On having enemies

In May last year, the police in Massachusetts had a problem. They had the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, but nowhere to bury it. Cemeteries in three states had refused to provide a plot for his remains. The chief of police even went on national television to ask for help. He said, ‘There is a need to do the right thing. We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.’

In the end, help came from a 48-year-old woman called Martha Mullen, who said, ‘Jesus says [to] love our enemies.’

Last week was a terrible week.

It began with a siege that ended in despair and the deaths of three people, including two hostages. Then 145, including 132 children, were killed at a school in Peshawar in Pakistan. Finally, in altogether different circumstances, 8 children were murdered in Cairns.

Last week was a terrible week.

I’m not suggesting that worse things haven’t happened elsewhere at other times, or that there aren’t things happening all the time in which we are complicit. But to everyone I’ve spoken to, the events of this week have felt particularly present and palpable. Whether it is meetings cancelled, offices locked down, walking past a sea of flowers in Martin Place or just waking up to a tragic weight of inevitability on Tuesday morning, many of us have become more caught up than ever before.

As a result, many Christians with whom I have spoken have struggled with how to respond or what to feel.

Jesus taught (see Luke 6:20-36) those who call him Master to ‘Love your enemies.’

Now, it’s pretty unusual to reject Jesus’ teaching on love outright. Even secular Sydneysiders accord Jesus a degree of moral authority as a good teacher.

But I want to suggest that there are two ways in which we can effectively dodge Jesus’ teaching on this one. The most obvious way is by setting bounds on love. That’s probably a subject for another post.

But there is another way we can avoid Jesus’ teaching on love, and this is by pretending that we don’t have enemies. This is the great liberal middle class conceit: that we don’t have enemies, and we don’t deserve them. We have evolved past this primitive idea of enmity.

Sure, we have people who cause us grief and hurt, but we just shut them out. We choose not to be dragged down by them. We put their negativity on ice. But call what we have enmity – that’s just giving them a dignity that they don’t deserve.

And it’s a great solution, because without enemies, there is no one difficult to love.

This is how it has played out with Man Haron Monis. Already it has been suggested that he was simply mentally ill. Apart from the fact that this diminishes those who battle to do good in and through their mental illness, it also pathologises the issue and puts it in a box. Haron wasn’t our enemy. He was just a very sick man.

But let’s dump the veneer and acknowledge that Man Haron Monis was our enemy: any one of us might have been in that café, and there’s no reason to think he would have cared. Anyone who chooses people indiscriminately for violence is the enemy of all people.

John Dickson rightly wrote: ‘I have no doubt that almost all the Muslims we’re likely to meet in Sydney wish us no harm. They want what we want – health, safety, education, and a future for their kids. Those that are religiously observant – remember, many Muslims are nominal – are of course keen to see Islam spread throughout Australia. They naturally think sharia law is wiser than secular democracy (and this is an argument we may increasingly need to have). But they do not want to hurt us to achieve their ends.’

Haron was not representative of Islam as a whole. He was not even representative of Islamists. But he was fairly representative of militant Wahabist Islamists with a jihadist mentality. And they are our enemies.

For the last 6 months I have been engaged in a running dialogue via email and text with two Muslim teachers in Saudi Arabia who contacted me out of the blue. I cannot read to you the text one of them sent me in response to the murders of the 8 children in Cairns, because it is just too distressing. However, the teacher rejoiced that, from his perspective, 8 ‘Christian’ children had been killed in Australia.

We have enemies.

But not just we, in a national or community sense. The horror and violence of this kind of enmity catches our attention, but the truth is that most of us experience a much lower temperature of banal and ordinary enmity in our everyday lives.

Many of you work in environments where your employers or colleagues have sought to use and mistreat you. They’d happily climb over you on their way to the top, or just in pursuit of their agendas.

I’ve spoken to some of you who dread Christmas gatherings because of the family members who will go out of their way to hurt you out of simple spite.

Many of you have experienced malicious gossip, where stories and misrepresentations of you are gleefully traded behind your back.

This kind of enmity lacks drama. It doesn’t make the evening news. The nation doesn’t hold its collective breath as it waits for the outcome. But it is a corrosive assault on your humanity, destructive and dispiriting. I know it seems can seem like overkill putting it up against the horror of these other things, but they are of the same basic quality.

So let’s start by being honest: whatever the scale or the mode, we have enemies. And therefore, no excuse not to love.

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