Sometimes the Good Guys win, and the Bad Guys are brought to justice. Or, even better, the Bad Guys account for their behavior, express real remorse, resolve to change their behavior, and embrace the redemption of a new way of life and relationship. I love redemption stories.
Sometimes The Bad Guys are brought to justice. But sometimes not.
I think of my enemies. My own personal Bad Guys. The list is happily short; unlike the list of People Who Don’t Like Me, which I never inventory because it’s both dull and irrelevant. Enemies are distinct from mere disaffection, prejudice, or antipathy. Enemies are actively toxic. Enemies want to hurt us.
So I look at my list. There are two names. And I shake my head. Justice? Unlikely. Certainly requests for them to be accountable were scorned. And my efforts to hold them accountable were a ‘shouting into a snowstorm.’ In fact, it just made it worse. The only justice I will know is a private, existential exercise of the mind. I derive a kind of satisfaction knowing that these two people have to be themselves for the rest of their lives. Also, I confess no small pride that I have endured the injuries sustained in those relationships and somehow found the freedom to live creatively and happily. Even redemptively.
As they say, the best revenge is living well.
But justice? Accountability? Both of these people would vigorously protest their status as my enemy! Neither has a clue about the wanton damage they did. And maybe that’s part of what defines an enemy: Our enemies feel entirely justified in their despicable behavior. I can only assume that some (many?) Nazis condemned at Nuremberg went to the gallows feeling misunderstood and unappreciated.
Our enemies won’t stop hurting us until they either repent, are brought to justice, capriciously exchange us for another victim … or we exit.
Ah, exit! Now there’s an idea. See, we waste our lives if we insist that every scale of justice is balanced. Likewise if we delude ourselves into thinking it’s our job to balance every scale. So, sometimes we surrender the need for justice. We give up the cause. We withdraw from the fray. We exit. And here we discover something truly beautiful: Sometimes injustice gets us exactly where we need to be going.
I think of the great Hebrew saga of The Exodus. Read it. The writer bounces back and forth in describing the role of the enemy, Pharaoh. First, his heart is hard. Then it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart. So, which is it? Is Pharaoh a jerk? Or does God destine Pharaoh for Jerkdom so that he can get the Hebrew People where they need to be going?
The paradoxical answer is … yes. If I was Aaron, as soon as everybody got settled in the Promised Land, I would have written Pharaoh a thank you note:
It has been just crazy on our end – planning Moses’ funeral, trying to get unpacked, meeting our new neighbors, etc. But we’re finally here.
You are probably surprised to hear from me, and you might be even more surprised to learn the reason for my letter. We wanted to thank you.
See, we thought you were a hard-hearted jerk. But we were wrong. It turns out that it was God who hardened your heart, because that was the cosmic crowbar required to relinquish our grasp on our own misery and smallness. It’s ironic: As much as we bitched about slavery, the truth is slavery is easier than freedom. You think I’m kidding? You can’t believe how whiney these people are! Towards the end of the trek, some of them actually wanted to go back! LOL!
Pharaoh, you played your part to perfection. Thank you. We will never forget you.
If you’re ever in Cana, drop by for a bagel.
P.S. None of this means you are not, in fact, a jerk.
My point is not that our enemies deserve a ‘pass.’ My point is that we have the power and the freedom to weave even our enemies into the tapestry – the beautiful and meaningful tapestry – of our lives.
Every good play requires a protagonist and an antagonist. And, while we don’t always decide what happens to us, we are ultimately the playwright of our own lives. We decide how we will tell the story of events and circumstances.
Enemies can inspire our exit. Painful goodbyes, yes. But, those goodbyes open a place for some surprising and unexpectedly beautiful hellos.
Injustice sometimes gets us exactly where we need to be going.
(Steven Kalas is an Episcopal priest, an author and a therapist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)