Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.” He may have drawn on the Arabian adage, “Judge a man by the reputation of his enemies.” It seems people have long defined themselves by their enemies.
In today’s climate, the part played by enemies in self-definition has expanded, and that is not good. Jesus did not say that people would be known by their enemies, but “by their fruits,” which is a more accurate gauge of character. Besides that, if people define themselves by their enemies, they will always need enemies, very clear-cut enemies, and the more hostile the better.
That is where we find ourselves now. Enemies, whether political, ideological, or theological, are the instrument by which people are identified. And when we define ourselves by our enemies, the desire to demonize others and thereby sanctify ourselves is just too tempting to resist.
Americans stumble when they don’t have an enemy. They don’t know what to do without one. After the Revolutionary War, America needed an enemy. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans wanted to hold on to Britain, but Hamilton, Madison, and the Federalists thought that France better fit the bill. When both France and England became friends, Native Americans became the nemesis.
When decades of expansionism brought America wealth, power, and prestige around the world, she looked for an enemy closer to home. The new enemy lived on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. As Pogo of comic strip fame put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Before the Second World War ended, we had already found a new enemy in the Soviets. They had been allies in the war (rather like the French had been allies in the War of Independence), but were now the enemy to truth, justice, and the American way. For forty years, the Soviet Union filled that important role.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world changed, and we needed a new enemy. We quickly found one in Islamic Extremists. And so began the war on terror. It was no coincidence that George W. Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed within weeks of the attacks on 9/11.
Today, we are again hunting for a worthy adversary. North Korea has been hard for most Americans to take seriously. Iran is too provincial. China is an adversary that can keep us occupied for generations, but unless a Chinese version of Khrushchev threatens to bury us, they are unlikely to reach archenemy status. Until such a time, we will look for our enemies closer to home.
Conservatives found one in Barack Obama in 2008. Having an enemy empowered Republicans and gave them the energy they needed to take back the White House. In 2016, Donald Trump gave progressives an enemy extraordinaire, a role which Mr. Trump seemed to relish. Now Joe Biden is the enemy célèbre.
In the Bible, the psalmist longed to be delivered from his enemies. I’m not so sure that we do. We sense that we would be lost without them.
Jesus introduced his followers to a different way. He instructed them to love their enemies, not be defined by them—a command that was no less controversial when he first spoke it than it is today. But if we love our enemies, how will others know who we are? How will we?
The time has come to follow a better way, the Jesus way: to be identified by what we are for and who we are with rather than by what we oppose and who we are against. To put it another way, it is time to be identified by who is our friend rather than by who is our enemy.
Jesus told his disciples, “I have called you friends…” This extraordinary idea is at the heart of Christian theology. People are defined – formed, shaped, and finally judged – by who their friend is. So, I do not ask, like FDR, to be judged by the enemies I have made but by the Friend who has made me and loves me.
(First published by Gannet.)