Why the Enemy of My Enemy is Not My Friend

I came across this interesting blog bit the other day:

“A few days ago a prominent woman in my church posted a note on the internet for her friends to see. She stated that her 4 year old son liked to listen to Rush Limbaugh with her, and he had just told her “I hate liberals.” This excited her and she boasted of how proud she was of her little 4 year old. Because of her position in my church, it made me wonder if she’d welcome someone who was liberal into our church. I don’t consider myself a liberal, but it sure doesn’t make me feel welcome to be around her.” –Eugene Redstone

Versions of this story are surprisingly common; it is shockingly easy to find Christians who unquestioningly support polarizing political figures and denigrate people with opposing views.  As best I can tell, the motivation here is one of pragmatism; an, “us vs. them,” mentality that suggests some need to achieve victory at all costs in public discourse.  People like Michael Moore or Ann Coulter bring large audiences with them, so they are seen as powerful allies in the battle against various opponents of Christian views.

This tendency to gather power is all too human.  Since the days of Babel, we have known the key to godlikeness lies in collective action – that strength is found in numbers.  Fierce joy takes hold deep within us when our power combines with others to produce overwhelming force, and once tasted it is hard to set aside.

I think this is why team sports retain such popularity in an increasingly individualized culture.  When I played tennis at a club, several times I was pitted against players considered much better than me and yet came out the winner.  I certainly enjoyed the experience, but it didn’t hold a candle to the joy and celebration I felt when my high school tennis team defeated our most hated rivals, even though the player I beat was nowhere near as strong as those at the club.  Merely being a part of something larger than myself made my personal experience all the richer, even if my contributions were less.  And it certainly is more satisfying to, “win,” against a lot of people rather than a few.

The problem is that this same attraction carries over into much more serious and ethically problematic realms as well, especially that of politics.  Few historical themes or subjects carry more weight and influence than the human tendency to gather power to achieve personal ends.  Books like Power Broker, The Discoverors, and Team of Rivals highlight in dozens of ways the simple fact that history’s most prominent figures and accomplishments flowed directly from the ability to consolidate and direct the power of numbers.

Here’s the problem.  The power of numbers placed in human hands carries more weight, but has just as much potential for sin.  It is a formula for destruction.

After all, greater numbers make it harder to control your message and the individual purposes of members.  Greater numbers are higher profile, and so hypocrisy is more public.  Greater numbers make it harder to slow group momentum if leaders make poor decisions.  Greater numbers carry a responsibility that is too often poorly considered before the gathering process begins.

This principle has all sorts of implications for leaders in general and Christian leaders in particular.  For now, I’d like to focus on one of the most important areas in which we should be watchful over our tendency to gather allies, and it is this:  For the Christian, the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.

Seems simple, right?  But it is not.  I fear the church has grown obsessed with reforming the world through social movements and political power.  This obsession has seemingly helpful desires at the core; to protect the unborn, to proclaim the gospel freely, to teach our children in the way that seems best to us, and so on.

However, it has led us to lower the standards of who is “in” and who is “out” of our movements.  Less and less do we care about the holistic life message of those we accept as allies, and more and more do we care about their ability to weaponize our ideas and rally new troops.  Less do we care that they are holy, and more do we care that they are powerful.

Nowhere is this more clear than in political rhetoric.  Figures such as Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter or Ralph Nader and Michael Moore find wide acceptance in different sectors of Christianity, to the point that they are held in honor by those groups with a sort of “one of us” mentality.  At times it even seems we give them the right to speak for us; “Did you see what they said in their most recent article?  They articulate the Christian position so well!”

Don’t kid yourself… we tolerate them not because, “everyone has a few flaws,” or because despite their failings they articulate a healthy life perspective.  We tolerate them because they are powerful, because they are the enemy of my enemy, because they are weapons in the great pragmatic project that is Christian politics.

We gloss over arrogant statements from Rush Limbaugh because he agrees with us politically, not caring that his goals are political rather than spiritual.  We close our ears when Glenn Beck spews insults, without worrying how a person asking spiritual questions will view our promotion of his statements elsewhere.  We pay money to support anything Michael Moore does or says because it advances the social justice cause.

Meanwhile, we vilify people in the church -people whose main purpose in life is to proclaim the gospel!- who might have an interest in correcting social wrongs, or who think global warming is scientifically unproven, or who believe the theology of the church statement of faith is important, or who think healthcare should be free.  We let political perspectives dictate value.

Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

If you care about proclaiming God’s gospel of mercy for sinners, and if you claim the Great Commission as your central rallying cry, you should care about who your allies are.  You should care that their priorities are in order.  You should care that their life theme is love in obedience of God’s will and directed by His Truth.  You should care that they support godliness in all its forms and decry sin in all its forms.

You should NOT care about the spice of their rhetoric, the size of their radio audience, or the target of their vitriol.  You should not entirely divorce their words from the way that they live.  And if you do have reason to support the words of popular figure, be extremely honest about their failings as well.

Why?  Because if you believe in a sovereign God, faithfulness is always more important than numbers.

That there is power in numbers is a lesson humans have internalized since the Tower of Babel.  Let us hope the Church internalizes the other lesson of that place as well.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://joshuaduncan.blogspot.com Joshua Duncan

    Well said, David. I long for a church where people from opposite political perspectives can unreservedly love each other as brothers and/or sisters.

  • http://joshuaduncan.blogspot.com Joshua Duncan

    Oops. I mean ‘Well said, Richard.’

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Okay, sorry. I had published the story originally as mine, but it’s actually written by Ben. Fixed. So it’s not David OR Richard. Ha. Thanks for the input nonetheless, Joshua.

  • http://joshuaduncan.blogspot.com Joshua Duncan

    See, now my world is upside down. From now on, I will consider all articles on Christ and Pop Culture as written by DaRiBen DuClaBart.

  • http://talkofsummertime.blogspot.com Devon

    I’ve had several experiences at my church like the one you describe. Those on one side of the political spectrum feel very comfortable demonizing the other, apparently without concern that there may be sisters and brothers among them who belong to that perspective. And we wonder why our small church has fewer and fewer young families every year…

  • Robb B

    Ben, good reminder to keep the most important task central and to be able to have convictions without denigrating the opposition. It’s all too easy to stop arguing a position and start slandering a person.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Heh, I was all excited by the comments until I found out half of them were clarifying who actually wrote the darn thing! That’s what I get for making Rich do all the dirty work for me.

    Robb, you’re definitely right about the ease of slipping from positional debate to personal dislike. I attended a church in Michigan where a guy held very liberal positions, and though I never said anything unkind I distrusted him personally. After all, if someone actually believed President Bush was an autocrat and John Kerry acceptable, how could I ever have respect for their mind? Later, though, I was in a small group with this man, and saw his love for his family, his kindness to people in our church, and his thoughtfulness for the feelings of others, as well as the general excellence of his mind. It was a good and humbling lesson for me.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Great article Ben. So much of the criteria we use to determine whether someone is on “our team” is not really Biblical at all and too often Christians make friends out to be enemies based on political ideals. Further, as you aptly pointed out, many of those who we side with politically are not really our allies in the great commission.

    “if you believe in a sovereign God, faithfulness is always more important than numbers.” Amen.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com The Dane

    First of all I’d like to say welcome to awkward emboldening of nearly random text. Welcome awkward formatting, may you ever find a home in CAPC articles!*

    @Ben – This was worthwhile. American believers with politically non-conservative perspectives are feeling increasingly out of place or unwanted in the theologically conservative church. Many theological conservatives are being driven to either find a place in theologically liberal churches that won’t vilify them for the distressing lack of support for the Republican Party or to discover that there is no local church where they might not feel ostracized (in the conservative church for their politics or in the liberal church for their theology).

    The American church is self-immolating in its devotion to group-think and political advocacies. Beyond the fact that its testimony in a pluralist society is deeply compromised and rendered ineffectual, it divides and divides and divides in its emotastic bouts of self-loathing.

    ____________________
    *note: it would be nice if you had a TL;DR button to toggle on and off that particular formatting tic.** I wanted to send someone to a CAPC article the other day, but instead I just emailed them the text after I had carefully gone through and eliminated the bolds.

    **note: or you could just dump the bolds…

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Dane,

    That’s an excellent point… encouragement of increasingly polarized views also has the effect of alienating people who have surprisingly similar views but not the same level of extremism or vitriol.

    Regarding the bold-face… I generally agree with you, but you are a very well-practiced and disciplined reader. Many people do not so easily pick out the key hinge sentences in a text.

    At Southern Seminary, there is a class that teaches techniques for interpreting Paul. This technique uses all these word cues to put a paragraph into pictoral form, showing the structure of thought. It was considered both difficult and helpful by many students, but I couldn’t figure out why it was helpful at all. It seemed to obvious

    Then I heard how a New Testament professor was showing this strategy to an Old Testament professor, who said, “But… it’s just reading!”

    Precisely. For some, the physical structure of the article is nearly as important for communicating meaning as the words themselves.

    Of course, here’s teh result of that particular problem: http://www.theonion.com/articles/nation-shudders-at-large-block-of-uninterrupted-te,16932/

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com The Dane

    Yeah, that’s why I’d like the ability to strip out the bolds if I could. The degree to which they impose on the physical space of the text interrupts my reading experience and takes me out of the text. My mind has been trained by the rest of the internet experience to skip bold text (generally, bold text is used for headers and subheads, which aren’t meant to convey content but to give the lazy reader a place to hang their hat).

    A viable compromise would be to duplicate TL;DR portions in excerpt form like they do in print magazines. (Like so.) I don’t know the term for that aspect of layout, but it would provide the highlights that some may like to see but be skippable by readers who don’t care to have article flow interrupted.

  • David Dunham

    @Dane

    Or, here’s another thought…you could just deal with it*

    _________________________
    *Note: this was typed with a smirk and in good humor

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    That kinda summarizes my thoughts. lol

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Okay, as the guy who does the bolds I wasn’t going to reply here so as to keep from derailing the conversation from this incredibly deserving-of-a-nonderailed-conversation post. I also didn’t want to look defensive. Cause I’m basically not. I could care less about whether we do the bolds.

    But briefly, my reasons for bolding stuff is merely in order to serve a sort of pull-quote function. They’re meant to grab the attention of the reader who’s considering reading the article while also giving the reader an impression of what they’re in for.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com The Dane

    @David – Oh and I do. Think of it as paying taxes *and* making my voice heard.*

    @Drew – You are a bad man.

    @Rich – You lost that battle in the first four comments (none of which were my doing). As far as pull-quotes go, absolutely. I just think it would better serve to run them like pull-quotes (as in the example I linked to).

    _______________
    *note: I like the cut of your jib.


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