The other day I was reading the Gospel with the kids, and we talked about the Pharisees asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
In other words, “Who counts as my neighbor?” or even, “Who can I get away with not calling my neighbor?” (It’s a little like that awful husband who asked his new bride, “What’s the least I need to do to keep you happy?”)
The genre of the question is all too familiar to a parent: “What counts as a clean bedroom? Do I need to put the old socks, candy wrappers and comic books where they belong? How 'bout I just pile them up in nice, neat stacks?” Or, “What counts as finishing my dinner? Do I have to eat salad even if I dipped a Dorito in that nutritious guacamole just half an hour ago ?”
It’s not the kind of question the pure of heart ask. It’s legalistic and pusillanimous. It does have a straightforward answer, though.
But the flip side of the coin—“Who is my enemy?”—turns out to be trickier than it sounds. For example, in Matthew 12, Jesus says:
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.
That makes sense: don’t settle for inertia and indifference, for being “harmless.” You have to be truly, intentionally with Him. Nothing less is enough.
But then in another spot, He says
He who is not against me is with me.
The Apostle John had run into someone who was casting out demons in His name, but without following in their company. John had rebuked him, but Jesus rebuked John.
You can see the sense in that, too. We shouldn’t write off people who fail to practice the faith exactly the way we think they should. Not everyone who isn’t, strictly speaking, one of us is The Enemy.
So what about the contradiction? I'm not sure. I’m not about to explain it away. The context was different, for one thing. But clearly we can see the truth in both formulations.
Figuring out who is for and who against us becomes more and more pressing as political conversation becomes more uncivil and combative.
People who agree 100% with anything you might call traditional morality are fewer and farther between than they used to be. Refusing to ally yourself with those who disagree on arcane matters of theology and ethics begins to seem like a luxury of the past.
Still, there are some shortcuts to discernment that should be avoided. Most recently, when Italian fashion designers Dolce and Gabanna came out against gay marriage, a lot of people took a “whoever is not against us is for us” line. No, Dolce and Gabanna are not exactly “one of us,” but we’ll take whatever allies we can get, and in fact we’re glad for the opportunity to show that we don’t reject anybody just because they identify as gay.
And yet there are those sour notes: their very disturbing ad which (no exaggeration) glamorizes gang rape, and the way they label babies conceived by IVF as “synthetic children.” Just how fully are we willing to embrace what they stand for? Not all our allies have to be altogether ideologically pure, but is there no cutoff point at all?
And remember "Je suis Charlie"? How was that for an overeager, overhasty embrace? I'm in favor of freedom of expression and against terrorist murder, but no, I'm not Charlie Hebdo. The magazine is a cesspool of obscenity and other nastiness. I don't disagree with Charlie about every single thing, but neither do I identify with him.
Vladimir Putin is another case in point. Some people, yearning for a self-confident leader who makes "family values" noises, misguidedly imagined Putin to be some kind of hero. His bloodthirsty, thuggish side is more in evidence these days, but even when it's not, we can't be content with just assuming that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
So as I have these discussions with my children, I try to teach them there's no substitute for looking head-on at reality and walking in the truth. Raising the next generation to settle for intellectual shortcuts is bound to end badly.