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Talking with the enemy

| 6.6.03
'Talking with the enemy', by L. Gregory Jones

Sometimes I find that I have a swirl of ideas in my head that I can't articulate, and then I read a book or an article that crystallizes those very thoughts perfectly. Such is the case with L. Gregory Jones recent contribution to the May issue of the Christian Century, entitled "Talking with the enemy." In it he discusses the rancorous debate that has arisen in churches when clergy disagree with their congregations, and faithful parishioners on both sides of current issues like the war in Iraq feel alienated by debate and disagreement. While it's tempting to say that controversial issues shouldn't be discussed from the pulpit, most important issues are controversial, and avoiding them renders the church irrelevant to daily life. Yet Jones articulates a way to discuss them that doesn't alienate faithful people on the other side.

Jones draws upon scripture to articulate a vision of loving mutuality and listening to one's "enemies" when discussing controversial issues. Citing James 1:19, he writes, "Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness." While preserving anger as a valid human emotion and response, he notes that a quick angry response has negative consequences for any community, including the body of Christ. From the Hebrew bible, Jones discusses the book of Jonah, "which presses the question of whether we really want our enemies to repent."

The most striking part of the article, however, was this quoted passage from Wendell Berry's novel Jayber Crow. I loved the way it simultaneously proclaimed a great truth, yet also called into question the authenticity of the truth teller. Part of the problem with communicating with the enemy is that it's so easy to become smug and prideful in the perfection of ones own position, which tends to close off the ability to truly hear what the other person has to say.

"They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good."
There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. . . .
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you."
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. "Where did you get that crap?"
I said, "Jesus Christ."
And Troy said, "Oh."
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

As I mentioned earlier, part of why this article was so striking is because it resonated with some earlier reading I was trying to digest unsuccessfully. After seeing the VeggieTales movie "Jonah" last year, I was driven to attempt Yvonne Sherwood's A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture. Although I was unable to finish the entire book, it did fire my imagination about Jonah and sensitize me to noticing Jonah wherever he pops up in my reading.

Jonah is such an interesting tale for precisely the same reason I find the passage from Jayber so tantalizing. Both show a flawed person striving to be good, and not succeeding. Only where Jayber knows and acknowledges his flaws, Jonah denies and is unaware of how they destroy his relationship with God and others. A powerful message we would do well to heed today when dealing with our enemies, both abroad and next door.

Publisher: The Christian Century, May 31, 2003 issue. page 50. Chicago. ISSN: 0009-5281

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