A Review of
I Am Not Your Enemy: Stories to Transform a Divided World
Reviewed by Ryan Meek
Michael T. McRay’s book, I am Not Your Enemy, could not have come at a more suitable time considering the current political, racial, and civil unrest throughout the United States. For generations, these tumultuous times have been caused by the unheard cries of marginalized communities. In this book, McRay travels across the world to gain a sense of conflict resolution in South Africa, Israel/Palestine, and Northern Ireland. These hotspots of turmoil and misunderstanding have been ravaged by similar power dynamics to those found in the U.S. McRay tells us there is still hope in our relationships which will “remind us of who we can be with one another” (20). This hope is predicated on listening to and understanding the stories of the oppressed and violated with the goal of “cultivating empathy and telling the truth in reconciling relationships” (23). This hope is also discussed with the knowledge that McRay is a white, American Christian, who has never had to “overcome racism, sexism, xenophobia, or discrimination because of [his] religious heritage” (23).
Some people will ask, ‘Why do the above cultural labels of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and discrimination even matter?’ McRay challenges those with similar worldly advantages to listen empathetically to the oppressed. At the same time, he challenges victims of violence or those being oppressed to keep speaking their truth and telling their stories. It is in these stories that we will find our common humanity in the ‘other’ rather than succumbing to our differences.
McRay builds the contextual foundation with an email exchange with a Palestinian scholar with whom he wanted to meet regarding reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Her concise response was, “This is an inappropriate conversation. We are being occupied. We should talk about justice not reconciliation” (32). This response should get the attention of Americans right off the bat. We are used to hearing marginalized communities opposing their oppression being called ‘angry protestors,’ ‘rioters,’ or ‘looters.’ McRay writes, “People in power prefer a victim calling for forgiveness and reconciliation to one calling for vindication” (33). How can we liberate ourselves from this one-track mindset and listen to the cries of victims?
McRay centers the personal stories found within organizations in each of the three locations across the world. In Israel/Palestine, the organization is called the Parents Circle-Families Forum where Israelis and Palestinians who share in personal loss come together to tell their stores. In Northern Ireland, McRay visits Corrymeela, a secluded place on the Irish coast where people consider each other’s pain from the several decades-long violence of the Troubles. In South Africa, McRay visits the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, the legacy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which works to reconcile communities in the wake of the destruction left behind by Apartheid. All three organizations create spaces in which people who could be enemies can come together to learn and to grieve with one another. These are places where humanity flourishes where no humanity was previously perceived.
The trauma experienced by the oppressed and victims of violence can easily be manifested as hate. McRay tells the story of an English woman named Jo Berry. Her father, a British member of parliament, was killed in an explosion that the IRA took responsibility for. Jo made the anguished decision, not to hate, but to try and understand her father’s killers. One day in London she shared a taxi with an Irish man whose brother was killed by British paramilitary forces in Belfast. Two people, on opposite sides of a deadly conflict, began to talk about visions of “a peaceful world,” and building bridges (131).
This event set in motion the unthinkable for Jo, a chance to meet her father’s killer. Patrick Magee was deemed a political prisoner and released under the terms of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. In the sixteen years between her father’s death and Magee’s release from prison, Jo was readying herself for this meeting without knowing it would happen. With the anguishing intentional “interior work” complete, she was ready for this attempt to build a bridge to understand her father’s murderer (137). The foundation of a bridge must be completed before the span. This foundation led to speaking engagements for Jo and Patrick and, eventually, a friendship.
How could the victim of violence and the offender work together and become friends? McRay conveys Jo’s own words, “I think the most important thing was him [Patrick] acknowledging that he demonized my dad and that now he sees him as a wonderful human being. That’s the most important thing. And to me, that is the height of restorative justice” (143). Jo could have stopped, not completed her foundation building work, and removed herself from the reconciliation process. The miracle here is that she stayed in it.
Sometimes, as in the stories from South Africa, the word reconciliation causes even more trauma by seemingly “sweeping things under the rug” (150). Some South Africans believe that the political compromises Nelson Mandela sought after the Apartheid government was dismantled left social justice and transformation on the back burner. Eleanor du Plooy tells McRay, “I think that true reconciliation threatens the power structures” (161). Power must be leveled, and the only tangible way individuals can achieve this is to have conversations within our groups. For white Americans, for example, this means amplifying the stories and relationships of people in marginalized communities.
McRay ties everything together with the stories of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin. “Rami is a former Israeli soldier whose daughter was murdered by a Palestinian combatant. Bassam is a former Palestinian combatant whose daughter was murdered by an Israeli soldier” (199). During their time fighting for their respective communities, both men would have seen the other as the enemy. Amidst the violence, they would have every reason to hate each other. However, some days these men co-lead the Parents Circle-Families Forum and must ask themselves, “What will we do with our pain?” (199). Daily, they must choose to seek the humanity of the other. Rami must not look at Bassam as a ‘terrorist,’ and Bassam must not look at Rami as an ‘occupier.’ The easy thing to do would be to submit to these labels, but they have a much higher calling in love and a world beyond violence.
McRay provides us an inclusio of two Bible stories that help bracket the interviews he records. In the introduction, he shares the story of how Saul became a Jesus follower himself on the road to Damascus. Saul was a persecutor of the group of people who become known as Christians. On the road to Damascus Saul is blinded by a light and confronted by Christ himself. After his sight is returned Saul “could see, truly see – in ways he hadn’t before” (28). At the end of the book, McRay tells the story – found in chapter 8 of the Gospel of Mark – of a blind man who has his sight miraculously restored by Jesus. McRay writes, “For some, our eyes might be opened by suffering, oppression, and bereavement. For others, proximity to people in pain. However it happens, sooner or later, we all must awake” (198). We must all awaken and see the humanity in all people. Jesus may have said, especially our enemies, this is the only way they become former enemies.