Expanding Our Definitions
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus acknowledges a maxim that has shaped human life since ancient times: love your neighbors; hate your enemies. Jesus reverses that saying with a new ethic: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). The parable of the Good Samaritan guides us toward expanding our definition of neighbor. But the question “Who is my enemy?” gives us pause. We may be too busy fighting them, avoiding them, or pretending they don’t exist. How do we think about enemies? How might God think about enemies? How should we treat our enemies? And what hope is there for loving our enemies?
Where Do They Come From?
Some enemies arise by accident, created in the wake of misunderstanding, ignorance, or insensitivity. Communication difficulties elevate tense conversations into full-blown conflicts. Cultural differences or misread non-verbal cues bring offense where none was intended. Other enemies are made deliberately. Sometimes we regard others as enemies because they oppose our ideas, defy our cherished values, or hinder our goals. We may even vilify such opponents by magnifying their faults or fabricating falsehoods about them.
Enemies may be forged from fierce competition for limited resources, irreconcilable differences, or family feuds—often involving property or progeny. Many of ancient Israel’s stories about their traditional tribal enemies find their genesis in sibling rivalries: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Some enemies are contagious; we catch them from our neighbors. Their enemies become our enemies as we fulfill some shared duty to protect one another from danger or defend one’s honor. Enemies may be inherited from generations past, locking us into perpetual conflict that has lasted so long that no one can imagine it ever ending. Enemies may be borrowed from the future as we react to potential threats with fear. If we guess someone will be our enemy, we may start treating them like enemies, creating imaginary conflicts that eventually become real. (back to top)
Whenever we speak of enemies as “faceless,” we dehumanize them. Whether we regard them as monsters or machines, the effect is the same. Our enemies have faces, even if those faces are hidden behind masks. Can we affirm the humanity of those who fight for the “other side” no matter where that other side is?
Can we expand our understanding of neighbor and shrink our definition of enemy? Instead of drawing a sharp line dividing friend from foe, can we imagine a long winding path connecting them, passing through neighbor, friend, acquaintances, allies, opponents, and adversaries on the way? Can we find ways to make room for those we are not prepared to receive as friends, without categorizing them as our enemies?
God and Enemies
Jacob had cheated his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and tricked their father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau (Genesis 25:19–34; 27:1–46). Esau vowed to kill Jacob in revenge. Jacob fled, going to work for his uncle Laban in exchange for the right to marry Laban’s daughters. For years, Jacob and Laban alternately tricked and cheated each other, until amid their escalating conflict, Jacob fled. Laban pursued him and demanded the return of the property he believed Jacob had stolen. Laban and Jacob made a covenant with each other, with God as witness. They heaped up a pile of rocks as a mutually agreed upon boundary between them to keep them safe from each other, vowing “the Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other” (Genesis 31:49). Upon parting ways, Jacob and Laban settled somewhere along the spectrum between friend and foe, keeping the peace by maintaining their distance. Sometimes peace requires clear boundaries and appropriate distance, witnessed and blessed by God. (back to top)
As Jacob prepared to meet his brother, he was unsure whether Esau still regarded him as an enemy. He developed a plan to minimize his losses in case he was attacked. Jacob distanced himself from the rest of his family and spent a sleepless night alone. He found himself wrestling with a mysterious divine figure. As dawn was breaking, Jacob was neither winning nor losing. He clung to the mysterious divine figure, pleading for a blessing. The encounter left him transformed. Now he carried a limp and a blessing, as well as a new name to replace “Jacob,” a name meaning “one who cheats.”
Jacob’s new name was “Israel,” which means “one who has striven with God” (Genesis 32:28). Likewise, we are drawn into a wrestling match, not only with God, but also with our ideas about God. As much as we might like to think that God always sides with us against our enemies, Scripture cautions us against such overconfidence. Israel’s prophets often spoke of God using an enemy’s victory to punish the nation, to call Israel to repentance, and to a more just way of life
In order to be truly for us, God sometimes needs to stand against our actions. When we call upon God to help us, God may side with our enemy in order bring us to a new place of recognition and change. We may find ourselves both blessed and limping. When we call on God to help us get rid of our enemies, God may do that by transforming those enemies into friends.
Some passages in the Bible call for divine vengeance, seeking wrath upon enemies. Such cries rise up from the depth of human suffering. The psalms give voice to the full range of human emotion, including lament, disappointment, grief, and anger. One such psalm expresses the wish that the enemy’s children be dashed against the rocks (Psalm 137:8).This psalm gives voice to the anguish of those who have experienced the horror of wartime atrocities, including brutal treatment of women and children. (back to top)
There is a profound difference between what we wish God would do and what God chooses to do. Perhaps God absorbs our calls for vengeance, sopping up the anger and pain that spills out of us. When we encounter such words, may we hear in them a divine assurance that God will handle our anguished cries for revenge by inviting us to let go of the burden of carrying around such deep hatred and anger, lest we use it to do great harm to others and to ourselves. While the Bible wrestles with finding meaning within the experience of suffering and violence, the psalmist also gives voice to the promise that God is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). It is within God’s character to be more gracious and merciful than us.
David and Goliath had vastly differing experiences of the same battle. David’s smallness contributes to his heroic stature. Too small to fit into armor, bearing rocks as his only weapon, and ridiculed by his enemy, David emerges as a giant-slayer. Had David been bigger, or even had he and Goliath been of equal size, this story would have been profoundly different, even if the winner had been the same. This story is not primarily about good guy against bad guy, hero against enemy. This story has captured children’s hearts and artists’ imaginations precisely because it is about the weak defeating the strong. It portrays David as a lovable underdog, winning an improbable matchup against a much stronger opponent.
From the beginning of its history, ancient Israel was the underdog, David in a world filled with Goliaths. The Bible tells the story of reversal; of God choosing the weak and siding with the oppressed. In a culture where birth order determined status, Jacob, the younger brother, is the blessed, chosen son. Israel struggled against the military might of its richer and more powerful neighbors. Biblical texts that celebrate triumph over enemies—such as Miriam’s song praising the drowning of the Egyptian army (Exodus 15:21) and tales that exult in the prowess of mighty warriors like Sampson wreaking havoc on the Philistines ( Judges 13–17)—inspire hope and courage for those who are perpetually on the losing side. They are not the stories of powerful giants gloating over yet another victory against a hapless opponent. (back to top)
How to Get Rid of Them
We can be tempted to think that transformation is what our enemy needs, while we remain essentially unchanged. Although we can influence others, the only person anyone can change is oneself. We can establish boundaries for our own actions. We can treat everyone, from friends to enemies, with integrity and dignity. We can resist attempts to escalate violence or dehumanize our enemies. We can cultivate our capacity for compassion. We can choose to ask questions of our enemies and listen to them to gain understanding, recognizing that understanding does not require agreement. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther enjoins us to explain our neighbors’ actions in the kindest way. The commandment about not bearing false witness against our neighbor challenges us to articulate our opponents’ position in such a way that they can identify it as theirs, without caricature or exaggeration. We can examine conflicts we are involved in through multiple perspectives, asking ourselves to imagine: “How would my adversary see this?” and “How would a neutral observer describe this?”
To love both neighbor and enemy challenges me to pay close attention before entering someone else’s conflict. Whether or not I have been invited to intervene, I need to remember that even well-intentioned efforts may hinder, not help. If I don’t know the whole story, I could wind up supporting the wrong side or stirring up a conflict that had been simmering down. Often, one’s best stance toward a neighbor’s enemy is to remain on the sidelines, perhaps as a “pillar of righteousness,” whose mere presence steadies them as they discern their boundaries and discern how much space they need between them to be at peace with one another. (back to top)
Hospitality tips enemies toward friendship. As part of Laban and Jacob’s covenant of peace with one another, they and their kinfolk shared a ritual meal (Genesis 31:54–55). The psalmist speaks of God setting a table before him, in the presence of his enemies (Psalm 23:5). Is the psalmist suggesting that God provides food for us in front of our enemies, while they watch us eat? Or does the psalmist envision God providing food for us to eat with our enemies?
In the ancient Middle East, shared meals held significance as signs of hospitality. Perhaps the psalmist dreams of God setting a table before us all in the presence of our enemies, and when we arrive, we discover that the enemies who have joined us have become our friends.
The Rev. Julie A. Kanarr serves as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Belfair, Wash. (back to top)
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