Upon the pages of church history there are many stains. And why should there not be? If the church, the body of Christ, is composed of deeply flawed individuals, then it should be no shock that an account of the work of the church in the past 2 millennia should have some dark moments. While there is plenty of positive history within the church, and countless acts of love and justice have been done in the name of Christ, there is a fair share of negatives as well. Crusades, witch hunts, the burning of heretics, the slaughter of strangers, and the Troubles of Northern Ireland, these are all events which tell of a bloody and darker side of the work of the Body of Christ. While many of these dark events may be in the past, the church still contains the potential for great acts of evil, and in many ways we are seeing a resurgence of, if not the acts of evil, at least the desire for evil. But what has united these dark events? What is the underlying failure within the church which perpetuates these acts of evil toward both those who do not claim to be Christian and those who claim to be Christian but hold doctrinal differences? It is, I would argue, a deeply flawed understanding of the command to love the enemy.
It would appear that the command to love the enemy has often been interpreted as a command to “love your neighbor when they annoy you.” From sunday school, to church sermons, to chapel messages at Christian colleges, there has been little definition of who our enemy is, generally resulting in an interpretation that does not go far enough. My goal in this paper is not to define exactly who the enemy is, but rather make the argument that for the follower of Christ, the ontological category of “enemy” is useless. I hope to express that the command to love the enemy, is truly a command to no longer view anyone as enemy. If the enemy is that which allows us to define our identity and maintain social structure, then the new identity in Christ and the Kindom of Heaven social structure, reject any need for the category of enemy.
The first question which must be addressed is why we have enemies. What is it
that creates an opposition between two people or groups? Why, in this age of enlightenment and globalization, would reasonable humans have an enemy? One argument which could be made is that a group of people need an enemy in order to define their own position. Without an “other” we would have no sense of an “us” or even a “self.”
This is shown in the scapegoating theory of Rene Girard. According to Girard, the “other” to our “self” helps create and mediate our desire. The more that the desire is alike between both parties, the differences between the parties begin to diminish. The lack of difference crushes all senses of societal hierarchies. This diminishing of difference is the diminishing of identity. How then does the self regain its (tribal) identity? According to Girard, this is most often accomplished through the scapegoating and vilification of the other. By scapegoating, a group can renew their identity as they are now obtaining of an “other” which they can contrast with their own identity and thus renew hierarchy, without addressing the real problem of desire. The enemy is necessary in order to define the self. This is not applicable only to society, but also to one’s own self. Society needs an enemy in order to maintain social structure, hierarchy, and identity, while the self needs an enemy/other in order to define itself.
Slavoj Zizek gives an example of scapegoating as a way of holding societal hierarchy when he discusses the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in The Puppet and the Dwarf. In the appendix of the book, he shows that the Vietnam War began to sow seeds of doubt in the idea of american exceptionalism. The american identity of being both just and powerful was shaken by the war and the supposed differences between the United States and “lesser” countries began to disappear. Zizek makes the point that the 9/11 attacks actually allowed the country to revert to its state of perfection. By claiming the role of victim, the constructive critiques of american identity were overruled by the return of an enemy. Rather than waking up the american public, the 9/11 attacks worked to put the public back to sleep in american ideology and reinforce a social hierarchy.
Likewise, we can see the continued effects of terror attacks as a way of forming american identity during the past decade and a half. The Muslim is still the scapegoat, the enemy, who allows us to live an ideological national identity. Videos of different political rallies and speeches in the last campaign season show this clearly. Where the Muslims are considered to be in antagonism to women’s rights, an American can thus assume themselves to be very respectful of women, even if this point is made by a man wearing a “Trump that bitch” shirt. By scapegoating the “other,” distinctions in identity can be drawn up, even if they are not reflective of reality.
There are more examples of this outside the current American political climate. In a recent interview with the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf reflected on the war which incorporated the breakup of Yugoslavia. Volf had grown up in Yugoslavia in what is now Croatia. Volf states that the people in that time were “very hesitant to not consider those who differ as their enemy.” Volf states that this is because, “If you took away their enemy, it would take away their reasons for existence.” The existence of the “enemy/other” allows does not only define the group identity, but operates even on an individual level. Volf however draws this scapegoat-based self-identity into question, saying that “love of the enemy” is one of the most important characteristics of Christianity.
It is at this point where a critique is necessary. In what way can we understand the call to love the enemy if we cannot truly have an identity without an enemy? Do we love our enemy, knowing that their existence as enemy is a necessary evil for our own existence and self-understanding? Or shall we claim to have no enemy, and thus lose any self understanding and social structure? This is the question which I think needs to be answered by the church today. What does it mean to love the enemy that we supposedly need?
Jesus is very clear about the importance of loving the enemy. His command is recorded in the gospels of Matthew and of Luke. While the two gospel accounts have slightly different wording, the message boils down to loving, praying, blessing, and doing good to those who persecute, abuse, curse, hate, and do evil to you. There are three points I would like to draw from this teaching.
In one sense the command to love the enemy already begins to destroy the category of enemy, for an enemy is always a two-way involvement. Unless both parties view each other as enemy, a violent relationship can be understood not as an enemy relationship, but rather an abused-abuser relationship. If one is willing to continually bless and do good to those who could be considered enemy, the entire identity of enemy is destroyed.
Secondly, both passages speak of how easy it is to love those who are like you. Do not even sinners and tax collectors do the same? There is little struggle in doing good to those who hold the same tribal identity, your family, or you friends. In Matthew’s account of this teaching, Jesus challenges the tradition of “loving your neighbor and hating your enemy.” This tradition is the logical, common sense move. Nothing makes more sense than to like those who are like us and to hate those who pose a threat. But Jesus commands us to do the hard task of loving the enemy. Is this not, if I may borrow from Paul, the wisdom of God which makes foolish the wisdom of the world? Is this not the weak shaming the strong, when one who is attacked responds with love and blessing? This is the stumbling block not only to the Greek philosophers, but to most of human history, to america, to war, and to those who would define their identities through those who are different.
But it is the third point which I believe holds the most potent attack on the category of enemy. In both accounts of this teaching of Christ, the authors bring up a new identity as children of God. Matthew writes “so you may be sons of your father who is in heaven.” Likewise Luke writes, “And you will be sons of the most high.” Is this to be understood that by loving your enemies you will earn the title of “child of God?” I would argue that it is rather the identity as child of God which allows us to love our enemies. This new identity is one which does not need an enemy in order to be defined.
How then are we to understand our new identity as children of God? While there is an abundance of writing on this new self, I would like to bring in Henri Nouwen to break down this identity. Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic Priest who held positions teaching psychology at Yale, Notre Dame, and Harvard, before eventually settling at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto working with those who had developmental and physical impairments. Not only did Nouwen work day in and day out with the “weak” members of society, but he also suffered from serious depression, putting him in an unusually powerful place from which to speak of both the weak shaming the strong of this world and weakness being made strength by God.
Henri Nouwen wrote specifically of the new identity in Christ as that of the beloved child of God. Where all humans need both significance and security, and often obtain it through scapegoating and the self-definition that comes with it, Nouwen advocated finding strength and significance in the love of God. While it would be foolish to attempt here to compile his writings on being the beloved, a main theme is that it is only through the love of God that we may love the world without economic (give love in order to obtain) goals, and that insofar as God calls all beloved, we may live without enemy, knowing that the enemy is simply someone who has not yet realized their own belovedness. This is certainly akin to the passage of St. Augustine in which he states that the peculiarity of the City of God/City of Man dynamic is that the citizens of each are constantly intermingling. The citizens of the City of God live among those who are not yet, but will be, citizens as well.
Is this not how the child of God must view the “enemy?” Not as an opponent who we are at war with, but rather as a fellow beloved child of God who has yet to realize their own identity? But if this is true, where is the “difference” which allows society to stay together? How shall social hierarchies stay in place if, as Paul says, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for all are made one in Christ?” How can a society function without these distinctions, and in what way can one understand their own identity without the enemy?
The first question is answered by Jesus as he gives a new look at societal hierarchy. While the loss of distinction may, according to Rene Girard, destroy any sense of social order, we must understand that Girard speaks of a society which follows the “wisdom of this world,” that is, a “power-down” society in which the powerful and wealthy are in charge. This must be contrasted with the society based on the “wisdom of God which shames the wisdom of this world.” Jesus is very clear that in the Kindom of Heaven, the leaders are actually the lowest of all. So how shall we answer the loss of distinction which destroys the hierarchies of society? We shall simply remember that the Kindom of God does not require such hierarchies, and thus does not need “the enemy/scapegoat” to restore balance.
But while this may work for society, how are we to understand our own identity as beloved without the unloved enemy from whom we are distinct? How shall we understand our belovedness without a non-beloved whom we can contrast ourselves with? What is the measuring stick for the Christian then? It is here that Paul’s distinction between the old and new self may be useful. For if we are called to “put of the old self,” and “put to death that which is worldly within us,” then there is already a difference within ourselves. By shifting our focus from the difference between the beloved children of God, we may find the “difference” of identity within our own personhood and the work of Christ within us all. The measure which we are put up against is not the “other” but the “self.” From here the identity as the beloved can be defined in relationship to what we were, and not to what we view others as not.
While the “enemy” may be a necessary category for the “wisdom of this world,” the wisdom of God shames it. While the enemy may be a necessary category for social hierarchy, the Kindom of Heaven bids us to let go of hierarchy. And where the enemy is necessary for self-identification, the follower of Christ finds the difference of identify in the old and new self. Thus can there be any necessity for the “enemy” in Christian language? Must there be an “other” to which we are opposed? While the world and even the church itself have defined themselves through what they are not, as seen in the orthodox/heretic and theist/atheist spectrums (among many more), what I hope to have shown here is that what needs to be put to death is the self which requires an enemy. Rather than putting the enemy to death, it is the role of the Christian to put the very category of enemy to death, and to offer love to those who have not yet realized their identity as the beloved.