Posted by: Dan | April 19, 2008

On Loving Our Enemies, Part 2: Knowing Our Enemies as Friends

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
~ Ro 5.6-11

Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.
~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Within the first part of this series, I argued that the way in which we understand the term “enemy” must be expanded. Instead of defining our enemies as those who injure us personally, I argued that we must understand our enemies to include those who injure the vulnerable, and those who injure the people whom we love. Furthermore, I conclude that the appropriate Christian response to our “enemies” is love, and that this love excludes violence — protective, pre-emptive, or otherwise.

In this post I wish to further deconstruct the term “enemy” from a Christian perspective by building on the Christian understanding of what it means to love our enemies. However, the Christian call to love as God loves seems to make the whole category of “enemies” problematical. Although a wise person once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” some of us are scratching our heads wishing somebody had asked: “Who is my enemy?” (But perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan also goes a long way towards answering that question as well?)

What I would like to suggest is that Christians should follow the pattern established by God, and laid out by Paul in Romans 5. They should live as agents of reconciliation who offer themselves in an act of friendship, not only to those who are just a little bit hard to love, but to those who seem impossible to love — our enemies.

Yet how can we be the friends of our enemies? How can we know our enemies as our friends? Such thinking appears to be confused and contradictory. However, I think that it is not — the question of “friends” and “enemies” is a question of perspective. From our perspective, shaped as it is by the Spirit of Christ, and our participation in Christ (who forgave his torturers, even while they tortured him and two others) there is now no person so violent as to be excluded from friendship. However, from the perspective of the person who acts violently towards us, we are enemies — for it is this person who reveals that s/he thinks of us as enemies by acting violently towards us. We know this violent person as a friend when we actively love him or her, while the violent person knows himself or herself to by our enemy by acting violently toward us. Consequently, even though we are called to love all people, and know them as friends by acting lovingly towards them, we can still use the language of “enemies” so long as we realise that this language is only appropriate to the extent that it reflects the way in which the violent person understands his or her relationship with us — and it is, therefore, inappropriate beyond that extent.

So, if we come to know our “enemies” as friends by actively loving them, what are some of the ways we can go about doing this?

The first and most obvious way is by following the words of Jesus in Mt 5 — we love our enemies, and learn to love our enemies, by praying for them. Here I am reminded of the commentary of John Stott in The Message of the Sermon on the Mount:

'This is the supreme command,' wrote Bonhoeffer. 'Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.' Moreover, if intercessory prayer is an expression of what love we have, it is a means to increase our love as well. It is impossible to pray for someone without loving him [sic], and impossible to go on praying for him without discovering that our love for him grows and matures. We must not, therefore, wait before praying for an enemy until we feel some love for him in our heart.

Stott is quoting from Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship, and Bonhoeffer goes on to write the following:

For if we pray for [our enemies], we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them.

Thus, Bonhoeffer argues that prayer drives us to identify with our enemies, both because we intercede for them, and because we realise that Christ died for all and that we, too, were enemies of God. This prevents us from completely ostracizing our enemies, from deeming them to be subhuman monsters and thereby justifying their destruction, and causes us to wish for them what we ourselves have discovered — the liberating grace of God. We love our enemies by continually hoping for their salvation, not by hoping for their destruction; this is simply a continuation of Jesus' words in Mt 7.12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Consequently, I can only conclude that Christians are so quick to hate their enemies, and act violently towards them, because they are spending little, if any, time praying for these enemies.

Secondly, this should lead us to express an interest in our enemies, just as we express an interest in our friends. We should desire to know something of their respective journeys, their experiences, and the things that have shaped them. In this regard, I wish to put an altogether different spin on the words of Sun Tzu, quoted above. While Sun Tzu argues that knowing one's enemies is a way to conquer them, I would like to suggest that knowing one's enemies is a step towards learning to act peace-ably, and graciously, towards them; although there may be struggles (or “battles”) we are able to avoid the “disaster” of violence! Yes, there is a conquest in this way of knowing, but it is the conquest of evil by good, for it is through this sort of knowledge that one develops genuine compassion.

Let me, then, apply this to the example provided in Part 1 — those who sexually abuse children. When all we know about such people is that they sexually abuse children, it is next to impossible to love them. However, if we learn about some of the key factors that contribute to the perpetuation of these acts — say the observation that a significant percentage of pedophiles were abused as children — the door is opened to compassion, and if we actually personally journey alongside of such people as individuals and not as statistics, we may find compassion to be unavoidable.

That, at least, was how things developed for me. There was a time in my life when, due to the experiences of some people very near and dear to me, I would have responded very violently to sex offenders. However, in the work I was then doing with street-involved men, I became friends with a certain fellow who touched my heart deeply. It was only after we had become close friends that I discovered that this fellow had sexually abused children. When I learned of this, my very first reaction was to feel like a bad person for liking this man — now only did I hate what he had done, I hated myself for loving this man as my friend! Thus, it was this experience that forced me to revisit thoughts I had on these things, and attitudes I had taken for granted. I realized, “I cannot cast the first (or any) stone at this man. Rather, I hope that this man comes to know the love of God, as I have come to know that love, and so I think it best to be an agent of that love to this man.”

Indeed, perhaps this means that I cannot cast any stones. As with this man, so with all others.

In conclusion, I am reminded of the words of Conor Oberst, who sings the following:

Where was it when I first heard that sweet sound of humility?
It came to my ears in the goddamn loveliest melody;
how grateful I was then to be part of the mystery,
to love and to be loved.
Let's just hope that is enough.

(Cf. http://youtube.com/watch?v=Z4TueFlXKfU, or http://youtube.com/watch?v=biuHzcnEXf0; the lyrics are much clearer in the second link, but it has no video.)

Humility requires those committed to nonviolence to surrender any smug self-righteousness they may feel, and it requires those who are committed to violence to recognize the supreme arrogance of claiming authority over the life and death of others. In humility let us pursue love and hope that love is enough for, as we worship a God who is love, we have nothing else to which we can turn.

[NB: In Part 3, I hope to return to the question of how we can go about “protecting” both the vulnerable and our loved ones, so bear with me!]

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