There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who divide everyone into binary categories, and those who do not.
Qoheleth, the delightfully downbeat author of the book of Ecclesiastes, seems a bit hung up on binaries in the passage I highlighted in this morning’s “Sunday favorites” post.
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed — with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power — with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
I love the brutal bleakness of this passage. Elsewhere, the book of Ecclesiastes pulls its punches a bit, cushioning its conclusion of “vanity, vanity” and “meaningless, meaningless” with a garnish of pious platitudes. Whether or not you believe those half-hearted affirmations are the work of some later editor, you have to agree that they’re out of tune with the rest of the book — discordant grace notes that don’t ring true enough to be convincing. It’s refreshing here to hear Qoheleth’s main theme being played here without those distracting elements.
If anyone ever tells you that existentialism didn’t start until the 19th century, just say, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
But here I want to argue with Qoheleth’s sweeping binary assessment of “all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.” The existence of those oppressions, he suggests, mean that everyone falls into one of two categories: the oppressed (most people) or the powerful who oppress them. The oppressed, he notes, are miserable. And the only other option discussed here is to be among the oppressors — who also turn out to be miserable (albeit, better fed).
Those are our options: misery or misery. Thus, he concludes, the dead are more fortunate than the living. And then, unsatisfied in that case with the binary options of dead or alive, he concludes that “better than both” are those who have never been born at all.
Not very cheery stuff.
Fortunately, though, I don’t think Q’s analysis is really accurate. “All the oppressions that are practiced under the sun,” are, indeed, a dismal sight, but I think — or, at least, I hope — that “the oppressed” and “the side of their oppressors” do not exhaust the full range of possibilities.
There is also, of course, a Third Way. That is the way of people like myself — educated, privileged bourgeous critics of the oppressors. We are uniquely positioned to ride in on our white horses, substituting our voices for the silence of the voiceless oppressed. We alone can see both sides, comforting both alike. We can be above the fray, so we never need to get bogged down defending any commitment in the midst of it. We can be the heroic allies who rescue the downtrodden while redirecting the power of the powerf …
Wait, no, sorry, not that.
And that’s the frustrating thing these days — we need other options if we want to escape from the miserable binaries that Qoheleth describes so well. But the language to describe such options has been co-opted by “Third Way” talk that advocates the unprincipled, obsequious “centrism” of a Joe Lieberman for President brochure.
That kind of “moderate” or “centrist” approach doesn’t escape the binary situation Ecclesiastes describes. Qoheleth’s analysis was sophisticated enough to account for it. He didn’t just divide the world between “the oppressed” and the oppressors, but between “the oppressed” and “the side of their oppressors.” That latter category was thus expansive enough to include all the toadies and lackeys who actively enable that side, as well as all the bystanders, apologists, and “centrists” who passively lubricate the machine of power.
Try to explain to Qoheleth that you’re neither oppressor nor oppressed, but that you’re seeking a “balanced” centrism, and I imagine he’d blink once or twice, patiently, then mark you down with the others in the “side of their oppressors” category.
Sarah Moon had a terrific post recently in which she vented her frustration over the way “Third Way” language has been co-opted to fortify this binary system. She enlists Walter Wink for help in “Reclaiming ‘Third Way'” from such unctuous abuse. For Wink, and for Jesus, she argues:
Third Way is about refusing to be trapped in limiting binaries. It’s about finding creative ways to work toward justice. It’s not about keeping the peace. It’s not about making everyone happy. It’s not about sitting on the fence.
God works in mysterious ways (Third Ways?), but God is not concerned with cheap “peace.” God wants shalom. God wants justice. And God always, always sides with the oppressed.
We need lots of ways. We need Third Ways and Fourth Ways and Five Hundred Ways. Oppression is subtle and adaptable and multi-faceted. We need all the “ways” we can get. But a Third Way that tries to “see both sides,” while refusing to actually challenge oppressors is not God’s Third Way.
So let’s talk about some of those Fourth Ways and 500th Ways. I have some thoughts and some ideas about this, but before I offer those, I want to ask what you see, here, in response to the binary Qoheleth lays out in Ecclesiastes 4. What other categories exist beyond those he describes? What other categories are preferable? What other categories are possible?