Greg Garrett: Who Is My Enemy?

My friend Chris Seay reported recently that he found himself being de-friended and un-followed on social media when he insisted during the celebrations over the death of Osama bin Laden that we were supposed to take Matthew 5-the "love our enemies" part-seriously. In Lee Camp's new book [Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam-And Themselves](, author and professor of theology and ethics Camp recounts a similar experience of trying to tell the spiritual truth about how we are supposed to approach our so-called enemies, and suffering social opprobrium because of it. When, in an interfaith program he spoke about "Theological Ground for Peaceful Coexistence" with Muslims, he was called an asshole and an idiot, and instructed (by someone who clearly didn't know much about the Crusades) to "Learn some history you moron."

As far as his larger audience was concerned, Muslims were only interested in killing, converting, or enslaving us. They are and have always been our enemies.

To believe otherwise was simply to ignore the facts.

But in Who Is My Enemy?, Camp masterfully returns to explore that issue of "Theological Ground for Peaceful Coexistence." In the process, not only does he question myths about Islam held by those of us in the West since the Middle Ages, but he forces us to confront the harmful practices growing out of our own myths about Christianity and how it works within an Imperial setting.

"My concern," Camp tells readers, "is that we practice honest self-examination rather than the dishonest procedure of comparing an idealized form of our own faith tradition with the messy historical method of Muslims" (p. 97). In fact, Camp says, if we look at what we say we believe and what we do, we may say we are followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, but we act as though we are more drawn to the story of Muhammad, who permits the use of the sword in the service of justice.

Camp's method in the book is simple; he juxtaposes chapters on Christian faith and practice with chapters on Islam, forcing us to consider the history of Christianity's understanding of war and peacemaking as we also learn about the teachings of the Quran and Muslim tradition. His underlying belief is also simple; he quotes Romans, where the Apostle Paul speaks about judgment, stirs us all into the sinful mass of humanity, and challenges us to think of Muslims not as our enemies, but as human beings who see the world through a different lens than we do.

And, he challenges us to admit that, if we are honest, these supposed enemies' approach to war and peace is not that different from our own, although we claim to be more enlightened, largely because we believe that we are right.

Some readers will find it hard to stomach the criticisms Camp levels at Christianity (particularly Imperial Christianity, which he calls the lapdog to the State), and America (p. 113). In discussing America's adherence to the principles of Just War, for example, Camp points out that while we may have entered World War Two on pretexts that justify military action, we ignored those requirements of the tradition that speak to avoiding attacks on civilians or the use of disproportionate force.

For those of us accustomed to thinking of World War Two as our Good War, the one in which we most certainly were in the right, Camp's reminders that we were responsible for massive bombings of innocents under the guise of Total War will be painful. His description of the destruction of lives and property in the firebombing of Hamburg (the so-called "Operation Gomorrah"), for example, is horrifying-and is meant to be. Flaming corpses, bodies lying in pools of their own congealed fat, flies and maggots and rats everywhere. It was "Like a horror story, and yet purposefully planned and executed by the Allies" (p. 93).

His point: in our own sense of the rightness of our cause, we have carried out our share of violence, our own atrocities. To take all of Islam to task when we are guilty of our own use of force for what we perceive as righteousness is hypocrisy; and what makes it worse is that ultimately we are not even killing in the name of our religion, but of our civic religion. American Exceptionalism can make us as sure of our own righteousness as any Muslim extremist; and since our tendency is not to describe our acts of terror as terror, we can safely set them aside, never to be thought over again.

That is why, in referencing Andrew Bacevich's [The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism](, Camp notes that we are right to mistrust American exceptionalist beliefs, "that America has a special mandate by God to make things turn out right and is thus granted an exception to do the things others are not" (p. 124). We are right to be incensed at terrorist acts, but wrong to ignore our own violation of Just War mandates even in the preservation of our nation.

But Who Is My Enemy? does more than simply compare the two systems (Christianity and Islam) and ask us to employ empathy and honesty in that comparison. Camp also gives us hope that we can learn from each other and take on common challenges. As I've suggested in this column recently, despite the very real differences in our faith, Muslims and Christians have many things in common. We all want our children to grow up safely, to live meaningful lives. We face common enemies, what Camp describes as "threats to family life, to sober life, to quiet and sensible work" (p. 135).

The common trait of hospitality, and the practice of courage suggest we may still find peace at the far end of the Clash of Civilizations that some of us fear (and others of us seem to desire). Camp's positive stories of conversation and table fellowship with Muslims echo my own experience; we make enemies of people we fear, we fear them because we do not know them, and we do not know them because they live differently than we do. But when we reach out to each other, we can break down those barriers and discover our common humanity. And when we do so, the question Who is my enemy? can be answered in a much more limited way.

This is, finally, the great contribution of Camp's book: by encouraging us to see through the eyes of the Other, by noting the commonalities of Christians and Muslims, and by requiring us to be honest about the violent failures of our own sacred traditions, he allows us to narrow our circle of enemies.

And that might even make it a little easier to love the ones who remain.

[Taken with the author's permission from his blog at, originally posted 9/15/11.]

For more conversation and resources on Who is My Enemy? including an interview with the author, visit the Patheos Book Club here.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.

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