And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” —from Genesis 25:19-34
“And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell …” —from Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Binary opposition is one of the powerful storytelling features of myths from oral cultures. Many of the great stories of the Hebrew Scriptures have binary elements. The Genesis 25 story of Esau and Jacob is no exception. Consider the contrasting elements in verses 23–28. They establish the tension in the brothers’ relationship, beginning with the fact they are twins, but non-identical:
stronger — weaker
older — younger
red (a dark colour) — a lighter, contrasting colour (implied)
hairy —- smooth (implied)
letting go, pulling away — holding on, pulling down
manly (skillful hunter, of the field) —- womanly (quiet, living in tents, cooking)
loved by father —- loved by mother
Humans are prone to binary or dualistic thinking. We think in terms of day or night, right or wrong, tall or short, masculine or feminine, able-bodied or disabled, black or white. Young children are “naughty or nice.” What parents haven’t compared their children or their grandchildren in “either/or” terms? Vivid contrasts of appearance, character, and behaviour not only engage a story’s audience, but also help us maneuver daily through a world that might otherwise be complex and demanding. But, acting on such rigid thinking can obscure real life and the range of possibilities between the opposite extremes.
When the identities of people and cultures are described in binary terms, power imbalances have followed. Think of the common pairing of doctor and patient, teacher and learner, or social service worker and client. In each binary, one person is considered capable, competent, knowledgeable, authoritative; and “the other” is not. As certain status and privileges are associated with the one, “the other” can experience the loss of status and disempowerment. This has commonly happened with respect to people of different race, ethnic origins, and culture.
Palestinian-American professor Edward Said articulated a theory of “othering” in his book Orientalism (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978). This theory explains how things Western or European are associated with superiority, demeaning all other people and cultures, creating tension between peoples and breakdown in relationships. For example, the binary world view in Canada in the 1900s led to the residential schools system for Aboriginal peoples. Everything Aboriginal – language, culture, ways of knowing, music, spirituality – was deemed inferior to the dominant European culture. Colonization and imperialism have followed “othering” throughout the world and continue in the 21st century. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 tragedy, binary thinking plainly affected people’s way of identifying themselves in relationship to others who were racially and ethnically different.
In the Genesis 25 story, the binary elements create a tension between the two brothers that leads to the breakdown in their relationship. The longing for the privileges of the first-born drives Jacob cleverly to take advantage of Esau to obtain the birthright and, later in Genesis 28, Isaac’s blessing. The dualism in this story contrasts with the reading of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3–9). Indeed, Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr believes that Jesus was the first non-dual religious teacher of the West. Jesus’ parables and teachings often defy binary opposition; they not only obscure easy, unanimous interpretation, but instead they create confusion and ambiguity.
Perhaps the greatest challenge underlying Jesus’ parables is to go beyond binary thinking to create new relationships in new ways, relationships where we respect and value each other no matter how different our appearances, behaviours, life situations; rather than treating people as “the other.” Rohr believes this is his challenge: I’ve looked at the patterns of my life and when I surrender to that simplistic, either-or, all or nothing thinking, it’s made me make my worst mistakes. It’s allowed me to hurt people unnecessarily without even knowing I was hurting them. It has allowed me to not be compassionate, to not be patient, to not be merciful, to not understand situations, to read them wrong. The dualistic mind operates by reading everything by what I like and by what I prefer. It reads everything egocentric. From “Tapestry,” CBC Radio, Monday, September 20, 2009. There is no easy “either/or” in relationship-building or reconciling with others in God’s realm. As in the Parable of the Sower, real-life relationships span a range of situations, all of them falling within God’s creation and love.
For Your Reflection: Read Rohr’s words again.
- When have you fallen into a pattern of binary thinking about others? When have you “Other-ed” someone? How did it prevent you from showing God’s inclusive love?
- When has our congregation fallen into a pattern of binary thinking about others?
- What efforts could be taken so that this doesn’t happen?
Beloved, won’t you pray for God’s help to reveal God’s love inclusively—for each of us and for all of us.
Copyright © Wood Lake Publishing Inc. 2013; used with permission.