Sunday, November 4, 2012

What about purple?

Red or blue. Black or white. It seems these days that everything must be cast in dichotomy. We've lost the middle ground, the shades and variations that bring color and diversity to our world. We reduce people and issues to labels, either A or B, red or blue, black or white. I see this in so many areas. What has propelled us to cast nearly every aspect of life in two tones? We can't just blame it on the media, because we perpetuate it every time we post something on Facebook that takes one position and vehemently denounces the other as un-American or unbiblical or un-something. We bear the guilt for erasing the shades of color from our world.

I too am guilty of participating in this dichotomous system. Many years ago while working as an intern with the junior high youth at my church I prepared a talk (that's what we called the youth sermons) based around a song by Leslie (now Sam) Phillips entitled Black and White in a Grey World. I no longer have the text of my message, but I remember that the main point focused on how we as believers needed to see things as black and white, right or wrong, good or evil. This, I argued at the time, was how we needed to stand out in a world that had blurred everything into shades of grey.

Now, many years later, I see things quite differently. Yes, black and white do exist, but those shades of grey (or of purple, if we refer to the contrast as red/blue) define the world in which we live. I find now that so many issues cannot simply be reduced to right or wrong, black or white, red or blue. Even issues that once seemed clear cut to me I now recognize as having far more complexity and nuance to them. I may oppose abortion, but the issue cannot be reduced to whether it should be illegal or not. That won't solve any problems really, although it may make it seem like it has. Casting the issue simply in terms of pro-choice or pro-life limits us to two colors, ignoring the many facets of the discussion such as the factors that encourage or reduce abortion. But it's so much easier to slap a label on myself or others and have done with it.

The political sphere in our nation has come to be defined in this way. A person is either red or blue. They can't possibly fall somewhere in the middle, because that's too complex and cannot be easily summarized in a nice chart or color-coded map. Don't consider any colors outside of that duality. Green? Pink? Orange? Forget it, there's no room for that in our two-tone world.

Unfortunately I see this same mentality within the Church, or at least within the parts of it that I frequent. If one is a Christian, one must adopt position A and not B, position X and not Y. A person is either saved or a sinner. Women are either virgins or sluts. We've cut out any middle ground, which may be part of the reason that many people feel uncomfortable in the Church. There's no room for diversity and color. Apparently we fear the middle ground, because in the middle the answers are not clear cut and we can't quickly define people. We're uncomfortable when we don't know how to label those around us.

Looking back now at that Leslie Phillip's song, I see that in one verse she sang: 
It's not so easy finding answers in the shade.It takes some patience, takes some gritBut it's better than throwing all your colors in the streetWhat's life without color in it?
In the song she uses these words to argue for a black and white perspective, but as I consider the world now, I would understand these words differently. Yes, it is not easy finding answers in the shade. Living in a world that has diverse shades of meaning, a world in which there are not easy black and white answers to most questions presents great challenges. We cannot just cite some “authority” and have done with the matter. We must wrestle with the questions and the many nuances involved. We have to actually deal with real people and real situations which are inherently messy and complex. It does take patience and grit. But it is indeed better than throwing all our colors in the street, abandoning them in favor of a world where we can quickly label and define people as being one of two shades.

How do we move beyond a world limited to dichotomies? We need to stop limiting ourselves to sound bites and simplistic positions. Especially as followers of Christ we need to get to know the messy, colorful, complex world in which we live and stop seeing things as either black or white. Some issues can come down to that, but the vast majority of them not only allow for but demand greater diversity. We need to engage with people and hear their stories, rather than trumpeting little snippets of information that support our position. Even if we choose to define ourselves as black or white or red or blue, we can recognize that the issues are far more complex and that our perspective is always limited and imperfect. Let's stop reducing people and issues to labels and affirm the diversity that exists in society and creation. After all, what's life without color in it?

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