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Politics of Scripture

A Biblical Case for Binaries

If Christians believe in a God of the oppressed, it is incumbent upon them to similarly locate themselves on the side of the oppressed.

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in, 23 who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 25 To whom, then, will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29 He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. 30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted, 31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:21-31 (NRSVue)

1 Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God, for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. 2 The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. 3 He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. 4 He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. 5 Great is our Lord and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. 6 The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground. 7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre. 8 He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. 9 He gives to the animals their food and to the young ravens when they cry. 10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner, 11 but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. … 20c Praise the Lord!

Psalm 147:1-11 (NRSVue)

Vulnerable persons have a special place in God’s heart—not in some abstract non-material way, but in a material manner that involves healing hurts and binding wounds. Psalm 147:3 highlights how God “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” Binding up wounds is an embodied encounter, involving bending one’s body towards the wounded person. The act of binding up wounds is thus a personal, physical, and affective movement that is oriented towards the other.

God’s acts of seeing, hearing, and bending towards vulnerable others is a core theme of the biblical witness. It is often pointed out, rightly, that in the paradigmatic story of the Exodus, for example, God sees the people’s suffering, hears their cries, and comes down to deliver them (Exodus 3:7-8). While the Book of Exodus is certainly a striking example of such movements in the life of God, this week’s lectionary texts provoke readers’ theological imaginations to recognize that such seeing, hearing, and bending towards vulnerable others animates the whole arc of scripture, including throughout the Psalms and Isaiah. Inherent in such a recognition is an accompanying biblical case for binaries that pits the plight of the oppressed against the work of oppression.

Perhaps a brief note on what I am not doing is in order. I am not making a case for binaries of gay/straight or male/female such that I privilege straight and male identities. That would go against the theological force of the passages that highlight the movement of the divine towards those who are vulnerable. Nor am I making the case that binaries are permanently reified in the Bible in such a way that they necessitate suffering and make allowances for oppression. To the contrary, the biblical witness calls on the faithful to dismantle oppression. Dismantling oppression, however, does not happen without naming what the oppression is. It is in this connection that a biblical case for binaries begins to make sense.

That the God represented in scripture is a God of the Oppressed is both good news and bad news. James Cone terms this a “scandal” or “a stumbling block” because of the binaries (oppressed vs. oppressor) such a view of God seems to present. While this quote from Cone (95) has a reference to Jesus and the incarnation, it allows readers to notice the binary at play:

“The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude…The gospel will always be an offense to the rich and the powerful, because it is the death of their riches and power.”

The binary at play here is captured in the juxtaposition of the week’s lectionary readings. Psalm 147:3 meets Isaiah 40:23. The God who “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3) is the same God “who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23). Placing Cone’s commentary on Jesus’ incarnation and the scandal of the gospel alongside the lectionary readings from the Psalms and Isaiah is also methodologically important for avoiding supersessionist readings of the Bible. Jesus stands in a long line of Jewish tradition that Christians have inherited that demonstrate God’s love of the poor and vulnerable and antagonism towards those who disregard the plight of the marginalized. In other words, in my reading, Jesus points to Isaiah rather than the other way round.

Rulers (and ruling) is not, by default, an evil category or arena of human agency. In making a biblical case for binaries, I am not arguing that God never works with or through rulers and leaders of various kinds of governments. The key message of the binary, however, is that when ruling overlaps with breaking hearts and inflicting wounds, a scandal arises immediately. Here, Christians might have hard choices to make. While it is clear that the biblical narrative makes a case for God being on the side of the oppressed, the question of human agents remains open. If Christians believe in a God of the oppressed, it is incumbent upon them to similarly locate themselves on the side of the oppressed. In such alignment with the oppressed, Christians might find themselves positioned against persons and structures participating in the oppressing.

The reflections on the presence of binaries and the scandal of God’s affection for the vulnerable is not new information. What is urgent, nevertheless, is the need to eschew theological and political rhetoric that is embarrassed about or avoids the antagonism towards those who participate in oppression. The rhetoric goes something like this, “We should make a case for what we are for, rather than what we are not for.” The implication of such rhetoric goes something like [and I don’t promise this is a charitable characterization], “Let us say we are for peace, but let us not say we are against those who make war.” Some binaries–those binaries that, as they tend to the healing of the oppressed, say “no” to oppression–are biblical and call for eschewing an avoidance of naming oppression. When discomfort with the oppressor/oppressed binary is a consequence of the desire to avoid calling out the oppressive side of the binary, the biblical case for binaries arises to the fore.

Eschewing discomfort with and avoidance of oppressor-oppressed binaries entails, then, embracing the fact that binding up wounds necessitates working towards the undoing of the logics and tools of domination that cause wounds. This is not a war-mongering argument. Common sense and history have more than sufficiently demonstrated the fallacy of those who make war for peace. My argument, therefore, is simply that one cannot love the oppressed without an antagonism towards those who oppress. The two go hand in hand. Antagonism towards those who oppress means more than simply naming something as “evil.”

Anas ibn Malik, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad passes on an instructive hadith when he shares, “‘The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) once said to us, ‘Help your brother, the oppressor and the oppressed.’ We asked, ‘O messenger of Allah, we understand how we can help one oppressed, but how should we help one who is oppressing?’ ‘By stopping him from oppressing others,’ he replied” (cited in, Maryam Kashani, Medina by the Bay, 182). Just as the act of binding up wounds is a personal, physical, and affective movement that is oriented towards the broken other, “antagonism,” as a theological posture, captures the movement to dismantle forces of oppression.

In allowing for a non-embarrassment with respect to antagonism, binaries of oppressed/oppressor allow for an active engagement with others—oppressed and oppressor—such that oppressors are provided occasions for repentance and positive change while the wounds of the oppressed are bound up and healed.

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