One of the challenges for me as I gradually prepare to return to the United States, after my eight years in China, is the animosity here. Too many people treat those who disagree with them on some issues as inherently bad people who deserve to be hated and cast out or silenced. When noted figures die, there can be rejoicing over the death if that person was on the unenlightened side of an issue or two. I’ve seen families divided in animosity over political or moral differences, where activists escalate issues into matters of absolute right and wrong, and feel obliged to denounce those who they think are wrong on some issue, as if their views are self-evident truth with no room for debate. If you disagree, you’re not just wrong or stupid, you’re an enemy.
In one unnecessary schism between people who once were close, I saw a reasonable plea for civility in dialog be overtly rejected with the explanation that appeals to civility are how oppressors secure their privilege, silence opposition, and stop “progress.” Sigh. It’s becoming a difficult country for people that are used to healthy debates on a wide variety of topics. Now the key skill seems to be avoiding conversations on any topic that might be important to someone lest a slip of the tongue or a sincerely expressed dissenting opinion result in outrage and hate. Too many seem to lack the power to imagine that those who disagree might not be demonic puppy slayers, but reasonable people who see things differently. This applies to social issues, politics, religion, and everything else.
Within the Church, it’s important for conservative members like myself to remember that those with different views on the Restoration, Joseph Smith, the scriptures, and so forth may not be apostates seeking to lure others onto the road to spiritual oblivion. In many cases, I’ve found that I was painfully wrong when I assumed bad intentions of someone with strongly different viewpoints or who did things that offended me. I am not saying that it’s wrong to defend core principles or to question bad decisions or seemingly errant doctrines, but rather that I’m learning that it’s often a mistake to consider those on the other side of an argument to be enemies. Seeing them as brothers and sisters with a reasonable but different (and possibly dead wrong) viewpoint seems like the more reasonable and charitable position, one that is not easy for me to live up to. But I want to overcome that.
If we are going to learn anything from the Book of Mormon, I suggest it should be the message that Christ emphasized right at the beginning of His ministry to the Nephite and Lamanite peoples of the ancient Americas, as recorded in 3 Nephi 11. Here the Savior addressed the issue of baptism, which had been a topic of contention among the Nephites. He explained the doctrine and practice of baptism, and then warned them against the spirit of contention that had been too common in their religious disputes:
 And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.
 For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
 Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
The Book of Mormon illustrates in many ways how the Adversary uses contention as a tool to achieve his ends, including contention among people who fashion themselves as righteous and orthodox. Seeing those who disagree with us as enemies and feeling anything close to hate or anger toward them may be falling into a trap meant to hurt us all. There are genuine enemies and people against whom we need protection, but too often, our treatment of others as enemies is unjustified and dangerous.
A beautiful story about changing one’s feelings toward apparent enemies comes from the October 2018 General Conference talk of M. Joseph Brough, “Lift Up Your Head and Rejoice“:
To help us travel and triumph over our hard times with such glimpses of eternity, may I suggest two things. We must face hard things, first, by forgiving others and, second, by giving ourselves to Heavenly Father.
Forgiving those who may have caused our hard thing and reconciling “[our]selves to the will of God” [2 Nephi 10:24] can be very difficult. It can hurt most when our hard thing is caused by a family member, a close friend, or even ourselves.
As a young bishop, I learned of forgiveness when my stake president, Bruce M. Cook, shared the following story. He explained:
“During the late 1970s, some associates and I started a business. Although we did nothing illegal, some poor decisions, combined with the challenging economic times, resulted in our failure.
“Some investors filed a lawsuit to recover their losses. Their attorney happened to be a counselor in my family’s bishopric. It was very difficult to sustain the man who seemed to be seeking to destroy me. I developed some real animosity toward him and considered him my enemy. After five years of legal battles, we lost everything we owned, including our home.
“In 2002, my wife and I learned that the stake presidency in which I served as a counselor was being reorganized. As we traveled on a short vacation prior to the release, she asked me whom I would choose as my counselors if I were called as the new stake president. I did not want to speak about it, but she persisted. Eventually, one name came to my mind. She then mentioned the name of the attorney we considered to have been at the center of our difficulties 20 years earlier. As she spoke, the Spirit confirmed that he should be the other counselor. Could I forgive the man?
“When Elder David E. Sorensen extended to me the call to serve as stake president, he gave me an hour to select counselors. Through tears, I indicated that the Lord had already provided that revelation. As I spoke the name of the man I had considered my enemy, the anger, animosity, and hate I had harbored disappeared. In that moment, I learned of the peace that comes with forgiveness through the Atonement of Christ.”
In other words, my stake president did “frankly forgive” him, like Nephi of old [1 Nephi 7:21]. I knew President Cook and his counselor as two righteous priesthood leaders who loved one another. I determined to be like them.
I love how the power of the Jesus Christ can help us overcome the natural man’s tendency to hate and treat adversaries or opponents as enemies. In some cases, that victory is a true miracle and of the greatest miracles that occur in this life. To love those and forgive those whom we think have wronged us or are dead wrong on a critical issue important to us is a blessing that brings peace and heals relationships. We need more of that in the world these days.
8 thoughts on “Rethinking Enemies”
Another good example of this is from Joseph Smith's forgiveness of W.W. Phelps:
JOSEPH SMITH'S LETTER TO W.W. PHELPS
NAUVOO, HANCOCK CO., ILLINOIS, July 22, 1840.
DEAR BROTHER PHELPS—I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you in answer to yours of the 29th ultimo; at the same time I am rejoiced at the privilege granted me.
You may in some measure realize what my feelings, as well as Elder Rigdon's and Brother Hyrum's were, when we read your letter—truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves, etc. I can assure you I feel a disposition to act on your case in a manner that will meet the approbation of Jehovah, (whose servant I am) and agreeably to the principles of truth and righteousness which have been revealed; and inasmuch as longsuffering, patience and mercy have ever characterized the dealings of our Heavenly Father towards the humble and penitent, I feel disposed to copy the example, cherish the same principles, and by so doing be a savior of my fellow men.
It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior—the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. One with whom we had oft taken sweet counsel together, and enjoyed many refreshing seasons from the Lord—"had it been an enemy, we could have borne it." "In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day when strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upor Far West, even thou wast as one of them; but thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother, in the day that he became a stranger, neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress."
However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. And having been delivered from the hands of wicked men by the mercy of our God, we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God's dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to The Church of Jesus Christ.
Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal.
Your letter was read to the Saints last Sunday [July 19], and an expression was taken, when it was unanimously—
Resolved, That W.W. Phelps should be received into fellowship.
"Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,
For friends at first are friends again at last."
Yours as ever,
JOSEPH SMITH, JR.
(From Rise and Fall of Nauvoo, p.67-70; see also History of the Church, 4:162)
Great post, Jeff, thanks.
For what it's worth, here's something I posted on my Facebook page a couple of months ago. Since I have friends on both sides of the deepening :eft/Right divide, it generated some, shall we say, _spirited_ discussion:
Speaking as someone who is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and who agrees with each party on some things and disagrees on others (as I do with the Left and the Right generally), I'm increasingly dismayed by what seems to be a decreasing ability of Democratic politicians to understand/recognize/accept the difference between disagreement in principle and a failure of courage, vision, or knowledge.
For example, it’s not correct to assume that when a fellow Democrat fails to embrace socialism (however you define it), or one-payer healthcare, or free college for all, this represents fear, a lack of vision, or a failure of understanding. It may well be that your fellow Democrat understands all of those programs perfectly well, and actually disagrees with you that, for example, socialism is the economic system that would do the most good for the most people, or that one-payer healthcare can be accomplished in a way that balances costs and benefits effectively, or that free college for all is more important than other social programs that would have to be sacrificed in order to make universal free college possible.
This isn’t a mistake that, in my experience, Republicans tend to make as often. They seem more generally to understand that it's possible for reasonable people of normal intelligence to actually have different views on important issues. This isn't to say that Republicans are better than Democrats at dealing with disagreement–only that my impression is that they are less likely to chalk disagreement up to a lack of courage, vision, or understanding.
This is one reason why I think it's unfortunate that so many Democrats are trumpeting Elizabeth Warren's line from the debates last night–"I don't understand why anyone goes through all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we can't do and what we shouldn't fight for"–as the "line of the night" and a clarion call for the party. It's a sharp statement, but a fundamentally dishonest one. Obviously, not a single Democratic candidate is doing what she described. And her comment (deliberately, I think) portrays all who disagree with her on the issues as simple defeatists and naysayers.
Yes, it's the primary season and that means party infighting. I get that. But at some point, if the Democrats want to defeat Trump, they're going to have to unite around not just a person who isn’t Trump, but also a set of policies and ideas that the American public wants more than it wants the policies and ideas of the Trump administration. Next year's election will be a referendum on Trump, but it will also be a choice between two candidates, and if Democrats put up a candidate who promises things that the American public wants less than what it's getting now, the Democrats will lose–no matter who the Democratic candidate is.
A little historical perspective might help here. Compared to the acrimonious dissensions involving early, high-ranking Church members like Martin Harris, Sidney Rigdon, John C. Bennett, etc., things seem awfully tame nowadays.
Consider Bennett. He was a member of the First Presidency but was excommunicated for (as was said publicly) adultery but (as the rumor mill had it) for such things as seducing teenage girls and promising to perform abortions on them if they got pregnant. He then claimed the Danites had tried to assassinate him and that Joseph Smith had conspired to have Missouri Governor Hale Boggs assassinated.
Whee! These guys knew how to put the "spirit" in the "spirit of contention."
Can we even imagine a modern parallel? Can we even imagine, say, Dallin Oaks being excommunicated for adultery and abortion-mongering, then accusing the Strengthening Church Members Committee of hiring a hit man to kill him? And then accusing Russell Nelson of engaging in all kinds of sexual hijinks and conspiring to assassinate the governor of Missouri?
Let's not even mention that time the president of the United States dispatched troops to Salt Lake City and the Church mustered its own troops to meet them. Now that's contention.
Ah, for the days when men were men, and contended as if they really meant it. One looks back in awe.
Your comments gave me a good chuckle.
Always happy to brighten someone’s day, Steve. 🙂
I'm with Steve. Thanks, OK, for reminding us of what relatively tame times many of us have had in this era.
But I mostly meant thanks for the chuckle!
This post is at odds for an adherent of a religion founded on attacking Christianity and hosts a blog where he rarely discourages his followers rampant incivility.