseling clients this week after getting back home early Friday morning, and then when 100% of them show up, which feels validating! But using my job as a therapist also feels like a cop-out, so I’m going to add that when I do things like write or make some kind of connection with others (which for me, takes intentional effort), I am also showing up for the common good. There are so many doubts and reluctances in play that keep me from writing or believing my words or my presence really matters much at all. Sometimes it takes a lot to show up.
How can you help me? By reaching out and letting me know something I said or wrote mattered. By sharing your own experiences and stories – I try and let you know when I “hear” or “see” you (online) or I try to give you my full presence when we are in person (see my struggles in #2; it is easier with friends than with family). If you feel curious and maybe a little compelled to give a group like this a shot… well, it would mean a lot if you let me know!
My beloved Colorado mountains: definitely life-giving.
Do you guys have any inspiring (or just regular) New Year’s resolutions? Do groups like this sound intriguing, boring, or terrifying to you? What is giving you life and how is your purpose showing up in your life today?
I have a collection of prose / poetry that I call “Love Letters to Somebody” (to help explain the post’s title today). These are a couple of pieces inspired by our recent, magnificent change of seasons. The pictures for the first two poems aren’t the trees of inspiration, but just imagine the brightest yellow tree standing out amidst the greens and browns, boldly being so bright and yellow.
Because sometimes, when it seemed the leaves would skip their
glorious colors this year,
then you wake up
and everything is now yellows and oranges and reds,
and then the wind
and you feel again
God is still speaking
Burning Bush 11/3/18
if it were in the Garden of Eden,
I too would eat of it, to know
such beauty and knowledge
if it were Moses’ burning bush,
take my shoes off
leap into ecstasy into it
to burn too
the love of God
Naked and unashamed, she stands
with royal carpet surrounding her majestic throne
unworried that it will all be swept away tomorrow
It was one of those mornings when I was thinking about my own “whys” of why I go to church. Besides the obvious that my husband is the pastor and I feel duty-bound to show up at least at some point in the morning, what draws me to a church community?
We all have different reasons. Many people, out of habit. Or a guilty conscience if they don’t go. Or because this is the place they see friends and loved ones predictably every Sunday morning. Or to hear a Word from God, maybe in a sermon, prayer, or hymn. Or to sing in the choir. Or because, for some inexplicable reason, they were drawn even though they can’t explain why.
One of my own whys today was because, even though I can be quite content with my spiritual practice of sitting alone with a book, my thoughts, and being quietly with God, I also know that I need to practice the spiritual discipline of being in community. I know that my personality tends toward isolation, and that I need to find contact with – and eventually connection with – other people to help make me whole.
I also have been enjoying the songs of the choir lately, so I decided to go to the later service at church.
In service, I had been thinking too much during the sermon. Seeing things from an outsider perspective. Wondering we need to be doing / saying / bringing that might speak to the needs of the community.
What I didn’t have eyes to see yet was that it is already here.
After the sermon, the choir began the communion anthem sitting in their seats in the pews. It seemed like a mistake at first, as one member rose alone, but one by one, the others intentionally rose too. They made their way to the front, walking slowly. Later I learned this was no one person’s idea, but something that evolved with everyone’s input, shifting and changing and needing everyone’s involvement to be how it was.
And then, I don’t even know what happened, but what I believe is we all knew the power this held at the same time.
The eight or so choir members gathered behind the table that holds the Lord’s Supper, singing, lines moving back and forth, voices trading verses, melody flowing sweetly. I didn’t hear the words: I felt the song. All I knew was it was spell-binding. Tears welled up in my eyes. My breath was held. And when I went forward for communion, the same sense of being gathered together remained; that this community of people was being held by something powerful and gracious and loving. When I glanced in the eyes of others, I think they felt it too.
If we were Quaker, I would call it being “gathered” or having a “gathered meeting.” If we were UCC, we might give the pause of a comma and sigh, “God is still speaking.” If we were Pentecostal, the Holy Spirit would probably be speaking through tongues. Some people easily describe it as the presence of God, or Jesus, being in the room with us. I might call it a “mystical moment.” An experience that cannot be adequately described in words, that defies explanation, and is a reality so real that it cannot be proven, but only felt and experienced.
It doesn’t truly matter what words we try and put to the experience, or if we put words at all. We are all getting a taste of this powerful Divine Reality, a reality so powerful it speaks to us however we need to hear it. An experience that sometimes only happens because we are all gathered together in community.
It was only when I got home and re-read the words of the song that I realized what they said: He is Here in the Breaking of the Bread.
I don’t know about you, but this has felt like a rough week.
Honestly, the last two years have been disheartening (to put it mildly) and soul-crushing (if my feelings speak for themselves), in a way I wouldn’t have guessed political situations could make me feel. There is so much hate, distrust, and lying in our national space that it feels like evil will take us over. The news still tends to infuriate me, but recently, I’ve found myself slipping more often into feelings of despair.
I went on a short, silent retreat this week. It was a wonderful chance to read, write, meditate, and take long walks in the forest. I know I am lucky I get to do such things. My fears about myself still crept up on me (does my voice matter? What meaning will I make of my life? Who do I think I am, anyway, trying to claim a space with my words?). But I moved forward, pushing back the fears, being present, and putting down words anyway.
Then we left the camp and had the news on the radio as we drove home. Real life hit me like a ton of bricks. A president trying to incite fear about Middle Eastern terrorists hiding among people who are trying to take refuge from an unsafe environment in Central America. Tax cuts promised that can’t be passed before election day, but truth doesn’t matter anyway so say what you will. And then, all week long, bombs that don’t detonate arriving to prominent liberals around the country. I don’t need to give you details – you already know them.
What kind of world are we living in?
What can I do?
What can we do?
While on retreat, I brought my good friend Thomas Merton along with me in book form. Reading him inspires and challenges me. Merton was a Catholic monk and prolific writer who died in 1968. Monks take vows of poverty, submission, obedience. But Merton was also compelled to write – and write boldly. He didn’t hide his head in the sand but was acutely aware of what was happening in the world. He called out the violences and injustices of his day (think Cold War and nuclear threats, and the divisiveness both sides were partaking in). Even when the Catholic Church censored him, even when he scandalized people. And he did it all from a deeply spiritual place.
I know I’m no Thomas Merton, but if I could follow just a tiny bit in his footsteps, I would aspire to do that. To speak the truth that needs to be told. To love deeply. To live fully one’s authentic life that they are called to.
What are you called to do?
What voice were you given to speak to the world?
Our voices matter. Trust me, a lot of the time I have trouble believing this. I took my small step today and early voted. I felt grateful to still belong in a democratic republic, with a still-functional news media, and to safely cast my vote without fear of reprisal.
Voting is one way to matter – and an important one. But there are so many ways to raise our voices in support of love and all that is good in the world. It is hard to keep that faith, but if we do it together, maybe somebody will hear it, and believe that this isn’t how it has to be.
We must not stay silent. If we are privileged enough to be comfortable staying silent (i.e. if you believe yourself to be unaffected by all that is happening), but if you are also a person of faith, then let your faith be the motivator to speak. To stay silent and do nothing is to be complicit. Stand up for the vulnerable and the oppressed. Stand up for morals and values. Believe in the power of love over the darkness of hate and terror. Pray. Extend compassion to your neighbor: whether that is your family member or your fellow global citizen.
It’s easy to lose sight. Just writing this post, I am mocked by the inner voices: who cares about what you say? No one will read this! You’re not saying anything new! You’re not good enough! Do you really think you can make a difference at all?
But maybe you’ve been tormented by those voices too. Maybe sometimes, the anger and despair presses in on all sides. Maybe you feel too small and insignificant to have an impact. Maybe you’re so frustrated by the whole thing that you’ve checked out. Please come back. We need your voice, too.
Maybe if I can be brave enough to put the imperfect and the unoriginal and the vulnerable out there, you will know it’s okay to do it too. Maybe we will start to push back the darkness.
It’s hard work. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Find the beauty in the world. Remember that the sun rises every morning – regardless if we see it or not. Let yourself be nurtured by relationships. Nurture others. Find something that makes you laugh. Find something that gives you hope.
However it is that your life speaks, I hope we can believe that if we each do our part to speak the truth in our own sphere, it matters.
God, I hope it matters. Let it matter. But we will only find out by trying.
There’s no way around it. I am a pastor’s wife. (I suppose I might also say that I have a pastor husband, but either way, my life is becoming deeply intertwined with the church). We have moved from the big city to a small town, to be an integral part of the life of the church. I’ve never lived in a small town. I’ve never been a pastor’s wife in this way. I am finding myself drawn more deeply toward spirituality in general, and Christianity in particular, in this new life phase. (If this seems obvious of a pastor’s wife, read early blog posts and note that I’ve had a long period of deconstruction of faith and have been to many a locale on the theological map). Christianity is calling me, perhaps necessarily (what can one do in a small town besides attend and participate in the life of your husband’s church?); perhaps because it is, itself, compelling.
The story of the Syrophoenician, or Canannite, woman is calling to me in particular. Coincidentally, Kevin preached on this very passage (Mark 7:24-30) the same morning I encountered it in the memoir I am reading. My mind continues to mull over it days later. In the story, the woman begs Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter to heal the child. Jesus is not from the same social group as this woman. His people conquered her people (the Canaanites) long, long ago, and they still look down on the Syrophoenicians with disgust. Jesus – son of God, right? – goes so far as to call this begging woman a “dog.” You filthy, disgusting, scavenging creature. Try to allow yourself to ponder that, Christians. It’s right there in the Bible. The woman is undeterred, however. “Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs,” she retorts. Andrea Lingle points out, “The Canaanite woman claimed her place at the table or under it.” And Jesus is moved by this. The woman’s child is healed by her faith.
Jesus is moved by the woman’s faith. Jesus actually moves his position, his beliefs, because of this woman who refused to back down and be seen as undeserving of the graces and healing he had to offer. Christians who need to see Jesus as always, only fully divine, never saying or doing anything questionable, will see this differently. They likely see Jesus as purposely testing the woman to get her to demonstrate her faith. They might downplay the fact that Jesus actually gave this woman a terrible insult. To me, this seems to be a case of making the story fit the pre-existing theology.
But let’s not sugarcoat things. Let the text speak. If we read the story and interpret it based on the context and what it actually seems to be saying – not interpreting it to try and squeeze a particular meaning out of it – Jesus seems to be prejudiced against this woman initially, but is moved by her insistence that she, too, belongs in the realm of grace. It seems that Jesus, a Jewish teacher, believed initially that he was here to minister to the Jews. He is here for the children of Israel. And then the beliefs he thought were certain shift. This woman will settle for crumbs, but she will not settle for less than that. And then Jesus’ eyes are opened and he sees that she too belongs. She receives full healing for her daughter because of her faithful insistence that healing is for her, for them, for everyone.
It is a significant divide we walk here. I am well aware of that. I acknowledge there are multiple ways to interpret this story. You may disagree with how I read it. It is an interpretation that is compelling to me.
If Jesus is only, fully divine, then he’s either “just testing” her, or he’s not really insulting her, or God thinks it’s okay to insult people like that. A solely divine Jesus would not need to be moved by this woman to give justice to all, would he?
A Jesus who is, who needs to be, moved by others is a Jesus who is also fully human. Catch your theological breath and just play with ideas here. As my pastor husband quoted in his sermon, Karl Barth says we need not try to reconcile two beliefs seemingly at odds to try and make one cohesive belief system. We can just hold them both up together and let the rest be a mystery. Jesus Christ, divine. Jesus Christ, fully human. Jesus, God’s agent, divine, full of mercy and grace. Jesus, human, forgetting sometimes that all meant all. Jesus discovering through an encounter with the “other” that he is here not just for some – for his own people – but to heal and reconcile the whole world together.
I find this to be deeply moving. I generally do not feel full of grace, though I believe grace profoundly belongs to all. I go to the sheriff’s office to get fingerprinted so I can minister and be a counselor to those who are hurting. A man walks in and willingly cuts in front of me and another woman who have been waiting for a ridiculously long time in an empty waiting area so he can get fingerprinted for his concealed carry permit. He reinforces stereotypes I have of people like him. He feels entitled to get what he wants despite the needs or rights of others, and he does not even know it. And I confess: I have some hate for him in my heart.
But I know Jesus’s gospel isn’t just for people like me, the kind do-gooders of the world (who still have secret hate in their hearts). His gospel is for gun-toting Make America Great Again hats, for bleeding heart liberals, for desperate immigrants crossing borders and crossing deserts under cover of night, for families with loved ones killed by illegal immigrant gang members. His gospel of reconciliation and grace is for Jews, Canaanites, and even Romans. His gospel is for Israel, Native Americans, and even the United States. And in this story of the Canaanite / Syrophoenician woman, I see Jesus making the profound discovery of this as well. Perhaps there is hope for all of us.
Featured image credit goes to the Junia Project: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwifiZmYtMXdAhUvUt8KHcF-CdcQjRx6BAgBEAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Fjuniaproject.com%2Fcaring-marginalized-jesus-canaanite-woman%2F&psig=AOvVaw22ej_O-oyaCQ6iAu80yQKJ&ust=1537389314168444