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Identity politics and the Canine(ite) woman’s faith

by Sam Curkpatrick

Sam is a tutor and lecturer in theology at Stirling Theological College and is Partnership Coordinator (Vic Tas) for Australian Churches of Christ Global Mission Partners.

[Image: Second-century B.C.E. mosaic from Alexandria depicting a dog and a knocked-over pitcher. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

On face value, the account of the Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman’s encounter with Jesus in Matthew and Mark troubles contemporary notions of identity, equality and inclusion. Jesus’ supposed racial and religious exclusivity (at best), stereotyping or prejudice (at worst), leads to his seeming rejection of a woman who pleads for help. Jesus’ aphoristic insult apparently dehumanises the woman as an unworthy dog, outside the privileged future of God’s ethnically defined children, Israel. 

Yet what seems a barefaced slander hinges on a clever play on words (κυνάριον, ‘house dog’). Ironically, this opens the possibility for an understanding of human dignity and renewal beyond instantiated perceptions of cultural and religious identity that frame the encounter. The woman is unoffended by symbolic labels that typify social interaction and expectations. Jesus’ subsequent praise of the woman reverses Israel’s understanding of salvation as linked to religious propriety and national-historical identities, instead giving focus to renewal that begins in humility. In an era of identity politics, this is a refreshing reminder that the authentic expression of human possibility and flourishing begins in dependence, rather than symbolic or imaginary identifications.

IDENTITY POLITICS

Identity politics is a curious mix of bespoke, personalised identities and symbolic affiliations. Identity politics considers human identity as inherently cultural and constructed. Consequently, human identity is negotiated within an array of contested symbolic forms and meaning is created through difference.[1] For example, a barista’s beard might distinguish its wearer from a clean-shaven businessman, as more cultural and less commercial. Identity personalisation is exacerbated through social media, offering countless forums for communication and association, and the continual expansion of symbolic possibilities. Online, we do not see human bodies, only their symbolic attire. 

While this contemporary scene reflects a greater awareness of the diverse possibilities for self-understanding, there is a corresponding increase of anxiety: Who am I and how is my story significant, when there are “seven-billion stories and counting”?[2] If symbolic value is defined through difference—for example, the signifier strong means something different to weak—projections of identity as symbolic will be endlessly contested: I am this because I am not that

When self-understanding is linked to symbolic differentiation, the words, identity labels and appearances we project come to be seen as substantial. Rather than representing interests, symbol is considered a direct manifestation of personal identity: the posts we share and groups we join define who we are.[3] Yet such symbolic negotiations are transient and identities rapidly compound and change. This is divisive, as all political negotiation tends to be, and a propensity to anxiety and offence results from identities that are continually challenged and politicised by other identity-possibilities. Solidarity is signalled through identity tags which are appended to online profiles, and affiliations to niche groups and causes—#metoo, #blacklivesmatter, #illridewithyou—where there may or may not be any correspondence with actual relationships.  

Following the 2015 terrorist attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the phrase je suis Charlie was re-posted and tweeted in a show of global solidarity with the victims. Je suis … has now become a popular formula for articulating social cohesion and tolerance in the wake of traumatic events. As a symbolic expression posted online, the phrase is exemplary of the direct correspondence assumed between substance and representation, identity and image. The phrase is also politically charged, advocating unity and empathy in the face of potential retribution against Muslim’s and threats to social cohesion. 

Yet those who tweeted je suis Charlie were soon contested by an alternate symbolic articulation, je suis Ahmed, referring to a French Muslim policeman killed in the attack. Like any symbolic articulation, an alternative may be proffered. Ironically, je suis Ahmed challenges the motivation of those posting je suis Charlie as themselves bigoted and intolerant, suggesting that the newspaper was not the real victim of the attack but Muslims, who are frequently stereotyped as terrorists and especially by the publication Charlie Hebdo. Wrangling over symbolic articulations as integral and correspondent to a group or nation’s identity is the basic form of conflict within any culture war.

The curation of identities in the symbolic domain leads to a belief in the immediacy between self and symbol. This is highly fractious and can have absurd outcomes, as opponents in the ‘culture wars’ rile each other on camera, trying to capture ‘Triggered!’ videos that will go viral. Ironically, in an era where identities are largely disembodied in hyperspace, reactions within identity politics can be highly emotional or visceral. Because of the immediacy between symbolic expression and personal identity, the 2017 plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage was framed with warnings of an increased youth suicide risk.[4] Negotiations around the meanings of words (marriage) and the representation of relationships within legislation could not proceed without the bodies attached to those identities being impacted. This direct correspondence between online symbolic identities and offline material selves pervades contemporary society.

[In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019, it seems miserly to question symbolic expressions of solidarity. In times of crisis, it is natural to reach out through symbolic means—like a bunch of flowers, a black arm band, a flag at half-mast—to show our care and concern for others. Symbolic expressions are not narcissistic where they are grounded in actual relationships, decisions or change. The silver fern projected onto the Sydney Opera House represented real ties between nations and relationships between families and friends ‘across the ditch,’ and may even have provoked real empathetic responses. Such symbols are words offered in solidarity and love. In this article, my critique is focussed on an immediacy between self and symbol that fractures when offended. The Christchurch shooter’s acts were a violent reaction triggered by a narrow understanding of identity that emphasised symbolic difference (cultural, ethnic and religious differences within a society) as fractious and threatening. That the video of the attack was streamed online suggests this was a symbolic reaction to the shooter’s offended sensibilities within the virtual area of identity politics. Not to diminish the real and devastatingly traumatic experience of the victims, most terrorism is primarily concerned with symbol.]

A WOMAN IN DOG’S CLOTHING

On this contemporary understanding of identity, Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman is highly offensive. The women is introduced as a Greek (Ἑλληνίς, therefore a Gentile), a Syrophoenician by birth (Συροφοινίκισσα τῷ γένει) in Mark (7:26) and a Canaanite woman (γυνὴ Χαναναία) in Matthew (15:22). Rather than engendering acceptance, her difference creates rejection. 

Playing the game of identity politics, Israel’s self-understanding as a chosen people was fostered through symbolic cultivation and artifice. Differentiation from the nations was constituted through narratives of history as a chosen people, but also distinct legal and religious codes, mediating their understanding of ethical responsibilities to others—‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ (Mt 12:10, Lk 14:3) It is on this basis that she is rebuffed by Jesus. ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs (καὶ βαλεῖν τοῖς κυναρίοις)’ (Mt 15:26). The woman’s exclusion, justified by religious, ethnic and cultural identity, has very real consequences for her daughter. Contrasted with the privileged children of Israel, the apparent exclusion of a child is cutting. The phrase ‘it is not right/good (oὐκ ἔστιν καλὸν) suggests propriety within domestic expectations—not feeding the animals from the table—and the defilement of God’s beneficence to Israel.[5] The children of the house are fed; those down the road are left to fend for themselves. 

In English, this passage frequently uses the term ‘dog,’ suggesting an intentional insult (GNT, MSG, NIV, NLT, NRSV). Readers are reminded of other uses of ‘dog’ in the New Testament, include Philippians ‘Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers’ (3:2), and Revelation, ‘Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters’ (22:15). Yet ‘dog’ (κύων) is not the term Jesus uses in this passage, rather its diminutive ‘house dog’ (κυνάριον).[6] Rather than ravaging beasts that prowl the scrapheap outside the city, this image suggests a family friend, waiting expectantly for a scrap from the table. Even a dog is a part of the house of Israel. 

The term ‘house dog’ (κυνάριον) is not spoken by Jesus as a definitive label, but somewhat ironically. This spoken word has a doubled sense, pointing toward an unsaid meaning: it is good to feed the house dog from the table! This is not an insult that shuts down, but a play on words that opens further interaction: ‘Yes Lord. However, even the dogs eat the crumbs falling from their master’s table.’ ‘Crumbs’ (ψιχίων) are also diminutive of the meal offered to the children, yet sufficient for a house dog who is dependent on its master for sustenance.[7] 

However, this scene records something much more significant than a clever play on words. Confused by their continual wrangling over religious law and behaviour, the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ see only a nuisance beyond their narrow symbolic concerns, rather than a nuanced theological opening. The immediate presence and appeal of the woman is what triggers the disciple’s resistance: ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us’ (Mt 15:23). The disciples are confronted in a way that is common to human interaction—especially when we encounter those in need—as others makes demands on our space, time, resources and comfort. The woman’s disposition toward Jesus, she came and ‘knelt before him,’ and her answer, ‘Even the house dogs eat the crumbs,’ emphasises humility and dependence. Whatever symbolic overlays of religion, ethnicity or gender this scene suggests, the woman’s embodied presence is at the centre. She does not appeal for her daughter by email but puts herself on the line. 

Just like the crowds who had also come from the regions of Tyre and Sidon, she had heard and seen what Jesus was doing (Mk 3:7–8). Here was the possibility of encountering God’s salvation in a real and transformative way, unmediated through symbolic religion and law. Her words address directly the one who stands before her, ‘Lord, Son of David.’ This encounter is far more significant than the symbolic interaction which plays with the label ‘house dog.’[8] The woman’s identity is greater than symbolic overlays and the realities of history and politics into which we are born and negotiate life. Her hope is placed in this personal encounter in the flesh, in a moment of great fragility and need, where God has skin in the game. Human dignity before God is affirmed in the brokenness of Christ, a solidarity far deeper than symbolic representation. It is here Christ’s cry from the cross, and not in the symbolic manoeuvrings of identity, that Israel will find hope:

For he has not despised or scorned
    the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
    but has listened to his cry for help. 

(Ps. 22:24, NIV)

UNVEILED, JE SUIS UN CORPS (I AM A BODY)

I am not Charlie. However, like Ahmed the police officer and those who worked for Charlie Hebdo, I have a weak, vulnerable body, susceptible to the violence of others. I am a dog. ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Ps. 22:6). Mine is a fragile body, something common to us all. 

Christian faith believes that the word became flesh, and in a God whose power is made perfect in weakness. In the fragility of Christ, God is fully present. This is obscured by identity politics, which looks to human identity and righteousness in symbolic overlays rather than shared materiality. 

The Canaanite woman was not beholden to the symbolic. Instead of registering offence in the wrangling of politics, her clever play on words points to human creativity beyond instantiated perceptions of cultural and religious identity. More importantly, her encounter with Jesus is a direct appeal, as one dependant on God, for the daughter who is dependent on her.

Human possibility and flourishing begin in our shared dependencies, rather than symbolic cultivation. Our unveiled bodies give us a language of encounter and love. Here, we might discover a deeper ground for human dignity, extending from the embodied presence of God with us.

This article has been peer reviewed in line with editorial policies. 

ENDNOTES

[1] Drawing on Terry Eagleton’s definition of Lacan’s symbolic register, in Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

[2] The branding and tagline of SBS (Special Broadcasting Service). This was replaced in 2014 by a new tagline and promotion video, “Join in”: “All of us, especially together, are better, not because we are the same but because we are all different … So, why sit on the sidelines? Get out there and embrace our differences ... For without our differences, we’d be the same.” Miranda Ward, ‘SBS drops “seven billions stories” tagline replacing it with “join in,”’ Mumbrella, 13 June, 2014 (https://mumbrella.com.au/sbs-unveils-new-network-brand-join-232150). 

[3] This is exacerbated by the prevalence of ‘parasocial interaction’ with celebrities, content producers, institutions and companies on social media, who foster an illusion of intimacy and personality, to the point that consumers describe a sense of familiarity, shared opinions and trust created by online representations. See Leslie Rasmussen, ‘Parasocial Interaction in the Digital Age,’ The Journal of Social Media in Society, 7.1 (2018), 280–94.

[4] Troy Nankervis, Same-Sex Marriage Postal Vote Slammed As A ‘Suicide Risk,’ Triple M, 9 August, 2017 (https://www.triplem.com.au/story/same-sex-marriage-postal-vote-slammed-as-a-suicide-risk-49517).

[5] καλὸν is used in both Matthew and Mark.                                      

[6] For further details on the use of κύων within scripture, see Glenna Sue Jackson, ‘Have Mercy on Me: The Canaanite Woman in Matthew 15:21–28,’ PhD diss. Marquette University, Wisconsin, 1993, 59–65. While Jackson concedes that the diminutive κυνάριον indicates a play on words, she points out that Matthew also ‘argues against a requisite one-step confession of faith for entry into the community,’ 65.

[7] Bivin and Tilton argue that it would have been culturally inappropriate for Jewish households to have a dog at the kitchen table, as opposed to Greco-Roman society. This is not necessarily problematic. If this were the case, the use of κυνάριον might seem even more ironic, in the contrast between Jew and Gentile, which is emphasised by Jesus. Jesus speaks to the woman in a way that is culturally appropriate, diminishing the offence of the woman but exacerbating the offence of the Jewish disciples who hold so strongly to cultural and religious propriety. David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, ‘Jesus and a Canaanite Woman,’ Jerusalem Perspective, Dec. 2015, https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/14795/.

[8] Eagleton suggests that identity politics exaggerate the importance of culture and can distract from issues of far greater importance. See Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2000), 43. 


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