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Ecclesia & Racism: How do we, as a church, approach racism?

Date: 20/06/2021/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

Racism seems like a modern thing. It didn’t exist in the Biblical times, right? Right?


How many of you think that racism did exist in Biblical times?

Seems like quite a few of you do think that racism existed back then.

So the next question is – what are the examples of racism in the Bible?

There is one that comes to mind for me – and one I have been struggling with for a while. It has been a passage I struggled with because it puts Jesus in very bad light. I have read many people trying to explain it, reconcile it, downplay it.

It is the passage where Jesus encounters the Gentile woman – Syrophoenician in Mark 7:24-30 or Canaanite in the parallel passage in Matthew 15:21-28.

*“Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”

*First, Jesus ignored her. Then he said he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then, he called the woman and her daughter dogs after she begs “Lord, help me.” A derogatory term.

Some people say – why does it matter what he called them? At the end of the day, the woman got what she wanted right? “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Some people say that Jesus cannot be wrong. Jesus is divine, so therefore, he must be testing the Syrophoenician woman’s faith, which she passed. They argued from the doctrine that Jesus is without sin, so Jesus cannot be racist (or sexist for that matter)

Some people say that Jesus is human – that’s also from doctrine right? Jesus is fully divine and fully human, and therefore because Jesus is fully human, he can make mistakes and this moment was a learning moment that helped Jesus expand his understanding of his mission.

*One biblical scholar, Francis J Moloney, in a commentary on the Gospel of Mark suggested that this passage is “actually symbolic of the Gentiles whose salvation has been “far away” until this point, and more appropriately fits with the fact that until Mark 7:33 Jesus is yet to touch a Gentile to perform a healing[15].

*After this passage the gospel moves to Jesus’ performing miracles for Gentiles in Gentile lands, with Jesus moving through Gentile territory until 8:10, and feeding a Gentile crowd – doing the same thing he had previously done only for the Jewish people – giving them bread and extending the mission of salvation to include them[16].”

*Another pastor – Rev Karen E Gale said, “when I was in seminary and I went in front of the committee on ministry to talk about my call, I presented to them a sermon on this text, a sermon that talked about how Jesus got it wrong, was wrong. And in that meeting one member was incensed that I dared question the divinity, the character of Jesus by essentially calling Jesus a racist. “Jesus is the son of God. You must change this sermon!” he practically yelled. Yet here I am again saying that I believe Jesus is wrong, was wrong, and for whatever reason, the writers of the gospel include this text to show us even Jesus gets it wrong in this essential way. So I understand if my words today make you mad. But the gospel message for us and the good news for us is that if he can change, so can we. If we are willing…”

And you know what, I think we all miss the point when we argue about whether Jesus was testing the woman’s faith, or whether Jesus was racist.

What is more critical is not the conclusion whether Jesus was racist, but what this passage can teach and transform us, here and now. If we are arguing about whether Jesus was racist or not, we would be focusing on a question we cannot have a conclusive answer, and fail at the one thing Jesus asks of us – that is to follow Him.

Did we jump into a defensive posture because Jesus is being criticised? Just like how we jump into a defensive posture when something or someone we care about is being criticised? Just like how we might react when we are called racist?

Did we really listen to what is being said? Or did we ignore it, minimise it because we are uncomfortable or threatened by what is being said?

If we are to follow Jesus here, how are we supposed to act or behave?

Listen not to rebut, but listen to understand.

After reading several articles, I tried to understand where they are each coming from. I understand the person in Rev Gale’s committee who yelled “Jesus is the son of God. You must change this sermon!” I also understand Rev Gale’s perspective that Jesus got it wrong and Jesus changed. I also get what the scholars were pointing out – that this is a transition point in the gospel from Jesus ministry to the Jews, to a broadening mission of salvation to include the gentiles.

I don’t have to reach a conclusion. I can hold all of these in tension because the lesson for me isn’t the conclusion – “the Truth” – because there is no way to arrive to a conclusive answer. I can hold all of these in tension because my faith in Jesus isn’t shaken – it could be possible that Jesus got it wrong on purpose so that we, like him, may need to pay attention to our biases and prejudices and change. After all, Jesus did make another mistake in the Gospel of Mark – he said that David entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread in the days of Abiathar the high priest in Mk 2:26 – but when we read 1 Sam 21:1-6, the high priest was Ahimelech and not Abiathar.

What I believe that we are invited to focus on instead is about how we go about listening to what God is trying to tell us now. It may not be the same as what God was trying to tell the early Christians then, but that’s the wonder of the Holy Spirit – we are continually learning new things, asking questions that those who have come before us have not asked before.

And for me, it is about suspending, just a moment, my judgement and listen. Listen to understand and not listen to debate.

*So I want to invite you to listen today and think about, and perhaps change some of your ideas about racism. I learned a few things after attending Wednesday’s talk by’s Panel Discussion: Regarding Racism. You can find it on youtube – and it is an excellent place to learn how to start participating in the work to dismantle racism. I went on to do more research – and I found Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and Writing at University of Texas at Austin Professor Patricia Roberts-Miller’s work –

But before I jump in – I want to ask – what does it mean to be racist?

*Professor Patricia Roberts-Miller writes –

if you stop someone on the street and ask them, “what does it mean to be racist?,” a lot of them would say it means:

1) consciously categorizing people by race;

2) and you can know that someone is doing that by “making race an issue” (that is, mentioning race);

3) “stereotyping” a race (that is, making a generalization about it), especially if the generalization is negative;

4) as a consequence of that conscious negative stereotype about the race, treating everyone of that race with aggression and hostility.

Those actually aren’t good ways of deciding that something is racist (although it’s true that I’m racist). In the first place, these rules imply useless and cognitively impossible solutions to racism. They suggest that the solution to racism is to: not see race; not mention race; not make generalizations about groups; and never consciously behave badly to someone just because of their race.

If we only think about racism as being consciously behaving badly to someone just because of their race, then we will miss all the times we unconsciously behave badly. We will end up calling racist incidents as just “culturally insensitive.” 

Prof Roberts-Miller points out –

*Racism isn’t an either/or. It isn’t that we’re racist or not; it’s how racist we are and what we’re doing about it. It’s the fourth (false) criterion for racism that enables racism most effectively.

Racism is an unconscious bias. No one is unbiased. That isn’t how cognition works. You can’t perceive the world without perceiving it in light of what you already believe.”

She gives very good example of how biases work

“Imagine that you’re trying to find an office in a university building. You can find the door to the building because you have a stereotype about how buildings work. You walk past classrooms because you have a stereotype about classrooms. You walk into a room because you have a stereotype (and prejudices) about what an office looks like. For instance, it might say on the door, “Department of Rhetoric,” and you’re looking for that department. You have a prejudice (you have prejudged) that departments put their name on a door.

She makes sense right? We step into an elevator, and we instinctively press the button with number of the floor we want to go to, because we have an assumption, a stereotype, of how elevators work.

She says “That’s why the argument that you shouldn’t stereotype groups is nonsense. We stereotype. That’s how we think. The very statement, “Generalizations are bad” is a generalization. Generalizing isn’t the problem.

You walk in to that office. There are several people. Whom do you assume is the executive assistant, and whom do you assume is the Department Chair?

You see a tall white male with slightly graying hair, a short stout Black woman of the same age as the white male, a younger white woman elegantly dressed, a person whose race and gender you can’t immediately identify. Whom do you treat as the receptionist?

Your decisions about whom to treat as the Chair are just as much questions of prejudging, stereotypes, and expectations as your decisions regarding finding the door (and it’s decisions, and not decision—there are a lot of factors). You can rely on your prejudgments, stereotypes, and expectations, or you can decide to treat humans differently from doors. You can’t not have the prejudgments; you can treat know that you have prejudgments and then act differently.

Racism isn’t getting up in the morning and deciding on whose lawn you’ll burn a cross. Racism is assuming the Black woman isn’t the Chair.”

In our context, racism isn’t just about telling an interracial couple that they are wrong. Racism is assuming the Malay-Muslim woman in tudung in the office is the receptionist instead of the Chair of the department. And your assumption most likely would turn out to be correct here in Singapore because racism is also systemic and structural – it comes from socio-cultural-political-economic circumstances – the systemic issues and obstacles that prevent Malay-Muslim women from becoming the Chair of a university department.

I will share with you one personal experience – when I helping AJ with his resume, I saw his O level certificate and I was stunned. His results were almost the same as mine for O levels. With those results, I would have expected him to make it to university. But he didn’t. Because of his race, his socio-economic class, his sexual orientation – he was on the margins. There were many, many obstacles that he faced and that’s why even though we had similar O level results, we didn’t have similar outcomes. This is systemic racism.

We need to start somewhere. Perhaps opening our minds, exploring possibilities, then changing our minds is a good way to start.

Racism isn’t just overt. It isn’t just somebody walking up to a interracial couple and vomit his racist ideas on them. Nor is it just someone making negative statements about a group of people who belong to a certain race. Racism is also covert.

Like Professor Patricia Roberts-Miller, I will acknowledge I am racist. Not because i want to be racist – but because that’s how my brain works – I am biased, and these biases come about from the environment i grew up in, the culture i am steeped in. Then once we acknowledged that, we no longer start from a place having to defend ourselves, or prove something or another is racist or not, but be ready to listen to those who are speaking up and understanding their experiences of racism, what they are trying to say, and start working on being less racist. If we don’t come to terms with racism that is embedded in us, we will only listen to defend ourselves, debate, and we will end up being more divided and still remain racist.

Now I want you to think about this statement : FCC is racist.

Some of you might go “No we are not, because FREE stands for First Realise Everyone’s Equal” We say it every week – “we welcome everyone, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, social-economic class or any label people put on you.”

That doesn’t mean we are not racist. Or sexist. Proclaiming something is one thing – it needs to be backed up with action.

Some time ago I asked for some feedback from minorities in FCC.

This is one of their replies:

*“I have experienced some form of racism in other churches but also in FCC here and there from members who probably did not realise it was hurtful, whether it was jokes about the Tamil/Indian accent or gestures that mimicked Indian mannerisms (eg wobbling of the head). I usually have no problem speaking up against racism in more obvious circumstances, but when I don’t know people well and when I’m often the only minority, and when it’s an implicit remark, I usually end up being unable to say anything and end up feeling hurt/upset without knowing where to go with my feelings.”

Sometimes, because we don’t know how to handle difference, we avoid interacting with minorities altogether. Minorities in FCC have experienced it – there are people who interact with each other but leave them out. Nobody talks to them, or invite them to go to lunch together.

*What hurts our minority siblings is not the overt racists or racist incidents like the ex-Ngee Ann Poly lecturer who confronted the interracial couple, or the PA’s treatment of Ms Sarah Bagharib, but the small infractions in everyday interactions by ordinary folks like you and me.

Do we make room for minorities? Do we make the effort to reach out, overcome our biases, our discomfort to care for, and love the other?

There is much to be done – it looks like a daunting task but let’s focus on one step at a time. Progress and not perfection. We will continue to make mistakes, but what gives us hope is we are making progress – and moving towards becoming more loving and less racist.

How to be Anti-racist

1.            Be constantly vigilant of your own biases and fears.

2.            Seek out interaction with people who differ from you (in terms of race, culture, ethnicity, and other qualities).

3.            Don’t be defensive.

4.            Be open to discussing your own attitudes and biases and how they might have hurt others or in some sense revealed bias on your part.

5.            Be an ally, by standing personally against all forms of bias and discrimination.

Exorcism requires us to name the demon.

If we don’t acknowledge, then we won’t be able to deal with it.

Jesus exorcised the demon from the Syrophoenician/ Cannanite woman’s daughter. We will work towards exorcising racism from our midst.

Invite you to join in this work of being the Body of Christ working against racism

May we continue to live out what FREE means – First Realise Everyone’s Equal – and see that we all are created in the image of God.


Questions for Discussion

Read Matt 15.21–28 and Mark 7.24–30

  1. What are your first reactions to the passage?
  2. When you heard some people describe Jesus actions as racist and/or sexist, what was your response?
  3. What your response immediate, or did you spend some time to think about it?
  4. Was there a time you were called out about your behaviours – that they were sexist, racist, homophobic or transphobic? How did you react?
  5. Looking at Jesus actions after the woman’s reply “even the dogs will eat the crumbs,” what did you think our response should be when we are called out about our behaviours?
  6. What do you think are possible loving responses to people when we are called out (rightfully or wrongfully) for our behaviours?
  7. How are we invited to grow in this process?