By Steven Norris

The lure of binary thinking can be unavoidable. Our tendency is to simplify things into two categories: yes and no, right and wrong, good and bad, black and white, start and finish, us and them.

There are times that this can be extremely helpful and times that this attempt to simplify can be dangerous. For example, it is much easier to motivate and mobilize others if you can convince people that “we” are under attack by “them” and “they” threaten “our” way of life.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we frequently see an attempt to undermine such binary thinking. In the Sermon on the Mount, arguably his most famous teaching, Jesus says, “You have heard it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, if someone attacks you, you have binary options: fight back or lie down and take it.

“But I say to you,” Jesus continues, “if someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the left as well.” On the surface, this sure feels like passively allowing yourself to be injured. The late theologian Walter Wink, however, has a different reading. In a “right handed” culture where normal activities were conducted with the right hand while the left was used for unsanitary purposes, Wink observes:

“The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. . . .

“A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors…We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission…

“Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.’

“If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality… He has been given notice that this underling is in fact a human being. In that world of honor and shaming, he has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other.”

Jesus does this again and again – with his instruction on going the second mile, giving one’s cloak and tunic, and worshipping not in this temple or that one but “in spirit and truth.” Time and again, Jesus reminds us that we need not allow such binary thinking to rule our response.

As people of faith, we must refuse to allow the world to dictate the terms upon which we live. We must consistently reject binary, partisan bickering and look for the “third way” of Jesus.

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