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“The policy McAleenan would consider, according to the officials, is known as “binary choice” and would give migrant parents the option between being separated from their children or bringing their children with them into long-term detention.” NBC News, April 8.
I live with a 9-year old, who sees the world as binary. He’ll often ask me about famous people (usually those in politics): “Is she a good person, or a bad person?” And while I often try to respond with some nuance (“Well, everybody has good and has bad in them,” or “We’re all learning to be better people every day,”), the truth is his brain is probably only processing it as a yes or a no. Because he is nine.
When I speak to congregations about immigration, we often discuss the trap of the binary that we feel we’re in (but we’re not): the lie that you cannot be “pro immigrant” without believing in zero regulation or restriction on immigration. (I know almost no one who holds this view, by the way.) And you cannot take a conservative approach to immigration without standing behind what any thinking person can immediately see is cruel, unnecessary, and illegal, like separating children from their parents.
I’m concerned that we’ve all devolved into some juvenile habits of binary thinking: good and bad. Open or closed. My team or your team. This is not how to solve complex problems, or how to approach human beings with compassion.
The lie of the binary also a dangerous tool that’s being used right now to keep people of goodwill silent. If we can become believers that there are only two choices (“Do you want to be locked up with your kid? Or do you want to hand your kid over to strangers… because that’s all there is.”) then somehow we can be protected from the pain of this moment. We can make it simple. We can make it their own fault. We can make it someone else’s problem.
And this moment is rife with pain. Powerful people are enacting great harm to human beings — on our watch, with our money, and with our approval. And there is no reason for it. There are effective, tested, safe ways to manage families who come to the border without separating them or incarcerating them. It takes work to understand those approaches — their positives and negatives, the compromises they require, the questions they elicit — but they exist. There are also smart, innovative solutions that we haven’t tried yet — because we are human beings, who have been endowed with the ability to create, to learn, to grow — countless possible solutions that could protect both the dignity of human beings and the safety of Americans.
As Christians, this binary thinking is so tempting, and I believe so damaging. Richard Rohr has helped me see the danger of the binary in my Christian life — how my tendency to boil things down to either/or, good/bad is actually a symptom that I have not yet been transformed by the mercy, forgiveness, grace of Jesus. I am still living in the meritocracy, and not in the land of the generous and tenacious and undeserved love of God. I need to grow up.
I’m trying not to be nine anymore. At age nine, I was well-served by binaries, but that time has passed. I need to grow up. I hope that the church can offer me, can offer the world, something valuable in this crazy moment — the tools, the community, the support to move past our drugged, numbed, entrapped binary thinking, and toward the good news of grace, of possibility, of nuance and complexity. Of love.
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13)