The Word This Weekend – September 9, 2018
“The Third Rail”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
26 Now a Gentile woman, of Syrophoenician origin, begged [Jesus] to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (from Mark 7)
“The Third Rail.” Some time back I was chatting with some West Coast friends about race relations in the US, and used this phrase to describe how inflammatory and explosive this issue can be. “It’s really a ‘Third Rail’ issue for us,” I said, and watched my discussion partners’ eyes glaze over. “Third rail – what’s that?” And I suddenly realized that what may make perfect sense for a lifelong New Yorker might be less well understood by West Coasters. So here’s a primer on the Third Rail.
The literal dictionary definition is this: alongside the two parallel rails of electric train tracks (e.g. the New York City subways), there is a third steel rail that doesn’t guide the train’s wheels. What it does carry is high voltage electricity, deadly if stepped on, that transfers current to a metal shoe jutting out of each train car. Very useful, yet instantly fatal to the unfortunate person who steps on it in error.
Now you see the more figurative meaning of the phrase, and why it’s so apt when we talk about race. Among the many contentious issues we might dare discuss, few are as toxic or ‘electric’ as this. And our current national moment makes such conversation even more perilous. As simple as it may seem to innocently assert that “Jesus loves the little children – red and yellow, black and white,” and so forth, there are so many spurs and off ramps that can light up our emotions, passions and objections.
Complaints about systemic police brutality so easily raise rejoinders about criminals targeting peace officers. Concerns about rampant gun violence so quickly bump into constitutional and libertarian arguments about the right to bear arms. Statements about the equal dignity of persons beyond skin color or ethnic derivation crash into generational assumptions about immigration, culture and rule of law. And ZAP! There goes the Third Rail, electrifying the conversations, sending the smell of burning flesh into the air, and sending us reeling into our defended spaces and political postures. ZAP indeed!
More often than not, even the attempt to hear and be heard on this issue drives an electric and divisive wedge between us, and our strong temptation is to avoid the deep conversations altogether, or settle for platitudes or platforms that get us nowhere – or worse. And in our Gospel text for this Sunday, we hit the Third Rail soundly, as Jesus speaks words that may seem harsh or even racist, addressed to a Syrian Gentile woman with a desperate cry for healing for her ailing daughter. We hear Jesus say, “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the pets.” Such apparent harshness and denigration in those words, and we could imagine a modern hearer crying, “ZAP!” at such a statement of racial dismissal and judgment.
What’s fascinating to me is the woman’s wise response to the Lord’s premise. “Yes, but even the pets are permitted to eat what falls from the Master’s table.” This woman well understands the insider/outsider reality of the Middle Eastern culture of that period, and seems somehow to accept that such is the way the world around her operates.
Because, then and now, human society is replete with firmly rooted ethnic, cultural, racial and gender differences and divisions. The lines and walls are sharply drawn and deeply etched, and they rise like ghostly specters whenever the rails are touched and sparked. We divide ourselves by clan and language. We separate by creeds and confessions. We easily and blithely dismiss and degrade and dehumanize others, often on the thinnest of rationales, and usually because we fail to recognize and acknowledge the fundamental human dignity of our neighbor -- our neighbor, my friends -- not the “other,” however that word “other” may be defined or stereotyped.
“I know I’m not entitled to feast at your healing table by right; everyone knows that.” Thus speaks the Syrophoenician mother. She well knows the ethnic, religious and cultural differences between a male Galilean Jewish rabbi and the desperate female pagan supplicant who stands before him with no claim, no “in,” no leverage except an appeal to his merciful heart. Such is the desperation and the raw courage of this woman. No, she seeks, by whatever means necessary -- and with whatever concomitant denigration she might suffer at his hands -- to grasp at this Master’s crumbs, to save her dear child from the jaws of evil and illness. “A dog I’ll be, if it will rescue my little girl.” ZAP!
There will be more to say this weekend, about these texts and themes, but meanwhile I’d like to offer a modest proposal -- regarding this text, as well as to the broader challenge to engage in meaningful, respectful and productive discussions along the lines of our many polarized positions -- to suggest a better way to engage in these hard and electric conversations about race and reconciliation. It seems to me that we so often make our starting point in these engagements a sort of zero-sum game, competitors asserting their rights to their slice of the pie at the banquet of liberty, demanding access to all that the culture promises to the many, and usually delivers to all too few. Because when we play it this way, every gain you make comes at my expense, and every roadblock I encounter leads to cries of “foul,” or “unfair,” or “you broke the rules!” This is why, in my opinion, our discussions about racism, sexism, or any other ‘ism’ you can name, so often devolve into arguments about even playing fields or unfair advantages or obstacles.
Except this isn’t a game, or a competition. We’re talking about human lives and hopes and destinies and worth. And when the Third Rail bites, it isn’t a gentle buzzer and a light-up nose like that old “Operation” game. It burns, it immobilizes. It kills, hearts and souls, dreams and lives alike. And the killing must stop.
What if we instead started, all of us, as the female foreigner in our text did: questing for mercy and healing not as someone with an advantage to be played, but seeking truth and justice as one community of hopes and dreams, all of us equally outside and in need? Perhaps, just perhaps, such a starting point holds the promise of true repentance and deep renewal both for ourselves and for each other in this challenging yet long overdue task of seeking understanding and true reconciliation.
As the great evangelist N.T. Niles once said, sharing our faith is like “one beggar telling the other beggar where to find the food.” When we start not as privileged owners, as masters and holders of the high ground, but take our place with the stranger, the foreigner, the representative of the underside, then we may just be able to have a conversation that is lateral and respectful, eye-to-eye and in one another’s shoes, deeply honest and vulnerably true. Perhaps such an approach throws the switch on the Third Rail, and lets us step together onto the steel rail without the fear of electrocution or misunderstanding. I don’t know for sure if this is the way, but it feels to me a lot more promising than the present dance of death in which we now so often engage.
So, see you this weekend, as we gather around Water, Word and Table, and heed the call of the Christ who leads us into settings and conversations as yet undreamed and unknown, to share the transforming Good News of the cross. May we dare to dream of a better dialogue, a truer fellowship, and a gentler and more just community, both within our faith community, and in its calling to make Christ’s appeal to a broken, divided and hope-starved world.
With You in God’s Good Work,