The Context from Which I Write Is That of a Christian, Single, African American Woman Without

The Context from Which I Write Is That of a Christian, Single, African American Woman Without

Febbie C. Dickerson

Vanderbilt University, SBL 2010

November 20, 2010

The Canaanite Woman (Matt. 15:22-28):

Discharging the Stigma of Single Moms in the

African American Church

The context from which I write is that of a Christian, single, African American woman without children who stands in solidarity with single African American women with children in the African American church tradition.[1] While 60% of the African American churches are comprised of women who are oftentimes viewed as second-class citizens when they are single mothers; in the African American churches they suffer a “double marginalization” because of gender and family structure.[2] The double marginalization engenders marginal treatment because women and men see single mothers negatively. On the one hand, married women and women with significant others often view single women with children as a threat to their marital and intimate relationships. While growing up in the church, I heard older women tell younger married women to be on guard for the single woman with children: she is “seeking a man to be the caretaker” for her family. On the other hand, some men view single women with children as helpless and in need of a male figure to help with the care of their children; especially male children. In churches today, men are encouraged to take time with children who don’t have a father at the church. Though the intent is good-natured and acknowledges the importance of a male presence in children’s lives, it presumes a neediness of the single mother that may not be true.[3] With this assumption, the single mom finds herself voiceless concerning who establishes relationship with her children.

Exacerbating the stigma of single mothers in the African American churches is the authority of the Christian tradition that promulgates the “God-ordained model of family” as hierarchal male ruled families, which advocate marriage and children, and oppose divorce.[4] Communities of faith are generally concerned with Christian faith and lifestyle and refer to the Bible and Christian tradition because of its ecclesial authority and societal influence.[5] The image of the church as the household of God has inspired not only the advocates of womanhood, which cast women in a certain role of the family, but has also inspired patriarchally controlled associations of church women.[6] The women of the church become a patriarchally controlled association whose main objective is to protect the “status” of being a married woman. As a result of double marginalization undergirded by Church authority, single mothers are constantly reminded that they have fractured families.[7] A friend who is a single mother once said that she is not aware that she is a single parent until she comes to church. Thus, a fundamental problem for single moms in the African American church tradition is that their family structure does not mirror what is thought to be the proper model of family. Moreover, the theological issue for the African American church tradition is what determines the proper family structure for community members. Church tradition promulgates the family model as hierarchal male ruled. The contemporary praxis of family shows a multitude of family models not only in society but also within faith communities. Thus, the African American church tradition may be struggling to theologically understand the place of single mothers in the church.

Viewing this life context in light of the Gospel of Matthew, I contend that faith communities have made the idea of “sameness” an idol. The dominant fractions of a community have determined that their status and existence is the only path for proper living. Some within communities of faith have imposed their ideas upon others within and outside of the community and announced that their ideas are what God has approved. The Matthean writer reveals that the true nature of family extends beyond biological kinship. Matthew proposes that whoever does the will of the father is a brother, sister, or mother. (12:50). Therefore in the eyes of God, a family is more than a wife and husband with biological children. A family is one that is connected with the presence of God and offers that presence to others.


Single mothers are bound by the construction of motherhood whose form and content are shaped by religious and theological understandings and politically reinforced in society through public policy that illumines a certain image of the good and bad mother. The notion of motherhood resides in the dichotomy of the ideal versus the reality.[8] The ideal mother points beyond concrete existence toward an ultimate fantasy of motherhood, which becomes inscribed as the only depiction of motherhood. Hence, the ideals as formulated by religious institutions construct the institution of motherhood in service to patriarchy, which seeks to promote a category of motherhood that solely operates in the realm of wife, purity, nurturer, and caretaker. The institution of motherhood also promotes the family as heterosexual and male dominated. As head of household the male as husband and father has ultimate authority over the family, though the female as wife and mother may have full responsibility for all domestic matters, as well as shared economic responsibility for keeping the family going.[9] The proper depiction of a mother as promulgated by Christianity, is one who is bound to the family by way of marriage to a man and nurture of children. This framework for motherhood necessarily marginalizes single mothers as it communicates that they are not acting in the proper sphere of mother. The woman with children but without a husband is thus viewed as deviant and lacking in the skills of true motherhood.

The roles of mothers are reified in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Proverbs 31:10-31 paints the picture of the super wife and mother. This woman is the heart of her husband and does him good and not harm (31:11-12). She works with willing hands and rises while it is still night and provides food for her household (31:13, 15). This woman looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness (31:27). Her children and husband call her blessed (31:28). Likewise in the New Testament, the household codes are understood to provide guidelines for the workings of a Christian household. Wives are encouraged to be subject to or accept the authority of their husband (Col. 3:18, Eph 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1a). Guidelines for behavior suggest that young women should love their husbands and be self-controlled (Titus 2:4-5) while ideals of reverence and purity are invoked to set an example for wayward husbands (1 Peter 3:1b-2). In both cases, the ideals and duties of womanhood and motherhood are presented so as to eliminate the idea of single mothers.

The castigation of single mothers is a continuous phenomenon even outside of religious institutions. Political policies such as welfare/welfare reform continue the negative evaluations of single mothers. Linda Gordon in Pitied but not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890-1935, examines the political consequences of single motherhood through the lens of the welfare system in the United States. She asserts that women alone with children reinforced all that was perceived as negative because the stigmas of welfare and of single motherhood intersect; hostility to the poor and hostility to deviant family forms reinforced each other.[10] The foundation for single mothers as deviant family forms are engendered by the moral intensities that consume a society concerned with the sexuality and reproductive functions of women and women’s roles as caretakers of the family. The single mother is thus perceived as being sexually out of control. In our political consciousness as it relates to welfare, sexually out of control women means the public must take care of more children. The category of single mother worked in many ways to denigrate any woman found with children and without a husband.[11] Cultural influences and the worldview of the dominant fraction of society have long shaped the discourse about and stigma of single motherhood. The social stigmas along with the ideals of motherhood created by religious institutions have oftentimes rendered single mothers to the margins of church and society.

What’s the Solution?

The way forward for a single mother in the African American church tradition is the liberation of African American faith communities from the idolatry of viewing the cultural construct of the patriarchal male ruled family model as an absolute, which is the root of an ideological sin that marginalizes single mothers. There must be a new vision of the church as the true ekklesia or public assembly of the household of faith so that in it there will be solidarity among its members including single mothers and other women and men within the church. The church as ekklesia is ideally the gathering of all those women and men who empowered by the Holy Spirit and inspired by the biblical vision of justice, freedom, and salvation continue against all odds the struggle for liberation from patriarchal oppression in society in general and religion in particular.[12] It is essential that this ideal faith community see the marginalization of single mothers as an ideological sin or a sinful perception of the relationship between members of the community, that suggests that single mothers are less worthy than married women because they lack a husband. While the hierarchal male-ruled family is one model of family, it cannot be presented as the only family model. The Matthean Jesus suggests that family extends beyond biological kinship and rests with who is a true disciple of Christ by doing the will of God (Matt 12:50). Jesus declares that it is not what goes in the mouth that is defiling but that which comes out of the mouth (15:11). It is not single mothers who defile the church. The marginalization of single mothers that comes out of the church is defiling for the church. Thus, the Gospel of Matthew and the Canaanite Woman pericope (Mat. 15:21-28) promulgate a dual message; liberation of single mothers in the church from their doubly marginalized status and a corrective vision for the church that single mothers are viable members of God’s family. The Beatitudes (Mat. 5:1-11) and the account of the Canaanite Woman open new vistas for the full inclusion of single mothers.

Liberation for African American Churches

While the socio-historical context of the Gospel of Matthew suggests a church in transition seeking to synthesize Jewish religious tradition to its new encounters with gentiles, a literary analysis suggests that the gospel writer promotes a household ideology. The Gospel of Matthew promotes a new type of family that extends beyond the boundary of biological kinship. In Jesus’ new family of disciples, blood means nothing. What counts is being a disciple who does the will[13] of the heavenly Father.[14] Therefore, the Beatitudes, found in the Sermon on the Mount, can be considered the pathway to a household spirituality that involves fulfilling the command to love God, others, and self (Matt. 22:37-40).[15] Moreover, these modes of being instilled within the household a vision for how all family members are to be accepted and respected. For the African American church and other contemporary readers, Jesus has put forward an ecclesiology that envisions an ekklesia of women and men honoring and accepting all persons as equals in the community.

Although the Canaanite Woman is often read as a discourse on faith and discipleship, I choose to read this pericope through the lens of the Beatitudes as a means of liberation for the household that is the African American church tradition at large. The purpose of a liberation interpretation is to liberate members of the African American church tradition from their bondage to the ideological sin rooted in idolatry that hinders them from their ethical duty of loving neighbor. A liberative reading produces a reading done by or about a member of a marginalized group that undercuts the status quo, and that shows marginal persons or groups refusing to be placed in either a superior or an inferior subject position.[16] Using the above qualifiers, I with single African American moms need to produce a liberative reading of Matthew’s account of the Canaanite Woman that will attack the sin of idolatry employed by the African American church at large that engenders oppression for single moms.

Matthew 15:22-28: The Canaanite Woman

Matthew’s account of the Canaanite Woman begins with a focus on Jesus, the ecclesial authority who has left a certain place after conflict with Pharisees and scribes regarding what does and does not defile a person (15:1). As the writer details that Jesus has gone towards the region of Tyre and Sidon (15:21), the focus is immediately shifted (15:22) toward the gendered marginal person who “came out from” the region of Tyre and Sidon. I define a marginalized person as one who does not have control over his or her life/situation. I also use the term gendered to distinguish the Canaanite Woman from the Centurion (Matt. 8). While the text does not provide any clues to the woman’s social background, family or socio-economic status, the Matthean writer has constructed a relationship of subordination.[17] The Canaanite is at the mercy of the authority of Jesus. The healing of the Canaanite Woman’s daughter hinges upon Jesus’ response to the pleas of the Canaanite mother. Reading the text in this way focuses it upon a member of a marginalized group.

A liberative reading notes that the text undercuts the status quo according to which marginalized persons cannot and should not speak. The Matthean status quo posits that marginalized females do not speak in public. Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-15), the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue (9:18), and the woman who suffered from hemorrhages (9:20-25) are silent. Either someone speaks on their behalf or there is an inner dialogue. The Canaanite Woman undercuts the Matthean status quo because as a gendered marginalized person, she nevertheless speaks directly to Jesus. Moreover, she speaks on behalf of her sick daughter, as did the ruler of the synagogue (9:18), when she calls out to Jesus (15:22) after identifying the plight of her daughter as her own. Here, in the grand narrative of Matthew, this shows that the Canaanite Woman is not subordinated but granted an equal hearing before Jesus. The Canaanite Woman falls down praising Jesus while again requesting help (15:25); and she verbally spars with Jesus after he likens her to the dogs by proclaiming that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table (15:27). The fact that the marginalized has a voice is an important means for changing consciousness and transforming society through acts of liberation. Reading the Bible for liberation is ultimately grounded in the acknowledgement of those whose otherness is silenced and marginalized by those in power and in showing respect for their otherness by giving them voice.[18] Moreover, the disciples (15:23), although for selfish reasons, help to undercut the status quo by asking Jesus to release the Canaanite Woman. Liberation for a marginalized group begins to happen when, for whatever reasons, people speak against the status quo; in so doing these people unwillingly become advocates for the marginalized.

Another characteristic of a liberative reading is the disruption of the status quo, which takes the form of a refusal to be definitively placed in either a superior or an inferior subject position. The inability to categorize a person or situation unsettles the status quo. The question becomes: Did the Canaanite Woman refuse to be categorized or accept categorization? Elaine Wainwright, in Shall We Look For Another: A Feminist Rereading of the Matthean Jesus, asserts that the Canaanite Woman’s acceptance of Jesus’s insult produced a new space for her within the house of Israel. I believe the text can be read in the other way; the Canaanite Woman refused to be categorized. The woman’s notice that both “master” and “dogs” eat the same food provides a means by which social hierarchies, which ultimately leads to marginalization, can be broken down.[19] While Jesus reminds the reader that his mission was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the Canaanite Woman saw herself as already a member of the house of Israel. She was positioned to receive that which the house members were entitled. This included healing for her daughter.

Matthew 5:3-12: The Beatitudes

Provide a Different Perspective

Although Jesus announces that he came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (15:24), the Beatitudes affirm the Canaanite Woman’s place in the ekklesia of God. When Jesus spoke the beatitudes, he spoke to the crowds (5:1) who were the poor in spirit. The crowds were not a select group of people but persons in need of the presence of God along with the promises and hopes from the lips of Jesus—as were, beyond the Sermon on the Mount, the leper (8:2), the servant of the centurion (8:6), Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14), and many others. Thus, the Canaanite Woman is not different from those in the crowds. The words of Jesus to the crowds are also words for the Canaanite Woman. She is one of those who are poor in spirit. Her daughter is sick and in need of healing. The Canaanite is also one that hungered and thirsted for righteousness/justice (5:6) as she came seeking the power of healing for her daughter from the authority of Jesus. Likewise, the Beatitudes affirm the place of single mothers within the African American church by showing single mothers are not different than other members of the church. The words of Jesus to the crowds are also words for single mothers and African American churches. All are poor in spirit and need the presence of God (5:3). Single mothers and African American church members hunger and thirst for righteous/justice, are merciful, pure in heart, and are peacemakers (5:6, 7, 8, 9). Both single mothers and the African American church tradition are persecuted for righteousness sake (5:11) and are blessed when all kinds of evil are uttered against them (5:12). The Beatitudes disavow dominance and subordination in the household. They function to challenge the church to be countercultural by rejecting the standards of the dominant culture that seek to create insider/outsider dichotomies. For those in African American church communities, an understanding of the Beatitudes can shift the vision of those members at large to see that they stand in the same shoes as those of single mothers. As the ecclesial leader Jesus was changed from his insistence to operate within the boundaries of his community to include the gentile woman in his power to bless and heal, the account of the Canaanite woman in light of the beatitudes is important for African American churches, which must shift from the bondage of understanding family as only hierarchal-male ruled to accepting diverse forms of family.