Who Is My Enemy?

Written by Ted Troxell : June 24, 2008

“Love your enemies” is the logical (if extreme) extension of “love your neighbor.” When asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus tells a story in which a Samaritan — not necessarily an enemy but certainly not your average Jew’s first choice for a cribbage partner — is the protagonist and moral exemplar of neighborly love.

By identifying a hated outgroup as the good neighbor and especially in mandating love for enemies, Jesus effectively divests us of any criteria for choosing whom to love. The circle of love becomes a sphere in which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. Heck, the Gentiles even get grafted into the people of God. How’s that for sharing the love?

Love of enemies, then, is a kind of shorthand for a universal and indiscriminate love of others. Often, however, our conversations about loving enemies presuppose (or at least fail to question) the right of the state to determine who our enemy is. This has the unfortunate effect of conflating the pacifist refusal to participate in armed conflict with war resistance in general, making it appear that the pacifist (or non-resistor) is opposed to a given war on the basis that the U.S. is a Christian nation that should love its enemies, or that the call to love enemies is one that can be universalized in a way that makes it applicable to nations.

Leaving aside the “Christian nation” business for now, suffice it to say that the modern state is not constituted such that it might love its enemies. There is a legitimate “realism” that recognizes this, and there is no reason to deny the ethical limits of statehood — but this realism does not call into question the practicality of the call of Jesus so much as it problematizes assumptions about our place in the state apparatus and claims of modern democracy to guarantee such things as freedom, justice, or liberty.

Allowing the state to define our enemies also means, for most of us, an abstract enemy whom we cannot meaningfully love. This is not to deny that there are real, flesh-and-blood people dying and being injured; my point is that the state-defined enemy is often neither someone who has personally done us harm or offense nor someone whom we might have the opportunity to offer aid and comfort. By allowing war to determine the boundaries of enemy and neighbor, friend and foe, we risk a tragic overidentification with the state and an uncritical acceptance of the claims of the state upon our identity. We risk as well confusing the call of Jesus with the laudable but Quixotic quest to end all war.

Peacemaking is an important part of the ministry of reconciliation with which the church is charged. But the end of all conflict is neither the point nor the goal of Christian ethics. Such an ethics is part of the “narrow path” that that few take, and not a universal moral imperative applicable to all people in all times and in all places. It happens to pass the “What would the world be like if everyone did this?” test, because the world would certainly be a better place if everyone loved their enemies (particularly if they defined such love so as to include not killing them). But not everyone will. The merits of a nonviolent ethics cannot be evaluated on the basis of its ability to put an end to violence or even its potential as an evangelism tool. It might, from time to time, end up being “effective” in one of these ways, but by its very nature cannot guarantee either of those outcomes.

Love of enemy can play a role in our response to war inasmuch as it should probably preclude our involvement in armed conflict. At the very least, it suggests a disconnect between Christian discipleship and such involvement that we need to take very seriously. But this does not mean we have nothing to say about war, or that all war is the same. Paul recognized a legitimate place for the sword in the way that God orders the powers, but this need not legitimize every use of the sword by every state in every time and place.

If we have the opportunity to speak meaningfully to the state — about which I’m skeptical, but it could happen — or to others about war and other artifacts of civilization, we don’t have to abandon discernment as to the different reasons war might be waged and the differing means by which armed conflict is prosecuted. There are biblical reasons to affirm the state’s use of force, a concession to realism that does not demand or even justify our involvement in such actions. And there are many reasons to decry particular abuses of that power as unjust, but the basis for this cannot be a nation’s failure to love its enemies.

I sometimes wish someone would have asked Jesus, “Who is my enemy?”, because at least we’d get an interesting story out of it. In the absence of such a story, we might do well to focus not on state-defined enemies (unless we should happen to meet one) but on those around us who may not be enemies so much as simply those who have wronged us, or whom we don’t like so much, or the outcast, or the merely odd. Enemy-love can be easy to affirm in lives where actually encountering an enemy — certainly an enemy combatant — is unlikely.

Infinitely more likely is the need to forgive a brother or sister, or to seek reconciliation when in need of forgiveness. This more quotidian love, difficult for many of us, is probably more important than claims to love people we don’t know simply on the basis of not signing up to kill them.

Author Bio:: Ted Troxell likes cats.

Image from The Plow

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Viewing 4 Comments

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    What I appreciate of Chomsky's work is that, generally speaking, when he condemns an individual or a group, he does so using that very group's metric for success - if they proclaim peace, he points out their wars, if they proclaim freedom he points out their imprisonment, if they proclaim their love he points out their hate.

    It is this judging by their own measure that I appreciate, for you are correct; judging by another's measure makes little or no sense. As a nation state cannot in any meaningful way be 'Christian', to confuse it's policies with Christian ethics makes the same sense as measuring length in kilograms.

    Is there a Christian-approved state response to enemies? I'm not sure there even needs to be one. But I greatly appreciate your distinction between state-declared enemies and our neighbors and siblings.

    God bless
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    This is something I, too, have been thinking and writing about recently.

    It seems that loving our enemies as the state defines them is merely hate masked as piety, for what we really hate is the state. Deep down, we don't hate America's enemies. We hate America, not for what it has done to others, but for what it has done to us. It has fed us with complacency and we have consumed gluttonously. It has frozen our feet that would bring the good news of justice with wealth and its shadow side, fear. It has swapped graceful living for easy living.

    So, do we love our enemies if these enemies are merely the enemies of the state and not our own, dark, hidden enemies?

    I hear so many people discuss the entanglement of politics and religion and how Christianity has been co-opted and acts as a divine legitimizer to the state. These same people, myself included, then exclaims that we must love our enemies, not kill them, as Jesus taught. Yet, we use our nation's definition of enemies as the standard, skirting any soul searching that would reveal those enemies we see when we look in the mirror on a bad day, those people we blame for the conditions of our lives we dislike.

    I think Jesus, though, did answer the question, "Who is your enemy?" He answered that question as well with his response to the query about "Who is your neighbor?" The two questions are one in the same.
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    "The circle of love becomes a sphere in which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. Heck, the Gentiles even get grafted into the people of God. How’s that for sharing the love?"

    Before Christians start talking about loving enemies - and that usually means people you cannot see, or will not see, or don't want to see - they need to start loving their neighbors - those they can see, those who live among them and those they would rather not see. The hateful attitude of millions of Christians - or those who lay claim to that name without meaning - towards their gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans- gendered neighbors is legendary.

    Don't worry about the American government naming your enemies. Worry about the preachers of hatred who claim the name of Jesus speak with the tongue of Satan.
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    Thanks for turning me on to "The Plow." It looks like some really great stuff. This image really conjured up some reflection in me.


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