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📚 The Good Books: How to Have An Enemy
Melissa Florer-Bixler’s latest will challenge you to think deeply about enmity.
The Good Books highlights books you should read. Disclosure: It contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, for which I may receive a referral commission.
There are certain books you take your time with. You pick them up, read a passage or a chapter, and then let those ideas ruminate, let them steep in. Others you tear through in a single setting. Neither of these reader responses are better than the other, but with How to Have An Enemy: Righteous Anger & The Work of Peace, I took my time.
I’m glad I did.
I started the book last summer while on a trip with family, and spent the rest of the year finishing it. The book reckons with the interlaced topics of enmity, power, community, justice, anger, and peace - and more I likely missed. In its first chapter, Florer-Bixler writes:
“Power separates difference from enmity….in order to understand enmity rightly we are required to distinguish between the fear of losing power and the fear of being harmed.
The discomfort Christian nationalists feel when a moment of silence replaces a Christian prayer in schools is not equivalent to Black people’s experiences of white supremacy in virtually every facet of life, from healthcare to education to policing. Until we are willing to name, assess, and address power—how we come to the church in bodies that bear within them legacies of power brokering, centering, and divestment—our Christian unity is little more than a strategy to maintain the status quo and avoid conflict.”
It is this tenor that I deeply appreciate about this book. It does not shy away from saying hard things, does not deny the emotionality it will stir up, and does not deny the negative role Christianity has had in creating today’s world—all while exploring other ways that Christians have, can, and should contribute to the work of creating a more just world.
It’s at this point that I should articulate that while this book offers explicitly Christian approaches to these topics, I believe How to Have An Enemy is instructive for people who might have been raised Christian but no longer identify as such or harbor an ambivalence/antipathy toward religion.
Wendell Berry once wrote that “there are an enormous number of people—and I am one of them—whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams.” Berry continues: “We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be.1”
While I’ve personally found Berry’s framework useful in the past, my own relationship to faith and faith communities has changed (and will continue to change). Berry’s statement was given as part of a lecture in 1992, and in the ensuing 30 years white evangelical Christianity in particular has inflicted many grievous wounds that have made it impossible for Christianity to “renew itself” within many people and communities. What I continue to acknowledge is the indelible mark Christianity has had on me and on the world. I cannot deny that fact, even as I cannot affirm aspects of faith “with my whole heart.” And it’s this tension that I think is at or near the center of many “deconstruction” narratives: grappling with the ineffectiveness of old systems and tools, while trying to learn new ones.
One of my favorite aspects of How To Have An Enemy is how it frames internal battles within church, and the author’s role as a church leader makes it even more heartening. Florer-Bixler does not abide a false sense of “unity” proposed “for the sake of the body of Christ.” She writes:
“As it is, enmity is not a moral failure. Nor is it a feigned condition. It is the tangible expression of those who have experienced and witnessed horrific violence against them and their people.”
“The burden of centrism is borne the most heavily by those who have the most to lose. Despite this, most often the people who stay and attempt to make change in the church are those without access to power.”
I’ve written before about how the white evangelical church does not want to be reformed. Florer-Bixler acknowledges the pain that this causes for those farthest from power and influence.
HTHAE also acknowledges the deeply emotional work that often derails any collective efforts to work toward a more equitable future. Anger, frustration, and generational trauma all present differently, and the emotional work a cis white man like me has to do is very different than someone else’s.2
But the book is not limited to talking to how one feels. It also confronts how one can act, can mitigate harm, and not hide difficult questions behind easy platitudes about “Christian unity” from within the church and broader appeals to “unity” from without.
HTHAE is a wonderful example of why we need books to accompany the daily conversation that happens across social media each day. It is a deeply considered, contemplative look at a hard topic. Add it to your list. And take your time.
I think you’ll be glad you did.
From the essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” published in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community.
I elaborated on the different types of work people have to do related to anger in this post: