The Friend/Enemy Distinction
What does it mean for someone to be an enemy (not merely a personal enemy, but the enemy of my community in a just cause, or the enemy of the truth itself)? It means someone whom I am bound to oppose and resist; someone whose every weakness I must seek to discover, whose every misstep I must be alert for and ready to exploit; someone for whom I cannot afford to entertain fond feelings or show mercy, at least as long as they are an active threat. It is someone whom I must assume is similarly seeking to exploit my weaknesses and those of my friends; someone whose intentions I must always suspect; whose action I cannot afford to give the benefit of the doubt, but must rather, as a precautionary principle, always interpret in a negative light, as an act of aggression; someone toward whom it is actually a virtue to appear paranoid. The appropriateness of these reactions increases in proportion to the level of threat; there may be a place for rules of chivalry and gentlemanly warfare, but when I am under existential threat, facing an enemy who will stop at nothing, I cannot afford to be naïve and trusting.
What does it mean for someone to be my friend? It means someone whom I am determined to support and encourage; someone whose weaknesses I must seek to shore up and compensate for; someone whose missteps I cover for, ready to spring to their aid; someone for whom I actively cultivate an affection and whom I am quick to forgive. It is someone of whom I try to always think the best, assuming their good intentions and applying a hermeneutic of charity when they speak or act questionably; someone for whom it is a virtue to be trusting to the point of appearing naïve.
These radically different strategies of engagement and rules of interpretation are deeply wired into us; even while they may not be necessary for physical survival in a relatively peaceful and civilized age, they are still necessary for social, intellectual, and spiritual survival in a world filled with evil and workers of iniquity. The friend/enemy distinction is a kind of mental mapping, a shorthand by which we make sense of the chaos around us, determining whom we can trust and how best to deploy our limited powers of empathy and of resistance. In the intellectual realm, it enables us to simplify the vast spectrum of ideas and positions that confront us, which are beyond the power of even the brightest amongst us to dispassionately evaluate one-by-one. Without fully knowing where each individual stands on a wide range of issues, and without being able to determine where exactly the truth lies on each of those issues, we fall back on the question, “Is this person a friend or a foe?”—a question often partly answered on pre-rational grounds—to decide our posture toward them.
It is the radically different interpretive strategies prescribed by the friend/foe distinction that explains how it is that we can draw such sharp lines in the face of a relatively smooth continuum of possible positions. Consider: on any political or theological question, there are generally a vast range of possible positions that could coherently be taken, which might be mapped on a relatively smooth spectrum from “most liberal” to “most conservative.” But most of us eschew the complexity of this mapping, with all the ifs, ands, and buts that it requires, and gravitate toward the simpler heuristic of the friend/foe distinction to divide up the possible positions into two main camps. Having done so, and having adopted opposing strategies toward those on either side of the dividing line, we find that there is now a yawning chasm where once there was a fairly smooth continuum. Those on the “foe” side of the chasm, although on paper their positions may differ only slightly from those a bit closer to us, are perceived to differ categorically and perhaps irredeemably. Toward the one group we apply a hermeneutic of charity, assuming they must mean well even when they argue poorly; toward the other a hermeneutic of suspicion, discerning that some evil scheme lies cloaked under their fair words.
Now you might assume at this point that I would play the part of the moralistic Christian ethicist and implore us to lay aside these Manichaean modes of thought, be like Jesus, and all sit down around a table to engage in meaningful “dialogue.” But I am not going to do that. On the contrary, the friend/enemy distinction is unavoidable. Of course, the Christian must cultivate a love for enemies, and recognize that the only irreconcilable enemies are principalities and powers; but we are not called to naiveté and passivity either. There is real evil and error in the world that must be vigorously opposed, and although this stark dichotomy sometimes grossly oversimplifies the landscape that we must navigate, we cannot do entirely without it. (Indeed, the moralistic prophets of inclusive “dialogue” cannot do without it either, reacting viscerally when confronted with the stubborn holdouts against the tolerance gospel.) Life is too short and our capacities are too limited, as I have said, to evaluate every person and position abstractly on their own merits, and so all of us must to at least some extent rely on these rough-and-ready generalizations of whom to be particularly on our guard against. To be sure, as I have written before, we should try and learn to represent even our enemies as fairly and accurately as possible, since our ultimate goal is to win them over, not to annihilate them—vengeance belongs to the Lord. But in the heat of combat, to extend the right hand of fellowship is to risk having it cut off.
Nor am I even going to tell you that while real wars (just wars, at any rate) are fine, and so is spiritual warfare, we must avoid “the culture war” at all costs. For, as I have already made quite clear, there are real wars in the realm of ideas (and for control of idea-shaping institutions), in which truth—a prize far more precious than any that armies have ever contended for—is at stake. And in these wars as well the blunt instrument of the friend/enemy distinction is indispensable.
When Friends Become “Enemies”
However, there is a point at which the friend/enemy distinction can do more harm than good, a point that we must be careful to guard ourselves against. The latest phase of the culture wars—at least as they have played out in conservative Christian circles—have thrown this peril into sharp relief. If you’re a conservative North American Christian and you haven’t been living under a rock lately, you’ve probably heard something about the recent Revoice conference. This event, dedicated to the the question of whether there is any positive sense in which we might speak of a “gay Christian” identity, has come to serve increasingly as something of a litmus test of where one stands on this pressing question of the day and thus perhaps where one stands on issues of fidelity to orthodoxy more generally. Given that, as my friend Alastair Roberts has convincingly argued, historic Christian sexual ethics are inseparable from historic Christian orthodoxy more generally, this is no mere tempest in a teapot. This debate poses the question of whether one is willing to yield, even an inch, to the impulses of empathy and inclusivity and cultural relevance at the cost of faithfulness to an orthodox Christian vision of sexuality and desire, and thus ultimately an orthodox Christian understanding of sin and salvation in Christ.The battle over same-sex attraction is the most fiercely contested salient in a wider war for the soul of Western Christianity, and thus has come to take on a genuine urgency—though it can still become symbolically exaggerated in certain quarters.
And here is the problem when a war is at its most fiercely fought, and the tide seems to be going the wrong way. No longer is it enough to classify as enemies those who are genuinely arrayed against you. What about those on your own side of the battle lines who seem to lack resolve and enthusiasm for the fight, those who seem by their soft words and their half-hearted combat to be giving comfort to the enemy? These, one can only assume, are traitors or enemy agents, ready to surrender the keys to the strongholds (and indeed, don’t these half-hearted equivocators seem, more often than not, to occupy the higher echelons of influence at our leading institutions?) and surrender to the inexorable enemy advance. There will always be those who are more or less fierce in the fight, whether because of where they lie on the wide spectrum of opinion on a complex set of issues, their particular contexts, their vocational responsibilities, or simply because of personality and rhetorical style. But, whatever the reason may be, if your side seems to be losing the war, and the stakes are high enough, you may soon conclude that these halfhearted friends are not merely unreliable to entrust with leadership roles, or to station on the front lines, but should in fact be numbered among your foes.
In fact, there is a certain personality type—which my friend Joe Minich has called “the prophetic performer”—that flourishes among counter-cultural conservative groups, a personality that likes to display its gutsy willingness to thin the ranks in pursuit of purity, and its prophetic insight into the true motivations of the apparent compromisers. (Sadly, by alienating these wavering allies and turning them into foes, the denunciation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, lending added authority to the denouncer.) But even those not inclined to McCarthyite grandstanding can, in the heat of ideological conflict, forget the great deeds and bracing truths their friends have contributed in the past, and hold them to an increasingly impossible standard of uncompromising ferocity.
In any case, once you mentally recategorize such a person as an enemy, your posture toward them shifts radically, your former hermeneutic of charity replaced with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Overnight, then, they can go from sounding like low-energy allies to sounding like shrewd and insidious enemies. Read in this new light, they may quickly confirm your suspicions and retroactively justify your decision to treat them as foes. Before long, they are firmly ensconced, according to your mental battle map, in the enemy ranks. And what does this mean? Pretty soon you observe others within your own ranks who seem friendly with these traitors—seem, at any rate, unwilling to call them out for their obvious errors, continuing instead to extend that hermeneutic of charity that you have now wisely abandoned. These too must now be counted as aiders and abettors of the enemy, and in due course, reclassified on the other side of the friend/enemy divide. Meanwhile, as Elrond so memorably puts it, your list of allies grows thin. And the more you are aware of this fact, the more embattled you feel that your side is, which raises the urgency of the fight, which compels you to adopt ever more stringent standards toward determining who your true allies are. The only logical endpoint to this vicious cycle (barring a revolt of common sense, which thankfully intervenes in many cases) is an embittered and self-righteous solipsism.
So what is the way out of this trap? I have already said that it cannot be a wholesale abandonment of friend/foe thinking, which is neither realistic nor ultimately fruitful. I have written recently of the inestimable value of friendship for cultivating intellectual and cultural renewal, and friendship, I have increasingly realized, requires a common cause, which requires—at least in some measure, a common foe. So this is a difficult needle to thread. And it remains the case that just because someone remains a friend does not mean that you cannot fault their strategy of engagement. However, in closing I would like to briefly outline four strategies for sanity, strategies which I hope that conservative American Christianity can adopt before it devours itself in an ever more frantic battle against an ever-lengthening list of adversaries.
Four Strategies for Sanity
First, cultivate true friendships among your ideological ‘friends’ (and ideally even a few among your ideological enemies as well). Although I have thus far used the term “friend” in a rather minimal sense, requiring not so much any genuine bond and involving merely co-belligerence against a common foe, we all know that friendship in its proper sense involves much more. The friend is not merely useful for their assistance in a conflict, but is the object of our affection and loyalty. Obviously not everyone whom we consider a friend in the broader sense of an ally or co-belligerent can be a friend in the fuller and richer sense, but the more whom we can add to this latter number, the better—and if we are blessed with a few real friends with whom we bitterly disagree on key issues, even better. When we have a strong network of people whom we care about for more than just their like-mindedness and their aid in our projects and conflicts, we are inoculated in some measure against the utilitarian calculus that counts only their value on the front lines, or the paranoid fever that begins to spot traitors everywhere. This is not to say that we cut our true friends slack for their failures to speak the truth and contend for it, but we seek to strengthen them in their weaknesses and missteps rather than exploiting them.
Second, surround yourselves with men and women of true discernment, and learn from them. The friend/foe distinction is, as I have suggested, a shortcut for when it is infeasible to undertake a thoughtful, studied evaluation of each person and position on the battlefield of ideas. Such shortcuts will always be necessary, but we can learn to depend on them less frequently by cultivating the intellectual habits that enable us to discern the real fault-lines on that apparently smooth continuum of opinions—the primary truths really worth fighting for, and the less consequential issues or merely semantic differences that loom so large when the fog of war descends. This requires great skill and cool-headedness, but we all hopefully know a few people gifted with this kind of insight and training, people able to form judgments with great accuracy and minimal bias even on complex, high-stakes issues. We must attach ourselves to such people—not, mind you, to slavishly follow their own judgments, for that way lies the way of groupthink, but to learn from their skills and begin to practice such discernment ourselves.
Third, widen your horizons and consider the full scope of the conflict. If we think again specifically about the current debates over same-sex attraction and the intense suspicion they have created among evangelical ranks, it is worth asking again why this issue in particular has generated such acrimony. Not, I think, because evangelicals are all homophobes. Rather, the most important theater of conflict for the church today concerns the objective moral meaning of human nature, and the particular battlefront where this conflict is playing out is the debate over same-sex attraction. So these are immensely important debates. But they are not the whole war. Only when we remember the full scope of the spiritual and intellectual warfare in which the Church is engaged can we gain the sense of perspective needed to remain cool-headed and balanced in the midst of conflict. The threats to orthodoxy are myriad, beginning right at the foundation, with the doctrine of God, where many of our allies in the current culture war turn out to be foes on a different battlefront. Of course, this way of thinking can quickly lead one to think in terms of being an embattled tiny minority—the only people I can trust to get it right on everything are me and my five friends—but that is not the point. The point is rather to learn to hold things loosely, recognizing that there are many battles to be fought, with overlapping constellations of alliances, and that, of course, the worst enemy is usually the one staring you in a mirror, however pure your intellectual commitments may be.
Finally, remember that the battle belongs to the Lord. I noted above that the friend/foe distinction really only gets pathological when we are afraid deep down (however much we may boast and bluster on the outside) that our side is losing. This, I think, explains in part the increasing shrillness and zeal for purity among some conservative Christian ranks. Convinced that the enemy of radical moral revisionism is inexorably gaining ground in our society, we are determined to hunt down the traitors who are making this advance possible, and seek to purge our ranks of everyone who looks like too much of a softie. There is certainly prudence, in any conflict, in seeking to determine whom you can and can’t rely on, but prudence only does its work well when free from fear and wrath. Once these passions take over, it mutates into vindictiveness and paranoia. At such moments, it is imperative that we step back and remember that the battle belongs to the Lord. As the story of Gideon reminds us, it is not numbers that matter, but faith. The Lord is protecting and defending His Church, and even if He wills it to fail and perish in some particular time and place, He will resurrect it in due course. The culture wars that we might presently fight, while a genuine conflict over genuine truths and goods, are not to be simply confused with the war that Christ is waging against His enemies, and which He will win in due course. Only by trusting in His ultimate victory can we have the confidence to play our own small parts, and wage our own small wars, with faithfulness and discernment.
Note: this essay has been slightly edited for clarification on a few points in response to helpful feedback.
Thus it is important to recognize that it is not as if conservatives are merely policing orthodoxy, whereas progressives are motivated by pastoral concerns. Thoughtful opponents of something like the Revoice conference have their own pastoral concerns, highlighting the ways in which the dignification, rather than mortification, of disordered desires will inevitably harm rather than help Christians struggling with same-sex attraction.