How are your New Year’s resolutions going? I rarely make them, but this year I have. Please do not mistake the title. I did not write “make more enemies,” though to be honest that might not be a bad one for some people. That would be a different essay, however. This is not an essay about giving people a piece of one’s mind or sticking it to the, or any, man. It is certainly not advocating nastiness, hatred, attacks, or revenge. In fact, it is something like the opposite.
It does, however, fly in the face of a kind of conventional wisdom that has taken hold of many opinionators who want to appear respectable, deep, and stable. This wisdom goes something like this: What is wrong with this country is that people consider others their enemies when, in fact, they are their countrymen, co-religionists, and even family members. If we would just stop with all this enemy talk, we would all get along.
I don’t doubt that this advice has some merit in some cases. It is all-too-easy to think of people who merely disagree with us or say unpalatable things as our enemies. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in a number of his addresses to the West that despite the fact that many of his assessments were not “sugary” but even “bitter” that he should not be misjudged as an enemy. He cited the Russian proverb, “The yes-man is your enemy but your friend will argue with you.” It is the human condition to see those who disagree with our opinions or judgments as enemies even when they are not. Public discourse, whether on social or any other sort of media, would be greatly aided by not confusing disagreement about the means to good ends with hatred or opposition.
Yet when people, whether they are of the same nationality, religion, neighborhood, or even family as one, consistently charge one with such hatred—with having evil motives and “different values,” it seems clear to me that the answer is not to simply think of them as mistaken friends. Mistaken they may be, but friends do not accuse one of desiring evil outcomes because of evil motives. They certainly don’t lodge such accusations at you publicly and attempt to convince others that you are a bad person. And they do not bandy about comments wishing their political opponents to face “truth and reconciliation commissions” or even “gulags” for supporting a political figure they do not like. That they are close to us in some way means nothing at all. As Chesterton observed, the reason Christ commanded us to love our enemies and our neighbors is because they are often the same people.
More serious are media and entertainment outlets that continually attack one. Many “respectable” figures disdain the idea that much of the mainstream press could be considered an enemy or called such by religious and conservative people. They heap scorn on the idea that entire newspapers or networks might be aligned against one and unscrupulous enough to slant or even manipulate news. Yet anybody who pays attention to the media will realize that many of the large outlets do indeed have a side, that it is not conservative in any sense other than propping up the current order, and that it motivates them to edit, massage, or even falsify reporting in countless ways. While many think such talk is conspiratorial, this trend has been known and understood for decades. The two volumes of Between Two Millstones, Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs of his time in the West, document multitude of instances of such bias and manipulation in the press (of Europe, Canada, and the United States).
Most serious are those who have political, corporate, or religious power who are actively pushing to destroy western civilization or supporting organizations such as Antifa and BLM that want to do this. If you are attempting to ban Homer from the classroom, mandate the tenets of Critical Race Theory for your employees or public figures, or make sure that nothing offends the Chinese communist government, you really are working to destroy the country. You are my enemy.
Many people of residual or even greater Christian faith will read this and echo the conventional wisdom. How awful that you would think of people as your enemies! Christ did not think of people as his enemies!
But there is nothing in the Bible or in Christian tradition about not having enemies. Many people probably think of the Sermon on the Mount’s admonition (alluded to above) to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, RSV). This, it is said, is the way in which we can “be perfect, as [our] father in heaven is perfect” (5:48). But follow me here: a command to love your enemies acknowledges that you have enemies. Other instructions from the Old Testament, such as the warning in Proverbs to “not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles” (24:17) similarly assume we have enemies. What is forbidden is not having enemies but hating them and rejoicing in their downfall.
Of course some might object that even to think of people as enemies is halfway to treating them as such. Better that we simply think of enemies as friends we haven’t won over yet or poor people trapped by their false beliefs or some other such “positive” view. Why think of others as enemies at all?
While motivation and psychology is very personal, I have come to doubt this “always think on the bright side” approach for several reasons. First, our enemies can benefit us even in their hatred. As Francois de la Rochefoucauld observed, “Our enemies come closer to the truth in the judgments they pass on us than we do ourselves.” Even if we identify them as clearly enemies in the wrong, this does not mean we are in the right simpliciter.
Second, while we want to befriend and convert our enemies, we also have to be ready to oppose and even fight them while resisting the temptation to hate them and seek revenge. Denying the fact that they are enemies makes us want to appease them when really to exercise love means lovingly fighting them. Why call this fight “loving”? Because love is willing the good for someone. If my enemy believes an evil to be good, then this person is promoting what is objectively harmful—to everyone, my enemy included. To love my enemy is to fight against this harm, my enemy’s self-harm included. Not to fight my enemy would mean not to love myself or my enemy properly.
Third, even if we want to focus our attention not on the fighting but on the reconciling and converting them, that requires acknowledging that they are enemies. Curiously, St. Paul’s language about God and humanity doesn’t beat around the bush here. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). God may not have been our enemy, but the human race certainly made itself God’s. Acknowledging that did not make God “unchristian”; it gave him reason to redeem us.
Truth is not our enemy. Even if we are paranoid, we sometimes have to admit that there is a “they” who are out to get us. I find that acknowledging my enemies does not make me hate them more. It makes me less resentful than thinking about them as traitorous friends. Having more enemies, I believe, will sharpen my mind to the reality that in this new year I will have many fights that I must fight and also many opportunities to become perfect in the way that God alone has set out—by loving my enemies.
This article appeared first on The Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted here with permission.
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