By Miguel De La Torre
Yes, I am a heretic — but then, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As some of you might remember, I recently wrote what turned out to be the most controversial column in the history of Associated Baptist Press. It was based on one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament — the Gospel story of Jesus calling a woman from another culture a “dog.”
Yes, I know that Jesus and the Canaanite woman both probably had the same skin pigmentation. I used the modern label “woman of color” to describe the woman because the Jews of that time thought of themselves as superior to the Canaanites, much the same way some in the dominant culture look down at people of color in today’s society.
Not only did it inspire what turned out to be — by far — the longest comment thread ever on ABP’s site, but it also inspired quite a bit of conversation in the Baptist blogosphere. While, as an educator, there are few things I desire to do more than generate conversation, much of it, in this case, was bombastic.
I was accused, in the story’s comment section alone, of “reprehensible” theology, of spouting “theologically dishonest trash,” of “dragging Jesus Christ into the gutter” and of being “a thorough-going pagan who has no relationship with Jesus.” And that was just in the first six of 45 comments!
It was as if I was being called a “dog” (sorry – I couldn’t resist the irony).
As I read everything people said about me, I did agree with one accusation I saw repeated several times: that I am a heretic. I am a heretic because I read Scripture for what it says, not what I want it to say. (Never thought being literal would get me into trouble with conservatives and fundamentalists — go figure.) Scripture states, plainly, that Jesus called this woman a “dog.”
Now, to be sure, mine was a “non-traditional” interpretation of this passage. Traditionally — or, at least, in the 30 or 40 years since white American evangelicals have come to the consensus that racial and ethnic prejudice is sinful — evangelicals have dispatched with the passage by saying Jesus was simply being sarcastic in calling the Canaanite woman a “dog.”
I acknowledge that this is certainly a legitimate way to approach the text. But I don’t think the way I approached the text is any less legitimate, nor does my approach take the text less seriously than the “traditional” interpretation. No matter how much we try to explain the passage away, a plain reading of it remains problematic.
And, if you actually read the column carefully, you’ll notice I never said Jesus was a racist or a sinner. I simply raised the question. But at the very least, he was tempted, as he was in the desert and as he was in Gethsemane.
Many also thought I was being heretical by implying that Jesus learned something from the Canaanite woman’s persistence in demanding aid from him. But do the Gospels themselves not tell us that the fully human Jesus, as he grew into his divinity, “increased in wisdom and stature and favor with God” (Luke 2:52)?
We Christian heretics struggle with Scripture and, if need be, reject passages that are in contradiction to the Gospel message. These are passages like the ones about smashing babies’ heads against rocks (Ps. 137:9); today we call that “crimes against humanity.” Or the ones with instructions on how to set up a harem (Lev. 18:18); my wife won’t let me be that biblical. Or even the ones ordering God’s people to put disrespectful teenagers to death (Lev. 20:9), although, as the father of two teenagers, I am often tempted to take this passage literally. Note: I’m using humor here.
So what do we do with biblical passages that seem to run counter to the Gospel message of salvation and liberation? We do what Jesus did.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reinterprets the Hebrew Scriptures to bring them in line with the Gospel message, clearly telling his followers to reject those passages that bring subjugation or death to others. Specifically, Jesus said in Matthew: “You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist evil, but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other” (Matt. 5:38-39). According to Jesus, the biblical mandate of Exodus 21:24, which literally calls for “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” had to be rejected by his followers. In short, Jesus is calling his disciples to renounce a segment of Scripture (a-HA! – this might help me deal with the book of Joshua).
We Christian heretics are those who are thrown to the lions because we refuse to place God and Caesar on the same level. The early martyrs of the faith were persecuted for being “atheists” who refused to believe in Caesar’s religion. They recognized that they couldn’t serve both God and mammon, for they would end up loving one and hating the other.
Likewise, today’s Christian heretics prophesy against a Christianity that fails to challenge our privileged position, but rather justifies the American empire. (So how close is the American flag to the altar in your church?)
We Christian heretics believe the Word of God is inerrant; however, we believe the interpretations given by humans to God’s Word are not. Whether they are conservative or liberal, American or liberationist, all interpretations fall short of the glory of God. And if you come across anyone who has Scripture or God all figured out, I suggest that you hold your wallet and soul tightly — for you are at risk of losing one, if not both.
Just as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time crucified him on the charge of blasphemy (Matt. 26:65), so would today’s Pharisees crucify him again if given an opportunity. Why? Because they would not recognize him among the dogs he hangs out with, nor would he them (Matt. 7:21-23).
So, yes, I am unapologetically a Christian heretic.
Although I am no Christ, I follow his footsteps with all my heart and mind, using his own form of heresy as my model. Maybe this is how we discover our salvation, through a heresy that refuses to fuse and confuse the interpretations of the American empire with the Word of God.
Now you have to forgive me — for I am, after all, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher who received his Southern Baptist Theological Seminary diploma from the hands of Bro. Al Mohler himself — but altar calls are automatic with me. I know most of us have given our hearts to Jesus; now I ask if we are willing to walk down the aisle and give our minds to Jesus. This means that we are willing to read, to question, to wrestle, to struggle, and even to confess we don’t have all the answers (and maybe not even some of the answers).
The good news is that Jesus is not afraid of our honest inquiry. He is also patient when we get it wrong (and we all do). The real question here today is if you are willing to be the sister or brother in Christ of a heretic dog like me?