Monday, April 15, 2013

Putting a Face on Our Enemies

I think that one of the reasons that the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is so attractive to people is that he has become accessible to us as a real person. His Letters and Papers from Prison offer a glimpse into the inner life of the brilliant theologian, putting a real face on an incredible mind. His biographers show us that his written work was not mere theological abstraction—it was increasingly formed in the crucible of the horrors of Nazi Germany and World War Two.

The work of the German theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann attracts me in a similar way. In the introduction to his fine book, The Spirit of Life, he recounts his formative time as a prisoner of war in Scottish and British camps at the end and after World War Two. He came to faith in Christ during that time, and his story is one that I can barely read without tears. Knowing a little about how his life was formed, I am helped in the reading of his work.

We need to put faces, not only on our heroes, but also on our enemies. There is a great deal of caricature in public debate—after all, you know how those atheists are, you know how those fundamentalist Christians are, you know how those Emergent-types are, you know how gay people are, you know how liberals are, etc., etc.

Mostly, we don’t know.

I had lunch one day with a young man who was the president of an atheist club at the local university. He thought I wanted to meet with him in order to fight. I just wanted to hear what his atheism meant to him. We heard each other on that day, and became friends. We knew each other’s names.

I know a man who was treated with a rudeness bordering on violence by a man he visited on a business call. It was enemy time, and should have resulted in a quick getaway. But the man I know stuck around and persisted in conversation. It turned out that the man who acted rudely had just lost his eighteen-year old son in a traffic accident just a couple of days earlier. The environment changed, and enemies had faces and lives.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . .” (Matt. 5:43-45)

Loving one’s enemy cannot be limited to some sort of warm and fuzzy feeling toward those who stand in opposition to us. It has to be real. Part of that reality, I believe, is putting a face on our enemies, allowing ourselves to enter their space and hear their story, not listening in order to rebut, but in order to understand. Then we might earn the opportunity to tell our own stories and to be understood. Love could actually emerge between enemies when that happens.

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