According to a psychology professor I read recently, we are hardwired to make enemies. Doing so serves needs lurking in the recesses of our evolved psyches. The professor believes that we are rooted entirely in the bundle of modifications that served our long slither from guppy to Gutenberg.
Enemy-making gave distant flippered cousins an egg-laying advantage, and so that is why the Crips and Bloods can’t get along.
Creative minds can retrodict any aspect of humanity this way, and so we have become—we once sacred creatures—fully chartable. Walker Percy frequently referenced Kierkegaard to impugn this modern fetish for scientism, noting that scientists can tell us everything about man except “what it is to be born, to live, or to die.”
This professor I was reading is no fool; he recognizes that what evolves is not necessarily what is best. He sees, as we all see, how our easy accumulation of enemies is like a cancer. In this an evolutionist, like many people of faith, holds to a story of original sin. A random perturbation in one man’s genetic code affords an edge in the particular landscape of his particular age, but for which his distant progeny will be called to account.
We all have our Adam.
Whichever Adam deserves the blame, I am his son. I wish my predisposition to gather enemies indicated some strength that is the obverse of the enmity coin, but no, it’s just plain pettiness and pride and an active imagination that tempts me to think the worst of what I don’t understand. The good professor might finger an evolved tribal instinct, or an ingrained need to define my self in contradistinction to other selves, but I suspect it’s simply the fact that I am inclined to love me most of all, and to take offense at anyone who isn’t similarly inclined to worship at my throne.
What’s worse is that I’m too cowardly to make outright enemies. They’re strangers, most of the people against whom I set my heart. They are drivers who don’t hold to my sensibilities about orderly traffic. They are government officials who reject my convictions about the Constitution. They are the steady stream of customer service agents and fellow grocery shoppers and smiling unknowns competing with me for space at the post-liturgy lunch table. I fix a steady, false smile on my face and quietly resent all of them.
The gospel of Luke offers two glimpses of what it means to be on the right side of things in the kingdom of God. In the first, the disciple John, perhaps rankled by all that least-will-be-first business, explained that he and other disciples had forbidden a man from casting out demons in Christ’s name. “Do not forbid him,” Christ replies, “for he who is not against us is on our side” (Lk. 9:50).
This is not just a rebuke to John, of course; it is a rebuke to our insatiable American penchant for sectarian division. It is a rebuke to every Adam’s son of us who recites the petty doctrinal failings of other denominations more easily than he recites their good works.
There are many ways to be with us, Christ says, but if you are not with Me, you are against Me. The us part is determined by the Him part. The unauthorized man waging war against demons wasn’t a disciple, wasn’t an official Christian, per se, but he had seen this God-man reclaim people from the evil one, and so with a heart of faith and compassion he was doing the same. The disciples wanted this to be about their exclusive club, whereas Christ made it about faith.
Abide with Me and you will be with us.
We are creatures prone to enmity, however, and so we tacitly subvert this guidance. Fit into our church if you want to be with Him. We make allegiance to our petty little tribes the standard for others, as if we control the doorway to heaven’s kingdom. We ask: “Are you with us, or against Him?” It’s far easier, you see, than answering the question put to each of our lives: be thou with Me?
Most often I am not, and so I scatter the children of God, most immediately my own children, who hear me grumble about the driver who drifts into my lane, who hear me rail against dullard politicians, who hear me gripe about their own failings. I strut about with the standard that is: Serve Me, and so this is the standard my children learn. Every moment not with Him, I train them to be tyrants rather than servants. No wonder we are enjoined to pray without ceasing.
There is no neutral ground, is there? We gather or scatter the children of God, beginning with our own. And so every book on raising better, smarter, more successful children is an utter waste of time, if we are parents who scatter. The work is in us. Let it begin with us, that it might take root in them.
Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal andThe London Times, and his short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in Image, Ruminate, and Saint Katherine Review. His website is www.tonywoodlief.com.