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A tapestry of colour

Chine McDonald reflects on racism and Scripture

In the summer of 2020, the world watched as white policeman, Derek Chauvin, knelt on the neck of George Floyd – a black man, loved and created by God – for more than nine minutes. With the world quietened in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed we were paying attention like we had not been at any point I could remember in my lifetime. For black men and women have been brutally murdered by police – both in the US and the UK – so often that many of us can recite the names of scores of victims. People whose names had become hashtags in the aftermaths of their deaths.

For many black people around the world – particularly those who exist in white majority spaces and countries – the death of George Floyd felt horrifying yet horrifyingly familiar. It signified the oppression, brutality and violence that had marked the black experience for centuries. I for one felt a sense of vicarious trauma as I watched George Floyd’s death. This sense of vicarious trauma was not just an individual one, but the collective trauma of a whole community of people: black people the world over.

In the account found in Matthew 15, an ethnic Canaanite woman – or a Syrophoenician woman as described in Mark 7 – asks Jesus to deliver her demon-possessed daughter from evil. Here we see an example not too dissimilar from the present day in which there is enmity between people groups. This woman is brown and is also a Gentile. Her people have long been excluded from the chosen ones.

And yet she believes in Jesus. She believes that he can heal her daughter. She believes that he might – despite who she is and where she is from – listen to her cries and pay attention to who she is.

I have always found this passage awkward. First, it’s the fact that Jesus initially outright ignores her. He doesn’t reply at all. It feels so out-of-character for Jesus to ignore someone who wants his help. You can perhaps picture the tension in this scene. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away because she keeps calling out to them. They would likely have had strong prejudices against the woman because of her ethnic background.

Jesus then tells her that he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel and adds: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’

For centuries black people have been likened to animals in cultures where whiteness is seen as superior. In 1900, slave owner Charles Carroll wrote a delightfully titled pamphlet: The Negro a Beast, or In the Image of God. He argued, he believed on the basis of Scripture, that black people were not in fact humans. That they were some lesser being. Perhaps this was the only way such a long history of oppression against black people could be justified. Maybe they weren’t people at all.

So, it is shocking to us that Jesus might refer to this woman and her community as ‘dogs’. And yet, as is often the way with Jesus, not all is as it seems.

As RT France writes in the New International Commentary on the New Testament: ‘A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil’s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher’s own view – even if the phrase ‘devil’s advocate’ may not be quite appropriate to this context!’

I am not one of those who believes that this passage in Scripture suggests that Jesus was a racist and that the Syrophoenician woman’s faith made him not racist. I believe he is being typically provocative, reflecting society back on itself. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus’ invitation into relationship with God is an expansive one, encompassing those with different statuses in society, different jobs, different levels of wealth, different backgrounds.

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests arising following the death of George Floyd, it felt like the world – including the Church in the UK – was paying attention to racial injustice. I was invited to write several articles, to speak at countless events, to share my experiences of these injustices as a black woman existing in white majority contexts. At times it felt cathartic to do so, and at times it felt like I was reliving a lifetime of trauma and taking on the generational trauma of my ancestors. But yet, it is something that we all needed to do: to confront racism that is within our own churches.

It's not necessarily a racism that is made manifest in violence, death and oppression, but perhaps in microaggressions and merely being ignored, as the Syrophoenician woman would have experienced. White supremacy does not necessarily come in literal chains and shackles, but in monochrome theology: leadership and worship that barely masks a belief that whiteness is closest to godliness.

Somewhere along the road, the predominantly white Church in the UK has believed that Christianity itself is white, European and even British, and that all other cultures are invited to the table. Why else would most of our theology books be written by white European men? Why else would most of the hymns and songs sung on a Sunday morning be written by the same? But Christianity, at its heart, is radically welcoming. The Church should be like a mosaic – a tapestry of colour in which all are invited in. Whether or not our churches exist in racially diverse geographical locations, we can take practical steps to combat the idea that white people are the chosen ones, rethinking our storytelling, the music we choose, the images we share.

In this way, we can demonstrate that God is a God who loves each of us, no matter our backgrounds, without exception.

Chine McDonald is a writer, broadcaster and author of
God Is Not a White Man: And Other Revelations
(Hodder & Stoughton, May 2021)
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Next steps

  • Carry out an audit of the books and imagery you have in your church: how many are written by white men? How many are written by women or people of colour? How many images of white Jesus or white God are included in your church building or your children’s ministry books? Once you have made a note of them, set yourself a target to increase the diversity of the books or imagery by a certain date.
  • Create a space where black and brown people within your congregation can – if they are willing – share their experience of being part of your church community. Together, make an action plan of ways to address any issues.
  • Explore the artwork featured in the ‘Global Images of Christ’ Exhibition, which took place at Chester Cathedral in 2021
  • Seek out ethnically diverse theologians, church leaders and thinkers. Try:
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