An Oklahoma jury is deliberating the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the police officer accused of raping 13 black women. The jury is all white, and two-thirds men. The black women alleging assault are described as drug users or sex workers, usually in their 40s and 50s.
According to reports regarding Holtzclaw’s defense, the women were the ones put on trial. Holtzclaw’s defense attorney has stated publicly that he was surprised all 13 accusers weren’t already in jail.
Do these women’s lives have value? Are women — women like this — able to be raped without consequence?
The Black Lives Matter movement has been a hot topic in public dialogue for more than a year. The much less-publicized Say Her Name movement has also emerged, gaining and keeping most of its traction on social media. When mainstream media uses the term “black lives matter” — a term created by black women — it is usually to highlight racialized violence against black men. Say Her Name points out that black women are even yet further marginalized by American society. Their abuses are often invisible.
Jesus had several interactions with invisible women. The Samaritan woman at the well was a cultural outsider, yet he crossed social boundaries by asking her for a drink of water. The hemorrhaging, ritually unclean woman who touched the hem of his garment was seeking healing. But the Canaanite woman whose daughter was afflicted with a demon is perhaps the most invisible woman of all.
“…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.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matt. 15:24-27)
The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman provides a challenging account of Jesus experiencing an encounter with marginalized woman. Jesus usually acts as a champion for children, lepers, widows and other people outcast by first century Palestinian society. What was different about this woman?
Interestingly, the gospel identifies this woman as a Canaanite. “Canaanite” is an anachronistic term, as there were no Canaanites living at the time of Jesus. This woman was a Gentile, not a Jew. She is also declared to be of a foreign people. This woman was a striking example of the “other” for Jesus and the disciples.
She actively, boldly, and loudly pursued Jesus, declaring his supremacy and drawing attention to herself, causing a great deal of commotion. She was a woman behaving badly. It is clear that this did not sit well with the disciples, who complained about her.
But what did Jesus think? How did he view that moment?
First he did not answer at all. With his silence, he treated her as if she were invisible.
Then, when he is compelled to respond because of his (male) disciples’ growing complaints, Jesus tells the woman that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel — in other words, people with social value.
When she appealed once again, he startlingly says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?”
The Greek word “Kunarion” may be translated as meaning “little dog” or “house dog.” But the phrase was in no way considered polite. Jesus’ use of the word was as insulting as it is troubling. As scholar Sharon Ringe said, Jesus was “caught with his compassion down.”
Why does Jesus treat this particular woman in this way? Was Jesus put off by the Canaanite woman’s low status as a female Gentile in a way that lessened her value?
Here we see the intersection of her marginalized identities: female, possible low social status (she was not escorted by a man), and ethnically undesirable. Jesus’ response is unkind and seems to be indicative of his worldview as a first century Jewish male. Perhaps he carried the same prejudices as others? This would at least make sense for those with a low Christology, viewing Jesus as fully human, for better or for worse.
Returning to the passage, after Jesus calls her a dog, the woman responds to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
It seems that to one in standing in Jesus’ shoes, that comeback might sting. This woman, advocating as a mother, was willing to wear Jesus’ insult and still humbly ask for help. While she may have been shamed, in her response she took back some power and dignity from Jesus. She challenged him. She was likely aware that her response was stinging, and she was unwilling to be turned away from this man of power whom she believed could help her daughter.
In this passage, Jesus goes from his usual role as a challenger to structures of power to a representative of an empire himself.
Jesus immediately rewarded the woman for her great faith. He was swayed by her persistence and willingness to make herself heard, and the sense of worthiness that she possessed. Jesus goes from shunning a woman with silence, to chastising her as a dog, and finally, granting her what she came for — healing for her daughter, and dignity for herself.
Today there is a critical situation going on with police brutality and the killing of black males. Like the longsuffering Jews of Jesus’ time, we know this narrative well — we know that Black Lives Matter.
But what about black women? What about their distinctive abuses and degradation, like the unspeakable acts Daniel Holtzclaw is accused of committing? Those who are not only black, but women and socially outcast, too, carry intersecting and inseparable identities of societal disadvantage.
Black women are systemically made victims of police brutality, sexual abuse, and murder. Though the Black Lives Matter movement has made a concerted effort to include all black voices, there is still a need for an intersectional approach to the particular problem of black women and police violence. The Say Her Name movement is still needed. If even Jesus himself could neglect one of the socially oppressed lost sheep of Israel living under Roman occupation, we need to take a serious look at those whose abuses are invisible today.
In matters of racism and sexism, even the revolutionaries come with their own biases. The narrative of Jesus and the Canaanite woman shows us the importance of intersectionality, and careful attention that must be paid to highly marginalized people. Jesus wore the glasses of justice, but found that even he came to a situation where he needed a stronger prescription.
This is precisely the reason the Say Her Name movement has come about.