Omission impossible: Why we need enemies

photoshop/library of congress

He smiled and nodded: I know why it is better to be shot at on a Sunday afternoon than not be shot at. Because it means maybe there is an enemy after all. If there is no enemy, then I am either mad or living in a madhouse. Peace is only better than war if peace is not hell, too. War being hell makes sense.
—Walker Percy, The Second Coming

Sometimes an enemy can be the best sort of news. In a landscape defined by popular whim, consumer desire, and political spin, the appearance of a real, honest-to-God enemy is nothing short of a miracle: like coming upon something solid in a world of shifting sands. Which is why, despite the blood and bruises, a good, reliable enemy is always worth uncovering. And why it’s never really a relief to see a supposed enemy vanish before our eyes. All this could be the beginning of an ironic skewering of one of humanity’s basest instincts. People who see enemies as good news are, after all, the very sorts who show up on the evening news torching American flags in foreign capitals or picketing the local gay pride parade with those “God hates fags” posters.

But the real irony is this: we all need enemies more than we realize, and those of us who are most uncomfortable with the idea of having a real, concrete enemy may not be a step ahead of the flag-burners and gay-bashers, but rather a step behind.

Let’s start with a simple experiment. Read the following lines, from the Fifty-eighth Psalm, and think about how they make you feel:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
  tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
  like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
  like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.

Perhaps you identify immediately and quickly with these words: you not only know what the psalmist is talking about, but could quickly generate your own list of persons and organizations that deserve such a fate. Perhaps you find these words uncomfortable but ultimately heartening: while you’re ashamed to think such things, you often do, and you find some solace in the fact that your improper emotions are acknowledged in Scripture. Perhaps your embarrassment is more acute: this is the sort of stuff that gives the Old Testament a bad name—let’s skip ahead to the Beatitudes, shall we? Perhaps you are simply angry: the only enemy I see here is a so-called man after God’s own heart sowing the seeds for generations of strife. Or perhaps you’d rather not be thinking about any of this.

If you exercise your right to exclude from the Psalms, you’ll never have to contemplate what it means to wish that someone were food for jackals, or to hate them with a perfect hatred.

The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer seems to take the latter tack. The daily office lectionary makes its way through all 150 psalms in a seven-week cycle of morning and evening readings. But in the tables listing each day’s selections, the most venomous sections are generally bracketed, indicating that they “may be omitted” from the given day’s readings. So if you exercise your right to exclude, you’ll never have to contemplate what it means to wish that someone were food for jackals (Ps. 63:11), or to hate them with a perfect hatred (Ps. 139:22). And you’ll never read any of Psalm Fifty-eight.

This is all, of course, eminently understandable. The so-called enemies psalms hardly seem suitable for private devotional use, let alone public reading. And the omissions haven’t exactly whitewashed the Psalter: there’s plenty about enemies and anguish and injustice in the non-optional parts of the daily office. So why not treat the enemies psalms like we do the lists of who begat whom in Numbers: know that they exist, even assent to their theoretical importance, but for the most part just leave them alone?

There are least two reasons why that might be a mistake. The first has to do with simple submission to Christian tradition; the second with the possibility that enemies, rather than being stumbling blocks, might hold significant clues in our human search to know both who we are and how we ought to act.

The psalms are, and have always been, the backbone of Jewish and Christian worship. The Anglican daily office’s seven-week cycle is mirrored by five-psalms-a-day evangelical “quiet time” plans. Trappist monks get up before dawn to chant the psalms, working through the entire Psalter every week. Other monastic orders move more slowly, but with no less fervor. And many of the church’s greatest saints are known for their devotion to the psalms: Saint Patrick, one of the foremost evangelists of his or any time, is said to have recited 50 psalms every day. An interesting notion: that one day in three, Patrick must have gotten up, said aloud, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9), and then ventured forth to preach Christ’s love among the pagans.

The ways we engage with, respond to, and suffer on account of our enemies aren’t just the litmus test of mature faith and morality; they are the very means of maturation.

It may well be that Patrick and the others choked their way through the enemies psalms out of pure respect for and submission to God’s word. But it also may well be that it’s easier for us to remake the saints in our own likeness, rather than the reverse. Show me a great saint of any age, and I’ll show you someone with very obvious foes. The Desert Fathers wrestled with evil spirits in the wilderness. Francis of Assisi battled wolves, publicans, kings, and skeptical popes. Teresa of Ávila suffered a lifetime of debilitating chronic illness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have won the hearts of his Nazi prison guards, but they still executed him in the end. It is difficult to imagine that these saints—all of whom were noted for facing their enemies and afflictions with Christ-like love and an almost masochistic longsuffering—thought of the enemies psalms as anything other than real, immediate, and utterly relevant. For those who find themselves in exile in this world, an accurate account of enemies amounts to, if not good news, at least necessary news—a long-awaited diagnosis for the human sickness, an answer to a world ever eager to cry, “Peace, peace!” when there is no peace.

Fine and good for the saints, but what about the rest of us who might find that fixating on our enemies just makes us more selfish, judgmental, and downright evil ourselves? Surely it would be better for us to focus on increasing our own understanding and sympathy—to work to solve the world’s problems rather than looking for someone to blame them on. A lofty sentiment indeed. Let’s see how well it’s worked for us.

In recent decades, a great many North Americans—particularly those in the higher socioeconomic strata—have had the option to skip over not just the enemies psalms, but the entire experience of having significant, lasting enemies. Part of it can be chalked up to sheer affluence—wealth and mobility cover over a multitude of discomforts. But it also has to do with our tendency to live life at lofty heights of abstract thought. Economics, sociology, psychology, politics, and—yes—religion purport to give us perspective on the messiness of life by raising us above it, but they also elevate us until we can no longer see the faces of our foes. So our only remaining enemies are abstractions. Consider our culture’s greatest recent battles: the wars against poverty, against cancer and heart disease, against crime and drugs, against heartless big business and mindless bureaucracy, against terror. Most of these conflicts—even those that occasionally do involve armies and guns—bear little resemblance to wars as they’ve traditionally been waged. And the enemies we seek to defeat are to a large extent faceless—abstract concepts and impersonal entities.

It’s pleasant to imagine a cartoon cloud labeled “poverty” being erased by the blunt end of a giant pencil named “government programs” or maybe “faith-based community action.” But what does that look like in the real world?

These wars of abstraction are nearly always causes we can all support, at least in theory. But there’s the rub—the more one ponders what those conflicts actually look like in practice, the more baffling they become. It’s pleasant to imagine a cartoon cloud labeled “poverty” being erased by the blunt end of a giant pencil named “government programs” or maybe “faith-based community action.” But what does that look like in the real world, which contains not concepts and abstractions but specific people and events? Likewise the war on crime: from a distance, it’s easy to attribute the criminal’s actions to various social factors and interpersonal dynamics. He came from a broken home. She couldn’t get a job. They thought they could get away with it. Perhaps these are useful ways of tackling a vast issue, but they are best employed from a distance.

So accustomed are we to viewing our enemies from the heights that the prospect of descent is frightening indeed. Our foes loom larger just when our own footing becomes precarious. And who’s to say that the hatred we see in our enemies won’t take root in our own hearts if given the opportunity? Staring down a real enemy at ground level amounts to giving hatred a hell of a chance.

Abstracting our enemies is seductive because it offers us the opportunity to act like saints without actually becoming saints. Understanding and pity bear a certain resemblance to love and forgiveness, and can be attained without the risks—and the suffering—that the latter always require. Abstraction is bloodless in both senses of the word: saving us pain, but at the cost of life itself. In the end we wind up alienated not just from our foes, but from ourselves as well. And though we may be too self-obsessed to notice, the world is rarely better for our efforts.

The good news in all of this is that, despite our best attempts to hide behind abstractions and proxy foes, our real enemies—and our true enemy—will eventually be kind enough to show themselves. And when they do, when the existence of enemies is no longer deniable, our training can finally begin. Consider, for a moment, the first conquest of Canaan by the Israelites—an old-fashioned conflict if ever there was one. At the end of the somewhat-lengthy preamble to the book of Judges is the following explanatory note:

Now these are the nations that the Lord left to test all those in Israel who had no experience of any war in Canaan … : the five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonites, and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord … (Judges 3:1–4)

Throughout the Old Testament, the presence of enemies is generally explained as a sort of nagging punishment for Israel’s incomplete conquest of the Promised Land. They were a very visible way for the sins of one generation to be passed on to the next. And while that is true, in this case their presence is explained as being not just punitive, but instructive as well.

Enemies, far from being the stumbling blocks that would keep us from being good, are in fact the school of virtue, and of faith. The ways we engage with, respond to, and suffer on account of our enemies aren’t just the litmus test of mature faith and morality; they are the very means of maturation. Faith without enemies—like faith without works—remains untested and, at least potentially, untrue. Which is why with enemies as with faith itself, one cannot skip to the finish line—however desirable it may seem to do so—without first running the race.

In his book Finding Faith, Brian McLaren synthesizes the work of a diverse set of artists, philosophers, and psychiatrists into a four-stage description of the growth of mature faith. According to McLaren’s model, faith begins in simplicity (right and wrong, good and evil), moves through complexity (we can’t fully understand the world, but we can find workable solutions to deal with its uncertainties) and into perplexity (whoops, no we can’t; faith is a mystery), before emerging into a teachable humility that integrates elements of the earlier stages (a respect for dogma, a desire for pragmatic solutions, and an overarching sense that, try as we might to understand faith, there’s a lot we’ll never know).

The process that McLaren describes—far from being Four Easy Steps to a Better Faith—is a risky one indeed. Moving from one stage of faith to the next necessarily involves a crisis of doubt and disillusionment. There’s always the danger of regression, or of losing faith entirely. And even those who wish to keep their faith must—at least for the moment—lay it down. A believer moving from simplicity to complexity has to abandon the hope that every problem has a single, straightforward answer that can be readily obtained from the proper authorities. The leap from perplexity to humility involves a similar sort of abandonment: in this case, the perplexed believer has to admit that she can only sit and ponder the mysteriousness of life for so long—she must act, even with incomplete data, even in the face of absurdity.

Show me a saint and I’ll show you someone with obvious enemies. Show me someone who’s learned to face his enemies with maturity and humility, with righteous anger and surprising forgiveness, and I’ll show you a saint. Growing in faith and learning to respond well to one’s enemies seem so closely linked that one must wonder if they might be the same thing: that response to enemies is actually a category of faith. Here, once again, we may be assisted by a bit of hagiography—in this case of the modern, secular variety. It’s hard to think of any living person who has received more universal acclaim than Nelson Mandela. He is a veritable icon of freedom, of hope, and of reconciliation. And to the extent that he is all of these things, it is because of the way he has come to deal with his enemies. Mandela’s sainthood—if it may be called that—cannot be attributed to any inherent goodness on his part, but rather to the fruits of his decades-long, faithful struggle with his enemies.

In the early days of his activism against the apartheid government of his native South Africa, Mandela, like most of his colleagues in the African National Congress, remained committed to Gandhian, non-violent protest. It made sense, of course: if the apartheid government was perpetrating evil, those who stood in protest must be irreproachable, willing to suffer and always ready to turn the other cheek. It was a simple view of the struggle, but by the late 1950s, Mandela and the ANC became disillusioned with it and began to consider the possibilities of armed conflict. The ANC reasoned that, since the white government had no qualms about using violence upon black South Africans, response in kind was justified: the complexities of the struggle seemed to demand a pragmatic solution. And so a careful campaign of violence began—mostly limited to non-lethal attacks on government infrastructure, though contingency plans were made for the possibility of guerilla warfare in the South African countryside.

It was those contingency plans, it turns out, which were captured in a government raid on an ANC safe house near Johannesburg. The apartheid government now had the proof of what they’d been claiming all along—that Mandela was a terrorist, probably a communist, and in any case a danger to society. He was tried for treason and, along with a number of his associates, sentenced to what would in the end be a 27-year prison term. Most of the top ANC leadership were either jailed or forced into exile. The freedom struggle had, it seemed, been brought to its knees.

Most of us would far rather act saintly than actually become saints: much easier to skip straight to the Nobel Peace Prize without going through the 27 years in prison.

In prison, Mandela plumbed the depths of confusion and despair. Though he never seems to have doubted the ultimate justice of the freedom struggle, during the first decade and a half in jail Mandela was given occasion to doubt just about everything else. But by the latter years of his incarceration, something had clearly changed. Mandela was unbowed, but newly flexible. He still refused to back down from his harsh criticism of the apartheid system, or even from his belief in the right of black South Africans to use violence to bring about necessary changes. But he was also newly open to negotiation—even at the risk of his own reputation among other anti-apartheid leaders. The Mandela that emerged from prison in 1990 and, four years later, went on to become South Africa’s first democratically elected president showed an integrated, wise, and remarkably humble view of his enemies—an outlook decades in the making, incorporating elements from all the different stages of his struggle.

All of which isn’t to say that Mandela’s path represents the right way to deal with enemies. Many activists in the South African freedom struggle—the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for instance—never advocated violent resistance. But while one could argue that Tutu’s approach had more integrity than Mandela’s, both leaders time and again risked their credibility (not to mention their personal safety) for the sake of a righteous cause. They were, in short, willing to face and engage their enemies on all fronts—ethical, political, and economic; in secret planning sessions and in public addresses, in the corridors of power and on the dusty township streets. In doing so, they opened themselves up to the same fear and hatred that motivated their oppressors. They made, in essence, leaps of faith which could have ended in disaster both for themselves and for those they led—but which, through the strange transforming grace that works so strikingly in saints of every sort, instead ended in that rarest of things: a strong, humble, and irrefutable victory.

Know your enemy, the saying goes. Love your enemy, Jesus said. It’s a sign of strange times indeed when the first of the two exhortations can seem the more difficult, and the less desirable. Most of us would far rather act saintly than actually become saints: much easier to skip straight to the Nobel Peace Prize without going through the 27 years in prison. But if we desire to bear even the slightest true resemblance to the saints—or to the Messiah whom they in turn resemble—we have to be willing to start at the beginning, with the raw experience of simply having foes. Not everyone, of course, has been granted the gift of a real and obvious enemy. But for those who are lacking: ask and you shall receive. Rather than creating your own imaginary, abstract foes, hold out for the real thing. If you have no enemies of your own, look for someone who does and cast your lot with them. And if the enemies psalms make you uncomfortable: good. So do enemies. And there’s no safer place to start learning the dangerous lessons of discomfort than at the heart of Scripture.

Originally published in re:generation quarterly, Winter 2001.

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