An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard

An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard July 20, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, Brian Zahnd preached a sermon on the healing of Naaman the Syrian commander by the Israelite prophet Elisha. He pointed out that Naaman was the head of an army that had been at war with the Israelites for years, so the analogy today would be if an Israelite prophet had healed the commander of Hamas. Zahnd made a profound statement as part of his sermon that I’ve been contemplating over the past couple of weeks: “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.” Jesus commands us to love our enemies. It’s easy to say that I love my enemies, but what does it mean to do that with any real sincerity? I would contend that loving your enemies means that we proactively seek to hear and understand their stories, which Brian suggests will cause us to lose our enmity for them as we are exposed to their humanity. I wanted to think about this question against the backdrop of the complex, bitter struggle taking place right now between Israel and Gaza.

The postmodern landscape of the information age is defined by a fierce battle over narrative. The physical battlefield in today’s warfare is secondary to the narrative battlefield. It feels very wrong to say that, but it’s true. This is why Hamas is winning the battle with Israel even though they’re getting steamrolled on the physical battlefield. I don’t know if this has any precedent in history. The longer that Israel’s battle in Gaza goes and the more successfully Israel decimates its enemy, the more unanimously global public opinion will turn against Israel, at least outside of the American evangelical/Zionist echo chamber. It’s absolutely unfair that Israel gets penalized on the narrative battlefield for having the technology to protect their civilians from Hamas’ rocket attacks. Because they’ve suffered very few civilian casualties, their attack on Gaza seems cruel and grotesque. What’s sick is that if Israel “accidentally” allowed a few Hamas rockets to get through their defenses and bloody up some Jewish elementary students, then they would regain the narrative upper hand. Such is the strange narrative world that we inhabit today.

Now it’s also true that the Israeli government has said and done things that legitimately undermine their credibility. The fate of the three kidnapped and murdered Israeli settlers who were the catalyst of the latest round of hostilities was discovered by Israeli intelligence very soon after the kidnapping, but Netanyahu withheld this information from the public in order to justify sweeping through the West Bank and imprisoning hundreds of Hamas affiliates without charges. It’s also true that the Israeli PR machine has preemptively circulated unsubstantiated memes about Hamas hiding weapons in schools and hospitals in order to give itself cover when schools and hospitals blow up in the inevitable messiness of fighting war in a densely populated area. Additionally, when a Palestinian kid was kidnapped and burned to death in retaliation for the kidnapping of the settlers, the Israeli PR machine tried to circulate a rumor that it was a family honor killing in response to him being gay instead of a racist attack carried out by Jewish settlers, but this rumor didn’t stick so they quietly withdrew it.

There are all kinds of reasons to discredit each side of this conflict. There are photos of Jewish kids painting messages to the Palestinians on the missiles that will blow them up. There are stories about Palestinian textbooks that teach their kids to slaughter Jews. There are tweets from Israeli teenage girls saying “Death to all Arabs,” and tweets from Palestinians saying, “Hitler was right.” The Palestinians show that they aren’t worthy of being treated as human beings by dancing in the streets to celebrate the murder of the three kidnapped Jewish settlers, while the Israelis reveal their innate monstrosity by putting out lawn chairs on the hillside at Sderot to watch and cheer the fireworks in Gaza as Palestinians are butchered by Israeli missiles. And so the self-righteous, outraged tweets go back and forth ad nauseum. All while Satan watches and fans the flames with a huge grin on his face.

I’ve been unsure of my own responsibility as I watch the narrative battle unfold in social media. A long-time friend of mine is a solidarity activist stationed in Gaza City. The last time Israel was bombing Gaza in 2012, he was sharing a lot of information from Gaza. I wanted to try to understand the perspective of the people there since they weren’t being given a voice in US media coverage of the conflict, so I started following a bunch of Gazan activists on twitter. And then I started sharing the information I was getting from them with my own circles. Now two years later, my twitter feed is filled with live updates from Gaza, so when I look at it, I feel responsible for disseminating their stories, because what is happening in Gaza is horrible. You can’t dismiss the horror of what’s happening by blaming it on Hamas and their pathetically stupid rocket attacks. Furthermore, it grows increasingly difficult to use a phrase like “human shields” as a blanket dismissal of the value of life in Gaza when you learn the details about how people have gotten killed. Basically, my solidarity activist friend has put me in the position of encountering stories that I feel morally obligated to read and share because the mainstream media is ignoring or repressing them. If I knew somebody in South Sudan or Iraq or Ukraine or the Congo instead, then I would be responsible for sharing their stories instead.

In any case, I want to be better than just a reactionary; I want to somehow contribute to reducing the enmity that surrounds this terrible conflict at least within my own corner of American Christianity. I know that I’ve mostly failed so far, because my gut instinct is simply to take whatever the opposite side is from the mainstream evangelical view that I grew up with. I’ve gotten sucked into the unthoughtful ideological back and forth rather than thinking about how I can increase the empathy in my audience for a group of people whom I think God has called me to support in solidarity despite their hated Samaritan status. So here are some principles that come to mind regarding what it means and doesn’t mean to hear and share the stories of your enemy. I hope to keep these principles in mind as I think about how I share stories and offer commentary in the future.

1) No story is allowed to trump or invalidate any other story

I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend your whole summer in a bomb shelter. That would suck. It would be hot and claustrophobic. I would be very irritable if that were my life right now. Just because the people in Gaza don’t have bomb shelters to go to doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suck for Israelis to have to spend their summer there. I don’t have to do either. I get to sit in the air conditioning and type words onto a screen completely out of any semblance of danger. Of course, I have a story too that isn’t invalidated by the fact that two groups of people have tougher stories. Too often in conversations where there are two sides, the stories from each side are measured against each other quantifiably as though narrative can be converted into a numeric value, which is entirely ludicrous. No, Israelis have a story to tell that is worthy of my sympathy just like people in Gaza do. One story does not cancel out or invalidate the other.

2) No story justifies violence

To say that a group of human beings are worthy of our sympathy because of difficult things they’ve been through is very different than endorsing any particular actions that these human beings undertake in response to their difficulties. Many times in stupid internet arguments, we conflate sympathy for someone’s humanity with a blanket endorsement of their “side,” which is itself falsely reduced to a single monolithic position. It’s completely untruthful to reduce what’s happening between Israel and Gaza to two sides. Not everyone in Israel is happy with Netanyahu’s choices, just like not everyone in Gaza is happy with Hamas. So sharing the story of four boys who get killed on a beach should never be read as a justification for firing off rockets against Israel, nor should any story about Israeli suffering be read as an endorsement of any and all violence Israel inflicts on the Palestinians.

3) No story is invalidated by the sins of its protagonist

One of the chief goals within a postmodern argument is to invalidate the story of your opponent. This is because of the rhetorical tactic of deconstruction. Instead of engaging other people’s arguments on their own terms, we look for character flaws and other ad hominem attacks that can excuse us from having a straightforward conversation. Showing me pictures of Israelis cheering the missiles in Gaza or Palestinians cheering the kidnapping and murder of Israeli settlers tells me nothing more than that they hate their enemies, which is a very human thing to do. It’s wrong and sinful for us to hate whole races of people regardless of the circumstances, but it doesn’t mean that the story underneath our hatred didn’t happen. There are real reasons for the hatred. These real reasons aren’t canceled out by subsequent sin on the part of the person who has been hurt. They still exist and still ought to engender sympathy regardless of whatever evil the person does in response.

4) I don’t have to tell every story just because I’m telling one

One of the most obnoxious cheap shots in these conversations is for people to say, “Why aren’t you equally outraged about what’s going on in  _______?” I am not responsible for telling every story and giving them all an equal percentage of my attention just because I’m telling one story. God has called other people into solidarity with Iraqi Christians, Nigerian kidnapped girls, South Sudanese, Ukrainians, Thai political prisoners, Central African Republic Muslims who are being massacred by their Christian neighbors, etc. I happen to find myself called into solidarity with the people of Gaza. Millions of my fellow evangelicals pray every day for Israel’s safety and know every story there is to tell about what Israelis have been through. It’s good that they’re praying for Israel and that they care about Israel’s story. If our goal is to reduce enmity by sharing stories, then having sympathy for the stories of Israelis is not somehow antithetical to sympathizing with the stories of Gazans. It’s only according to Satan’s logic that sympathy for Palestinians means enmity with Israel. If I add the stories I receive from Gaza to the small sphere of influence that I have in the world, it’s not an attempt to silence or trump or discredit any other story that’s out there. It’s simply a set of stories that God has given me to hear and share. Don’t berate me for not sharing all the other stories that are out there; share them yourself and I’ll listen.

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  • What you describe as a battle between a physical battlefield and a narrative battlefield is not new, and can be described without use of the postmodern trope of turning everything into a story. In many ways this is the challenge that the so-called revolution in military affairs (modern weaponry and other implements of battle) caused in geopolitics. Western powers tended to assume that superior tech meant they could not help but win on the battlefield against lesser equipped non-Western populations. This is complicated, though, when the battlefield is someone else’s homeland (or is defended as such). Before anyone thought to use “narrative,” the Vietnamese were able to fight us to a standstill and the Afghans were able to fight the USSR to a standstill despite the technical and economic superiority of the opposing forces. This is multifaceted, but a key ingredient is the will of the aggressor to lose “blood and treasure” fighting for someone else’s dirt. Smaller, less well-armed populaces can thus frequently win battles/wars against larger, seemingly more powerful opponents not by defeating them, but simply being willing to to incur the costs long enough for the other force to run out of steam. Another example would be the British and the Americans – it wasn’t “narrative” that beat the British, it was the logistical and tactical difficulties of fighting a numerically superior but technologically and economically inferior foe on their own territory, when they had incentive and will to incur the costs necessary to wait the stronger opponent out.

    • The Vietnamese and Afghans and American colonial rebels didn’t have twitter. And as much as it makes me wrinkle my face to say it, twitter is making a difference in Israel’s foreign relations right now.

  • Steve

    Excellent piece, Morgan.

  • L Boyd

    This is good! I know you don’t know me, but I’m Luke. … There. Now you know me. Anyway, I just started a blog as well. Here’s my first post . Thanks!

  • Mike Ward

    “I don’t have to tell every story just because I’m telling one.”

    Of course not, but the stories you choose to tell says something about you.

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