What the GOP can learn from The Syrophoenician Woman by Cynthia Garrity-Bond

Cynthie From there he (Jesus) set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.  She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.  (Mark 7. 24-29)

By the time Ohio went to Obama, with his win barely confirmed, journalist and pundits were churning out commentary and statistical findings on the demographics of his larger-than-life electoral college and just-over-the-top popular vote win.  Even after Fox news called it for Obama, an awkward lapse of time ticked by as the country waited for Mitt Romney’s concession speech.  Turns out he had not prepared one. This political gaffe was one strategic error among many, not with-standing the entire ideology of the Republican platform that became glaringly apparent Tuesday night.  While the GOP/Romney camp took the male white vote (59%), this shrinking demographic failed to be enough to secure the win. It seems along with a high Latino/a, African American, women’s vote (especially single women), in addition to a higher turnout of young people than 2008, Obama demonstrated the changing face and influence of a diversified United States of America.  

So now, three days later, the GOP is doing their version of a personal inventory to figure out where they went wrong. Since a white majority is lamentingly in sharp decline, some in the GOP are resting their hope on Latino Tea Party conservative Marco Rubio.  As if the branding of a Latino is the solution to a party whose ideology is no longer reflected in a country that insists on gender and racial diversity.  Where gay-marriage and women’s reproductive rights matter, along with health care, immigration reform, and entitlement programs remaining in the hands of the government and not private business.  So while the GOP reappraises their message and platform, and because many Republicans advocate family values reflected in scripture, I’d like to recommend they familiarize themselves with the Gospel story of one woman who takes Jesus to task for his inability to see beyond the borders of his own narrow agenda.

The Gospel story of the Syrophoenician woman, as she is named in Mark (7.24-29), and the Canaanite woman, as she is identified in Matthew (15.21-28), cast Jesus in an unfavorable light as he receives a lesson in inclusion from one tenacious, triply oppressed woman.  While the intent of the story centers on issues related to purity and the messianic role of Jesus (as subject), it just as easily is turned around to emphasize the Syro-phoenician woman as subject and protagonist to a Jesus who must learn from the wisdom of an outsider woman caught in the triple bind of oppression.  Her oppression is located first as a woman in a patriarchal culture.  This unnamed woman is identified by her outsider status as Greek or Syrophoenician, as well as a Gentile who may have worshiped Greek Gods and Goddesses.  She is a foreigner of whose status of clean/unclean is unclear.  Additionally she has a daughter, who according to tradition is considered unclean because she is possessed by a demon.  Both gospels position Jesus as refusing to respond to her request for healing.  Not only does Jesus refuse to assist, he gets a bit confrontational with the woman who has broken cultural protocol by approaching and petitioning him as an unrelated male in public.

In this case, Jesus has put his own Jewishness ahead of this Greek/Gentile woman, evident in his response, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  The children refer to Jesus’ sense of Jewish superiority, with the dogs as second-class Gentiles.  Instead of retreating after Jesus’ insult, she persists through her rhetorical cleverness of striking back and opening up the impasse in order to save her daughter.  The woman, who is culturally expected to be silent and unseen, does neither.  Instead she finds her voice insisting on inclusion without giving up her identity and teaches Jesus that his mission must also include what he perceived to be as the other, those who do not look like, act like, or speak like him.

This periscope has played havoc with the image of Jesus from early Christianity to modern Biblical scholarship. One solution essentially challenges the Christology of Jesus is taken from the Gospel of Luke where a twelve year-old Jesus ditches his parents.   After looking for him for three terrifying days, Mary and Joseph locate their son in the Temple listening and asking the teachers questions.  This passage ends with “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor (2:52).”  In other words, Jesus did not have the game plan for his life but instead had to do the heavy lifting of learning just like the rest of us.  And in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman later in his ministry, Jesus must move beyond his myopic self-understanding to envision a wider more diverse worldview.

While it is not my intent to place the GOP on the same level as Jesus, I am suggesting that as the Republican Party assesses their losses (presidential and senate), they begin their own heavy lifting of examining their racial, gender, class,  & sexual orientation biases.  Nothing short of a complete conversion away from a sense of white privilege and patriarchy will suffice.  Now surely these are God fearing family values to which the GOP can aspire.

Cynthia Garrity-Bond: Feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past three years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

Categories: Politics, Scripture

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4 replies

  1. That’s for sure, nothing less than a total turn around is necessary. And by the way, speaking as a single divorced woman who has been cast out by her family for supporting women, the poor, racial minorities, and gays, “family” values are not the only values worth fighting for. If they were, I would be in the “bosom” of my family while supporting white male family “values.” And PS I don’t fear God, why should I, the God I know is not first and foremost a God of judgment but a Goddess of love and understanding, and “She” never condemns anyone to eternal punishmemt. I might like it if She would condemn Romney, Ryan, and Rove to hell, but She would never do any such thing. Her love and understanding exceed mine!


  2. Thanks Cynthie, this is great. I love this text that shows Jesus’ blind spots, of which he must repent – that’s a biblical lesson worthy remembering for sure! Also, here’s a pretty cool article about Hebrew scripture biblical values: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-bradley-shavit-artson/your-non-partisan-guide-to-voting-biblical-values_b_2036700.html that sound good to me!


  3. I like this article a lot Cynthia, and agree with all of the points you have made. Just want to add that when we look at incidents such as this, and many of them are regarding women, Jesus always states and brings attention to the situation as regulated by his religion and culture, and then flies in the face of authority with the action he takes. I like your pointing out that he had to do “the heavy lifting of learning just like the rest of us” but is it possible that in some cases he was demonstrating right action and the need for change after flamboyantly calling attention to the authorized flaws in the system?


  4. Always writing such smart pieces! Thank you for keeping me in the spiritual realm when I so often want to walk away. Literally the personal IS political.


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