Enemies and What to Do With Them

I was recently in a meeting that included someone who moved here from outside the United States.  He and his wife had been here about 10 years.  At the end of our meeting as we were talking about various issues, he made an interesting observation.  He said “it has been curious for us to see that Americans seem to always need an enemy.”  Of course, many Americans I know would cheerfully say, “Then get out!”

I thought it was an insight worth thinking about.  Not only do we always seem to need an enemy, it seems that at times if don’t have one we create one.  I would not even venture to explain this, not being either a sociologist or an historian, but as a longtime observer of human nature from down below, it rings true.  Maybe that competitive spirit that has so many good sides also has some really dark ones.

I am re-watching the Civil War series by Ken Burns.  It is powerful, wrenching, and full of the irony that continues to live through our life together.  We are still powerfully defined by our most violent conflict.  Our nation survived a time when the enemies of our nation were our fellow citizens.  As I heard historians talk about that time, I recognized a lot of rancorous conversations we continue to have.  The more things change…

Enemies are inevitable in life, if King David is any indication.  You aren’t paranoid if they’re really after you.  Someone quoted Zora Neal Hurston to me one day that she is supposed to have said at the end of her life, “I have made me some GOOD enemies.”  If you don’t do anything and never really live, you won’t have opposition.  It took a while in the ministry, but I have come to be thankful for opposition’s role in calling forth the goodness in us.

Still, enemies are expensive—they cost us energy, time and sometimes the best as we try to abide them.  They can turn us into their twin if we aren’t careful.  Hating ‘em seems, at the front end, quicker.

So loving them seems like a tremendous waste of time and resources.  Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies and pray for persecutors seemed to Nietsche a sign of profound weakness, a weakness that made Christianity the morality of slaves born of resentment rather than power and strength.  Given the trillions of dollars here and there that our enemies cost us, it would seem that Jesus’ invitation to figure out ways to not always have so many of them is not only high-minded.  It might make more practical sense than first appears.

Friedrich Nietsche, desperately in need of a mustache trim

That this plays out in my world, the world of religion, does not need stating.  Nobody is worse than religionists at creating demons to cast out.  If we would only cast out the ones that are actually there rather than the ones we fabricate from fear and distrust, life would be busy enough.  A friend of mine used to say, “If it isn’t termites, its piss-ants.”  So we are tempted to spend our lives rooting out spiritual termites and guarding against a sky that is always about to fall.

I continue to marvel at this time of my life at the wonder that we will accept the sacrificial death of Jesus so enthusiastically without also taking seriously the things that He said.  I don’t think this was starry-eyed optimism.  I think Jesus was brutally real.  The cost of hating is too high.  The price of annihilating our enemies is more than just nuclear bombs, massive armies and nation-destroying entanglements (though that is pretty costly on its own).  We also have to ask, “Is the price to ourselves really worth it? “ 

“What will a man do if he gains the whole world and loses hisown soul,” Jesus said.   Or as another quote from Zora Neal Hurston goes, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its  hiding place.”  Far as I’m concerned, the cost of hate is way too high in this economy.  At the very least, we could try to balance the budget.

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Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.