Melissa Florer-Bixler is angry, and she wants her fellow Mennonites to get angry, too. At least, that is the professed premise of her book, How to Have an Enemy: Righteous Anger and the Work of Peace, which is her response to both the daily terror she experienced during the Trump administration and to her co-religionists who, perplexingly for presumed pacifists, seem to have sided with the enemy rather than the oppressed. She wants her readers to recognize the depths of injustice in the world and reinterpret the work of peace as confronting all forms of oppression.
Florer-Bixler is the pastor of a small Mennonite church in Raleigh, North Carolina. As we learn in the book, she was raised in a conservative-evangelical Episcopalian church and became a “convinced Mennonite” as an adult, attending Duke University and Princeton Theological Seminary. In the preface, she nods to teachers, mentors, and authors she encountered during her studies, including Kathryn Tanner, James Cone, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Karl Barth, Peter Dula, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Stanley Hauerwas, and on whose work she draws.
Early on, Florer-Bixler notes that this book is not a how-to manual (its title notwithstanding). It is rather a meditation on and defense of enmity, largely within our own contexts: the United States, our cities, histories, and churches. It critiques power and money, and those who have it.
The first few chapters are devoted to defining an enemy as one who uses power to oppress others. Having an enemy is thus not a moral failing for the Christ-follower, but a righteous calling, a form of truth-telling, a “source of liberation” (43). In this regard, at least, there is overlap with just war thinking.
The next few chapters discuss forgiveness, retribution, and the reign of God. The psalmist’s prayers for vengeance should not be seen as cries for retribution, she contends, but rather a recognition of the enormity of suffering in the world “that cannot always be undone by good work, good intentions, or reasonable dialogue” (57). In a world structured by injustice, Christians are faced with the choice: to live under the “old order” of retributive judgment, or the new order of forgiveness.
Loving enemies is not about resolving interpersonal conflict, but “tear[ing] apart broken systems and rebuild[ing] a world with an imaginative architecture that emerges from lives stayed on liberating love” (98). This transformation is not linear or progressive; Florer-Bixler shares Dula’s view that the true church is episodic, temporary, and even rare (15).
The second half of the book considers specific contexts in which being a follower of Christ creates enmity with followers of the old order. Too many churches “tolerate the intolerable” for the appearance of peace (150). These intolerables include the nuclear family, structured by the economics of capitalism, private gain, and racial privilege. In its place, Florer-Bixler offers the much more expansive, inclusive, and disruptive “kin-dom” of mujerista theology, “the family God makes among strangers who are brought into new forms of economic and political kinship” (117), which supersedes every other form of family.
The old order also includes the church, which for two millennia harbored murderous anti-Semitism rooted in a misunderstanding of the first-century Jewish context of the Gospels, and which today draws lines not between Jew and Gentile, but between black and white, LGBTQ and straight. She calls on churches to fight racism through reparations—thus battling the twin enemies of Whiteness and Mammon, which she identifies as the principalities and powers of our age.
In her discussion of Whiteness, Florer-Bixler describes Satan’s grip over the social order structured by Whiteness as total: “You are controlled. In the United States, this logic is race, the order that enfolds within it all institutions, relationships, structures, and governances” (174). The old order is persistent and omnipresent. Given the recent rise in openly racist rhetoric, the prominence of critical theory, and the growing and persistent sense that American society is crumbling under the weight of its unresolved tensions, it is not surprising that Florer-Bixler reaches this conclusion.
Though Florer-Bixler everywhere discusses political issues, this book does not offer a constructive account of politics, which she largely reduces either to the power to oppress or the opposing power to disrupt (exemplified by Mary, the mother of Jesus). The Christian realist conviction that government can be a constructive force—creating if not shalom, then the civic peace that is the precondition for human flourishing—is mostly absent.
This perspective points to a more serious drawback of the book: emphasizing the near-total corruption of that which is not part of the “beloved community” detracts from the reader’s ability to recognize progress toward (and conversely, regress from) justice, as well as to distinguish between better and worse states of affairs, which are essential features of political judgement.
In the chapter entitled “Love Your Enemies,” she quotes Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer alongside Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Mahatma Ghandi, and a pacifist reading of Jesus’ teaching, encouraging readers to see these disparate thinkers as sharing a common message of reorientation to love and transformative resistance to oppression.
She omits what she may assume her readers already know: in extremis, Bonhoeffer joined in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, for which he was later executed. Like Barth, Bonhoeffer’s Christian ethics left room for violence as a morally defensible response to injustice. Employing their writing to support pacifist ends requires reinterpretation.
Despite these limitations, the book is a fascinating read. Florer-Bixler is at her best when inviting us to re-imagine familiar biblical narratives. But given the gap between what the title promises and what the book delivers, I was left wondering exactly who the book was for, particularly as it seems to assume a rather high level of theological fluency.
On reflection, I think the answer may be that the book is for people who would otherwise read John Howard Yoder. Although he was easily the most prominent Mennonite theologian of the last century, he appears nowhere in the book, aside from vague references to people who have been abused by the church and the chapter title “Mary’s Politics,” which seems an implicit rejoinder to Yoder’s famous Politics of Jesus. While I am divided about this approach to an influential but inconvenient figure, this book may be an early indication of what Mennonite theology looks like when decoupled from Yoder’s legacy.
The final sections of the book are meditations on Revelation and the Beatitudes, injecting notes of both judgment and hope, followed by a “sermonic epilogue.” Indeed, much of the book has the quality of an extensively researched sermon, calling readers to repentance and to the radically new, radically different life that Christ offers. It offers a warning and a challenge, if not a clear route ahead.