I’ve been reading about Sudan/South Sudan lately. If you aren’t aware, Sudan, which used to be one country before South Sudan seceded in 2011, has suffered repeated rounds of conflict and instability since its independence in the 1950’s. Two of those conflicts, the North-South war, which resulted in South Sudan’s birth as a separate country, and the insurgency in the western region of Darfur attracted huge attention in the United States, becoming cause celebres featuring actual celebrities like Mia Farrow and George Clooney, as well as a strange coalition of white evangelicals and the liberal Congressional Black Caucus. Both the Bush and Obama administrations invested a lot of time, energy, and resources in attempt to stabilize these regions.
(Sidenote before I proceed: Despite the the flaws of this engagement, which I’m about to relate, it’s been refreshing for me to be reminded that not that long ago, white evangelicals–who for the past few years have given their undivided loyalty to a president who slashed refugee admittance to zero, routinely appealed to nativist sentiment, had zero interest in Africa a.k.a. “Shit-hole countries” or promoting human rights and democracy anywhere–cared so deeply about peace and stability in an African nation most could not find on a map.)
The problem with all this attention and engagement was that in many cases, it bought into an oversimplified, poorly informed narrative, and, especially in the case of South Sudan, it ended up empowering bad leaders and inadvertently perpetuating more violence. In the minds of activists, The South Sudanese=Christian/Black=Good guys; the Sudanese=Muslim/Arab=Bad guys. While some of these categories may be roughly true and the Sudanese government did indeed commit horrible atrocities against the South, the Christianity of the South was far from universal or sincere enough to preclude internal ethnic violence as bad as any perpetrated by Sudan. That was overlooked, and people who should have known better were shocked when the new nation of South Sudan plunged into violent civil war not 2 years after independence and its warlord leaders pilfered the nation’s oil wealth for personal power and gain.
Real life and real people are almost always more nuanced and morally complicated than we want them to be. I find that is especially true in America, where optimism reigns supreme and our entire history has been built on thinking of ourselves as “the good guys.” In many cases, we have been the good guys (World War II, Berlin airlift, the Marshall Plan, advocating for human rights and democracy, providing food and other aid). But our insistence on shoving reality into this box has erased, with devastating consequences, all the times when we weren’t (slavery, segregation, Indian removal, Japanese American internment, post-9/11 use of torture), or other times when, in trying to be the good guys, we ended up doing damage (Iraq comes most immediately to mind, but you could argue for Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya, many other cases). Incidentally, the complexity of the moral landscape is why making policy, especially foreign policy, is really, really hard.
All human beings are attracted to this dualistic kind of thinking, all of us want to belong to a “side,” and all of us want to think of ourselves and “our side” as the good guys. It’s incredibly satisfying, and it’s also a lot less work. Dualisms are a mental shortcut, an intellectually lazy enterprise. Instead of thinking deeply about people and issues with all their many facets, you just sort them into one of the two buckets. Boom. Done.
In my experience, evangelicals are particularly prone to this kind of thinking, bathing earthly dualities with spiritual meaning with eternal consequences. I grew up with all kinds of all-or-nothing, black-and-white narratives. You had to be “all in” for Christ (according to dictated standards), or you risked hell. In your personal behavior, you had to be completely pure or you were shamed. Married sex=good, holy, fulfilling; unmarried sex=bad, life-destroying, denigrating. Straight marriage=always good and loving; gay relationships=always bad and hedonistic. The gender binary in evangelicalism was (and still is in many quarters) particularly rigid. Women=sweet, submissive, pretty, domestic and maternal. Men=big, strong, unemotional, natural leaders, like sports and guns. Christian songs, movies, books=always good, both in quality and message; worldly culture=if not always bad, often bad, always potentially misleading and destructive. If you’re looking to hire someone, you try to hire a Christian, because they will give you superior service. You wanted Christian friends and neighbors, Christian schools for your kids, Christian gyms, Christian sports leagues. All the problems in society boiled down to–
In this religious framework, dualistic thinking is necessary because ultimately, human existence is tied up in a great spiritual war, in which you can either be on The Lord’s side or Satan’s. Christians are the ultimate good guys, and although there is much talk of us being “sinners saved by grace,” in practice, Christians and the organizations and leaders deemed to be in their camp are often given extra latitude. The ultimate example of this has of course been Donald Trump. Because he is on the side of “the good guys,” he can literally kill someone on 5th Avenue–or incite an insurrection against the United States, pay off a porn star or do any number of yucky things–and Christians will find a way to defend him. Because everything is seen through the lens of a war, because Christians are in a fight for the death, because the other side is seen as pure evil, you can’t afford to go after your own. But the same has been true for many pastors and spiritual stars. Better not to expose abuses of power or moral failings of such paragons because it will undermine the cause.
Our two-party political system reinforces this narrative. In the last several years, the thinking has been, if you aren’t a Democrat, you have to support Trump. If you are against Trump, you have to be Democrat. I find myself falling into this trap–I left the Republican party years ago, as I saw it going in this direction before Trump came on the scene, and I have struggled to resist becoming an uncritical partisan on the other side, someone who gives Democratic leaders extra leeway and wide berth. Like I said, it’s easy and lazy to be a member of a team.
But if we are honest, we all know life is more complicated than that, as I found out as I ventured out into the world from my sheltered evangelical upbringing. I’ve had married sex that was wounding, violating, soul-crushing. I would even call it evil. And, yes, I confess I’ve had unmarried sex that was loving, edifying, and beautiful. I’ve seen horrible straight marriages and lovely gay marriages. I’ve known Christians I wouldn’t let alone with my kids and atheists I would trust with my life. I’ve lived surrounded by crime and societal dysfunction in the Bible belt, and I’ve lived in safe, clean, orderly, highly functional communities where very few people go to church. I’ve known pro-lifers who don’t value anyone outside the womb and pro-choicers who care deeply for the poor. I’ve known convicted felons with hearts of gold and pillars of the church with hearts of stone. Most men and women I know, even straight/cis ones, don’t fit in two neat gendered categories. And I’ve heard a lot, A LOT of really, really poor quality Christian music and a lot of secular music that turns my thoughts toward heaven. The world is a morally complex place. We would do best to remember that.
And we would do best not to force ourselves or others into pre-established boxes. Just because you aren’t a Democrat does not mean you have to vote for whatever vile human being the GOP throws out there. Just because you’re a Democrat does not mean you can’t insist that Andrew Cuomo resign or disagree with certain policies. While it is true that our system sadly reinforces this kind of thinking, we still have choices. We can modulate our support beyond our simple vote. We can speak out against the actions and behavior of those for whom we vote. We can put pressure on them and tell them what we think. If only white evangelicals had used the fact that Trump needed them a lot more than they needed him to reverse some of his immoral policies, to demand his removal when he abused power, or to insist on a different Republican nominee (They could’ve had Mike Pence! I honestly never got this). Lastly, if one’s conscience can’t tolerate either side in a given election, they can always abstain or write someone in.
When it comes to culture, we can likewise be more discerning. Just because I have criticisms of purity culture, it doesn’t mean I am a fan of WAP (and no, I’m not going to link that). If I have issues with the concept of biblical inerrancy, it doesn’t mean I’m gonna run out and buy me some Satan shoes (ditto). Just because you go to an evangelical church, doesn’t mean you can’t care deeply about the environment or gun control. You can support BLM without excusing riots. You can be troubled by riots without being a racist. Most importantly you can, and MUST, condemn abuse no matter who commits it, and you can believe and defend victims no matter who they are.
(P.S. Both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are rapists.)
Richard Rohr (as quoted by my Facebook friend, Paul, to give him credit), hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience.”
If we want to know the truth, if we want it to set us and our societies free, we need to explode dualistic thinking.