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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)

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Nate DeWard says:

    Well said. Thank you, Kate.

  • mstair says:

    “ … 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 …”

    careful; there are also some very binary scriptures to consider :

    “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. “(Matt. 12:30)
    ” You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (John 15:16)
    Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. ” (John 14:6)

    The issue of binary thinking / non-binary thinking is is not very binary either …

    • Peter DeVries says:

      “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. “(Matt. 12:30)

      But Jesus also said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50)

  • Rowland Van Es Jr says:

    Lewis Smedes says, when you can’t be 100% sure, then be responsible. And the way to test if you are being responsible is to consider the following:
    Have I used discernment? Have I interpreted the question? Did my action fit the situation?Does it support my commitments? Is it congruent with my roles? Have I used my imagination? Am I willing to go public? Am I willing to accept the consequences? (From Choices: Making Decisions in a Complex World, 1986). Still pretty good advice in my opinion. We need to be more humble, more nuanced, and be willing to choose the best option available.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    “Powerful people are enacting great harm to human beings — on our watch, with our money, and with our approval. ”
    kyrie eleison

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Hi Kate,
    I find much to appreciate here. Putting away simplistic and your team/my team thinking is necessary for all of us to grow in Christian love. Allowing for nuance in our discussions of complicated issues is important, particularly to the extent that we desire to love each other by not short-selling and boxing in those who have a different perspective.

    I wonder if you’d be willing to ponder two observations:

    1) As introduced above by mstair, your post seems to fall into the very practice that you are decrying – black and white thinking. You have tied binary thinking/choices inherently to childishness and drugged, numbed, entrapped thinking and contrasted binary thinking/choices with grace and love. In so doing, you have engaged in binary thinking and disallowed nuance in the conversation regarding binary choices. It’s not so much that binary thinking is bad, per se, lest we stand in judgment on the many biblical passages illustrating the appropriateness of binary thinking and categories at times. Rather, the challenge comes more in understanding where the Bible dictates or allows nuance and where the Bible presents either/or choices. Many of the Bible’s most basic questions are inescapably binary, yet clearly there is room for much nuance and beauty in diversity of understanding or application in many areas of life as well. An example of bad binary: Binary is bad, not good. It is neither universally bad nor universally good.
    2) Have you considered your substantial role in an example of bad binary? The binary sloganeering of the CRC’s “Blessing Not Burden” campaign is not helpful in advancing a nuanced conversation in the CRC. Inescapable in that slogan is a binary choice in a matter that is far too complicated to be captured so simplistically. It echoes the childish questions you pose in your piece: “Mommy, are immigrants good or bad?” My answer would be “no”. Such simplistic sloganeering also unnecessarily pits brothers and sisters with different emphases in the immigration conversation against each other (encourages tribalism) by presenting a false choice. It cuts off nuanced, productive conversation rather than encouraging it – especially in our soundbite age. Personally, I happen to have benefitted significantly from the presence of immigrants, both historically and presently in at least the following ways:
    a. I am myself several generations descended from Dutch immigrants to North America.
    b. My wife is descended two generations from a Mexican immigrant.
    c. I have personally enjoyed closed personal and working relationships with Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented.
    d. Every day I get to come to work in the middle of a downtown area that has become an enclave for Somali immigrants and refugees. I greatly enjoy interacting with them, and they play an important role in the community in which I work. They bring richness to the tapestry of this community.
    What is not necessarily helpful, despite these life experiences, is for me to declare to others that immigrants are universally a blessing. In fact, such a declaration to some people is inherently unloving and unhelpful to the extent that such a declaration negates or invalidates their own experience that may be different than mine. Neither of us in the conversation ought to tell the other how they must view the net benefits/burdens of such a broad-ranging and far-reaching category of public policy. Doing so is an example of the type of childish, simplistic, unloving, ungracious thinking that you decry in your post. To be sure, the entirety of the “Blessing Not Burden” campaign does introduce more nuance at points. But let’s face it, the slogan is what speaks the loudest and sticks, and it is designed specifically for that reason.

    I think overall you introduce some good points to ponder and learn from. I hope you also can be open to learning in this conversation.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Kate, for a thoughtful article on immigration. And thank you Eric for your meaningful response. I have to agree with Eric on his overall concern. As I read your article, Kate, I have the feeling that you are not a very good listener. You seem to push your perspective and discount all others, especially when you label yours as the Christian point of view. Reading your article, there seem to be no alternatives. This is a little disheartening because you represent our denomination. It’s ok to have a personal opinion, but within our denomination there seems to be a variety of viewpoints that come from Christians and they should carry some weight. Of course we are not going to settle the immigration problem within our denomination. We are just one small group within a diversity of opinions (on the national level) and the opinions of others are important for our governing bodies to consider. Hopefully we, as a country, will come to some compromise and agreement and then be able to live happily within a unified policy.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    I am a bit mystified by some of these comments. As Lewis Smedes wrote, we live in a complex world and the problems we as a society need to deal with are complex. Kate’s argument, as I read it, is that we need to approach these problems with nuance, not with polarized positions. I often refer to this as living in tension between opposing poles. The “binary” passages that mstair quotes are Jesus speaking. I think we ought to be careful about taking these binary positions ourselves. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not about binary judgement. Is binary universally bad? Maybe not, but it is lot closer to universally bad than good. I think Erik makes an interesting point about slogans, that I would expand upon. When we are confronted with a binary position that we think is incorrect, how do we respond? If we adopt a nuanced response, will we get it a reciprocal response or simply more of the binary position. How do we have a nuanced discussion. And I see nothing here that suggests Kate is a poor listener. RLG can hope that we as a country will come to compromise and agreement on immigration, but demonizing asylum-seeking immigrants is not the path to get there. I read this as a plea for thoughtfulness and civility, which I would of thought we could all agree on.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thank you, Kate for your insights. I appreciate your your nuanced approach to our current situation. Keep up the good work and thanks for all you do for the CRC in the name of Christ.

  • Ann says:

    I loved this reflection, Kate… especially your willingness to be vulnerable and self-critical. I was thinking, wow, here’s a reflection that inspires the reader to respond in kind and take on a posture of self-critique and examination (it is Lent so we should be using these muscles already). And then I began reading the comments. I’m baffled.

    I don’t know how to ask this delicately and at the risk of being accused of playing the “female” card I’ll ask it anyway. I’m genuinely curious. If this same reflection was written by a male, would the comments still be the same? I’m not talking about push-back here…. it’s this tone of “oh, Kate, let me teach you something”.


    • Doug Vande Griend says:

      Yes, if this reflection was written by a male, Eric Van Dyken’s comments would still be the same. I’ve seen enough of his comments to know he is an equal opportunity commenter. 🙂

      I would have much the same observations/comments as Eric.

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