Truth-Telling and the Confrontation of the Other
Truth-Telling and Confrontation in the Bible
Just prior to this encounter with the Canaanite woman and the healing of her child, Jesus is again teaching and interpreting the laws in tension-filled exchanges with the scribes and Pharisees. He decides to get away, toward Tyre and Sidon, places outside of Israel typically identified with nonbelievers. It is Jesus who is approached by the Canaanite woman shouting for mercy. Her child is tormented by demons, gripped by some unexplainable sickness or disease. Jesus does not respond to her. The disciples urge Jesus to “send her away, for she keeps shouting after us” (Matthew 15:23). Weren’t we trying to get away from all this? Didn’t we just leave a place where you (Jesus) were given a really hard time?
What unfolds next is textured with location, history, language and custom. With what eyes and ears do we meet the text? There is beneath the surface an interplay of narratives — the deliverance of Israel and the conquest of Canaan. Those who identify with the liberation narrative may not so readily see the identification of others with a displaced indigenous people. Jesus identifies himself and seemingly his ministry within the confines of Israel, sent to only “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So, as a Canaanite, you are not among them, you are not “in my parish.”
In fact, the Canaanites along with the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites were nations that the scriptures say God gave to Israel to defeat when entering the promised land (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). It is the Canaanite woman who offers words and gestures of respect and honor to Jesus, kneeling and addressing him as “Lord” — a sign of honor not always given Jesus by his own. These actions speak as loudly as her words: “Help me.”
Still, Jesus responds in language typical of his birth, his identity and upbringing, “It is not fair to take the children’s [referencing those of Israel] food and throw it to the dogs [referencing those outside of Israel].” To which the Canaanite woman replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In some ways it is a witty turn of phrase to which Jesus can now proclaim only, “Great is your faith!”
In this encounter Jesus not only sees and hears the Canaanite woman with new eyes and ears but we also see him transformed in his role and ministry. The child of the Canaanite woman is healed. Healings are no longer restricted to those of Israel. Jesus then speaks of having “compassion” for the crowd (Matthew 15:32) and feeds the crowd by filling baskets with broken leftover pieces. Compassion drives mission. In telling the truth and confronting the other, boundaries of status are shattered, borders of exclusion are transcended, harms woven into the fabric of one anothers histories are acknowledged, crowds are fed, and those not typically seen and heard are healed.
Confronting Injustices of Today
The Women of Liberia
For the sake of their daughters and sons, women of Liberia demonstrated great courage and tenacity in truth and in confronting the other. “Christian and Muslims united — form[ing] a thin but unshakable white line between the opposing forces, and successfully demanded an end to the fighting — armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions. In one remarkable scene, the women barricaded the site of stalled peace talks in Ghana and announced they would not move until a deal was done. Faced with eviction, they invoked the most powerful weapon in their arsenal — threatening to remove their clothes. It worked.”
It was a nonviolent, unconventional truth-telling and confrontation that finally led to peaceful transformation in Liberia in 2003 and is retold in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Confronting the “other” often involves engaging the powers or complex systems of harm and oppression. In Liberia, truth-telling was unconventional, and confrontation involved a strong interfaith, nonviolent network of women.
How and when do we find the courage and power to confront the “other” that is also an abusive or oppressive system? One inspiring journey unfolds in Somaly Mam’s memoir The Road of Lost Innocence. Somaly Mam was born in a Cambodian village where her family experienced marginalization and abject poverty. She was sold into sexual slavery at the age of 12 by someone posing as her grandfather. The book chronicles unfathomable trauma, brutality and harm during the 10 years that she was moved from brothel to brothel in the sex trade of Southeast Asia.
Having managed to escape, become married and begin a new life, Somaly tells about her encounter with the owner of a small house in her job as a real estate agent. The owner of this house was an elder who survived the trauma of an oppressive regime in their own country as well as noble yet largely unsuccessful attempts to change the unjust system. From him she received the wisdom that “the only thing to hope for is the peace you need to look after your own garden.” Reflecting on his words, she says, “I don’t feel like I can change the world . . . I don’t even try. I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me [that] is suffering. I want to change this small real thing that is the destiny of one little girl. And, then another, and another, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself or sleep at night.”
With one act following another and support from others who joined the journey, Somaly Mam went on to fight sex trafficking with fierce tenacity and courage. The Somaly Mam Foundation is a force around the globe in the fight against sexual slavery. It gives voice, shelter, liberation and recovery to victims of human trafficking; prepares survivors to create sustainable, meaningful lives; and provides advocacy to end this immoral and illegal trade.
Even though the girls and young women survivors affiliated with the Somaly Mam Foundation may not directly engage their abusers, they are effectively confronting this abusive system of crime with their truth-telling, their story and their reintegration into free and sustainable lives. Their restorative journey places a humanizing face on this utterly dehumanizing system. The power of truth-telling and confrontation is that in setting free our stories of harm and recovery, others may also be humanized and find healing. This may not always include a direct encounter with an offender but does engage the powers and principalities of systems as we seek to break cycles of violence.
Restorative practices beget restorative practices. Early in this study we acknowledged that journeys of reconciliation occur across a spectrum and are seldom neat and tidy. Our journeys must take into account the complex cycles of harm, woundedness and trauma. Part of the complexity is that the same dehumanizing cycles of violence hold the offender captive as well.