Ambidexterity, Sinister Love, and Outing Our Rightness
I have always know the meaning of ambidextrous. It means that you can use both hands with equal skill. But I recently had an ophthalmologist tell me that they used the names dexter and sinister to talk about the right and left eye. Dexter means right. Sinister is left. (Both come from Latin roots.) When we talk about handedness and say someone is ambidextrous we are as much saying you have two right hands, that is two good hands, rather than simply two dominant hands equally capable. Because we all know, that the right hand is good… and the left is evil. It is: sinister.
David Wolman, author of the book A Left-Hand Turn Around the World: Chasing the Mystery and Meaning of All Things Southpaw, sheds some further light:
In the Western world, left-handedness has long been associated with the worst of the worst: sin, devil worship, Satan himself, and just an all-around bad position with God. Catholic schoolteachers used to tell students that left-handedness was “the mark of the Beast,” the Scots say a person with terrible luck must have been baptized by a left-handed priest, and orthodox Jews wrap their left arms in the leather strap of tefillin as if to say, in the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “Here I am, standing with my dangerous side bridled, ready to pray ” The Bible is full of references to hands, and usually they are about God doing something benevolent and holy with his right hand. I’ll spare you the run-through and stick to a token example, like this one from Psalms 118: “The right hand of the Lord is exalted. The right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.”
He goes on:
The Anglo-Saxon lyft means weak or broken, and even modern dictionaries include such meanings for left as “defective,” “crippled,” “awkward,” “clumsy,” “inept,” and “maladroit,” the latter one borrowed from French, translated literally as “bad right.” Most definitions of left reduce to an image of doubtful sincerity and clumsiness, and the Latin word for left, sinister, is a well-known beauty.
This is hardly new information, of course. You have all heard it before. But it just made me aware once more how much we seek to homogenize the world. We seek to make everyone look the same. We can relate to people in so far as they look, feel, and value the same as we do. And on the other hand (pardon that pun) we fear that which is different – at best as something we cannot relate to and at worst as an evil to be stamped out. To this end, the dominant norm will try to make the minority among us adhere to our values, our aesthetic, and our way of being. So we’ll force left-handed kids to learn to be right-handed, if not outright (as once was the case) then by neglecting to adjust our teaching to help them. I have a left-handed son. This is still a thing. He had horrible hand-writing until one day we got his grandfather to sit down with him and show him how to write left-handed. One day! That was all it took. Suddenly he had neater writing than I ever have. I wondered then and I wonder now, why didn’t the school have older kids come down to the younger classes to work with left-handed students? How easy is that? Maybe your school does – bravo if that’s true.
But the point, of course, isn’t about being left-handed. The point is that there was a time we co-opted language, and even scripture, to make a case about how bad it was to be left-handed. We probably even claimed it was scripture’s actual intent (we are really good at fooling ourselves in such ways). We used scripture to make a theological claim on behalf of mistreatment of left-handed people. Ten percent (slightly more actually) of our society made to feel wrong about not being right.
The deeper point, of course, is that we are doing this all the time – often without knowing it. We do it with the words we speak, the laws we pass and don’t pass, jokes we tell that reinforce hurtful stereotypes (even if we try to say we don’t mean it but just think it’s funny), and yes – even the way we set the table and arrange the guest list. We look with scorn on people who don’t speak our language. We assign girl toys and boy colors. We refuse to do the work of learning other cultural world-views on the belief that ours is superior. We aren’t just right-handed: we are right-cultured. It would just be better for you to learn to be that way too because it will go a lot better for you (and it SURELY is a lot easier on us if we don’t have to compromise our comfortable ways).
Jesus who sat and ate with those on the margins. Jesus who let a prostitute (or sinful woman of the city) wash his feet. And that Luke reference is important because Luke makes it clear, “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:34) This doesn’t say that Jesus confronts sinners, that Jesus saves sinners, that Jesus love sinners but hates their sin. This says Jesus is a friend of sinners! Damn him doesn’t he know any better? Doesn’t he know that hanging out with the wrong people gets you labeled?
And then it hits me. Jesus is left-handed. Gotta be. Jesus loves with a sinister love, and Jesus loves the sinister. Jesus seek out those on the margins, that ten percent, those that couldn’t fit in the mold of the dominant norms. Those who were wrong because they weren’t right. These are the ones Jesus calls friend.
If we are those who intend to walk in the way of Jesus. Those who are called to follow and take up his mantel (a cross I hear… how sinister is that?) and take up his name and live his truth in the world than we need to be those who are willing to out ourselves. We need to name our homogenizing sinfulness. Our sin of righting the world, our sin of claiming right-ness… righteousness. And we need to be a lot more sinister.
It is time, way past time to break our molds. It is time, way past time, to set aside fear and power and learn from one another about different ways of being, of seeing, and of valuing.
But alongside that we must lift up and offer blessing to those whose difference has been made a sin. We cannot simply disempower the dominant norm but we must intentionally and earnestly seek to lift up and empower those who have been crushed beneath the ever churning wheel of “normal.”
It is time, way past time.
So let us set aside being right, let us lift up those who have been wronged, and befriend those who discomfort our known (and relatable) world in order that our world might grow larger through sinister love. It is the way of Jesus. It is the way of love. It is the way of the God who is love.
Note: I got the Wolman quotes here if you want some more reading on left-handedness: http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/31/left-handedness-david-wolman/
Also I came across this article while looking up the Luke passage and I love her comment about how the woman conflated 5 stories but created a story that was totally something Jesus would have done even if it wasn’t in the Bible: http://www.soul-midwife.com/2011/04/lent-22-when-jesus-washes-feet-of.html