“Blood and soil!” “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!”
Some made monkey noises at the black counter protesters. Then they began chanting, “White lives matter!”
“F— you, f-gg–s!” “Go the f— back to Africa,” “F— you, ni–ers!” many also screamed. “Dylann Roof was a hero!” another yelled, referring to the white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. (As related in a recent Washington Post article).
These were some of the chants being screamed by marchers in the “Unite the Right” Rally in the state of Virginia (United States) last weekend. The marchers were making a statement, loud and clear…“We are human, and you are less than human. We are clean, and you are unclean. We are holy, and you are unholy.” Maybe they didn’t use those exact words…but that was at the heart of the message.
Who is Unclean?
The questions of cleanliness, holiness, and ethnicity come up in both our Gospel stories for today. In the beginning of chapter 15, the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” In all fairness to the Pharisees, they were defending an important ritual that had roots in the law. Regardless, Jesus counters, reminding them that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (15:11). There is an echo from Samuel in here, “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
In the second half of the Gospel reading, we hear the disconcerting story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Interpretations abound as to the meaning of the story, but at face value it clearly wrestles with ethnicity, discrimination, and worth. By the end of the narrative, Jesus has declared the woman, an ancient ethnic enemy of his people, to be of “great faith.” A proclamation of the greatest honor in the New Testament, and one that is all the more surprising when we consider that Peter, one of his closest disciples, had just been declared “of little faith” a few verses earlier.
By the end of both stories, Jesus has come out on the side of those deemed “unclean.” God has joined with those who are scapegoated by society. And not just in a defensive manner. In a great reversal, the scapegoats are identified as the people who are actually closer to God…in other words, as the “Holy Ones.”
Standing with the Scapegoats
Jesus’ journey to the cross is filled with examples where he identifies with those from below… those who are considered less than human… who are scapegoated because of their ethnicity, or their homeland, or their immigration status, or their gender, or their economic or physical condition. He stands with them. And his disciples, by nature of their “following” vocation, didn’t have much choice but to join him.
It was this way of life, of standing with the scapegoat, that led to Jesus’ death. He became the ultimate scapegoat. Do you see it? He died because his theology messes up the entire system—if God is not only on the side of the scapegoat—if God actually declares them the holy ones, then who do we have left to blame? What do we have left to do at that point but look in the mirror and face the hard truths of our own brokeness, either of commission or omission?
And so it’s done. Jesus hangs on the cross…bleeding, spat upon, mocked, dying…the inevitable conclusion of the scapegoating process lived out to its fullest. That feels dark and hopeless—because it is. And it will continue to feel dark for the days to come.
But there is a ray of light in the midst of it all. From the cross, Jesus undermines the very system that has brought us this far. He utters the most potent and least expected form of resistance to the scapegoating spiral threatening to consume us all. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34).
These words—unsolicited and unexpected forgiveness—tear apart the very curtain of the temple which separated the “clean” from the “unclean.” These words destroy the distinction—they unravel the scapegoating system at its core.
A new way is now possible. Difficult? Perilous? Costly? Yes. But it’s possible.
May Jesus’ words of forgiveness, of new creation, grant us all new hearts today—new hearts to follow him as he joins with the scapegoated, as he becomes one with their pain and plight, as he denounces the powers that be, and even as he whispers words of forgiveness when they feel least deserved… maybe even when he whispers words of forgiveness on our behalf… because we can’t fathom doing so ourselves. If we want a different world, that’s where it will need to start.