Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Enemies

There has been a little talk about enemies going around recently, with President Bush raising questions about the value of diplomatic strategies - 'talking' - with America's 'enemies', likening this to appeasement, and invoking the (rather over-invoked) spectre of Chamberlain, Germany, and the Sudetenland.

But it seems worth asking just what an enemy is? Or more specifically, what makes someone an enemy? We live in a world of cause and effect, in which we can generally enquire as to why something or other might have happened or might be the case. Why is it that someone might set themselves to oppose us?* It seems that there are four general causes. I'll mention the first three first:

Ignorance: the other might simply not know the reasons for one's actions or understand the stance one has taken in the world. In this case, it would seem that informing the other of the genuine nature of things would alleviate the situation.

Insanity: the other might not be capable of knowing the genuine nature of things due to some defect of function.

Wickedness: the other might oppose one because he or she is wicked, perverted in such a way that he or she willfully refuses to acknowledge the genuine nature of things.

I'll be blunt: these three are rarely wholly and objectively the case with 'the other'. Moreover, it is easy to see how invoking them would serve ideological ends; that is, that they would be a way of lying to ourselves to avoid the truth of the matter.

The other cause is this:

Reasons: the other might oppose one because he or she has genuine reasons for doing so, reasons which might be more-or-less well formed or articulated but nevertheless represent the other's interests and person.

It is worth mentioning that, in the case of a dispute between parties, to call someone an enemy for one of the first three reasons locates the cause of their 'enemyhood' in the other; by implication, this allows oneself to escape scrutiny. The reason there is a dispute is because the other has bumbled into it (ignorance), isn't capable of anything better (insanity), or has deliberately and perversely chosen it (wickedness). The reason the other is opposing one is simply because of something within him or herself; any consideration of oneself as involved in the making of the dispute is out of bounds and improper.

But the fourth possible cause - because the enemy has a reason - brings one into a relationship, opening up the possibility of self-reflection, of exchange, of debate, of talk: also the possibility of repentence and conversion.

Because the enemy might have a reason - more-or-less well reasoned or articulated, correct or incorrect - allows the other to be seen as human. Yet the possibility of self-reflection, for considering how we are implicated in the other's 'enemy-ness' does not unmake the enemy, nor does it explain away or justify the more-or-less well reasoned or articulated, correct or incorrect reasons one has for considering the other an enemy.

Parties to a dispute, enemies, are involved in history - maybe for thousands of years - and there may well be reasons of various sorts over the span of time. Yet to acknowledge that there are reasons between the parties rather than simply within the other party is to open up a horizon within which a conversation (of some sort) might open.

This is not meant to be sunny or pollyanna-ish, just the opposite. To take a sober look at a situation, and allow ourselves to be a party in it - rather than simply a victim of the other - is at least to escape a dangerous and sinful delusion; or, to look at it from the other side, it is to come more fully to grasp the truth of the matter. It is seeing oneself only as an innocent victim and the other only as wicked perpetrator which is sunnily optimistic and out of touch with reality.

Rather, to see the relationship of enemies as mutually constituting constituted by various reasons is to allow both oneself and the other to be genuinely human, both implicated in the other's 'enemy-ness', both caught up in sin - which in various ways partially resembles ignorance, inanity and wickedness - and yet both presented with the possibility of repentance and reconciliation in the Spirit, through Christ.

As we are implicated in - and constituted by - our neighbour, so also are we by our enemy. It is in this way that we can begin to see some of the depth and wisdom in Christ's counsel to love one's enemy. (Mt 5.44)

[aphoristic addenda 20/05/08 21.30]
What I am trying to do, in part, is think a social/relational economy which is shaped by the gospel, recognises the mutual constitution of persons, and can do justice to enemies, sin and grace within this economy. This is intended to recognise the humanity of the other, and not to take his or her sin with greater seriousness than our own - and to recognise how we are ourselves implicated in his or her sin, while he or she is implicated in ours.

If we are mutually constituted as persons by others (and we constitute them) then we are constituted by both sin and grace. But the grace is prior, and elemental; at bottom, we are constituted by God's grace.

Sin is not (ultimately) subject to explanation, at least not in the sense of 'explaining away', as if it were merely a matter of information and not perversity. Barth was right that sin is the 'impossible impossibility'. Yet this perversity must never be allowed to allow sin to be self-evident or 'natural', and must never dampen thinking, attempts to trace and understand (if not explain) it.

This 'mutually constituting' is burden, responsibility, opportunity and delight. But it is not a task per se.

It is commonly enough the case that bad reasons may be offered for 'enemy-ship'. One common situation would be that x constitutes y as an enemy when the real grievance is with z. Yet the proper response would not be for y to respond to x by colouring him in the ways described above. (Actually, ignorance wouldn't be too far off the truth.) But this situation gives the opportunity for x and y and (hopefully) z to talk.

*Taking 'us' and 'them' in the most general terms possible: individual, social, national, and so forth.

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Blogger Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

This is a very thoughtful analysis. I especially liked this paragraph:

"This is intended to recognise the humanity of the other, and not to take his or her sin with greater seriousness than our own - and to recognise how we are ourselves implicated in his or her sin, while he or she is implicated in ours."

I hate the polarization that goes on in the world and wish people would do more to examine the reasons of the "other," before they dismiss them.

Friday, May 23, 2008 7:43:00 PM  

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