A perceptive member of our Sunday school class offered a concluding observation to our discussion of a period of ancient Israel’s history: “It seems they were best able to overcome their tribal differences when they had a common enemy.”
His comment reminded me of the adage: “A religion can get along fine without a God, but it does have to have a devil.”

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that communities are mobilized and energized as much if not more by a common enemy as they are by a common dream or vision.

The crusades were launched to rescue the Holy Land from the “infidels.” Early 20th century groups railed against booze, evolution and modernism. Hitler’s Germany stoked its passion by addressing the “Jewish problem.” The Ku Klux Klan has had a clearly defined common enemy.

The horror of 9/11 created for some a common enemy in Islam before discernment gradually refocused that perspective toward the extremism that can clothe itself in any faith.

Even now, especially in the political landscape, there are many indications that groups that otherwise would be separated by clearly defined differences (tribal identities) are united and energized more by what (or whom) they are against than by any commitment to a common positive goal.

Maybe my friend is right: If you want to get people to transcend the differences that make cooperative community difficult, help them find a common enemy – the ship is sinking, the house is on fire, the Russians are coming, illegal immigrants are taking our jobs, freeloaders are draining our resources. It seems to work.

This has led me to wonder if part of the genius of biblical theology is its guidance toward seeing a common enemy not so much in some “other” (person, group or faith system), but in that feature of ourselves called self-righteousness.

St. Paul and his successors in Christian theology have pointed clearly to the dimension of our lives that yields control to the “enmity” and “party spirit” (Galatians 5:20) that pull us apart rather than to the love and justice that bind us together.

The theological vector of Christian faith directs us to a vision of community that transcends the distinctions by which we separate ourselves (race, class, gender, political status and the subsequent derivatives of these).

It also calls us to work toward making that community a reality in our contexts, large and small.

If there is a true “common enemy” with the possibility of uniting and energizing the family of faith in its covenant partnership, perhaps it is this internal one, rather than the external “other” that we so often point to as our rallying focus.

But how can participants in the collective voice of a faith community, large or small, identify and focus attention on this “common enemy” that lives within us all?

It is so much easier to join the pep rallies that create and demonize some “other” as an enemy whose threat can be inflated by the rhetoric of well-funded manipulation.

It takes more than a bit of courage to speak and act against the swift current of popular thinking that is all too willing to identify our enemies for us.

Is it too much to hope that people of faith will resist being drawn by this manipulation into opposition to a common enemy that really isn’t common at all, but only the carefully designed boogey man of groups seeking enough public support to make their agenda successful?

In 1970, Walt Kelly introduced a series of comic strips marking that year’s observance of Earth Day by having his chief character, Pogo, observe, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What would happen if members of the family of faith were to commit to helping each other identify and resist this enemy that is indeed common to us all, and to helping each other not fall victim to those who are always ready to have us identify their enemies as our own?

ColinHarris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

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