By Will Andrews
“Do All Lives Really Matter?”
I live in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago where violence is common. It is so common that it no longer surprises us when we learn that someone else has been shot. It bothers us. It saddens us. But it does not surprise us. Sometimes, however, it still shocks us. Particularly when it involves a young person it evokes feelings of confusion, frustration, and helplessness. Such was the reaction a few months ago when a young man, sixteen years old, was shot down at 2pm on a weekday afternoon standing in front of a church on Ogden Avenue. Would you believe that there was no mention of his murder in the local news media?
Do all lives really matter?
I was reminded of this recently after I heard about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. As you know, in an act of terrorism a white supremacist drove his car into a group of peaceful protestors at a white nationalist rally. He killed one woman and injured others. This left many of us speechless. My generation was taught that this sort of thing used to happen in our country. Maybe in the 1950’s or 1960’s… but in 2017?
When I heard the news, I was already thinking about the message for today—and going in different direction with the Hebrew Bible reading—but I read a comment on Facebook that stopped me in my tracks. It said: “Dear white preachers, after Charlottesville, if you step into the pulpit and say NOTHING about white supremacy then you are part of the problem.”
Am I part of the problem? How does one become part of the solution? What does the LORD require of us? Of me? What does it look like to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” in the face of white supremacy and white nationalist violence? Or any violence that flows from centuries of institutionalized racism? The gospel reading for this eleventh Sunday after Pentecost speaks to these questions.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon (15:21 NRSV).
This is outside the Kingdom of Judea, in the province of Syria. The simple fact that Jesus moves beyond human political boundaries makes it clear that his Good News is for all people. His disciples must know this is true but do they really believe it? They know all lives matter to Jesus, but do all lives really matter to them?
Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “'Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” (15:22 NRSV).
Who is this woman and what exactly is she saying and doing here? First, she’s a Canaanite. She’s not a Jew. She’s the descendant of a people who, centuries earlier, were displaced so that God’s Chosen People could take Promised Land. Indeed, according to the Book of Joshua, it’s believed that God authorized God’s people to wipe out the Canaanites. Kill ‘em all so we can take the land. Sound familiar?
Second, she’s a woman. Even if she were Jewish, she’d still be little more than property—first of her father and then her husband. Given that lack of any mention of a husband, we might wonder if she’s also a widow. Without adult children to care for her she’d be just a burden on society… a charity case.
Third, she’s a mother and this unnamed Canaanite mother has the audacity to approach Jesus on behalf of her child. Matthew concludes Jesus’ first feeding miracles with “5,000 men were fed, not counting women and children" (14:21 NRSV). He concludes the second feeding miracle with “4,000 men were fed, not counting women and children” (15:38 NRSV). Women and children didn’t count! Later, when Jesus says “let the children come to me because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (19:14 NRSV), it’s a radical assertion.
We don’t know the exact nature of the trouble but something demonic has afflicted this woman’s child. And, although she knows her place in society, she somehow also knows that things are supposed to be different in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims. So she cries out. She laments. There’s a growing literature out there, both scholarly and popular, about what Walter Brueggemann calls “the costly loss of lament.” Brueggemann and others observe that the church in America today has forgotten the biblical practice of lament. Of course, by “the church” they mean “the white church” because only a people who don’t know real, historical, collective suffering could forget how to lament.
There’s power in lament and lament is—we might say—multi-dimensional. From the time of Moses and the Exodus and throughout the story of the Bible, God’s people cry out, God’s hears them, and God delivers. So, there’s a vertical dimension to lament. When we cry out we acknowledge that someone greater than us—greater than any earthly reality—loves us and holds us. Crying out to God, in anguish or even anger, is an act of faith. God doesn’t need it but God wants us to be in that sort of relationship. Think of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Think of Moses pleading with God on behalf of God’s people in the desert. Think of Job demanding an accounting for his suffering. Think of this unnamed Canaanite mother crying out to Jesus for the life of her child. That’s a real relationship. It’s messy. It’s unpleasant. But it seems to be what God wants. Without lament our relationship with God is less. It’s shallower.
There’s also a horizontal dimension to lament. When God’s people cry out for deliverance—when we cry out—it’s heard by others. In the wake of tragedy we gather for vigils not only to pray but also to make a public statement. It’s a way of saying to the world that the lives lost really do matter. It’s a way of naming injustice. Without lament we lose an important way to call out what’s wrong in the world. We can’t address a problem until we admit there is one and we name it.
In this way, lament and grief have political significance. The loss or the evasion of lament serves the interests of the powerful. We don’t get a full accounting of the civilian casualties in the so-called War on Terror. We don’t hear about the lives lost in terrorist attacks in countries where the people don’t look like me. There’s an effort to cover up or justify the killing of unarmed black men and women. The media don’t report on the murder of a sixteen year old African-American in broad daylight in front of a church. If we grieved these lives, then people might begin to think these lives mattered. Do all lives really matter?
But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after US.” Jesus answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, 'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” (15:23-26 NRSV)
Jesus doesn’t answer the woman immediately. The focus is on the disciples. For the disciples, it’s about US not Jesus. “Send her away Jesus because she’s bothering US.” “She’s not one of US.” “You’re here for US…not THOSE people.”
On the surface, it appears that Jesus called this woman a dog. We’re shocked by that and I imagine the disciples would be too. Matthew doesn’t say “he answered her” just that “he answered.” I imagine Jesus said all of this for the benefit of the disciples more than the woman. This is a teaching moment. Jesus is showing the disciples the error of their attitude. He’s holding up a mirror to reveal to them their own cruelty. This was the genius and power of nonviolent resistance during the Civil Rights Movement. When King and others were willing to endure beatings and imprisonment, the world was watching and the world saw a glimpse of the evil of racism. Obviously, there’s still more to be seen.
Earlier this year, during the confirmation hearings for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as US Attorney General, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter by Coretta Scott King. That letter opposed Sessions’ earlier nomination to a federal judgeship citing his active work in opposition to civil rights. As you surely recall, Senator Mitch McConnell called a vote and had Warren barred from participating in further debate and said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” This unnamed Canaanite woman also persisted.
She said, 'Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table” (15:27 NRSV).
It’s as if, in a society that regards her people as less than equal, she declares, “Canaanite Lives Matter!” In a society that regards women as property, she declares, “Female Lives Matter!” In a society that has little place for her daughter, she declares, “Children’s Lives Matter!”
Surely, this woman knows her place in society. She knows that her life doesn’t matter much to a lot of people, but she know that it matters to God. So, she proclaims it for the all that have ears to hear.
And Jesus answered her, 'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly (15:28 NRSV)
This Canaanite woman with the audacity to cry to out to Jesus…despite the objection of his disciples… despite what society says about her… this woman is the faithful one in the story. Surely the disciples know that this woman’s life matters to Jesus. They know it’s true yet they don’t really believe it.
That Facebook post read, “Dear white preachers, after Charlottesville, if you step into the pulpit and say NOTHING about white supremacy then you are part of the problem.” I want to believe that I’m not like “those people.” But I grew up less than two hours southeast of Charlottesville, Virginia. I grew up surrounded by the kind of bigotry that exploded into violence there last week. There were no rallies, but I heard all of the jokes and racial slurs. You can’t drive anywhere in my hometown without seeing Confederate flags. I attended public schools but I knew other white kids who attended private “Christian” schools. Years later I would learn that these were segregation academies, “Christian” schools established in reaction to Brown v. Board of Education by rich white folks who weren't about to send their kids to integrated schools. I remember stories about places where certain people shouldn't be after sundown.
Thank God, my Christian mother made sure I knew these and other things were evil. However, even if I never participated, I was silent. So, yes, I have been part of the problem. Thank God, Jesus shows me—and all of us—a better way.
The young man killed in North Lawndale was named Jacobi. Exactly one week after his murder, we gathered on the spot at the same time he died. Approximately fifty people came together to pray, to cry, and to declare that Jacobi’s life mattered. I didn’t know him but many there did. I could tell that his life mattered. His life mattered to his friends who were standing around as he was shot down. His life mattered to the pastor of the church who was leading the program Jacobi was leaving at the time of his death. His life mattered to his mother. And, most importantly, his life mattered to the God who created him. And we gathered to lament, speak his name out loud, and declare that his life mattered.
In recent years “all lives matter” has been heard as a response to “Black Lives Matter.” At best, it’s a deflection that ignores the problem of racism and absolves the speaker of any responsibility. At worst, it’s code for “shut up and get back in your place.” Do all lives really matter? Of course they do. But we still live in world that doesn’t believe it. As long as that is true, Christians have a responsibility to speak out. Like the unnamed Canaanite mother, we are called to lament and to lift our voices with those whose lives don’t matter to the world, believing that some great day Jesus will say to us “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Gracious God, we know that all of your children are precious in your sight. Yet there are voices in the world right now that say otherwise. In the face of such evil, grant us grace and courage to raise our voices louder… not only that you might her but also those possessed by such evil… that they too might come to know of your love and your salvation. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Will Andrews is or has been a father, husband, online Spanish teacher, licensed pastor, interpreter, guitarist, adjunct instructor of Hebrew and religious studies, aspiring biblical scholar, long-term substitute teacher of high school Spanish and algebra, student, plumber’s helper, document translator, prison volunteer in four states, advocate for higher education in prison, and stay-at-home-dad. He enjoys reading, camping, manual typewriters, the smell of old books, Woody Allen films, folk music, and an array of musical instruments he hardly knows how to play. Will is currently a PhD student in “Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics” at Chicago Theological Seminary and his research explores reading the Bible with prisoners. Will, his wife Kristin and their son Josiah stay in the historic North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s Westside. Will is a member of the Illinois Coalition of Higher Education Programs in Prison, chairs the “Prison Literature Session” of the Midwest Modern Language Society, and organizes PrisonLectionary.net.