Saturday, January 10, 2009

What's going on in Gaza?

Have you heard this one?

A religious denomination built a hospital in a foreign country where it was having considerable success converting people to its brand of the Christian faith. It was a small hospital, but the need for medical care was enormous and so the beds filled very quickly. A policy was enacted that since the hospital couldn’t hope to deal with all the medical requirements of the area, preference would be given to converts.

Shortly thereafter, the hospital director was leaving the building after a particularly strenuous day when his attention was arrested by a commotion at the admitting counter. A woman was begging loudly and with many tears that her child be admitted. The director immediately identified her as an adherent of a rival mission, one he considered to be teaching questionable—if not false—doctrine.

“Ma’am,” he said to her, “we can’t help you. I want you to leave the building quietly.”

“But my child is really sick” she protested, “and I know you could help her!
Would you please, at least, look at her?”

“Ma’am,” the director said, “it’s not right to take the children’s food and toss it to the dogs.”

The woman was desperate. “But sir, the dogs still wander around the table, snatching up the scraps that fall!”

The director was moved by her persistence, and flattered by the confidence she had in his hospital’s ability to help her. He thought for a moment, and then directed the nurse at the counter to have a bed placed in the hallway for the child, and to tell the resident doctor to examine and treat the child.

“Excuse me for my impertinence,” said the nurse, “but you know that this will open the floodgates. What will we do then?”

The director turned back to the woman. “We’ll treat your child, but only on the condition that you tell no one about it, understand?”

The first time I heard this exact story was just now, as I wrote it.

But I have heard a version of it before, in Matthew 15: 21-28 and Mark 7: 24-30, to be specific. There, the director is Jesus—a Jew—and the supplicant is a Canaanite woman. I had occasion to revisit the story just a few days ago because it was the text for an adult Sunday school lesson and I had a contract to write teachers’ guide notes for it. At the same time, the state of Israel was bombing Hamas targets in Gaza and Palestinian militants were continuing to fire rockets into Israel. It’s no surprise that the story and the news would come to be related in my thoughts.

On its face, Jesus’ metaphor (if he, in fact, said it) is racist, and that’s troubling to anyone who has built his image of Jesus around, say, the Sermon on the Mount. As we end up doing so often, the Oxford Study Bible excuses it by attributing the words to Matthew’s pen, and saying that “The story revolves around a non-Jewish woman and the question of Jesus’ mission. Matthew thinks of a mission limited to Israel during Jesus’ human career but ultimately intended to reach out to all (p. 1285).” True, Jesus appears to say that his mission is to his people—the Jews—and then seems to “change his mind” for the sake of this one extraordinary Canaanite woman.

The Jew/Gentile consciousness haunts the world today like a canker that grows and wanes, then grows again. (It has its equivalent, of course, in North American black/white, Indian/white and in Germany—when I worked there in the ‘80s— German/Turk distinctions) Matthew’s story may have been intended to tell the people of the temple and the synagogue that the incarnation was for them—the fulfillment of their messianic hope. Unfortunately, most readers of the story are obliged to see themselves in the roles of the dogs—not the children.

That, at least, is one interpretation, and it’s troublesome.

There are plenty of references in Paul’s writing that hint at the end of these distinctions. Unfortunately, some of the Christian world has chosen a far-too legalistic approach to faith and has never fully embraced Paul’s admonition in Romans 10:12: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him. . . .” In fairness to them, it has to be said that Paul himself was unable to free himself completely from the notion that there is a difference. In Romans 1:16, he uses the terms Jew and Gentile racially: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”

I suppose that when a group of people live in proximity to each other for generations, the development of a unique outlook, unique cultural markers, and a unique religious worldview is inevitable. The rest of the world will apply a name to them; that name will eventually become part of the world vocabulary, and even group members will begin to think of themselves as defined-by-their-label. And as all we recyclers know, it’s a lot easier to stick a label on a bottle than to soak/scrape it off.

Is the conflict in Gaza Jew-versus-Gentile? Is it Palestinians against Israelis? How shall we understand it? The word “Palestine” has its roots in “Philistine.” “Palestine” came to refer to the area of the world known variously as the “Levant,” or the “Holy Land,” etc. People of the area were called “Palestinians” for centuries, whether they were of Arab or Jewish descent. Are we seeing a reverse of the David and Goliath story where David is the giant (with jets and tanks) and tiny Goliath is slinging stones (rockets) into his territory with a sling, hoping he’ll eventually hit a vital organ? Or is it better described as a multi-generational feud like the Hadfields and McCoys, or the Star-bellied Sneetches?

There’s hardly any doubt about the conflict in Gaza being territorial, on top of anything else. Its rhetoric is most often about borders and land access, homelands and hinterlands and to whom this field rightfully belongs and who can say where a person can and can’t go, or work, or grow figs. It certainly hasn’t helped that the West has declared one side (on the basis of race, ethnicity) in the dispute to have a right to a certain territory and then poured in money and resources to back it up. I can’t think of a better way to create resentment, to start a feud.

Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman and the metaphor of the dogs vs the children occurred early in his ministry, according to the gospel records. From then on, we see in his parables and later, in the early church, a shifting away from ethnic consciousness to the point where Paul can write: For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him. . . .”

George Bush summed up the current US policy toward the conflict when he said, “Israel has a right to defend itself.” At about that time, the death toll on the Israeli side was 4, and on the Gaza side, 500+. Since then, both numbers have risen considerably, but the proportions have remained the same. Defend itself, yes, but what about the “defend itself, how?” question. Even an inkling that there might be a prophetic destiny playing out is tremendously harmful to our commitment to a solution, and we have to exorcise that demon in North America if we’re ever going to contribute to peace in the Middle East.

God is NOT territorial; if he is at all interested in defining homelands, he is as concerned about a homeland for his “Muslim” children as he is for his “Jewish” children. Get that through your heads, Christians. I think Obama’s got that. I hope.

Jesus healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Take it from there.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Uncle George.
    There is a growing group of people fasting for peace in Gaza and the Holy Land. To join, email Jon Nofziger ( and give him the day you choose to fast.
    Garry Janzen