Today, I want to focus my text reflection, not on Jesus, but rather on the Canaanite woman—on what her conversation with Jesus can teach us. I wish I knew her name because she feels like many women I know. I see myself in parts of her story. I see my sisters, my friends, my female coworkers and colleagues, my mother, my aunties, my cousins, my nieces—all the women in my life.
She is the story here.
She was ignored when she pleaded for help—even though it was on behalf of her suffering child! She couldn’t get a response from anyone. At first, even Jesus didn’t say a word.
She was diminished by the disciples as they urged Jesus to send her away.
She was discriminated against, reminded that she didn’t belong to the “right group of people,” at least not the group of people Jesus was sent to. (Note to self: ask Jesus about this when I see him one day).
If you’ve never lived with this kind of discrimination, it may not be easy to understand what she must have felt like in this moment.
Commentaries provide helpful perspectives on the theological and cultural nuances that surface in this story: who Jesus was sent to, what he meant by ‘bread” and “dogs,” etc. That’s where I was always trained to find meaning and make sense of this passage.
But today, I am much more interested in the life of this sister. Again, I wish I knew her name.
We often make this sister a “hero” because of her persistence. It’s a persistence that I see in many women and others who are marginalized. It’s a persistence that will not easily allow them to quit—no matter the hurdles, no matter the discrimination, no matter the closed doors, no matter the silence, no matter the disrespect or the imposed feelings of insignificance. No matter if it feels like no one is listening.
Where does this kind of persistence come from?
We can look to the the work of Chaniqua Walker-Barnes and the framework of womanist theology to get a hint about how persistence gets shaped:
“In any society, the most marginalized people best understand the rules of the system, because they need to know the politics and dynamics in order to avoid being crushed by them. Women of color are often the most marginalized among the marginalized. Our very survival depends upon knowing how the “isms” (or as I prefer to think of them, the “powers and principalities”) work. (“I Bring the Voices of My People”, Chanequa Walker Barnes, pg 13)
Persistence is a matter of life and death. It’s a matter of survival. It’s a life skill, not an option.
She also writes:
“The lives of black women and other women of color are rich with two gifts: The gift of intersectionality and the gift of a deep desire to bring a wholistic view of healing and liberation—not just for themselves but for all those around them. (Barnes, pg 13)
The persistence of people who are marginalized can teach us about faith. Those whose identities have been deemed “other” are uniquely equipped to persevere in all of the complexities and challenges we face. Their persistence is a gift to the Body of Christ.
A slower read of this story, from the margins, will reveal that our Canaanite sister actually put a workshop on for us (and maybe even for Jesus). She had a deep understanding of the power dynamics that existed between her and Jesus. I think she was fully aware of the gift of her intersectional identities of culture, gender, ethnicity and religion. She understood and knew the rules and she navigated all of the “isms” of her day. In fact, she engaged Jesus at every turn.
It was masterful.
But her persistence was borne out of more than determination. It originated from the Creator whose image she bore and whose breath gave her life and pushed her to advocate on behalf of life.
This is persistence from below.