Keep your enemies close
Finding the common good may begin by rediscovering the difference between opponents and enemies. We’ve become deeply tribal. We fight for our views as if we are in a winner-takes-all war.
Opponents are contestants seeking to prevail in a healthy debate about what is good for others or one’s group. Enemies have only their own interest at heart. They see the world as a zero-sum game where every win is offset by a loss, rather than imagining an expanding field with shared prosperity.
Enemies cannot be trusted. Violence is always on the table. They would have you dead rather than give in.
Jesus repeated Moses’ command to love your neighbor as yourself. Presumably, loving your neighbors requires that you don’t kill them. But more radically, Jesus adds that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We should note that there is no command in this to accept a permanent status for your enemy to be your enemy.
Abraham Lincoln was famous for many things, but his generosity toward those who treated him shamefully was legend. Doris Kearns Goodwin titled her book on Lincoln’s principled approach to compiling a diverse administration, “Team of Rivals.” He practiced what Jesus preached.
Lincoln’s friend Leonard Swett said of him: “If a man had maligned him, or been guilty of personal ill-treatment and abuse, and was the fittest man for the place, he would put him in his Cabinet just as soon as he would his friend.”
Whether toward the Confederacy or critics, Lincoln determined not to place anyone in the category of enemy. The British writer, Edward Dicey, was introduced to the president as “one of (Lincoln’s) enemies.” Lincoln’s reply was spiritual more than political: “I did not know I had any enemies.”
In the coming weeks, Christians will culminate the spiritual season of Lent at the foot of the cross of Jesus. Many sermons will frame his death as a sacrificial payment of some sort, a transaction between a sin-indebted humanity and a holy, wholly-offended God that had to be paid to clean the slate. But we should consider it the story of a loving God who refused to treat the ungodly as enemy, dying for us rather than requiring our death.
The Jewish Passover coincides with the Christian Good Friday. A profound rabbinic midrash on the exodus from Egypt imagines a scene in heaven when the waters of the Red Sea covered the pursuing Egyptian army, killing horses and riders alike. “The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord said to them: ‘My creations are drowning, and you are singing before me?’”
Our prayers will not quickly turn enemies into friends, but we can begin by seeing enemies as opponents who are equally God’s children. We may learn that what’s good for them is good for us. And that’s a good start.