Too often people divide the entire population of the world (7.4 billion, by the way) into two distinct categories – “There are two kinds of people in the world.”
The dividing lines could fall at any number of angles depending on the speaker’s point-of-view.
Our minds want to categorize – to put people and ideas under descriptive titles to help us understand.
Perhaps it arises from our need to find mental rest. Seeking simplicity, a label is produced, a title, a category, not always negative, by the way.
Nevertheless, the categories tend to become inflexible and predefine the “other,” obviating the need to really listen.
Catholic theologian Hans KÃ¼ng says that binary, hostile images are useful to excuse (“We are not to blame”), stabilize (“A common enemy reinforces togetherness”) and polarize (“He who is not for us is against us”).
The tendency to focus our fears and tensions on a scapegoat has been a recurrent theme of history.
Though our sound-bite laden culture continually serves it up for us, “friend-foe” thinking is neither intellectually satisfying nor honest.
Most readers recognize the binary divisions we insert between various groupings of human beings are inadequate and unsatisfactory.
Intellectuals like to think in terms of a spectrum, seeking to resist lumping people into predefined categories.
I sometimes wonder if plotting people on a spectrum is just the intellectual’s sophisticated approach to binary thinking. All we’ve done is expand the categories.
Because I fit the category of “believer” – a religious person – allow me to engage in a little self-critique of my group.
Recently, I’ve had some association with Christians of the Eastern Orthodox variety. I noticed their irritation, justifiably so, as they picked up on evangelical “insider” language – code words.
The Eastern Orthodox Christian begins to understand that evangelicals refer to Christians in two distinct categories: believers and unbelievers.
Predictably, the Eastern Orthodox Christian is offended to discover that she doesn’t fit the “believer” category as defined by some evangelicals.
Our binary categories only work when we’re among our kind. They are very good at erecting walls that divide or blowing up bridges that connect. So why keep them?
Someone may rightly point out that the Bible is a book replete with binary categories: dark and light, the broad and narrow way, truth and lies, life and death, Jew and Gentile and so on.
I recently spoke on the biblical character, Ruth, who hailed from Moab. The Moabites were considered staunch enemies of Israel having failed to aid them on their Exodus journey and also having sought to curse them through the prophet Balaam.
In fact, the Bible is very clear that no Moabite is to enter the assembly of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3-6).
And yet Ruth gets in! She graciously inserts herself into the monarchical line of no less than King David. How did that happen?
A few commentaries suggest that Ruth was exempted from the prohibition to enter the assembly of Israel as she was a woman, not a male warrior (binary categories again).
This is ridiculous. Israel was commanded not to intermarry with the surrounding nations, so Ruth gets an exception clause.
In a story filled with Old Testament grace, Ruth is soundly converted and integrated into the family.
That’s one example where the binary categories break down, right in the pages of the Bible.
But there are others. Jesus says the way is narrow and few find it. Yet John’s vision displays a multitude that no one can number before the throne, worshipping the Lamb.
Paul declares that we are justified by grace alone through faith, but James asks, “Can faith alone save us?” (I am aware that the two are not contradictory.)
Jesus declares he was “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” but also lauds a Roman soldier, “I have not found faith like this, no, not in Israel” and delights to chat with a Samaritan adulteress: “The fields are white unto harvest” and “I have food you know not of.”
What is sometimes cited as Jesus’ classic binary statement, “He who is not against us is for us,” in the context, urges the disciples to inclusive acceptance of someone outside their group.
One of the commentaries I read on Ruth didn’t dodge the difficulty. The author said that the Bible is a vast and varied book and sometimes the Bible enters into dialogue with itself.
The Bible has some hard and fast categories, but grace often breaks through. The categories sometimes dissipate as God interacts with wayward humanity in love.
The book is a love-library (not a rulebook) and reading it means attentively entering into the whole dialogue.
That doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning truth. I’m not suggesting that we deny the reality of good and evil.
I am suggesting that evil and good indwell every human heart. The binaries are within us. What is outside is also inside.
I am constantly made aware of my own evil and the fact that getting free of it is not dependent on a philosophy or worldview.
It is dependent on a person who received me with the love of adoption and embrace despite the evil that so plagues me.
I am asking that we extend that same love and embrace to those who see the world differently than we see it. The one who is forgiven much loves much (Luke 7:36-50).
So even though the Bible deals in binary categories, its wisdom shows us that we need to move beyond them for the love of Christ.
The next time you find yourself chatting with someone you might assign to a stereotypical category, resist the urge to label.
I’ll wager that the reflex to do so will make you slow to speak and quick to listen.
Mike Kuhn is a professor at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He has lived in Middle Eastern countries for 25 years and previously served as pastor of a church in the United States. A longer version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission.