The Unbearable Reductionism of a Binary World
There’s no escaping binaries these days. Every conceivable detail of modern life seems to be reduced to digital 1s and 0s. As computing technology encroaches ever further, it makes resisting binaries seem harder than ever. In/Out, Left/Right, Same/Different, Them/Us.
This is not to deny that some aspects of reality genuinely are clear-cut. Some choices do fall into the life/death, and even into the right/wrong binaries, despite what many in our culture insist. But our fallibility is such that they constantly need handling with caution.
Of course, the human tendency to simplify everything into two categories long predates the digital era. We always seem to have been quick to identify our threats, our rivals, our enemies.
As this week painfully reminds us.
- Srebrenica 1995: Sat 11th July is the 20th anniversary of one of the Balkans War’s darkest episodes: over a few days, more than 8000 Bosniaks (mainly men and boys) were rounded up and executed by paramilitaries under the command of Republic of Srpska general, Ratko Mladić. UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, described this as the worst crime on European soil since the World War II.
- London 2005: Tuesday was the 10th Anniversary of 7/7 – the horror of coordinated terrorist attacks on public transport at rush hour. This was the UK’s first experience of suicide bombers, and London’s agony seemed all the bleaker because of the euphoria at winning the Olympics bid just the day before.
- Sousse 2015: only a fortnight ago, 38 people died in a shocking attack on a Tunisian hotel by a Kalashnikov-wielding ISIS-linked killer.
Each atrocity was an outworking of the extremist’s binary. Those who are not with us – different from us, opposed to us – have no right to exist.
But the fact is, only God has the perspective that makes ultimate binaries possible and ever just. That is perhaps why one of the Bible’s most surprising refrains is for people to resist them. Consider:
- the valued place of the ‘foreigner’ within Israel (Leviticus 19:33-34);
- Jesus’ explicit command to ‘love your enemies’ (Luke 6:27);
- Paul’s insistence on the gospel breaking down the binaries of male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile (Galatians 3:28).
Which is why we should take Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) seriously. Only God can discern the difference at the final harvest. In the meantime, we are to treat everyone with equal grace and generosity. Others’ differences can never justify discrimination, let alone atrocity.
This was written for LICC’s Connecting With Culture (a weekly mailing), sent out on Fri 10th July 2015