Posted by: rogermitchell | May 5, 2013

The crucial reach to our enemies (1)

Making enemies non-persons outside the law in Guantanamo prison in the so-called War on Terror after 9/11 revealed how non-Christian the deep structures of the West really are. 166 Prisoners still languish in Guantanamo without justice. In the first two days of this month of May 2013, nearly twelve years later, 100,000 people called once more on president Obama to fulfil his promise and close it down. I’m sorry to say that I doubt that he will. To petition him go to

How Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect for the Boston bombing is treated will similarly reveal the underlying values of our Western world. What kind of hospitality do we show our perceived enemies? Seriously, what do we do? What about their victims? This is not an easy question, but it is crucial.

As I have just said, this is crucial, cruciform, in other words, what the cross is about!

The first thing to emphasise is that loving one’s enemies is no passive acquiescence in the face of evil.
Forgiveness has first to acknowledge the immensity of pain caused in becoming an enemy. We are not talking of simple prejudice here. So love for one’s enemy always has to be accompanied by some kind of actual or potential restoration for third party victims if they exist. When the forgiver is the victim it is both harder and easier! Harder because a way of absorbing the injustice in oneself has to be found, easier because once that’s done, there is no other victim to dissuade from vengeance.

The second thing to recognise is that to underrate the effect of evil is no real bridge of love to one’s enemy.
As I understand it, the cross is the place where the Father, Son and Spirit measured the full extent of evil and completely drew it into themselves and in so doing resolved it. The extraordinary theologian Simone Weil describes this measure as “the infinite thickness of time and space,” because the essence of evil is the rejection of that love for which time and space exist. It is a distance that God has to cross first, because he is both the source of love and the ultimate victim of everything against it. Weil calls this stretch across the gap of human acts of evil, penal suffering, not in the sense that God is beating up Jesus to extort a payment for sin from him on our behalf, but because the punishing effects of sin on another being have to go somewhere. On the cross it is going into God. One’s enemy’s sin is in this way measured by the one who forgives it. I don’t much like the use of the word penal in this context because of its association with the idea that God himself requires appeasement by another before he will forgive, but I understand the importance of finding a difficult word that encompasses the extent of reach involved in forgiving one’s enemy.

There is much more to be said about the extent of this reach, and I will continue with this subject over the next day or two.


  1. I find myself in daily life struggling with a more mundane but destructive issue connected to all of this. The evil of an event like a mass shooting or bombing is certainly difficult but often the person who committed the act is either killed as part of the event or caught and jailed. In other words, their capacity to continue the behaviour is limited.

    I struggle with the issue of cheating and greed. Frequently in community when it comes to sharing resources there appears to be some people who will take advantage of generosity and cheat. They will consume more than they should, or take things in secret, or refuse to put in their share of costs and expenses (labour or cash). Research shows that when this kind of behaviour becomes endemic to a system, the system breaks down (think of black markets and wholesale tax fraud in some countries, or a construction industry that builds without permits and shoddy materials). That raises issues around community building. How, within a community, does one manage the day to day, petty, chronic, maliciousness that robs others of resources and contributions? Research also shows that when such a person is dealt with, forgiveness can be effective the first time. That is, a penalty exists but is forgiven the first time. But what happens after that? These folks can destroy a community (as well as injure or kill others) pretty quickly. So you cannot let them continue the behaviour but you also want to love the enemy, in this case the enemy within the community.

    I suspect this is a fairly common problem ranging from marriages to intentional communities. When someone insists on opportunistically abusing the system, to the point that they can destroy it, what do you do? How do we respond? c.

  2. This is hard, but really important. My initial comment is to say that loving and forgiving our enemies in no way implies that we cannot expose and oppose their wrong behaviour. Rather that if we can recognise the evil involved and forgive them, then we are in a better place to decide the best way to deal with them. My problem with Guantanamo is not prison or exclusion per se., it is the refusal to apply accepted international community standards for prisoners of war, and the use of torture. In more discrete and localised communities appropriate sanctions can be applied to greedy cheats, but they need to issue from love and forgiveness.

    • Part of the issue with Gittmo is not just the evil of unjustly imprisoning anyone but that it is the state that is taking that action. That is different from an individual or a nonstate actor. States, frequently agree to certain behaviours amongst other states. The USA has done so and Gittmo breaks those agreements. With the military force the USA has available to itself as a state such a break (and a long ongoing one) is disturbing.

      I just read an interesting article from a new book called “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath” by Nicco Mele. It is an interesting analysis of the rise of nonstate actors like Anonymous on the Internet and their activism. The author contends that the Internet and radical connectivity renders much of the military totally irrelevent in the future. Of course, I’ve always contended that whoever controls the electrical grid controls the Internet – without power there is no Internet. But anyway, part of what has happened is that the American military has tended to treat the ‘cyberwar’ threat as an extension of the Cold War and has over-reacted and threatened real guns and bullets as a response to any cyber attack. This is kind of a nonsensical way to react. A cyber attack could be a 15 year old geek in his bedroom in Minnesota. Then what? Is the military going to bomb Minnesota?

      In the same way Gittmo is a Cold War response to a new and different kind of threat – a decentralized small non-state group. How do you attack back? How does traditional military action effectively deal with this? It doesn’t actually. Strategically Gittmo is a terrible failure. Morally it is a terrible failure. In terms of international agreements it is a failure. It is not only a moral failure but a strategic one because times and technology have changed.

      What hasn’t changed for the better is the American political system. The folks in Gittmo – many of whom were cleared for release years ago – are the unfortunate football in the potlical game for points in the USA. And that is perhaps the least moral part of the whole thing.

  3. “The first thing to emphasise is that loving one’s enemies is no passive acquiescence in the face of evil. ” Absolutely.

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