Black or white. Us or them. Yes or no. My candidate; your candidate. 1 or 0. Binary thinking is everywhere in our culture.
I received quite a few contact forms on the blog “Overrated,” from a few weeks back, where I discussed the importance of maintaining friendships with people who think differently. I’m guessing that many of you share this growing sense that the polarization we see on this issue or that issue is merely a symptom of some greater disease that seems to have torn a rift between "us and them." You’re beginning to feel, as I am, that it’s not the “wrong side” of any one divisive issue, which poses the greatest threat to all of us. It’s the division itself.
Of course, we all see the effects of binary thinking in our politics, but it might be even more striking to see it in matters that don't really impact most of us. For instance, when a celebrity becomes a suspect in a criminal investigation, the entire public snaps into place in less time than it takes to read a single article. You’re either in the “guilty” camp or the “innocent” one. To differ judgment is to render oneself topically irrelevant at the next dinner party.
Perhaps we haven’t come very far since the Roman Coliseum. A gladiator can receive either a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
Child development psychologists theorize that this is how we first learn to take in the world around us: “Banana. Oh, I like that. Banana, good…Asparagus. Ick. Asparagus, bad.” But a healthy development path should take us from a childhood world of straight yes-es and no-es to an adult world with lots of maybes. Aristotle said the same thing a long time ago: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” A child immediately spits the idea out or scarfs it down. A fully developed person has learned to chew on it for a bit.
But this healthy development process can stall if we never come into contact with people and situations that challenge our old biases. Brain researchers have inferred that one reason why reading good fiction literature has been shown to ward off Alzheimer’s is because good character development almost always forces us to make certain assumptions and then retract them, collapsing a supposed dichotomy. A great example of this is in the Harry Potter series, where the reader gets several books in, assuming that Severus Snape is a bad guy, only to discover (spoiler) that things are not quite that simple.
What’s frightening is to think of what that means on the flipside. Could you say, then, that old, irredeemable Voldemort does little to stave off Alzheimer’s? If we don’t regularly put ourselves in a situation that challenges old biases, can our neural pathways actually harden into dichotomy making machines? Can we lose the ability to collapse a false choice? In a world of violets and mauves and aqua-marines, are our brains actually wiring themselves to only see black and white?
This is why, try though we might, it’s always so hard to sign Jesus to our own debate team. And believe me, my team has tried. Theirs has too. But there is this stubborn reality of who Jesus was, which often frustrates any attempt to claim where he is on a given issue.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. If Professor Snape is not such a wooden character that we can easily pigeonhole him, why do we always assume that Jesus is? His own time was no less partisan than our own. One side wanted him to be a meek religionist, safely preaching private morality for here and comforting thoughts for the hereafter. The other side wanted him to be a powerful revolutionary, overthrowing the powers that be with force, if necessary. He ended up pissing off both sides and dying a lonely death, with maybe a couple prostitutes and his own mother to mourn him.
It’s probably as unpopular of a move today as it was in his own time, but what Jesus did, instead of just aligning himself with one party or the other, has sometimes been called “the third way.” The third way is not just finding another option that we didn’t see before. It’s a way of living and seeing the world that creates more options where there weren’t any before. It’s a way that introduces a new wild card into the game rather than just trying to beat the opposition. It’s so foreign to our way of thinking that it is better demonstrated than defined.
Jesus taught the poor how to reassert their dignity over against the powerful but, like “Br'er Rabbit,” to do it with savvy rather than a sword (Matthew 5:38-41).
He taught them how to eliminate enemies with kindness (Mt. 5:42-48).
He taught that “our side” can’t really remove the little speck of sawdust in “their” eye, until we’ve removed the giant log from our own (Mt. 7:1-5).
He put his own neck on the line to defend the woman caught in adultery but then, after her accusers went away, he said, “Next time, let’s not, huh?” (John 7:53-8:11).
He told his disciples to quit trying to assign blame for bad things that happen and, instead, get to work healing the world (John 9:1-7).
You could find a hundred more examples, because once we retrain our eyes to see the “third way” in Jesus’ actions, we find it’s on virtually every page of the four gospels.
Here’s the catch, though: the third way is never easy. Our natural leanings and inertia never simply tend toward the third way without effort or forethought. That’s why opening up a third way is always a creative act. We’re actually trailblazing another path where, before, there was only a fork in the road.
And here is why this way is so unpopular: the third way always involves loving our enemies somehow. This is not the same thing as just bending to their will or folding on our own principles. It means acknowledging, at all times, that the importance of their humanness always transcends the importance of their rightness or wrongness on a given topic. People are more than their opinions. And the creative act of blazing a third trail always assumes that life is not a zero-sum game. The best outcome is the best outcome for all parties involved.
And finally, we can’t love the humanness of our enemies, if we don’t know them as humans. It has never been easier to silo ourselves away from disagreeable viewpoints. The Way of Jesus in the 21st century requires that we not do this. Ask your neighbor about their bumper sticker, in a calm and respectful way. Follow people on Twitter who disagree with you. And create safe places for mutually respectful dialogue.
Trust me when I say that no one believes in the wrongness of the other side more strongly than I do. Faithfulness, today, means believing that they and I will be reconciled all the more for it.
Grace and Peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.