In her provocative new book, How to Have an Enemy: Righteous Anger & the Work of Peace, Mennonite pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler looks closely at what the Bible says about enemies—who they are, what they do, and how Jesus and his followers responded to them. The result is a theology that allows Christians to name their enemies as a form of truth-telling about themselves, their communities, and the histories in which their lives are embedded. Only then can Christians grapple with the power of the acts of destruction carried out by enemies, and invite them to lay down their enmity, opening a path for healing, reconciliation, and unity. Collegeville Institute staff member Susan Sink interviewed Melissa about her book and its approach to lament, the reign of God, and the persistence of white supremacy in the United States.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is a writer and pastor with degrees from Duke University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Her ministry as pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church has been featured in The Atlantic and Sojourners. She is chair of L’Arche North Carolina. She is also the author of Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, which opens with an account from her time at the Collegeville Institute. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and three children. She has attended the several summer writing workshops at the Collegeville Institute, most recently Apart and Yet A Part with Michael N. McGregor in 2017.
How to Have an Enemy is Biblically rooted, and also resists the backlash currently in the public discourse about the legacy and ongoing operation of white supremacy in the United States. Could you explain why you’re advocating for defunding/abolishing the police?
I’m a Mennonite so my theology flows from Anabaptist hermeneutics. In the sixteenth century, Anabaptism helped revive communal readings of scripture as the way we corporately respond to the questions, ever new, before us. Mennonites are pacifists, and we draw this conviction from the Jesus we meet in the New Testament. Historically this has meant refusal to participate in state violence because we cannot make allegiances to anyone other than Christ, and we cannot disobey the commandment to love our enemies. The international form of state violence is the military. The domestic form of state violence is the police. So, for me this is a theological conviction and that theology is anti-racist. My theology, that of my tradition, resists a world where the state, through surveillance and lethal enforcement, enacts punishment. We need justice, not retribution.
In the book, you open with the importance and tradition of lament. In what ways do you welcome and listen to people’s stories as a pastor in your congregation? Why is this an important step?
In my church we make space in worship for talking back to the sermon, or the old Mennonite practice of zeugnis. That happens every week in worship where we invite people to participate in the work of interpreting scripture on the spot, sometimes allowing them to give voice to lament. But we structure other times that specifically make space to give voice to our lament. Over the summer we invited people to share testimonies about how they came to be here with us at Raleigh Mennonite. I was struck by the lament in these stories. We were a container to hold the brokenness that came from previous churches, family members, difficult experiences, and tragedies.
As pastors, I think this unscripted, open sharing can feel unruly and dangerous at times. Some of us have this implicit desire to “protect the message,” or only let into public what is orthodox or holy or unoffensive—whatever helps order the world. But all that is a façade. And peeling back that layer, making space for this vulnerability, is the groundwork of communal formation.
What do you mean by the “reign of God,” by which you define the Christian family?
Jesus uses this language a lot in a variety of ways in the Gospels. The redemption of creation, borne in the body of Israel, now overflows to everyone. We don’t have to make that happen, to bring it into being, or to accomplish it. The reign of God has come. Redemption is an act of grace and, as Kathryn Tanner reminds us, it’s non-competitive. We’re not competing with other parts of creation to make a claim on God’s work of liberation and wholeness. Instead, we participate in it. We pay attention for it; we look out for it. That’s the work of the church—we notice. We notice, we discern together, and then we step into wherever we see that reign of God firming up in time, in our midst.
When it comes to interacting with enemies, it doesn’t seem like you’re talking about looking for common ground, when you share an example of difficult dialogue over community issues like what’s going on now at school board meetings and city council meetings. You seem to be talking about a change of heart in the person doing harm with expressions of attitudes rooted in white supremacy. Am I reading you right? If so, how does that conversion take place?
I think we can look for common ground, but only after we understand the function of power that’s at work in whatever issue we’re approaching. For instance, is it possible to have common ground within a structure that weights power by access to money, or in a hierarchical structure where people at the bottom have little impact on how decisions are made?
The Church has spent a significant amount of time addressing conflict through relational work. We’re not alone in that. This is reflected in anti-racist educational spaces where personal relationships are offered as the key for changing racist cultures. I don’t think we have evidence that this is effective. Instead, we need to build a new world, to sustain new cultures and invite people into the healing and wholeness of mutual liberation. Enmity is bound by a mutual tie of destruction. We can’t be saved without saving our enemies, as well. That’s the gospel! Our liberation is dependent upon the liberation of all creation.
Could you speak more about how your thinking comes out of your Mennonite tradition, which holds a church/world dichotomy? When you speak of the enemies of the reign of God being possessed by Satan, that is a pretty stark view of the enemy!
My tendency is to use the language reflected in scripture of the reign of God, which is contrasted with the world that, we read, is in the hands of Satan. “All of the kingdoms of the world are mine,” Satan says to Jesus, “and I can do with them as I please” (Luke 4:6). This is why the early church often described the Incarnation as an invasion into enemy territory.
But also in the New Testament, the reign of God doesn’t always happen along the traditional inside/outside lines we’d like to establish for ourselves. For instance, Jesus claims that Peter, one of his disciples, continues to participate in the old order. “Get behind me Satan!” (Matt 16:23; Mark 8:33). It certainly is stark! But this is where Jesus continues to call us. We are asked to choose an allegiance. I often think of that song by Bob Dylan—“Gotta Serve Somebody.” That sounds a lot like Jesus. We can line ourselves up here with the work of God that’s erupting all around us, sometimes in the place we identify as church, sometimes not. Or we can continue to pledge our allegiance to an order where scarcity begets hoarding and retribution is the norm.
There is also a lot of the apocalyptic in your discussion, including the book of Revelation and Jesus’ admonition that his teachings would separate family members from each other. In the end, you say, along with James Baldwin, that white people will always choose capitalism, Mammon, over Black liberation. What does it look like for white Christians to choose Black liberation instead?
It certainly seems like the world will end in fire. And I wrestle with Baldwin’s evolution over time. He starts out so hopeful that white people will recognize that we participate in our own destruction. Eventually white people showed him this belief was wrong, that we would rather destroy the world, and us with it, than unclench our fists to release our power back into the world. He was a prophet.
I suppose choosing Black liberation is to choose a different life, one that collects, little by little, habits, economics, community, and politics that are for the mutual thriving of our world. That’s Black politics. “When I liberate myself, I liberate others,” Fannie Lou Hamer used to say. To choose Black liberation as a white person is to conspire for not only the freedom of others but for ourselves.