Can You Love the Enemy Who is Trying to Kill You?

In the wake of Charlottesville, the Internet can be divided into two (three) people: the people crying that we should all “love our enemy;” the people shouting “They are literally trying to kill me;” (and the neo-Nazi defenders, who promote killing the aforementioned people; don’t even go down that rabbit hole).

The crux of the argument between the first two groups: Can You Love the Enemy who is Trying to Kill You?

Can You Love the Enemy Who is Trying to Kill You?

Spoiler Alert: if you’re Christian, you have to find a way from here to there. Jesus himself says the problematic phrase “Love your enemies.” But there are some twists and turns before we get there.

The problem with the enemy-loving question, especially on the Internet, is that most people argue from a Kantian perspective. To be perfectly objective, Immanuel Kant is a German philosopher who tried to universalize his own privilege as a mechanism for ethical discernment. Those calling for enemy-loving are often trying to universalize a moral claim in order to apply it to someone else. More pointedly, they tend to be privileged people suggesting that because I am white and I have been your enemy, you must love me. People who have done wrong have a vested interest in convincing the wronged to love their enemies. This is why Kant is insufficient.

Taking Kant out of the equation, we have two other starting points.

Immanuel Kant Birthday

John Stuart Mill at Kant’s Birthday (from Existential Comics).

First, all ethics is situational ethics. Ethics is shaped and defined by the situation in which it occurs. The Bible is full of ethics that only apply because of the unique situation (it is a highly specific situation when Jacob is applauded for wrestling an angel). Second, morality can be Role-Based. The moral response depends on the role you play in the situation. Different roles carry different amounts of power, and what’s morally conscionable shifts depending how much power you have. As Karen Lebascqz writes, “power that attaches to [one’s] role is morally relevant in determining an appropriate… ethic.” This is the Robin Hood premise–we defend Robin Hood’s morality because he steals from the wealthy to feed the starving.

Understanding situational ethics and role-based morality, we have a more nuanced answer to the question Can You Love the Enemy Who is Trying to Kill You? There are two definitions of kill and three definitions of love that allow us to say “yes.”

The two definitions of kill:

1) the actual violence of an individual or group that gives a person reasonable suspicion of harm
2) the figurative language of historical memory, recalling a time when violence up-to-and-including-death was routinely perpetrated by one group against another

(1) Many people of color and Jews have expressed this post-Charlottesville in their own fears and in their calls for better allyship. If you’re struggling with this one, check your own privilege and educate yourself.

(2) People in power often want to ignore this definition because it means that sometimes, when people are mad at you, their anger is justified. “Kill” does not always literally mean “kill,” but it is the certain knowledge that a person–even a professed ally–could kill you at any time without repercussions, and that is never not part of your relationship to the ally.

Too often in social discourse, the privileged try to set the terms of enemy-loving. But you lost the right do that when you (or your predecessors) persecuted an entire group.

Running out of Cheeks edit

How white people sound sometimes when they say “Love Your Enemy.”

White people cannot demand that people of color love them because they are enemies (racism still exists). Men cannot demand that women love them because they are enemies (see Taylor Swift testimony). Heterosexuals cannot demand that gay people love them because they are enemies (the church can’t be sorry gay people are sad while it’s discriminating against gay people). To return to situational ethics: I sometimes behave what-would-otherwise-be rudely to men out of the historical memory and sense of risk I have being around men. But because I am white, people of color may also behave what-would-otherwise-be rudely to me. “Rudeness” shifts with power. I cannot call another person “rude” if they are concerned for their basic survival and preservation of humanity. Trust is earned and interpersonal, and part of earning trust is not policing the behavior of survivors. If you are on the Internet calling us to “all get along,” consider whether you are saying (or others are hearing you say) “love me because I have wronged you.”

The three definitions of love:

1) a commitment to the nurture, thriving, and growth [of an enemy]
2) from the complicated philosopher Taylor Swift, who declares “like any great love, it keeps you guessing/like any real love, it’s ever-changing/like any true love, it drives you crazy”
3) Karen Lebacqz’s practice of enemy-loving as the dance between “forgiveness and survival”

This allows us to rephrase the question:

(1) Can You Commit to the Nurture, Thriving, and Growth of an Enemy Who is Trying to (Literally) Kill You?

There are a number of social justice warriors who model this: Martin Luther King, Jr; Ghandi; Oscar Romero; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Jesus. Jesus loves his enemies in a strategic, disruptive, threateningly nonviolent way that that supports the nurture, thriving, and growth of his enemies. He confronts enemies who have both more and less power than him: he welcomes Zacchaeus down from a lonely and uncomfortable tree; he befriends a Samaritan woman; he preaches justice. Sometimes, his body at risk. But he takes calculated risks to shift the conditions and social environment, impacting partial-allies who can influence enemies. Can you facilitate the nurture, thriving, and growth of neo-Nazis?

(2) Can You Respond to the Enemy Who is Trying to (Literally) Kill You and Keep Them Guessing, Ever-changing, and Drive them Crazy?

Since I first heard “Welcome to New York,” I’ve valued T. Swift’s description of real, true, and great love. It’s a divine description, a love that keeps you guessing, ever-changing, and driving you crazy. Jesus kept his enemies guessing: if he was not going to start a violent rebellion, what would he do? Through strategic dialogues in spaces where he had a probability of safety, Jesus provoked change. When people were unwilling to change, he forced them to confront and confess that they were not changing. In the underhanded way the institutions tried-and-failed to stop him, he drove them crazy. Can you keep neo-Nazis guessing, ever-changing, and drive them crazy?

(3) Can You Forgive and Survive the Enemy Who Has Historically Tried to Kill You?

This definition does not apply to the men (and women) rallying in Charlottesville as much as it does the so-called allies whose response has been lackluster. It applies to the practice of intimate enemy-love, people struggling to come to terms with the fact that because of historical memory or actual repeated microaggression they are your enemy.

Karen Lebacqz argues that feminists in heterosexual relationships are practicing love of enemy. She describes the two guiding principles in these relationships as Forgiveness and Survival. You can extend forgiveness if and only if the enemy recognizes that they need pardoning (which is why this form of love applies to allies, not neo-Nazis). Forgiveness is an enemy-loving practice. But forgiveness is never the culmination of the relationship–the culmination is survival. Thus, Eliza Hamilton can “take [her husband’s] hand” and declare that “it’s quiet uptown” while she simultaneously says “you forfeit all right to my bed/you’ll sleep in your office instead.” Her forgiveness is woven into survival.

There is a difference between survival and revenge. Survival is the first definition of love–the desire for your own nurture, thriving, and growth. Revenge is the desire to destroy the enemy’s nurture, thriving, and growth. People in privilege often perceive survival as revenge–an oppressed person defending their thriving is not an assault on your thriving. (And this is the fundamental message we must communicate to neo-Nazis). Can you extend forgiveness-with-survival to neo-Nazis? No, because they are not repentant. But with those who are repentant, you can extend forgiveness-with-survival?

So Can You Love the Enemy Who is Trying to Kill You?

There are no easy answers–that was clear from the moment we left Kant for situational ethics. Instead, the conclusion we come to is this: you cannot police how someone else loves their enemy. White people, people in privilege, do not get to dictate the terms of enemy-loving. What they can do is confess role-relational morality over and over, and over and over. People in privilege can confess loudly that all ethics is situational ethics, that loving your enemy is a slippery, ever-changing, guessing, crazy-making process–but a worthwhile, vital, deeply faithful one.

Pontius Puddle why God allows poverty

Another way to think about allyship.

And if do want to post something about Loving Your Enemy: specify which type of love you mean.


Before You Punch a Nazi: A New Anabaptist Response to White Supremacy

There isn’t much to be surprised by in Charlottesville. There’s much to grieve, but none of it should be a surprise. All the elements of Saturday’s events have been in headlines for months, or years, and they are quintessential to this time: cars swerving into crowds; statues of Confederate warriors being removed; white nationalist rallies; Black Lives Matter; pedestrians injured. As if someone scrambled up bits of headlines until it yielded this.

What do we do now? Grief wants comfort. Comfort is action. We want to do something. We have to do something.

[Edit: The original draft of this post faced valid criticism for a why-can’t-we-all-get-along, syrup-y vision of white-Anabaptist heroism. A revised post, with this feedback in mind, is forthcoming in the Mennonite World Review. White Anabaptists have their own history of racism. Critiques of anti-oppression work are meaningless if they are veiled excuses for our own racism. This is not the moment—it is never the moment—for armchair calls for peace-in-order-to-avoid-examining-white-privilege. This column is not a critique of anti-oppression work–I have many non-pacifist friends doing valuable anti-oppression work and I will not criticize them for their effective, difficult work. This is a proposal for how white Anabaptists, because of their pacifist claims, can do uncomfortable, enemy-loving, transformative peacemaking at a theoretical and practical level.] Continue reading

Protest is Education: The Dakota Access Pipeline

There’s something crazy that happens when you’re standing in a crowd of hundreds listening to a fiery activist on a crackling portable microphone: you learn something. Often, I talk to people who say: “I don’t feel like I can go to the rally because I don’t know enough about [insert cause]. My response is: “That’s exactly why I go!”


My first impression on entering Daly Plaza was the sage I smelled half a block away. But this was my second impression.

The best education is showing up. I barely skimmed Mennonite Central Committee Central States’ statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline this morning. Mostly what I knew about the something-something-dog-bites-children-newsfeed and big-oil-destroying-hundred-year-old-native-burial-sites. Best believe I was image-searching #NoDAPL protest signs because I wasn’t sure “Sacred Sites are Not for Sale” was on-message enough (I went with “No More Broken Treaties” instead).  I went to march against the Dakota Access Pipeline because I believed I could learn more from being with the people affected than Googling articles from a distance.


I learned that Water is Life. And Water is reason enough to defend something.

When I stand in the middle of a rally, I often feel like I’m somewhere inside the pages of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of America, gathered in an unlikely diverse crowd, students and retirees, Muslims and Catholic workers, indigenous people representing tribes across the continent… and it floors me that in a 6-minute speech I learn more than in a 50-minute classroom lecture. A rally is an educational tool–to hear half-dozen indigenous people who have been to the Sacred Stone Camp is learning. To hear a 14-year-old Lakota boy from Chicago talk about watching  private security forces harass children is education. Protest is education. Continue reading

Militants and the Definition of Martyrdom

Until this morning, I found the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge baffling and mildly disruptive, like a pot of poorly brewed green tea. But this morning,  when I heard the one of the young militants responding to LaVoy Finicum’s death, something clicked for me. The man said, in an eerily even voice, “They straight up–they straight up killed him. You think I’m gonna leave? No. They can kill me, too.” The reporter’s voice tried to explain his stance, describing the sense of martyrdom surrounding Finicum’s death. Martyrdom?

Once in college, a student asked a professor to explain the logic of Westboro Baptist Church. The professor, a theologian and devout Christian, said “I can’t do that. There is no logic. There’s no way to understand it,” unless you buy into the whole extremist worldview all at once. The same is true of the Wildlife Refuge’s occupiers, leaving the media in the unfortunate position of explaining crazy to the mainstream. No wonder we’re all still confused. Continue reading

What Do We Want?: Deciding what Justice Means in Chicago

Some of my friends don’t like going to protests. They say, “I believe in this one thing, but when I get there, all of these other causes are there and I don’t want anyone to think I’m marching as a communist or an anarchist or saying we should get rid of the police.” Protests have a tendency to swell–to begin with one issue and then cascade into a pounding waterfall of grievances. What do we want? Justice? That’s such a big, abstract word.

Every protest is a little bit different. Some of the people are the same–Lamon Reccord, staring down police and running up and down the protest line; or the guy with the communist newspaper–but every protest is different. The first protest I went to this fall, the hearing where activist Malcolm London’s charges were dropped, was a celebration. A crowd of young black protesters gathered in a circle, singing a song of their own rhythm, dancing and shouting, “I love being black! I said, I love being black!” That protest felt like a party. What did we want? Justice. A very narrow, specific justice–for the judicial system to admit the felony charges against Malcolm London were trumped up and targeted. Continue reading

Guns, Guns, Guns, Guns, Guns. Or, don’t give Santa a gun.

And what about gun violence? Can we fix it? Can we fix America’s gun problem? Over and over, after shooting and shooting and shooting, people in the news have said “we need to stop this thing before it becomes normal.” It isn’t normal, still, not yet, there is still outrage and indignation everywhere–there are even still politicians offering “thoughts and prayers.” Mass shootings haven’t become normal. But they’ve become stories. I’m not a future-teller, but I know some things about stories.

People are creatures of habit, but we’re also creatures of story. And there’s a story about a man, he is probably white, and maybe he is young, maybe he is old, he is sad and he is lonely but mostly he is angry, and he wishes for recognition, to do something in the world that will mean something, even if it means something bad, and he sees a place, he knows a place, he goes to the store and he buys a gun and then he buys some bullets or maybe another gun, and this is a story. It’s the story of Colorado Springs and Charleston, South Carolina and of Umpqua Community College and of Sandy Hook. Continue reading