by Gary Chartier  |  30 November 2020  |  

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!” Isaiah 64:1-2

“You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.” Psalm 80:6

Why would people beg, “Come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you”? Because, presumably, they are confident in their own righteousness and deeply convinced that their enemies are God’s enemies.

The idea of divine fire descending, twigs burning, and water boiling seems terrifying. Perhaps, reading or hearing these words, some of us may be reminded of childhood dreams of the Second Coming. As Seventh-day Adventists who have long read the signs of the times, we may even spin fantasies involving the attacks we expect in the imminent future from enemies to whose imagined wickedness we attribute distress in the heavens and on the earth alike. We may have grown up fearing our neighbors, viewing them as God’s enemies—perhaps regarding them as deficient, unclean, agents of Satan. 

It can be fun and quite harmless to line up in teams when we’re playing games, or to cheer for one team or another in a contest. But when we move from the realm of play to real-world conflict, siding with a team, identifying with a tribe, can have deeply destructive consequences.

Us vs. Them

One problem with thinking in terms of us and them is that it leads us to ignore differences. There’s no reason to suppose that all the members of a given team or tribe are very much alike in many respects. But labeling them makes it easy to assume that they are.

In Psalm 80, the psalmist laments that God has let his people be objects of scorn. “You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us” (vs. 6). 

But of course we laugh, too, when things don’t go well for those we think of as enemies. Think about the attitudes you’ve heard, the social media posts you’ve seen, through the recent election. When we identify with a team or a tribe in the real world, we lose our capacity to think critically. We find it easy to attribute unalloyed virtue to our side in a conflict while assuming the others, the enemies, are all evil without qualification.

The philosopher Carl Schmitt famously saw the conflict between friends and enemies as central to politics. On a view like Schmitt’s, a political society can and should be unified around opposition to someone different. It is not surprising that he was a primary legal theorist of the Nazi regime, which urged Germans to see their country as threatened by enemies inside and outside. Defining a community by those who are, purportedly, its enemies, grounding a community’s unity in its enemies, is a recipe for viewing others with hostility, treating them with unjust violence. 

This sort of view is profoundly immoral: what determines what we do is not what’s objectively right but simply which side we’re on. We don’t join a given side because it’s right; rather, what makes it right is that it’s our side.

Fear of the Different

Finding what is different frightening is understandable, to be sure. We know how to navigate around and manage the familiar; what’s different is scary precisely because we are uncertain how to engage with it. We may resent the unfamiliar because we don’t believe we should be required to learn how to engage with new ways of being. We feel entitled to know our way around. We may fear that we will fumble in one way or another, and we may blame those who are different for somehow making us feel awkward and clumsy.

People who are different can also unsettle or terrify us when we are deeply invested in thinking, feeling, and acting in particular ways. When we are, our identities can be wrapped up with the conviction that we’re obviously and necessarily right. People whose lives, whose worlds, are different from ours can prompt us, just by existing, to doubt ourselves. And, if we doubt ourselves, if our insecurities are triggered, we can respond by seeking to erase, to eradicate, whatever has left us feeling fearful that we might lose our comfortable and comforting sense of who we are.

Note the way in which the psalmist treats “enemies” and “neighbors” as parallel in Psalm 80:6. The two aren’t collapsed, but the scorn of neighbors and the laughter of enemies seem to have a similarly debilitating effect. 

And we will have the same reaction if we think of opposition to the other as inherent in social relationships.

Win-Lose Relationships

It’s a mistake to view other people as inherently at odds with us. We don’t live in a zero-sum world, in which a gain for one person necessarily means a loss for others. 

There are specialized contexts in which that’s true, like an athletic contest only one team or athlete can win, or an attempt to fill a single position for which there are many applicants. As a general matter, though, the more people who are added to a given population, the better off the population, as long as everyone is able to choose, to develop ideas creatively, to interact voluntarily. People who can cooperate willingly are able to enhance each other’s lives in multiple ways. Indeed, this is one of the ways in which we, to use St. Paul’s language “have been enriched in every way” (1 Corinthians 1:5)—not through magic or miracle but through our ordinary relationships with others. 

Strangers are gifts to us, including both the strangers with whom our paths cross briefly day by day and the strangers we never meet who participate in the unimaginably complex networks of extended social cooperation on which we depend for everything from pencils to automobiles, medicines to movies.

Not everyone can be a friend: friendship requires intimacy and focused self-investment, and that’s possible with a limited number of people. And of course a given person likely won’t want to be close to everyone else. But everyone can be friendly: no one needs to be an enemy. And friendly relationships with strangers can turn into real friendships.

There are real conflicts, and sometimes one side in a conflict is acting justly while the other is not. But we need to be alert to the very real possibility that we are acting more out of fear of what’s different than out of any genuine attachment to what’s fair, that our confidence in the justice of our own cause is misplaced. And, even when it’s not, we need to remember that those we oppose are still God’s creatures, still human, still worthy of love and respect.

God’s Favorites

The idea that others are inherently bad, whether because they unsettle us or because we view them as rivals, leads naturally to, and is in turn reinforced by, the idea that we are God’s favorites even as those we oppose are God’s enemies.

In particular cases, we may see God as at work to vindicate those who have been treated unjustly. But that doesn’t mean that the God of all creation, the God who is faithful, the God who has called all of creation into loving fellowship, the God who is love, views or treats any person or group of people as inherently dirty, inferior, unsalvageable. Nor does it provide any excuse for imagining that God is a tribal deity, that, as Bob Dylan puts it plaintively in “With God on Our Side,” “that land that I live in / has God on its side.”

God is the one in whose name it is always right, with St. Paul, to wish grace and peace. We may sometimes need to stand against injustice. But we never need to view other people as inherently enemies. And we can recognize with great appreciation the many gifts others can and do offer us. Fear of the other lies at the root of so much violence and oppression and exclusion. To understand God as the one to whom all people can give thanks, who is faithful to all, because all are beloved parts of God’s own creation, is to refuse to organize the world, or one’s perception of it, using the categories of us and them. It is to recognize that “we are all [God’s] people” (Isaiah 64:9), but that all others are God’s creatures, too, that welcoming and respectful relationships, with friends and with known and unknown strangers alike, enrich all of us and give us reason, today and every day, to offer thanks.

Gary Chartier is Associate Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law and Business Ethics in the Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business at La Sierra University.

To comment, click/tap here.