Lee C. Camp (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University. He is author of “Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World” and hosts Tokens Show at the Ryman in Nashville, TN
Dr. Camp’s latest book, like his previous one, should come with a warning label. “You will be challenged.” Then again, so should the bible. One of the most frustrating realities of doing local ministry work is getting Christians to be honest when they read scripture. If the assumption is, upon opening our bibles, that what we are about to read will merely affirm what we already know, then we will conveniently miss (or dismiss) those texts that explicitly challenge who we currently are. But if we begin with a humble, open, and honest heart, we are prepared to be challenged by the word of God, and in particular, the words of His Messiah – Jesus Christ. This is a profound idea – humility. Humility is the interpretive principle suggested to us by Dr. Camp in his new book, “Who Is My Enemy?”
“This is no call to some intellectually lazy relativism. On the one hand, it is important for us to reject the modernist conceit that it is possible to “see things as they really are,” to see, as it were, with God’s eyes. But to reject such intellectual arrogance – that we can simply see things with timeless, universal eyes – is not the same thing as saying that one opinion is as good as any other. But it is a call to intellectual humility.”
Camp roots this hermeneutic of humility in two sources. The first is St. Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer that includes these words: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Grant that we may not seek to be… understood as to understand.” The second source is Miroslav Volf’s “Exclusion & Embrace” (an excellent book). In Volf’s book, he suggests that we Christians employ what he calls “double vision.” This is a simple spiritual exercise of seeing things from the vantage point of our enemy as well as being honest about our own vantage point. Finally, there is even a third source, that Camp begins with – the cross of Jesus Christ. “That is, whatever we learn or think we know must be mediated through what we first learn through a crucified messiah.” (pg. 8). For those of us who read Camp’s first book, this move is not surprising and indeed is what keeps his work both challenging and faithful.
All of this, of course, is aimed at a particular social problem that exists among American Christians – Islam & enemy hatred. AHH! Now its touchy, right? When we apply these principles of “seeking to understand first” and “double vision” and “seeing the world through the lens of the cross of Jesus” to issues like, our own guilt, or perhaps even a spat with a neighbor over two feet of property, we can imagine employing them. But to the war on terror? Surely we have grounds to dismiss Jesus and do what we must do, right? Camp, says no. Camp says no because he claims to worship the crucified messiah and wants to take his new agenda seriously. Particularly, the sermon on the mount.
Two chapters that stuck out to me as I read the book for the first time, are chapters 5 & 6, “The New Testament and the Politics of Jesus” and “The Qur’an and the Politics of Muhammad.” In the former, Camp outlines for us (almost in review of the full thrust of his first book, Mere Discipleship) what it might look like to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount as a political manifesto. Indeed, he claims it is meant to be read as such, and that the new peoplehood marked by the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah that spoke the words, should be shaped in every way by these words. We cannot afford to relegate these words to the category of “religion” while we live according to the worlds terms outside the church-house. “This is not merely a religious assertion; it is a sociopolitical assertion.” In other words, the people of God in Jesus Christ, are a “holy nation” set apart for God’s purposes in the world. We do not invent a social ethic according to the worlds terms when it is convenient for us to do so. We live faithfully as God’s set apart people according to his socio-political assertions found in the sermon on the Mount. Namely, “love your enemies.” That is who we are.
Conversely, Camp points out that in the Muhammad story, his disciples are instructed in a different way. In the early stages of Muhammad’s ministry, he announced a similar vision to Jesus, commanding his disciples to withhold retaliation. But an important turn occurs in Muhammad’s teaching when he travel’s to Medina. In Medina, with some semblance of power established there, there is need to defend against attacks – so he permits retaliation to force with force.
Not to “give away the farm,” but Camp sufficiently notes the irony in Christians who claim to follow the crucified Messiah and his teachings, turning to the logic of Muhammad (their alleged enemy) in overcoming that force in the world. Camp is an outspoken voice on behalf of Christian Pacifism (although a peculiar and dissident kind of pacifism). But one does not have to be an ardent pacifist to agree with Camp at this point. We need to rethink our logic. We need to be careful with our language. We need to be humble when talking about the “enemy.” After all, as Camp uncomfortably points out, Paul reminds us that we are guilty of the same things as our enemy often-times (Romans 2:1-2).
Camp’s book is not just a lecture on ethics, however. It is a story. It begins with his struggle to deal with some audacious claims of a few outspoken evangelicals in his own city of Nashville. The book, in some ways, reads like a novel outlining his struggle to come to grips with what he perceived to be ill-conceived worldviews of conservative Christians, and his “fight” to seek a more faithful response to the problems of terrorism, war, and enemy-hatred. The book also provides a helpful guide for better engaging with the Just War Tradition within Christianity, something I deeply appreciate. (You should also read John Howard Yoder’s “Christian Attitudes to War, Peace & Revolution).
Finally, going beyond the mere scholarly work of forming a compelling intellectual argument, Camp makes the situation applicable. He offers thoughtful and compelling solutions to real issues and problems. We (Christians in America) ignore Lee C. Camp and this book to our own peril and to the threat of losing our witness as loving and faithful followers of Jesus Christ in the world. This is an excellent book. For what it is worth to you, I highly recommend it. And whether you fully agree with Camp at every turn of the page is beside the point. The point is that we Christians who happen to have been born in America, ought to re-evaluate our relationship to our “enemy” in ways that are faithful to the God we claim to worship.