Feeding From Troughs of Whiteness: Race and the Prodigal Son

“He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”

- Luke 15:16 NIV

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (1663–1669)

There are those passages of scripture so well-worn and so captive to particular approaches and theologies that we struggle to imagine new ways of hearing them. The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps foremost among these; indeed it is so well known that one need not have had a culturally christian upbringing to be familiar with it. Most of us can tell some version of it, and of those most would be able to tell you that it is a parable about repentance and God’s love and grace for his children, even (or especially) when they are unfaithful.

Certainly there is not much wrong with any of that, but on a closer analysis we find our readings of this parable to be deeply individualised and moralised. We are often most concerned with which character we are able to personally identify with; the father being generally attributed to God and the disgruntled older son not being an especially pleasant character to see oneself as, the most popular role for this purpose is that of the prodigal son. Relatedly our understanding of what exactly it is the younger son is repenting from is sorely limited. Many of us read the words “and there squandered his wealth in wild living” in verse 13 and insert all manner of modern, conservative Christian ideas into that phrase; in particular those three things to which we so often limit our ethical formation — sex, drugs and alcohol.

This all seems fine on the surface; certainly this reading has managed to stretch itself across countless messages, devotionals and worships songs. However an honest evaluation reveals issues that arise from such limited approaches. In particular those of us who, like myself, grew up in active christian families and never experienced a ‘rebellious’ phase marked by that ‘wild living’ find ourselves in difficulties. We struggle to identify in any real way with the younger son and, at worst, disconnect from the parable entirely or, at best, begrudgingly place ourselves in the role of the older son, reminding ourselves that we ought not resent or judge new or returning believers who come from lifestyles of which we may not approve. This is important of course but it ultimately falls short in leaving a great many christians — indeed the majority — believing they have nothing significant to repent from. How might we expand our understanding of this parable, and perhaps begin to remedy this?

The beginnings of a possible answer occurred to me one evening as I was musing on the film Sami Blood. Written and directed by Amanda Kernell, Sami Blood is a film that tells the story of a Sami woman who undergoes racial oppression, both systemic and interpersonal, in the Swedish part of Sápmi at the beginning of the 20th century. In response to these traumatic experiences she rejects her Sami culture and attempts to assimilate to Swedish culture; she does this to such an extent that in the film’s opening we see her as an aged woman who calls herself by a different name, speaks of Sami people with racist stereotypes and pretends not to understand her mother tongue of Southern Sámi. How does this relate to the prodigal son? Superficially, if we are applying our usual readings but let us look again. In particular there are three things that I think may help us:

First it is important that we understand this parable in the broader context of what Luke is trying to do with his gospel narrative. Luke is particularly clear in his portrayal of God, and Jesus, taking the side of the oppressed. We see this from the so-called magnificat to Jesus quoting Isaiah in the synagogue to the cleansing of the temple. More specifically, Luke is concerned with the response of the rich to the gospel message and something that is often referred to as Jubilee economics; the rich young ruler who walks away sad is contrasted with Zacchaeus’ repentance, Luke’s version of the beatitudes goes so far as to say blessed are the poor and woe to the rich, even the Lord’s prayer contains the not coincidental and not merely metaphorical reference to the forgiveness of debts. Perhaps, with this in mind, we might say that Luke is not so focussed on the nature of the younger son’s wild living so much as the squandering of his wealth. Rather than redistribute his means, or use it for the benefit of his community, the younger son instead engages in selfish ways of living, wasting his money on his own personal pleasure and benefit.

This leads to the second important point, which is that this parable is part of a set of three that Jesus tells in response to a specific complaint about his associating with sinners and tax collectors. Now sinners can be a euphemism for all sorts of things but it is interesting that tax collectors are named specifically here; indeed the next time the motif of ‘the lost’ appears is in the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. These people are not merely notable for their wealth and techniques of extortion, though those are important, but because of who they were collecting taxes for, that is Caesar. These were Jews who, perhaps for the sake of personal gain and power or perhaps even for safety, had allied themselves with the gentile oppressors. Rather than live in solidarity with the suffering of their own people tax collectors had chosen the side of the colonisers. It is his associating with these people that Jesus is now defending.

Finally of note is the specific reference to pigs. Just before the turn of the story, having squandered his wealth, the younger son hires himself out to a ‘citizen of that country’ feeding pigs, and finding himself starving it says “he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating”. Being a common example of a food that unclean for a Jew to eat, pigs are often used in this period as a euphemism for gentiles and the things relating to them. We see this earlier in Luke when Jesus sends the demons called ‘Legion’ out of the man and into the nearby herd of pigs; we find it in Matthew too, when Jesus says “do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.” (Matt 7:6). It is important however to remember that this is not a mere case of xenophobia; from Egypt to Babylon to Greece to Rome the Jewish people’s experience of gentiles was as oppressors. This is not a simple hatred of those who a different but the powerless crying out against the boot on their neck.

As we hold these things in mind perhaps now the links between this parable and the story of Sami Blood are clearer. Perhaps we can see the younger son not simply as a backslider, rebelling against the personal ethics of conservative Christians, but as one of an oppressed people — albeit one with some wealth — who for his own benefit, even his own safety, disavows his family, his culture, his heritage, and gives himself over to the oppressor’s ways of being. This may not be as wild as it initially seems; in fact NT Wright draws parallels between this parable and the exile of Israel in Babylon, an exile during which Babylon engaged in tactics of assimilation not unlike those depicted in Sami Blood. To bring it into a more contemporary context, and indeed that of Sami Blood, perhaps Jesus is not merely telling us of the Father’s grace for us should we repent of an overindulgence in the pleasures of the world, perhaps Jesus is inviting us to repent of whiteness.

Before I am accused of ‘reverse racism’ let me be clear about what I mean by whiteness. There is not room here for a thorough history but whiteness is not a biological reality. It is a social category constructed, by most estimations beginning a little over 400 years ago, for the intentions of domination and oppression. It is a false identity shaped by European colonisers to justify the work of colonisation — the work of stealing land and labour, killing those deemed ‘not-white’, and destroying cultures, languages and ecosystems. To repent of whiteness is not to feel guilt about our pigmentation but rather to reject an identity and a way of being that exists to dominate and that fails to affirm the image of God in others. In doing so perhaps we might uncover a more honest story about who we are.

The story of Sami Blood is not only a fiction about an individual, it reflects the story of entire peoples. For example, some of my own ancestors, the Irish, were not really considered white in many places until the last century when they were able to enter into and benefit from that identity. To take it even further we might muse on the words of African American theologian, Willie James Jennings, when he says that “anyone can be white.” For some of us it easier because of our lack of melanin but anyone can reject their heritage, their culture, their ancestry to engage in these ways of being that we call whiteness. In this I find the reference to pig food in the parable particularly interesting because of the ways in which poor people have so often taken on white identity; even when we are starving we long to fill our stomachs with whiteness, for little nourishment but the psychological benefit of ‘not being black’.

Sami Blood (2016)

But just as anyone can be white so do all of us have a story before we were ever called that. For those of us in Europe it may not be as distant as for those in the USA or Australia or Canada, but we are not free from this work. To repent of whiteness we must ask ourselves who we once were, and how we came to be white. What songs, what dances, what languages, what food was lost in the process? We must ask what in our relationships, our politics and our living is born of whiteness? What histories have been sanitised, painted over, even forgotten? For those of us in Norway perhaps we might look again at nasjonalromantikken and ask how whiteness blended itself in and distorted the formation of what Norway and being Norwegian means.

I hope I have been clear in uncovering the generosity of this parable, not as a rejection of our traditional readings but a broadening. Whilst before this story of repentance was reserved for those whose lives looked a particular way I hope now we can see that we can all enter into it. We all have a great deal to repent of, but that also means that we all have great celebration and reconciliation awaiting us, as well as a generous and gracious Father who will welcome us into His arms. As my friend Jarrod McKenna says: “We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain from dismantling white supremacy.”



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