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lessons from a theological memoir and a television series about lawyers

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It's a hot Wednesday afternoon, so let's talk about false binaries. Basically, a false binary or false dichotomy happens when a person's options are artificially limited to two choices, thereby excluding all other possibilities. Insisting on the limited choice of either A or B leaves no room for middle ground or another, more creative solution. In other words, a false binary assumes the rest of the alphabet (after A and B) does not exist.

Binary thinking is quite prevalent in our society. Either you are for me or against me. Either you are guilty or innocent. Either you are a Democrat or a Republican, conservative or liberal. Either you are a Christian or a pagan. Either you are all in or all out. Admittedly, it is convenient to see things as either black or white, but we live in a multi-coloured world and not everything fits neatly into two categories. This is why insisting there are only two choices when, in fact, other options exist, is labeled as a fallacy in logic and reason.

This week I came across two examples of false binaries. One was in a book I am currently reading, theologian Stanley Hauerwas' memoir entitled Hannah's Child. He describes a scenario that I have seen all too often in Christian circles: a leader getting all defensive when someone critiques their ideas. Instead of listening to the person's honest concerns, the leader interprets the critique as a vote of non-confidence, or worse, a sign of infidelity to the purposes of God.

Here is the story. A new pastor, keen to implement a church growth strategy, was hired at Hauerwas' church. She laid out her plan for the future of the church at a committee meeting: two services, a phone-a-thon, and becoming a less tight-knit community in order to welcome newcomers. She also planned to lead a delegation of members to a megachurch to find out how they did things. Hauerwas was stunned and upset. The community church he had lovingly served for years was about to be torn apart for the sake of higher numbers. He made an appointment to see the new pastor. When Hauerwas expressed his concern about her plan because it went against everything he stood for, she accused him of being against evangelism. Didn't he want to bring people to Jesus? (See the false binary there? If you are not on board with church growth plans, you are against evangelism. No other option possible).

I quote Hauerwas: "I told her the problem was not that she wanted to bring people to Jesus, but that she wanted to do so with means shaped by economic modes of life incompatible with the gospel. She asked me how I could be so critical of what she was trying to do. She had, after all, graduated from Duke Divinity School." Just so you know, Duke Divinity School is where Hauerwas teaches. He replied in his typical, no nonsense manner: "I told her that I found it profoundly embarrassing that she was a graduate of Duke Divinity School. What in the world were we doing to produce people who did not seem to have a theological clue about what they were ordained to do?" [1]

Hauerwas' story is as sad as it is instructional. As a theologian who works in ethics, Hauerwas is concerned that our words, our actions, and our methods are in sync with the gospel of Jesus, and that we never disconnect any one of these from the others. In the above scenario, he rightly saw that using marketing methods to bring people into contact with Jesus was an exercise in counter-productivity. The method would be fighting against the message the whole time. However, since the new pastor was working from the assumption that there were only two options - either Hauerwas was on board with her church growth strategies or he was anti-evangelism - she was unable to see that there might be a problem with her plan. She was blind to other options. Though Hauerwas' answer comes across as a little harsh, he is actually taking some of the responsibility for her narrow way of thinking about evangelism.

The second example comes from a BBC series I am watching on Netflix. Silk is the story of a group of barristers in London and their professional and personal challenges. The main character is called Martha and she is a bright and shining light of integrity in a world dominated by politics and power (you see why I like it!). Nevertheless, the system she is in has severe limitations because it is an artificial binary. As you get to know her clients, you soon realise that no one is truly innocent. But neither are people entirely guilty; there is always more to the story than the viewer supposes.

Though the justice system is supposedly built to get at the truth, it actually masks it in many cases. And this is because it is a very limited, binary system. Even worse, it is an adversarial system, pitting parties against each other instead of having them work together to seek truth and justice. Prosecutors and defenders end up trying to hide certain facts from each other or skew the story in a way which favours their side. An adversarial system inevitably becomes more about winning than about the stated goal, which in the practice of law is justice. It becomes more about being proven right or capable, or protecting one's reputation or status, than about discovering and revealing the truth. A binary system (either guilty or innocent) overlooks the complex motivations of the human heart and our context within a community. The false binary assumes that we can either be declared blameless or found entirely responsible. Seldom is it either. It also allows little room for repentance, restitution, and restoration.

Binary systems appear to make things simple, but many times, they are false. And by insisting on them, we reveal our faulty assumptions and lack of creativity. An incident in Joshua 5 illustrates this: "Now when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him. In His hand was His drawn sword. Joshua went to Him and said, “Are You for us or for our enemies?” He said, “Neither, for I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” Then Joshua fell with his face to the ground and worshipped. Then he said, “What does my Lord wish to say to His servant?” The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” So Joshua did this." (Modern English Version)

Joshua was getting ready for battle, so he assumed that anyone he encountered was either for him or against him. He was incorrect. Instead of engaging in a battle, he found himself on holy ground. The required action was not to take up a sword but to remove his footwear and worship.

Here is one final false binary. This time, Jesus is the one who blows it apart. "Jesus passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But it happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him." (John 9, MEV)

May we lay down our swords and assumptions and recognise holy ground when we stand on it. May we lay aside our false binaries and listen for the creative, instructive words of the Spirit of Jesus so that the works of God may be displayed more fully in us and in our world. Amen. 


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 259.

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