Posted by: Titus Presler | April 13, 2014

Joining our enemies on their knees – A godly admonition

Islamabad on Passion Sunday

“A church committed to the reclaiming of the gospel of peace looks like those who join their enemies on their knees.”

This stands out for me among the many good things Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in his April 10 talk at the Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace conference of Episcopalians in Oklahoma City.

We might rephrase the statement as: Christians in a church committed to reclaiming the gospel of peace will join their enemies on their knees. Whose knees? Presumably our enemies are on their knees, and we are on our knees. Conceivably, the statement assumes that our enemies are already on their knees, so that its import is that we are joining them where they already are. The mandate, then, is to kneel with our enemies – they on their knees and we on our knees, we and our enemies together in prayer.

Considering what this might mean is salutary in Holy Week, when we walk through the Passion, a saga that highlights enmity both within and outside the Jesus movement, violence as a tactic of first resort, and cultures of violence both Jewish and Roman. That saga should prompt us to consider our own enemies and enmities, the violence we suffer and the violence we mete out, and the cultures of enmity and violence in which we are complicit.

Kneeling with our enemies may remind us of Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That in turn may remind us of Jesus’ word in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The story Abp. Justin told of the sequel to the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in 1940 suggests a radicalizing of even Jesus’ word from the cross:

The following morning, the Provost, Richard Howard, in the ruins picked up a piece of burnt wood and wrote behind the High Altar the words: ‘Father forgive.’ Someone said to him: ‘You mean Father forgive them?’ to which he replied, in the words of Romans 3:23: ‘No, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Violence is not something that is only the sin of the other.

Howard called for reconciliation after the war. In the common prayer undertaken between Coventry and Dresden, British and German Christians traveled from enmity to reconciliation and thereby, in the words quoted from Sam Wells, “transfigured conflict into glory.” From this developed the Communities of the Cross of Nails, of which there are nearly 200 around the world today.

Reconciliation is what God is up to in the world, the ultimate direction of God’s mission. So if joining our enemies on their knees is a key to reconciliation it is likewise a key to participating in God’s mission in the world, both personally and at the level of perceptions and interactions between peoples.

“Father, forgive” – not just “them,” but us as well. Mutuality is key: mutually recognizing sin on all sides, mutually repenting, mutually forgiving, mutually reconciling. That gets us back to kneeling with our enemies and how hard that may be to do.

Even acknowledging that one has enemies can be difficult, for it can feel like a failure, a defect in how we’ve handled our lives. The fact is, though, that the progression from envy to competition to resentment to hatred is so endemic in human nature that enmity is inevitable. It’s par for the course.

Sometimes others consider themselves our enemies even though we do not, as it were, return the favor. They harbor enmity, but we have no need or drive to reciprocate. Their enmity toward us may mystify us, or we may understand its origins, but we don’t harbor enmity toward them.

At other times the seed of enmity may take root and grow within ourselves, nurtured by our own insecurity and anxiety, our own need to be number one and to dominate, our feeling of being threatened by the competence or the vitality or the success of another, and our need to diminish or eliminate that threat. And sometimes two parties hate each other and share a mutual enmity.

Whatever the case, the archbishop’s exhortation should give us pause: We are not only to pray for our enemies but to pray with our enemies, joining our enemies on their knees and ours.

This challenges our tendency to objectify enemies by reducing them to their negative qualities, whether those are summed up in the animus they harbor toward us – which of course we see as unjustified – or the reasons for which we justify harboring animus toward them. They are just that and nothing more. Their professional life, their family life, their networks of relationships, their recreational life – all in reality just as complex, interesting and important as our own – can be discounted, devalued, discredited, diminished, dismissed.

And certainly their prayer life! We may not put it into words, but we’re likely to assume that if an enemy claims to be religious or spiritual, if an enemy claims to have faith and to pray, surely all that is inauthentic or fake, just nominal or obligatory, or at least shallow. “How can he/she be spiritual or prayerful and be that kind of person – and an enemy of me?”

Kneel with our enemies – that’s the exhortation. It may mean joining an enemy who is already at prayer. It may mean inviting an enemy into prayer. It may mean praying together within a religious tradition. It may mean praying together across lines of religious difference – inter-religious prayer.

In the natural course of things, none of that may be possible, in which case the thought experiment of praying with the enemy may be almost as edifying. We might imagine praying with the enemy and actually pray as though the enemy were kneeling beside us: a virtual praying with the enemy.

Given the ultimacy of relationship with God, praying with the enemy forces us to open up again to the other’s full humanity. The other is just as complex as we are, with just as many strong points as we have, and possibly just as faithful. Joining enemies on their knees and ours obliges us to accept the authenticity of the other’s relationship with God – the faith, the struggle, the prayer life of the enemy. If and when we embrace this, we are undermining the wall we have constructed against the other. Cracks of understanding may appear.  The wall may begin to teeter, then fall. A path toward reconciliation may appear. There will still be rubble in the way, but we can clear it bit by bit, or step around the bigger chunks and return to work on them later.  Which is to say, sins and hurts must be addressed in the process, but praying with the enemy opens us and energizes us for reaching out and trying to talk.

The dynamics of reconciliation between persons can and must be extended to the enmities between groups, whether ethnic or linguistic or economic or religious or national, or, as often happens, communal conflicts that involve many of these dimensions. The remarkable communal reconciliation work undertaken by a pastor and an imam in the violence of northern Nigeria stands out as a signal example.

Violence at the hands of persons who behaved as enemies in inflicting the violence is a recent personal experience for me, doubtless at the behest of others who considered themselves my enemies and saw me as an enemy. This occurred in an environment of violent extremism where religion, ethnicity and nationality are often taken as  reasons for enmity. Joining my enemies on their knees is not something I can do literally right now – the enforcers disappeared and the instigators are shadowy. Joining them virtually on their knees is quite possible, though, especially amid the five daily times of Islamic prayer here in Pakistan.

It has not been easy. It feels sacrificial. But it is edifying. And redemptive. And reconciling.

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