There is no way to sugarcoat this, so I’m going to tell you upfront: my dad was a racist.
Born in 1916, Dad grew up largely unsupervised on a hardscrabble farm with no electricity or running water, the fifth of twelve children.
When he was still a child, he was sent out to work, first for a local farmer as a field hand, then to his aunt and uncle in Philadelphia, selling crabcakes made in their restaurant from a cart on a street corner.
Clever and tenacious, Dad had two lucky breaks early in life.
First, two unmarried aunts took a special interest in him and offered to pay for his college tuition. Dad supplemented their largesse with money he won playing poker and got his teaching degree in three years.
Second, Dad played semi-professional baseball in the summer. In the leagues where he played, the pitchers and catchers got paid from cash collected by passing a hat among the fans. The rest of the players did not get paid. Dad was a catcher.
He once told me a story about how he was the only white player on an otherwise all-Black baseball team.
Their regular catcher got hurt during a game with my dad’s team, right before the all-Black team was to set off on a lucrative tour of Maryland and Northern Virginia.
They asked Dad if he wanted to fill in as their catcher and he agreed, touring with a Black baseball team. In the 1930s. In the American South.
“They were a great bunch of guys,” was the only report I got from him on his time with the team.
One story I always struggled with from the Bible was the story of the woman who asked Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter.
I read many articles, interpretations of the chapter in Matthew where the story is found, trying to make sense of its meaning, but none of them rang true. Here is the story:
A Canaanite woman approached Jesus, crying out and begging him to heal her afflicted child.
Jesus did not answer.
His disciples, however, urged him to get rid of this annoying, nagging woman. They had been on the road for a while and I imagine they were tired. They had important things to take care of – logistics to discuss, plans to make.
Jesus finally tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman was from the wrong group of people. She was a Gentile, a foreigner, from a region called Tyre and Sidon, who the Jews hated because they fought on opposite sides in an ancient war.
And she was a woman, bothering important men who had other plans.
But she was clever and tenacious. She persisted in asking Jesus for his help.
The response of gentle Jesus, whose compelling message of love and forgiveness has endured for centuries? “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Did he really just call this woman a dog?
Was he that callous? That heartless? That cruel?
Did he do it so as not to lose face with his boys, the disciples?
As I said, however, the woman was clever and tenacious. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” she responded.
And then. I can just imagine Jesus smiling at her boldness, at her faith that he was the one who could help her daughter, at her desperate hope. He relented.
Her daughter was healed.
I think we just witnessed Jesus’ growth. Yes, he was divine, but he was fully human too, capable of being challenged and of learning. His attitude toward Gentiles changed forever on that day because of one clever and tenacious woman.
I finally understood the point of the story.
As Austin Steelman says in The Harvard Ichthus, “Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.”
It is hard to hate people up close.
Jesus couldn’t do it. The Canaanite woman, who belonged to an ethnic group despised by his people, ultimately got what she asked for and changed Jesus’ perception of non-Jews forever.
I wish my dad could have been so enlightened.
Dad viewed his teammates as an aberration. Most Blacks (other than the ones he played baseball with, of course) were, he felt, somehow inferior. I’m not sure exactly how or why he thought this, but he did.
Dad, unlike Jesus, made the choice to hold on to the bias he inherited. He squandered his opportunity for growth.
We have an opportunity here, in this country we love, now, in this moment of history. Let’s not squander it, let’s embrace it.
Let’s be clever and tenacious.
Let’s ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”
Let’s choose growth.
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