Gospel reminds us there is nothing new about racism

Thinking Anew: Story of Leon Bosch is inspiring

In a recent interview to mark his 60th birthday the internationally renowned double bassist Leon Bosch spoke about his career as a chamber musician, recitalist, and conductor.

For almost 20 years he had been principal double bass of the famous Academy of St Martin in the Fields. His hard-earned success began in a poverty-stricken South African township of the apartheid era. The family was poor as his father was banned from teaching because of his political views. Bosch recalls "relentless oppression" and fear of "the knock on the door". Aged 15 he himself was arrested and "brutalised by police" for taking part in a protest march and charged. He was so impressed by the lawyer who secured his acquittal in the subsequent court case that he later decided to study law but was refused entry by the University of Cape Town.

His parents however had always seen education, which included music, as the way to a better life for their children and so the seed of an international career was sown and nurtured.

Bosch entered the South African College of Music, but his career was almost derailed by racist staff who believed classical music was not for someone like him. Fellow white students sniggered at "the boy from the township" who aspired to something that was theirs. But he was encouraged by a few teachers and, in particular, by the conductor Allan Stephenson, who looked beyond the colour of his skin and recognised his talent. This is a discomfiting story of raw, naked racism but it is also a story of human courage demonstrating what even a few good people can make a change by doing what is right.

There is nothing new about racism as we are reminded in a gospel reading for tomorrow which is, on the surface, quite troubling.

Jesus is approached by a woman from Syrophoenicia, part of today's Syria. This is Gentile territory and she, a Gentile, is seeking help for her sick child.

Jesus initially appears to dismiss her saying that his mission is primarily to his own people, the Jews. He then uses what could be considered racist language by referring to Gentiles as dogs: “He said to her, ‘Let the children [the Jews] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

William Barclay tells us that in that society a dog was a symbol of dishonour and that it was a Jewish term of contempt for non-Jews. But then he offers this clarification: "Jesus did not use the usual word; he used a diminutive word which describes, not the wild dogs of the streets, but the little pet dogs of the house… He took the sting out of the word." And, we are told, he healed the child.

In this exchange perhaps there are two things of relevance to us.

First, whatever race or religion we belong to can corrupt us with attitudes and prejudices that are fundamentally wrong, but the culture can make them seem acceptable. As a Jew, Jesus was expected to look down on outsiders like this woman or the Samaritans but he clearly refused.

Second, when we find ourselves in challenging situations we are called as Christians to do what is right as Stephenson did for the young Bosch and the world of music has been truly blessed as a result.

We should note that a reading for tomorrow from the Book of Proverbs emphasises our common humanity: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.”

Hong Kong born Kwok Pui-lan, Anglican theologian, author and one time president of the American Academy of Religion said: "The lifting up of every voice, the celebration of diversity, the affirmation of plurality, help us to see glimpses of the amazing grace of God in all cultures and all peoples."

With such an exciting prospect for humankind what is there to be afraid of?

GORDON LINNEY

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