We have wars because we have enemies. Simple perhaps, but I wonder what that word really means, and a bit of digging shows that the word enemy is derived from the Latin for “not friendly” in–amicus, ie. inimicus. That does not seem too bad as it refers to someone who is just a bit unfriendly. But the modern usage of the word is more loaded than this and to discover why that is, we need to dig a bit deeper.
The old English word feond means enemy as well as demon or devil, the enemy of mankind; and that meaning also became imparted to the word foe and then also to the word enemy, from about the thirteenth century onwards. Today the modern word enemy can often be substituted for the word other i.e. not one of us or not like us. This is essentially a throwback to the word enemy referring not only to someone who is unfriendly, but to someone who posed a hazard to the known order of things, someone possibly in league with the devil himself.
Suddenly making peace with one’s enemies becomes quite an undesirable and even impossible prospect doesn't it? It would, of course, be altogether easier if we did not have any enemies at all and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, most people say they don't have any personal enemies at all. Instead almost everyone has someone they are arguing with ongoingly, perhaps relatives, bosses, colleagues, neighbours… but these are not labelled enemies, at most they are perhaps a bit inimicus– unfriendly.The label enemy is instead reserved for enemies of society or of our culture, and attaching this label onto a whole group of faceless individuals rather than a known individual makes it easier to maintain this sense of serious, even devilish enmity.
So is it possible or even useful to go back to the idea of having honourable enemies that you had respect for? That was after all traditional in historical battles and duels- for example between knights. In these cases there was respect for the skill, integrity, courage, professionalism and leadership of one's enemies, but for this to happen the enemy must show themselves to be worthy of respect:- and that would not apply to the thug, the bully, the coward, the Al Qaeda terrorists, the airplane bomber, the one who bashes you from behind with a baseball bat and takes your wallet, the one who programmes the bomb-dropping drone, or the corrupt politician… ie. most of the enemies we deal with today. Immediately therefore the romantic notions of a noble enemy becomes the stuff of fairy tales- and we are left with the question of how to broker peace in a world where those that we label enemies are also those diabolical ones for whom we have no respect, no trust, and no desire whatsoever to dialogue with? And those we argue with personally are not even our enemies, so what is there to make peace about?
Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, peace activist and scholar, wrote that The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” Indifference is the closing down of emotion, and in the closing down of emotion is the closing down of a part of the self. Hate like love is passion and emotion, it is fierce and alive.
What Jesus, Rumi, Mandela, Ghandi, Luther King and so many others taught is a fierce love, a love grounded in conviction, commitment and trust, and not the watery helpless nothingness of indifference to wrong. Love the child but not the bad behaviour, love the sinner but not the sin; love your enemies, but not their actions… Active non-violence is based on fierce and all-embracing love and not on indifference. We cannot broker peace on the back of indifference, we cannot broker peace with those we don't consider even to be fully human, and we cannot broker peace with those we can’t even be bothered to call our enemies.
This remembrance day we come together as nations and communities to honour those many who fell in wars at home and abroad, so that we might all live. Let us use today to re-label our enemies as being fully human rather than devilish, and therefore worthy of dialogue. Let us also use this day to think about the personal wars we are waging today with those we don’t even have the energy to call our enemies: Those we push away because that’s easier than to recognise that there are differences between us. Let us honour the fallen by making a commitment to move past the inertia of indifference and take the risk of actively making peace with our enemies, personally and globally.
Peace be with you...