“Spiritual but not religious”

Text: Matthew 15:21-28 (Jesus confronted by a Canaanite woman)

Imagine three snapshots from the history of Israel. In the centre is the Gospel reading we just heard: Jesus confronted by a Canaanite woman. This was 2000 years ago when both Israelites and Canaanites were subjects of the Roman Empire.

Behind that scene, I see another one from 1300 years earlier — the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, which is recounted in the biblical book Joshua.

Finally, in the foreground, I see modern Israel in which Jews are again the largest group in the land known at other times as Canaan and Palestine. In the past century, Jewish exiles have emigrated from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and displaced the Palestinians.

I offer these snapshots to throw light on the story of the Canaanite woman and on this summer’s fighting between Israel and Gaza. I also hope they might help us to think about the role of religion in a world scarred by racism.

The conquest of Canaan by Joshua after the death of Moses was a genocide carried out in the name of God. Many other nations come with similar back stories, including Canada.

1300 years after the conquest of Canaan, hatred between the conquerors and the conquered remains. Jesus ignores a desperate woman’s cries for help because she is not an Israelite. She persists, which leads him to compare her to a dog. When she responds to this insult with a clever retort, Jesus finally agrees to heal her daughter.

In the face of this woman’s persistence, Jesus moves beyond his national and religious heritage. He shows that God’s mercy extends to people of all nations and religions, even to Canaanites.

This gracious truth allows both Christians and Jews to continue to proclaim the God of Israel after Rome burns Jerusalem to the ground and destroys YHWH’s Temple 40 years later. In the long centuries afterward when Jews are no longer the majority group in the Holy Land, both Jews and Christians learn to speak new languages in many new lands.

Then 100 years ago, the fortunes of the Holy Land turned. British and French armies defeated the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled Palestine for hundreds of years. In the post-war carve-up of the Middle East, Britain gained control of Palestine. It pledged to help the European Zionist movement establish a Jewish state there, which happened in 1947.

Britain’s commitment to Zionism was part of the upsurge of nationalism that swept the world after the Great War.

Canada was also part of this upsurge. Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted this when he marked the centennial of Britain’s declaration of war on the German Empire on August 4: “Canada, as a truly independent country, was forged in the fires of the Western Front . . . Canada joined the fight without debate after the decision was made in London to declare war on Germany in 1914, but at war’s end in 1918, Canada had a separate seat at council that drew up the Treaty of Versailles.

“When the great [sic] nations of the world gathered [in Paris in 1919], we must never forget that our place at the table was not given to us,” Harper said.

This is what I was taught in school – that the horrendous sacrifices of World War One were not entirely for nothing. Canada began the war fighting for God and Empire and finished it fighting for King and Country.

Unfortunately, other nations did not achieve a break with Empire so easily.

India was not at the table in Paris in 1919 even though it had contributed more troops and suffered more losses in World War One than Canada. Indian independence would not come until after three more decades of repression and another World War fought as part of the British Empire.

Ireland was not at the table in 1919. Nationalists had led a failed rising in Dublin in 1916 to win independence. Britain executed the leaders of the rebellion, and it took another revolution in the early 1920s for Ireland to win partial independence.

Algeria, Vietnam and the other colonies of the French Empire were not at the table in Paris. Although the horrors of the Great War led to the growth of nationalist movements in these colonies, independence from France would not be won for another 50 to 70 years of wars in which many more millions would be killed.

Iraq and Syria were not at the table in Paris. At the time, these were new colonies of Britain and France with borders drawn as arbitrary lines on a map by diplomats who knew little of the people from a variety of ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds who lived there.

Unlike these countries, Canada was given a seat at the table in Paris in 1919. This fact also makes Canada responsible for the Treaty signed there. Many historians say the punitive measures of the Treaty of Versailles, which were fueled by racist hatred of Germany, led indirectly to the outbreak of the Second World War.

World War One changed everything. With the destruction of multi-national empires like Russia and Austro-Hungary, dozens of new countries were formed and nationalism flourished like never before.

These empires had united people of many languages. The nations created after their collapse often resorted to ethnic cleansing to deal with the complexities left behind. Nazi Germany is the most extreme example of the latter.

In Canada, nationalism is also not straightforward. We struggle to integrate French- and English-speakers, First Nations people, and new immigrants. In other countries, the situation is more complex and the consequences more dire.

Should political power rest upon one narrow ethnic or religious group? Should countries like Iraq, Syria, and Israel be for just one faith or for many? What place should these countries make for minorities like Palestinians, Kurds and Yazidis?

Our Gospel reading asks a similar question: is God’s healing only for Israelites or does it extend to Israel’s historic enemy, the Canaanites? Such questions are as close as today’s headlines and as near as our nightmares.

The story of the Canaanite woman shows the way forward, I believe.  Jesus praises her faithfulness although she is not an Israelite. She does not follow Torah, eat kosher, or sacrifice at the Temple. She seeks God’s mercy despite sectarian divisions. She is a mother desperately seeking God’s healing for her daughter.

This Canaanite woman could represent many of us today. We want protection whether we are Canadian, Kurdish or Palestinian. We want mercy whether we are Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, or Muslim.

Jesus is confronted by a woman who is spiritual but not religious. He heals her daughter when she reminds him that God does not care whether one is Canaanite or Israelite — or Catholic or Protestant, Sunni or Shia.

God’s mercy extends to people of all nations and religions and to people who identify with no empire, nation or religion.

Leaders like Stephen Harper, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Iraq’s deposed Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki uphold sectarian nationalism.

But in a summer ravaged by racism, with the murder of young native women like Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg and of young black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri; in a summer of another war between the Jewish state and the miserable enclave of Gaza filled with Muslim, Christian and secular Palestinians; and in a summer with terrifying civil wars between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the Canaanite woman reminds us that God’s Love unites us.

Despite what national or religious misleaders may tell us, God has no nation, religion or denomination. God’s mercy flows beyond all human boundaries and offers healing to all people.

Amen.

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