Resisting the Structures that Create Enemies
A Review of
How to Have an Enemy: Righteous Anger and the Work of Peace
Paperback: Herald Press, 2021
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Having an enemy has never felt so reasonable as it does right now. The world, after all, features deep divides and bitter factions in nearly every arena. Politics have always caused splits, but now partisan issues practically require hate-mongering, aided by the speed with which social media allows us to flash our wit and erudition. Never, then, has there been a more exciting time for a book called How to Have an Enemy. The book comes from theologian and Mennonite pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler, whose take on the topic of enemies should point us down a more fruitful path than the one much of the world currently travels.
As much as we might like to figure out how to deal with our racist uncle or annoying neighbor, Florer-Bixler sets her sights higher for her book. She separates concepts like “difference,” “conflict,” and “enmity,” making sure to clarify what situations she actually addresses. The book doesn’t concern itself so much with interpersonal relationship; this isn’t a treatise on how to sit down with someone to reach a compromise. Instead, Florer-Bixler focuses primarily on ideas revolving around power. “I use the language of enemies in this book to describe a relationship between people,” she writes, “one that recognizes how a person uses their power, actively or passively, to harm or dominate another. When there are enemies, one is in power over the other, or there is conflict over who holds power” (28). This unevenness of power helps us see what separates true enemy status from simple disagreement or difference.
This distinction makes for a significant shift not just in who we call enemies, but in how we engage with them. Our goal in having enemies is not to find shallow resolution or to refute the language of enmity, but to overcome the structures that create these dangerous conditions. Violence, oppression, and prejudice are real, and we aren’t seeking compromise with ungodly forces, but we are acknowledging them and reforming the world around us in light of that knowledge. Florer-Bixler writes, “We love our enemies by creating a world that releases them from the wages of their own violence” (41). Destruction and violence beget more of the same, and we seek to intervene. As Christians, enemy-having is not a means of winning a power struggle, but an opportunity for renewal and, in a divine sense, reconciliation.
After establishing that foundation, Florer-Bixler works through the concepts suggested by the title of her book. We have enemies, to start with, collectively. As a community, we make space for praying, expressing anger, and offering forgiveness. These activities are central to the work. Anger may seem counterintuitive, but Florer-Bixler explains that “without making space for anger, the church cannot offer safe harbor to people who are suffering at the hands of others” (64). We cannot simply smooth over injustice and claim to be doing kingdom work. We are not to find personal, vindictive anger, but we are to “cultivate communal anger that leads us away from sin (Ephesians 4:26)” (67). Rather than letting anger build or be repressed, we are to let it “emerge as a force…of scorching clarification” (70). In this clarity, we can move toward forgiveness and demonstrations of a better way.
Florer-Bixler explains this better way throughout the bulk of the book. She explains that “enemy-love offers to tear apart broken systems and rebuild a world with imaginative architecture that emerges from lives stayed on liberating love” (98). The idea, in short, is that Jesus doesn’t simply call us to justify current conditions so that those suffering can do so placidly. Nor does he want to simply invert the social order. While that last may be first one day, our role here isn’t to merely change who holds the hammer in the same old power structures. Jesus doesn’t even, as some might wish, offer us a simple set of ethical guidelines to follow, determining who is right and wrong and what to do at every moment. Instead, he provides a greater challenge (and more amazing opportunity). He presents us with the possibility of developing entirely new paradigms.
Enemy-love— defined as the dismantling of violent paradigms— stresses the idea that we have bigger foes to tackle than we might suspect, including worldly systems. In one of her finest chapters, Florer-Bixler addresses Mammon, which “is not only wealth in the form of coin or cash. It is wealth as a source of power that controls our access to everything” (156). Mammon presents an alternative logic or “operational system” from “the reign of God” (164). Our path in following Jesus then, is not simply figuring out what to do with our money; it’s not a question of how charitable we need to be in order to be good. It is a question of how we reorient ourselves in relation to the system. “Instead,” Florer-Bixler writes, “the economy of the reign of God will offer a revision of the way wealth, consumption, and accumulation act in our lives” (161). Reconsidering abundance and scarcity – understanding God’s economy – will enable us to resist the structures that create enemies.
Ultimately, Florer-Bixler tells us, we’ll see an end of enemies. She connects the work of James Baldwin with an insightful understanding of Revelation to point us to and through the problem. “Vengeance as punishment for the wicked may instead be God turning us over to the old order, the destruction of our own creation. This is where we find death – within the logic of retribution,” she writes (195). Rather than furthering destruction, we can turn to our hope in Jesus and his model for approaching enemies as a way to live out the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount.
Having enemies might be trendy right now, but Florer-Bixler sees the deep-seated roots of enmity growing long before any particular election, pandemic, or petty rivalry. The systems of the world, it turns out, have always been providing the context for destruction. We have a hope in the surprising ways of God, though. Having an enemy (properly) might not be as simple or as natural as letting our bile rise, but it continues to be part of the path toward redemption and reconciliation.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.
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