The Trouble With Enemies

Enemies – that’s such a strong word. Do I really mean it? After all, the whole point of Level Ground is to help people make connections with and learn to understand other people who think, feel, speak, and live so differently than one another. We seek deep, often surprising solidarity through real human encounters across our divides. We discover that we’re not as far apart as we imagined. We remember Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s reminder that the line separating good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being – which means that all of us are morally complex. And we really do believe that dialogue, listening, and art are ways to move forward toward genuinely creating safe space for all people …

Except when they don’t. Unfortunately, sometimes people intentionally set themselves up as our enemies. Regardless of what we do, they remain committed to a program of opposing, oppressing, and opportunistically using us, often without ever acknowledging the pain they cause (maybe because they can’t even see it). In other cases, we ourselves may not personally be on the receiving end of injustice, but we witness it happening to other people with an outraged and grieved sense of helplessness.

Indeed, in an increasingly globalized and media-saturated world, the multiple manifestations of human sin, evil, and frailty (and the resultant brokenness, devastation, and hopelessness) that daily cross the threshold of our consciousness can seem almost infinite. The distinctions between global crises and disturbing systemic developments at the macro-level – the problems “out there”, like sex traffickers exploiting earthquake victims in Nepal – and urgent local calamities and concerns – the problems “over here”, like police brutality in minority communities in the U.S. – become dizzyingly blurred.

Even when the stakes are not a matter of life and death, it is so difficult to sort out the substance from the spin. Witness the case of gay marriage: depending on whom you ask, it should be framed as a matter of marriage equality (with priority going to social justice) or as a matter of marriage redefinition (with priority going to religious liberty). And as certain members of each “side” define themselves in opposition to one another, enmity grows and mutual understanding becomes an even more distant prospect.

In a world like ours, we desperately need practices to help us cope with the pain of these situations and formulate constructive responses to them. One such practice is lament; while it is ancient and often unfamiliar to us, I believe that it is indispensible for us today – especially for all who are committed to the hard work of seeking peace across borders of separation. Indeed, without engaging in lament, we are stripped of a potent resource for rightly orienting ourselves toward the world and, more importantly, inviting transformative divine action in it. The result of this omission, as Walter Brueggemann explains, is that “we are consigned to anxiety and despair, and the world as we now have it becomes absolutized.”

Up to this point, I have been building a case for the importance of lament without actually explaining what it is. Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice offer a helpful definition here:

“Lament is not despair. It is not whining. It is not a cry into a void. Lament is a cry directed to God. It is the cry of those who see the truth of the world’s deep wounds and the cost of seeking peace. It is the prayer of those who are deeply disturbed by the way things are…. [L]ament teaches us about both what must be learned and what must be unlearned in order to live well in a broken world. If we are to participate in God’s plan to reconcile all things in Jesus Christ, we must begin to listen to this cry.”

Many of the Psalms in Scripture offer us, as it were, training wheels in the practice of lament. For example, Psalm 143 includes a mix of emotions and responses that is as complex as our own lives.

It begins with a plea for God’s attention and help:

Lord, hear my prayer,

listen to my cry for mercy;

in your faithfulness and righteousness

come to my relief.

Do not bring your servant into judgment,

for no one living is righteous before you.

Next is a full-throated complaint about a crisis that the enemy has brought about:

The enemy pursues me,

he crushes me to the ground;

he makes me dwell in the darkness

like those long dead.

So my spirit grows faint within me;

my heart within me is dismayed.

It then becomes unstuck in time, shifting from past goodness to present longing:

I remember the days of long ago;

I meditate on all your works

and consider what your hands have done.

I spread out my hands to you;

I thirst for you like a parched land.[a]

Then, it’s back to an urgent cry for God’s attention and direction … :

Answer me quickly, Lord;

my spirit fails.

Do not hide your face from me

or I will be like those who go down to the pit.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,

for I have put my trust in you.

Show me the way I should go,

for to you I entrust my life.

And deliverance from the enemy:

Rescue me from my enemies, Lord,

for I hide myself in you.

Teach me to do your will,

for you are my God;

may your good Spirit

lead me on level ground.

In fact, the psalmist is not content with just a rescue, but asks for the roles to be reversed:

  For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;

in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.

In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;

destroy all my foes,

for I am your servant.

This last part makes us postmodern readers somewhat uncomfortable, and it should! “‘Destroy my foes?’ Really?” That’s not a politically correct sentiment, and maybe it’s not even theologically correct – after all, didn’t Jesus himself say to loveour enemies, and pray for those who persecute us?

Yes, he certainly did, and it would be a great loss to ignore that call. But I’m not so convinced that the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount are at odds with one another here. At the level of human consciousness, it may indeed feel like a contradiction to pray both for our enemies and against them. But God is big enough to handle both; and I think we have a deep need for both. That is, the Psalms of lament, with their intense language of anguish and anger, vulnerability and vengeance, are more honest about our emotional landscape than we often allow ourselves to be. When we acknowledge this (along with the enmity that so easily grows in our own hearts) and direct it upward to God, without first cleaning up all of the mess, we actually can move toward a more constructive response to other people.

To put it another way, we all have to deal with our pain and outrage somehow. We can medicate and suppress our feelings; we can let them overwhelm us and lash out at other people; or we can focus and channel them in emotionally authentic ways toward the One in whom justice and mercy perfectly meet. Remembering God’s presence and active agency, and entrusting the ultimate results to God actually frees us to be self-critical (as in, “How might we also be taking the role of oppressor?”), allows us to recommit to seeking justice for the oppressed in practical ways, and can even open up to us new possibilities of reaching out to those whom we have seen as our enemies.

Ultimately, it must be the Spirit that leads us to level ground.