Love your enemies, don’t caricature them

09 November 2011

Christians need to resist the snare of demonising enemies, argues Rachel Mann

Since Lord Kitchener pointed his finger out from a recruitment poster, proclaiming: “Your country needs you,” propaganda has become one of the mainstays of war. Even if we imagine we are too sophisticated to be duped by it, we need con­sider only how Muammar Gaddafi has been portrayed by the West over the past 40 years — variously as freedom fighter, “mad dog”, medal-happy clown, and finally brutal dictator — to com­prehend its continuing attrac­tions.

The Church offers a strong critique of the seductions of prop­a-ganda. It criticises the extent to which the successful prosecution of war has depended on a particular psycho­logical trick: that of turning one’s enemy into “the Other”. In the person of Jesus Christ, the Church can not only expose this process for the propaganda trick that it is, but also offer a powerful means of resisting the political processes that exploit it.

The notion of the Other is one that has become increasingly familiar to modern audiences through the im­pact of psychotherapy on contem­por­ary culture, but the effect it seeks to capture is as old as civilisation. It emerges out of a reflection on iden­tity — whether personal, cultural, or national.

Thus, individuals, groups, and nations identify themselves, in part, according to ideas and practices that matter to them. They also do this by defining what they are not, however. It is out of this attempt to say “We are not like them” that the concept of the Other emerges.

Crucially, the Other is born out of a mixture of confidence and insecur­ity: confidence that we are better than them, but insecurity that they may actually be stronger than us, and might overwhelm us. The Other, then, emerges as someone or some group that is simultaneously seen as somehow lesser, but is equally a potential threat.

In a complex society, there will be dominant or normative groups who see themselves, often unconsciously, as defining matters such as proper behaviour and national character. Those who are perceived as not fit­ting this normative picture can become stereotyped as a threat, and as lower than the normative group. This is a position that has been projected on to many groups, in­cluding non-whites, women, the lower classes, and, in recent times, Muslims.

It is intriguing that this notion of the Other takes similar characteris­tics, no matter to whom it is applied. The patterns of dismissal are, sadly, all too typical: inferiority is asserted, and yet the target group is often seen as devilishly cunning or possessing some power that threatens the status quo. In the classic case of anti-Semitism, Jews are simultaneously seen as sub-human, and yet rapaci­ously skilled at manipulation.

It is in wartime — where both external and internal threats may be identified — that this notion gets wings. Nations feel that they are in life-or-death struggles for ideas, for the upper moral ground, and to convince their populaces of the need to fight. So, for example, in the Second World War, both sides used demonisation and stereotyping to characterise their opponents as the Other.

The British and the Americans played on the most appalling and in­accurate images of the Japanese: they were characterised simultaneously as primitive and bestial, yet cunning and dangerous; as morally question­able, and possessed of their own insane zeal.

One of the intriguing things is how quickly this picture was put away by the American administra­tion after the war, and yet, in the 1980s, when Americans felt under threat from Japanese industry, this vision of the Japanese as the Other became popular again.

Christianity, especially when it is tied to dominant, normative groups as a State Church, runs the risk of being complicit in and en­couraging the demonisation of the Other. The Church, as institution, is always em­bedded in its social milieu.

During the Great War, key figures in the C of E, like the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, notori­ously became army recruiting ser­geants, mobilising the language of crusade to exhort violence. This lan­guage reached back to the medieval Church, which, in its man­ner of talking about its perceived enemies, Muslims, Cathars, and others, became instrumental in en­couraging the demonisation of them as the Other.

We live in an age of so-called asymmetric, technological war, and yet it continues to consume both military and civilian lives. Equally, we have seen how quickly the rhetoric of war — as happened post 9/11 — can slip into talk of “crusade”; and the need to find a well-defined enemy becomes talk of the Other: beastly, vile, and yet cunning and powerful.

During this age of the so-called War on Terror — when enemies are not defined by national boundaries — there remains the constant danger that people’s fear becomes ever more diffuse, and projected on to ap­parently homogenous and misrepre­sented groups, such as Muslims.

If the Christian faith has been complicit in demonising groups and individuals as the Other — whether in anti-Semitism, its treatment of women, and in wartime stereo­typing — it also uniquely holds within itself the means of resistance to such behaviour. Jesus Christ represents the ultimate Other.

He represents the God who comes offering a simple, unexpected gift: unconditional love. This love, un­sullied by human machinations and sinfulness, is so different from what we are used to that we react to it as if it is alien and other.

This love is definitively revealed in Jesus’s willingness to become our scapegoat and to embrace death. Jesus offers nothing more than God’s reconciling love, and yet the au­thorities of his day — the normative, dominant group who seek to define proper behaviour — reject him. This Galilean outsider is perceived as the threat to the good order that people have worked hard to establish.

Ultimately, he embraces the position of the Other, and exposes it for what it is: a projection of fear and insecurity. In resurrection, he re­turns not seeking revenge, but offer­ing reconciliation. In a world shaped by propaganda — that is, by what we can convince people to believe — Christ offers something different: truth.

The Church must always be located in time and place, and work with prevailing mores. In the boldness of Bishop George Bell’s condemnation of annihilation bombing in the Second World War, and Archbishop Robert Runcie’s willingness to pray for Argentinian dead after the Falk­lands War, it has demonstrated a willingness to stand against cultural mores about war.

Equally, the cur­rent Archbishop of Canterbury and many other church leaders worked with the mood of the nation in criticising the war in Iraq.

Yet the Church cannot afford to be complacent. Britain seems no closer to abandoning its pretensions to world power status than it was after the Second World War. We shall continue to be involved in the so-called “Great Game” of influence for the foreseeable future, whether we can afford to pay for it or not.

In this situation, the Church will be called to stand up not only for victims and for peace, but increas­ingly to line up in solidarity with the alien, against the political ex­pediency that would make human beings into the Other. To do this well, it will need to draw the nation’s attention again and again to the ultimate outsider: Jesus Christ.

It is a continuing process. In a time when the world is no closer to peace than it was two millennia ago, its willingness to stand in solidarity with the alien and the Other will be tested again and again.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, Manchester, and poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral.

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, Manchester, and poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral.

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