Consider my enemies; they are numerous,
and they hate me violently. Psalm 25:19
But my enemies are vigorous and powerful;
many hate me for no reason. Psalm 38:19
One of the most strange and estranging experiences of life in our age is the absence of enemies. At least, I think that it must be so. I don’t feel like I have any, and I feel strange…
Maybe ‘absence’ is a little strong. There is a certain stream of political rhetoric in our society that still uses enemy-type language (although rarely the word). Currently it is largely employed for shadowy paramilitary opponents with beards and kaftans. Enemies have been etherealised.
These political enemies (necessary for the functioning of a state) are carefully prevented from becoming personal enemies. We are opposed to evil ideologies, to life-denying movements, but not to individual enemies.
The fact is that the Gulf neowar led to the emergence of a problem that was absolutely new, not only to the logic and dynamics of paleowar but also to its governing psychology. The aim of paleowarfare was to destroy as many of the enemy as possible, accepting that many of one’s own men had to die too. After a victory, the great military leaders of the past would pass by night through battlefields sown with thousands and thousands of dead, and they weren’t surprised that half of them were their own soldiers. The commemoration with medals and moving ceremonies of the death of one’s own soldiers gave rise to the cult of the hero. The death of the others was publicised and gloried in, and civilians at home were expected to rejoice at their elimination.
The Gulf war established two principles: (1) none of our men should die and (2) as few enemies as possible should be killed.
(Umberto Eco, “Some Reflections on War and Peace” in Turning Back the Clock,15)
Don’t get me wrong, of course it is good that we seem less likely to go around killing each other.
But the change in how we regard our enemies cannot fail to have implications for our self-understanding. If you read back into history, even only back to the World Wars, everyone had enemies, they were an important part of identifying yourself properly, of understanding your place in society and the world. Have you ever felt a sense of embarrassment at how elderly veterans speak of those against whom they fought? Or blushed at old news footage?
Once you get back into Biblical history the embarrassment becomes so acute that we tend to suppress it altogether. It’s most troubling in the Psalms. A whopping great chunk of the Biblical references to ‘enemies’ come in the context of Israelite prayers: “please God, smash them.”
Take the most graphic example:
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who pays you back what you have done to us. Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks. (Psalms 137:8-9 HCSB)
How do you accept those words as your own divinely inspired response to God? How can you speak them aloud in a congregation as your corporate act of prayer?
Modern theology has made much of the idea of a relational ontology, but in practice we are far more likely to be practical essentialists than our forebears. Interestingly, the commencement of hostilities in the Bible comes from an unexpected source:
Then the Lord God said to the serpent:
Because you have done this, you are cursed more than any livestock and more than any wild animal. You will move on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life. I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:14-15 HCSB)
You read that carefully right? Who put the hostility between the snake and the woman?
Yep, The L-G.
But consider the alternative for a moment: what would have been the consequence if the Lord God had not put hostility between the Serpent and the Woman? What if he had acquiesced in her decision to be a friend to the enemy of his purposes? What if God had abandoned humanity to its unholy alliance against him, leaving them at peace with evil, plunging unperturbed into the abyss?
Commentators have often referred to Genesis 3:14-15 as a proto-euangelium (the first announcement of the good news). They pick up on the idea that the descendant of Eve will crush the Serpent. Personally I think I think the arguments for this idea are rubbish. But there is good news in these verses. It is in that promise of hostility.
It’s easy for us to forget that there are times and places in which nothing could be more evil than to be a friend to those whom are properly your enemies. It is a terrible forgetting of yourself, a lack of proper regard for your neighbour, a rejection of your identity.
In the recent Bushfires in Victoria it was reported that arsonists were deliberately lighting fires during the peak of the fire danger period. There was public outrage in the news media. Volunteer fire-fighters from around the country were risking their lives to save people and property and these deviants were deliberately undermining their effort. That outrage was a proper moral sentiment drawing upon the hostility we should feel toward those who are the friends of our enemies (even if that enemy is a force of nature).
How much more terrible for our Grandparents, those who lost so many people they loved in the World Wars.
Losing sight of the Enemy has tragic consequences for how we understand ourselves. It plays a large part in why we struggle to understand the proper hostility of God. It is not moral to have no enemies if the price of that peace is betrayal of those who are properly your friends.
That is cheap grace, the cheapest of reconciliations.
My enemy is God’s gift to me. My enemy teaches me who I am; what I believe strongly enough to fight for; who I belong to. He forges new bonds of kinship; he trains me in endurance; he crushes me so that I might learn not to count on my own strength. And at the end, my enemy will be at my side when he helps me to lay down my life so that I might follow my Lord into the greater life beyond.
A kind enemy.
Is it any wonder we are told to love and pray for him?
In God’s astonishing grace, even in the moment of the Fall, he has blessed us with hostility toward evil, he has made evil hostile toward us. And in God’s astonishing wisdom – the wisdom of the One who through death dealt death to Death – he uses even our Enemy to serve our good. So that, “all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom 8:28)
The gospel in the garden is the gift of an enemy