by Mike Kuhn
“Perhaps what is outside is also somehow inside, what is alien also intimate.“ (Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction)
“There are two kinds of people in the world…” That’s the opener. Then a clever, self-appointed guru proceeds to divide the entire population of the world (7.4 billion by the way) into two distinct categories. The dividing lines could fall at any number of angles depending on the speaker’s point of view—liberals and conservatives, spenders and wasters, gay and straight, embracers and homophobes, blue-collar and white-collar, God-fearers and God-haters, introverts and extroverts, decent citizens and riff-raff, believers and non-believers, righteous and sinners, right and left, haves and have-nots, collectivists and individualists and the list goes on ad nauseam.
It’s tricky though, isn’t it? 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. Life is confusing and the inter-connectedness of our world leaves us dizzy and disoriented. The categories, the philosophies, the worldviews, all seem to keep multiplying. Can someone simplify, please?! And so, a label is produced, a title, a category, not always negative, by the way. Nevertheless, the categories tend to become inflexible and pre-define the “other” obviating the need to really listen.
One theologian protests 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.
An obvious case in point is the US presidential primaries. If you happen to be tuned in to that, just listen to the rhetoric for ten minutes and count the number of binary categories you hear. And these are leaders! No wonder civil discourse is a lost art!
I suppose that 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. That’s better, right? I mean, at least we’re resisting lumping people into a pre-defined category. 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, really. But we’ve still neatly categorized everyone using our labels, our titles, our ‘stereotypes’ which is useful because, after we’ve done that, we can stop listening. We now know who those people are.
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 (is that a label?). Anyway, I recently noticed their irritation, justifiably so, as they picked up on Evangelical “insider” language—code words. So 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. Uh-oh. This is a little embarrassing! But she is a Christian—just a different kind. Really? Which kind is that?
Our binary categories only work when we’re among our kind. In other words, binary categories are very good at erecting walls that divide or blowing up bridges that connect. So why keep them? I guess they enable us to talk to each other…inside our group, but not to anyone else.
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, etc. Yes. I’ve noticed that too and thought about it a great deal.
I recently spoke on the Biblical character Ruth. You may recall that she 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…ever! Now that’s binary—insiders and outsiders, right?
And yet Ruth gets in! She graciously inserts herself into the monarchical line of no less than King David. Amazing! 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). Ridiculous. Don’t forget that Israel was commanded not to inter-marry with the surrounding nations. There’s no way around it. Ruth gets an exception clause. In a story filled with Old Testament grace (khesed), 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?” (Yes. 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. I like that. The Bible has some hard and fast categories. Sure. 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, by the way, 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. As a Christ-follower, 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 merely extend that same love and embrace to those who see the world differently than we. The one who is forgiven much loves much.
So even though the Bible deals in binary categories, I think its wisdom shows us that we need to move beyond them…for the love of Christ.
So the next time you find yourself chatting with a “conservative, imperialist, homophobic, capitalist, Democrat, misogynist” or any of those other stereotypical categories, resist the urge to label. I’ll wager that the reflex to do so will make you slow to speak and quick to listen. And if you happen to be chatting with me, you have my permission to remind me to do the same.
Küng, H. (2007). Islam : Past, Present and Future. Oxford: Oneworld, pg. 4.
 See Deut 23:3-6
 Eskenazi, T. C., & Frymer-Kensky, T. (2011). The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth (First edition, p. xlv). Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society.
 See Jesus’ reception of a sinful woman followed by his stunning parable on forgiveness in Luke 7:36-50