I’m going to get all mystical on you for a minute: I talk to Yeshua sometimes.

It usually happens when my hippie punk-rock faith community has a communion service—I take my wine-soaked hunk of bread, find an out of the way corner, close my eyes, and visualize entering a room to sit and sup at his side. This may sound strange, but I hope it’ll be relevant to human experience whether you believe in talking to Yeshua or not.

Mostly I talk and Yeshua listens. That’s because I try not to put words into his mouth, or simply imagine him quoting a convenient scripture. If I’m going to hear a message in words from Yeshua, it’s important to me that it be his words and not my projection. So, because I’ve still got a lot of mental clutter that interferes with my listening, the conversations are pretty one-sided, and I’m OK with that. Usually I feel Yeshua’s responses to my venting or questions in nonverbal ways, like a loving look, or a physical embrace.

But a few weeks ago I DID hear him, quite distinctly. I had, as usual, laid a problem at his feet: “I feel such a strong urge to fight battles. I want to stand against oppression and injustice, but mostly I just end up hurting those I love. Surely there must be a place for my warrior’s heart?”

And I listened, and I heard Yeshua say: “Yes, there is.” And so I asked, “Then how do I know when it is right and good to fight?” And Yeshua answered, “When you are about to do battle, ask yourself: ‘is this person my enemy?'”

These words spoke right to the heart of my issue. As I’ve written and spoken of before, my fighting instincts express themselves by treating people as enemies, as an evil other to destroyed at all costs. Even though it proves false once the mood passes, even though the person is someone I love, in the moment this judgment feels real and eternally true. Which, as you can expect, can be profoundly damaging to my relationships.

So, “is this person my enemy?” is a question I desperately need to learn to ask myself, at all times, to avoid harmful power struggles where love mingles with hate. I’m not saying this message was the Divine Truth descended from the heavens to be proclaimed to the world. But it was the truth that I personally needed to hear, in that time and place.

But thinking the statement over in the weeks afterward, I’ve found it troubling, a bit. Isn’t Yeshua the one who said “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you“? So isn’t the implication that it’s OK to do battle if someone’s an enemy at odds with that?

Well, maybe. It could be that I was only able to hear what I was ready to hear—that I need to learn to love those who do love me, before I can start to consider something as challenging as loving my enemies. And I think that’s part of what’s happening. But beyond that, I have an inkling of how it all fits together.

The Bible passage above and others like it have often been used to induce people to suffer abuse with a smile. But I don’t think Yeshua’s purpose was to support and perpetuate systems of oppression. Walter Wink makes a powerful case in Jesus and Nonviolence that injunctions like “turn the other cheek” and “if a man sues you for your coat, give him your shirt as well” are not about passively inviting victimization but rather a method of turning the tables on an oppressor by exposing the monstrousness of the abuse. It was a form of activism offered to people in a position of utter social powerlessness.

Such an act of nonviolent protest is a huge step, though. It’s an act of risk and vulnerability, which has every chance of backfiring if the oppressor escalates.  That’s why I don’t look at “turn the other cheek” as an iron law, but an opportunity, an example to inspire bold and creative activism. I don’t think it was ever intended to compel compliance or expose people to victimization.

“Is this person my enemy?” is a question that invites a further question: “who, then, is my enemy?” And inspired by Walter Wink, I’m inclined to answer: my enemy is anyone it’s unsafe to have a relationship with.

In the process of loving others, it’s still important to have personal boundaries, to avoid opening ourselves up for abuse. Figuring out which people are and aren’t safe is a personal process. Sometimes even a close family member or friend may prove themselves unsafe in some areas, or unsafe entirely. In any case the key is, when entering personal conflict, checking whether this person is safe to be vulnerable with. If not, don’t! This is a lesson I wish I could get embedded deep into my bones, since I default to frank vulnerability if I don’t watch myself.

When I talked last week about roleplaying identity politics, this element was present. If someone’s identity is tied up in doing a certain thing a certain way, it may not be safe to engage with them on that thing. This cut both ways: there are certain ideas or activities that it’s not safe for others to engage me on. Rooting those things out is part of this whole growth process as well.

Love is still the bottom line. When I wrote about I Will Not Abandon You style roleplaying I expressed my ideal for all human interaction in my life. But you can only play “I Will Not Abandon You” style with a group that’s earned your trust. The nonviolent activism of Walter Wink is still grounded in respect for your opponent’s humanity and dignity. But you don’t respect that dignity by assuming a relationship that’s not there. Instead, you act to preserve your own dignity and humanity, with the aim of, if they will let you, making your enemy your friend. So it still comes back to loving your enemies in the end.

And all in all, there will still be times when you must do battle, on your own behalf or for those you love. When those times come for me, I hope I can remember the humanity of my opponent, and act out of love.



10 Responses to “Enemies”

  1. 1 DonnaV
    March 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Joel, this is such good insight … and it makes me want to serve communion more often. :)

  2. 2 Joel
    March 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Thanks, Donna! I do love treating “communion” as just that–an act of connection, not just of reverence or “in remembrance of.”

  3. 3 Joel
    March 22, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    A note to commenters, by the way: I’ve decided that any comments that add nothing but the parroting of phrases of Scripture will be deleted. I’ve already done that with a couple of comments. This is nothing against those posting, just part of how I personally determine who is safe for me to discuss these matters with.

    Using the Bible, especially the words of Yeshua, as part of a conversation, is all well and fine, but I want to make sure first that it IS a conversation.

    Much love to you!


  4. 4 Graypawn
    April 6, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Love. This. Post.

  5. 5 Joel
    April 6, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Thanks, Drew, I’m glad. :)

    Would you like to share any of the thoughts it stirred up for you?

  6. 6 Graypawn
    April 7, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Man, where to begin…
    I need to read this book you’ve sited twice. Walter Wink sounds like he’s right up my alley.

    I don’t want to let myself enter babble mode here, so i’ll try to be brief. The debate of dealing with threats and violence in a world where there is no definitive, un-redeemable villain has been a topic of my stories and observations for the past decade or more. It first really started to come up when some friends of mine began playing a homebrew game where we created our own selves in the fiction. It’s a common encounter with one’s self, to play the ‘approximation game.’ So a lot of the ‘when to fight back, when to run, when to speak, when to stay silent, and when to expect you’re going to get the crap kicked out of you’ is a big part of exploring heroic pacifism.

    One person defined pacifism to me as ‘seeking to completely disarm yourself.’ But reading your reflections on Wink and this very dynamic topic i’m struck most by the realization that Christ didn’t want us to ‘open ourselves up to become victims.’ It’s a simple epiphany, really, but it’s a lightning bolt for me. I always knew there was a line that you could cross, but i didn’t really know where, or how it worked. Now i contemplate how the meaning of the lesson was not to see how far you could suffer a person’s cruelty, but to be aware that the line exists, the line between being a powerless victim and someone that’s reaching another heart through very dynamic actions.

    Being willing to tolerate another person’s vicious actions can be disarming to that person. Being willing to tolerate another person’s cruelty can demotivate their intentions. The act of turning the other cheek is an amazing strike back, in some ways. Much more forward than i realized.

    Also, another reason to add on my list of ‘reasons i want adamantium bones and a healing factor.’ Cause then turning the other cheek could involve machine guns and me looking way cool.

  7. 7 Joel
    April 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Cool stuff. I love Jesus and Nonviolence; it’s a really slim book too, which makes it great for carrying around in your pocket and reading over and over.

    “i’m struck most by the realization that Christ didn’t want us to ‘open ourselves up to become victims.’ It’s a simple epiphany, really, but it’s a lightning bolt for me.”

    Me too, man, me too. The realization that Yeshua’s philosophy is empowering, not victimizing, has been a revolution in my personal life and thought. Exciting, yeah?


  8. 8 Lisa the Great
    April 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I never thought about “turn the other cheek” more than in passing, but I think both of you (Joel and Drew) have hit the nail on the head in your conception of it. Or at least, you’ve hit upon the conception that I prefer.

    In my social interactions, I try to avoid the kind of walls that people put up to protect themselves. Which means I don’t have many big defenses of my own. But I’ve found that I can get a lot of mileage out of saying “Hey, that hurts. I really don’t like being hurt. Would you mind stopping?” Lots of people seem to expect opposition, and when they don’t find it in you, you can often get them to lay aside their weapons and just sit down and chat. All of this metaphorically speaking, of course.

    (Also, HI YOU GUYS!!)

  9. July 26, 2012 at 11:46 am

    [Hope you don’t mind me commenting on old posts.]

    The times I have falsely seen family and friends as “enemies” have been when strongly rooted in a selfish mindset. I felt frustrated with them and mentally asked “can’t you just leave me alone and let me do what I want?” and “why are you asking me to help you now? Can’t you see I’m busy?”.

    And looking back from a mindset of serving others I think “I’m so weak and selfish and broken”.

    Very rarely should we see others as “enemies” – hence the question Yeshua raised. The answer will usually be “no, but I am their servant”.

    We are always busy, and a mindset of service always includes the willingness to stop whatever we are doing and do something for someone else – whether we think it is unimportant or not. They are not our enemies trying to steal our time, but our friends giving us an opportunity to connect with their souls.

    ~ Joshua

  10. 10 Joel
    July 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    [nope, it’s cool.]

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