When Enemy Images Emerge

The Blog That Speaks: When Enemy Images Emerge

“Don’t ever contact me again.”

My husband and I sat stunned.

Image by Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I felt shock, confusion, and anger pulsating through my veins as the words, “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know” floated through my mind.

The relationship was over. Granted, it had been a complicated one for many years, but we thought a solid friendship had developed. We were mistaken. Therefore, within twenty-four hours, I had defriended the person from my social media account.

Talons of grief gripped my soul, which brought about emotional chaos. A certain mercurial quality emerged as I conjured up imagined scenarios in the unlikely event that the person contacted me. In one moment, I was envisioning myself snubbing the person, and in the next I was offering grace and understanding. When my emotions shifted to anger, I was either cold and calculating or ranting and raging, and when the better angel of my nature appeared, I was receptive and open to dialogue.

Amidst this grief, my evaluations of the person remained unstable. I bounced from branding the person a jerk to regarding him/her as doing the best he/she could with the resources he/she had. During my angry moments, the person was perceived as controlling and untrustworthy, but in my grace-filled moments, I moved to seeing the individual as being broken and attempting to meet a need.

I won’t lie: it has been a struggle to transform my enemy images.

What are enemy images? Marshall Rosenberg writes, that enemy images are

“the thinking that says there is something wrong with the people whose actions or values we don’t agree with.”[1]

They may involve generalities or the use of all-inclusive words such as: all, no one, everyone, never, always, etc. Enemy images may also incorporate:

  • Judging: She is always incorrigible.
  • Diagnosing: He has OCD.
  • Labeling: She is an idiot.

Enemy images may emerge in a vast array of contexts from the personal realm (as my opening story illustrates) to a more global sphere (such as country vs. country). They materialize in families as siblings stop conversing or when nations are engaged in conflict, such as during the Cold War. Today, those of us in the USA are hearing and seeing a plethora of enemy images within our fractured nation as groups oppose each other.

  • Mask vs. No Mask.
  • Conservative vs. Liberal.
  • Black Lives Matter vs. Back the Blue.
  • Republican vs. Democrat.

While many are distressed by the heightened discord, others seem to stoke the fires of our emerging enemy images. As such, on any given day, messages appear that add fuel to our already volatile us-versus-them mentality:

  • Every Liberal is a Socialist.
  • All Conservatives are Fundamentalists.
  • He never tells the truth.
  • The media always lies.

And yet . . . underneath the creation of our enemy images is an attempt to establish a sense of identity—to be seen, heard, and respected. Engrained in the fabric of our very being is a desire to matter. This desire, however, may be challenged when we encounter someone who is different from us and/or has opposing values or actions; thus, we may perceive a threat, resulting in the emergence of enemy images as we fear our own nullification. The other becomes dangerous because their views or way of being may void our own views or even us. Thus, the creation of enemy images is our attempt to stake a claim in who we are. It is a way to construct defensive boundaries as I guard “me” from the threatening “other.”[2]

What we may not recognize is the emergence of enemy images engenders subtle consequences. Studies demonstrate that one of the effects of enemy images is “selective attention and memory.” Selective attention and memory refer to “seeking out, attending to and remembering primarily information that affirms their previous conclusions,” which means centering on and recalling the “negative aspects of “enemies.’”[3] For example, Enemy Images: A Resource Manual on Reducing Enmity notes that even when we are given positive information about those for whom we have forged enemy images, we tend to disregard it and center on the negative information that supports our views. If I am a Liberal, who is presented with positive information about Conservatives, I tend not to remember it but rather concentrate on the negative aspects that support my beliefs.

Our selective attention and memory also are prone to distort the motives behind people’s actions.[4] Drawing from my opening story, I have become more suspicious of the person’s previous benevolent actions towards me. I have perceived them as something he/she was forced to do because of the circumstances rather than stemming from his/her personality. This same principle can be applied to political candidates. When we hear about our favored political candidate’s benevolent actions, we are apt to evaluate these actions as part of his/her character. Conversely, we are more likely to believe that the opponent’s benevolent actions are due to his/her circumstances, such as an attempt to curry favor in an election.

These types of subconscious ways of thinking serve to strengthen and protect our self-identities.  Enemy images tend to be the opposite of our “idealized self-images,” providing us with a sense of superiority and a path to ameliorate our self-blame. In this way, we are formulating a dichotomy to protect ourselves: the other is bad, and we are good.[5] In my personal scenario, I had been wanting to talk to the other about the relationship, which means I am not to blame and thereby good. This is the opposite of the other person, who asserted an ultimatum with no room for conversation, which makes the other to blame and thereby bad.

While enemy images may feel good in the moment (and we know that they do), they are not a path towards healing.

If I want to heal, I must vigilantly invest energy to work at transforming my enemy images. Healing does not ensue naturally. Personally, I begin by identifying my feelings and needs and guessing at the other’s feelings and needs. The tendency, of course, is to fill my mind with “What the other is doing wrong”—that is, judgments:

  • He/She should have known better.
  • He/She is controlling.
  • He/She lied to me.

I must work at turning my thoughts toward specifically what was said or done—that is, observations:

  • He/She said, “Don’t ever contact me again.”
  • He/She said, “Everyone is required to wear a mask.”
  • He/She said, “It’s fake news.”

Upon naming the observation, I ask myself, “What was I feeling when I heard this?” While I may experience a bucket load of feelings, I will only center on one for this example:

When he said, “Don’t ever contact me again,” I felt disappointment.

Having named the feeling, I now seek to discover, “What was I needing?” Keep in mind that a need is a universal quality that helps all humans to flourish. In other words, it is applicable to all cultures (for a fuller explanation of needs, see When Jesus Was Needy). In my personal example, it took some time for me to genuinely identify the need, but once identified, it generated a sense of pain alongside a sense of energy. It is similar to simultaneously experiencing an ouch and an aha, which is what transpired when I recognized my need for mutuality.

The more I reflected upon my unmet need for mutuality, the more I grieved the unfulfillment of this need. This led me to detect an additional unmet need, a shared reality, which caused me to begin to increasingly appreciate the other’s perspective and possible feelings and needs. Now . . . am I disappointed that this confrontation was not handled differently? Absolutely! However, by identifying my feelings and needs and the other’s possible feelings and needs, I am leaning towards the embracing of our common humanity.

Enemy images are unable to appreciate the commonality of our humanity. Instead, they objectify others, dehumanizing them. But if we are to heal in our personal relationships and as a nation, it is necessary to transform our enemy images into images of common humanity.

In this space of embracing our shared humanity, we trade being divided for being united and exchange one side being conquered for both sides celebrating our diversity.

As one who strives to follow Jesus Christ, this transforming of my enemy images carries with it a theological supposition: God embodies humanity to heal God’s enemies. The Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans is clear: we were enemies with God. This view is supported as Paul paints a bleak picture of the rupture between humanity and God when he describes human behavior as being

“filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless” (1:29-31).

I think you get the picture . . . Such behavior is what disrupted the relationship between God and humans, making humanity God’s enemies (5:10).

However, God chose to share in our humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both fully divine and fully human. Thus, Jesus’ very being both reveals God to us and reconciles us to God. That is, God identifies with our humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, healing us.

God does not dehumanize us, but God comes down to earth to lift us up.

As Paul Achtemeier states, God transforms “former enemies into friends.”[6]

Having now been reconciled, we have the opportunity to participate in God’s ministry of turning our enemies into our friends by embracing our common humanity. Paul seems to indicate this later in Romans:

if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:20-21).

First, it may seem to our contemporary ears, that “heaping burning coals” on our enemies’ heads is a form of retribution. While commentators are divided about its precise meaning, I think Arland Hultgren captures it best when he comments that human kindness towards our enemies can generate a change “of the attitudes and behavior of one’s enemy.”[7] Such kindness would point back to Paul’s reference to the wealth of God’s kindness that leads humans to change (2:4). Our point is: gracious acts of meeting the basic human needs of our enemies are a way, as Achtemeier says, to turn enemies into friends.[8] Thus, as Jesus Christ ministers to us in his very being by revealing God and healing us by embracing our humanity, we may participate in this same ministry. As we embrace the common humanity that we share with our enemies in the power and presence of the Spirit, we also reveal the character of God and effect healing.

Holy Spirit, may we see the opportunities that abound today to partake in Christ’s ministry by identifying with our enemies through our shared humanity, thereby revealing God’s kindness and engendering healing. Amen.

[1] Marshall Rosenberg, “Transforming Enemy Images,” Nonviolent Communication, https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/resources/articles-about-nvc/transforming-enemy-images/ (accessed October 29, 2020).

[2] Psychologists for Social Responsibility, “Section 1: Globalization and Enmity: Toward a Culture of Peace” Enemy Images: A Resource Manual on Reducing Enmity, edited by Steve Fabrick, https://onepentecostalsjourney.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/73523-enemyimagesmanual.pdf.

[3] Psychologists for Social Responsibility, “Section 2: Effects of Enemy Images: Theory & Example,” Enemy Images: A Resource Manual on Reducing Enmity, edited by Steve Fabrick, https://onepentecostalsjourney.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/73523-enemyimagesmanual.pdf.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[7] Arland J. Hultgren, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2011), 460.

[8] Achtemeier, Romans Interpretation.

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