At one of those rubber chicken dinners that speckle the landscape of the hot religious night life, I heard a band of colleagues making a joke.
Not just telling one, mind you. Actually creating one out of nothing (at my expense, unbeknownst to them … well, maybe).
Here is the gist and the rub: a friend of mine in my company's division transferred over to their division (a transfer that turned me blue, true, but I grudgingly saw the sense of it). Sitting at my left, my friend's new boss elfinly declared, with his usual innocent-looking charm, that he should send one of his own number back to my division as a sort of even-steven maneuver.
Shock registered around the table, as my division will never be the golden ring on the roundabout, or hold the pot-o'-gold at the bow's end, or substantiate as a destination for football heroes and calypsos from TV cop shows.
Then, seeing the boss' ironic ocular twinkle, they laughed with relief. Each one, round the table, as their sort can't bear not making a Gospel joke, said, "Which one of us must go? Is it I, master?"
Then I, seeing the joke, insinuated the forlorn note (as is my wont): "You can tell which, master, by the lost shaker of salt."
Ah, enemies, there's enough, as the sergeant said in "Gods and Generals," of them in this business.
Recently, JCW raised the issue of "enemies" in a comment on a recent post here. The Psalms, in particular, speaks much of enemies and goes to lengths to dispose of them. There are a few ghastly mentions of gore, but most of the imprecations have to do with their being driven out of the land and becoming quite forgotten.
Then there is that spooky issue of kismet in the Psalms and Proverbs, or "what goes around comes around." Actually, it's better in Finnish: minkä taakseen jättää, sen edestään löytää (i.e., "what you leave behind you, that you will find in front of you").
The wicked generally have an odd way of falling into their own black holes: perhaps it is the gravitation of sin, or cavitation of time, take your pick.
In any case, there are enemies all around and what do we do with them? A cursory reading of the Psalms seems to indicate that we should pray for very bad things.
In fact, I had a chanter once who enjoyed intoning Psalms 53 and 54 (LXX, for the Sixth Hour) for all the wrong reasons. There was too much white-knuckling chin-wrinkling eye-squinting verve in the production of lines like "He will bring evils upon mine enemies. Utterly destroy them by Thy truth." Or, "mine eye hath looked down upon mine enemies" (it didn't help that this particular intoner stood up in the choir loft). I heard too much old parochial history in the line "But thou it was, O man of like soul with me, my guide and my familiar friend … in the house of God I walked with thee in oneness of mind."
It was not conducive to prayer to hear "Let death come upon such ones and let them go down alive into hades." Not when one was quite certain that "such ones" were predicated on human faces and names.
Let's just say that the chanter regretted being told that "such ones" were not human beings or any other creature in the physical realms. I assigned the chanting of pre-communion prayers instead: others could take over the Sixth Hour Psalms with less subtext.
I was surprised that shortly thereafter, the chanter gave up on church, missing too abjectly her private muezzin tower of imprecation.
Unfortunately, the regret ran the predictable kismet course. Anger and hatred that should have been turned toward the demonic was turned against images of God with faces and names. And now that body of anger and imprecation is cursed with self-smirching soil and psychic toil.
Gravitation, cavitation. Hospodi pomiluj.
The silly tragedy in this modern case study is that the chanter suffered no real enemies to speak of. There were some romantic rivals and some gossipers, to be sure. But there were no real enemies, even on the human scale.
This is the case for most of our Christian interpersonal complaints. There is not that much to complain, really, about. Someone beats us out in church officer elections. Someone disparages our potato salad recipe. Someone telephonically smirches our holy social status.
And we call these people "enemies"? You can sure tell that we haven't had much war here, stateside, because the prospect of blown up heads and shredded skin renders the puerile stuff of church basement gossip a matter of squeamish shame and well-deserved contempt.
I suggested to the intense chanter, who had so many of these ersatz enemies, that the enemies of the imprecatory Psalms were not human at all. The treacherous "friend of our soul" in Psalm 54 is not someone else, and especially not an ex-friend, but is our own tendency to sin: we are our own worst traitors. The enemies that should "go down alive into the Pit" are the demonic powers who should be exorcised from the human race and evicted from Creation. This is not hard stuff, I wanted to say. It used to be taught when the catechumenate was the real deal (but now, even some monasteries don't cover this in their "formation" orientations). But, darn it, my youth class knows this and understands, why can't you? Adults, though, would rather not mess with demons, not up front, that is.
Then I suggested that we know exactly what to do with human enemies. Despite her abysmal off-reading of the Psalms, "enemies" are a well-known category in the New Testament and Apostolic culture. "Forgive," I said, "is what we are told to do always with human enemies."
"They are not my enemies. They are bad people and they need to repent, but they are not enemies."
Then I understood. As long as we did not attach a concrete word onto these troublesome human beings, whose distorted images lurked in our minds like succubae and incubae with long black-book debit histories and registries of offense that were sub-vocally chanted in occultic necromancery – as long as we did not call them "enemies," then we could keep them in ambiguity, where our souls could do to them whatever the hell we wanted to.
Passions are addictive, and they quite readily fight for survival. Anger and pride are like that and resist forgiveness at all costs.
The other tragedy, not so silly, is that there are real enemies to hate, real enemies which should be the aim of our anger.
The rather ill-mannered cretins with whom I dined on sullen chicken were no enemies, and I regretted my sardonic reference to Leonardo's masterpiece (which can be found too readily on iconostases). Never mind, it turns out, the line was barely heard, the allusion was missed, and the whole thing was quite forgotten.
They didn't mean well for sure, but they didn't mean badly.
That is what we do really well over rubber chicken these days. Just "not mean badly," while others (like my poor ex-chanter) think that some people do.
Enemies are pointed at in crowds of Muslims and Democrats, busloads and rallies of Republican purveyors of camellia sinensis (not in bags, God forbid!). They are pointed at in the White House and on TV shriek shows. They are summarized in file folders in central administrations. They are complained about in emails and phone calls and tweets.
They make us so mad, in a cardboard way.
Meanwhile, our anger is just that – mad, not real. It is misdirected. It is misaimed, like a pre-pubescent with an aught six.
We do not forgive, oddly, because we are not angry enough at the right things.
Neither angry or nearly loving enough toward our neighbor and friend.
We don't mean badly, but we don't mean well.