I finished reading Michael McRay’s book just as deep fissures were developing in the United States about whether stay-at-home orders were an appropriate measure to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 or whether such orders represented governmental tyranny.
Arguments were exploding on social media, pitting state against federal leaders, with those asserting that science and data had been manipulated by the media fighting with others who embraced science and data as the only way out of the epidemic morass.
Just when it looked like an enormous tragedy might draw the nation together, it became apparent we were more polarized than ever.
In the midst of this divisiveness, McRay’s book is a prescient reminder that those we perceive as our adversaries are human too, with their own stories. That we are called to love others in their difference, rather than fearing them. That only when we hear others’ stories can we understand the complexity of humankind and acknowledge others are not our enemies. That in our divisive world, storytelling can give us hope.
But also, that storytelling — and the reconciling discussions often prided most by those with power and privilege — cannot be enough.
I Am Not Your Enemy, McRay’s third book, relies on the stories of those who have lived through significant conflicts, including people in Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa. An expert in conflict resolution, McRay interviews people who have faced overwhelming loss because of violence and oppression, but who also express an overwhelming desire to transform their communities despite what they’ve lost. Their stories offer hope that peace can reign, but we need to take the time to listen and to understand those we might consider “the other.”
And not just listen, but also work to change the conditions of those who are oppressed. This point comes through clearly in McRay’s conversations: that often well-meaning would-be peacemakers reinforce the power differences at the center of conflict.
Although developing reconciling relationships is important, McRay says, they are in themselves not enough: “We cannot be interested only in forgiveness, kindness, empathy and compassion; we must also consider things like power, generational trauma, redistribution of resources, reparations for harm, economic empowerment.”
McRay opens I Am Not Your Enemy by unpacking this idea. In Jerusalem to interview people at the center of justice-making in Israel and Palestine, McRay receives an email from a Palestinian professor who rebuffs McRay’s request to talk with her about reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Her brusque response changes the trajectory of his exploration. She writes: “This is an inappropriate conversation. We are being occupied. We should talk about justice not reconciliation.”
This email challenges McRay — and, by extension, his readers. McRay imagines the many ways those with privilege pursue dialogue and reconciliation in conflict without addressing the underlying power imbalances that lead to oppression. The language embraced by the privileged, about forgiveness and grace, is too facile, too readily deployed by those who refuse to do the harder work of justice and reparations. He writes that “if pursuits of reconciliation are not intimately tied up in works of justice, so-called reconciliation may be unhelpful. In fact, it may actually be harmful.”
I Am Not Your Enemy revolves around this understanding. Conversations with McRay’s interview subjects echo the sense that systems of injustice must be dismantled for reconciliation to occur. Focusing on conflicts that have marred the history of the Holy Land, South Africa and Northern Ireland, McRay reflects on conflicts in different sociopolitical contexts while also showing a similar thread of injustice and oppression that complicates peacemaking efforts in these places. His interview subjects are diverse, providing a multilayered understanding of the costs associated with longstanding conflicts.
Thus McRay talks to the director of the Corrymeela Ballycastle Centre, a place that endeavors to “transform division through encountering one another” in Northern Ireland.
He visits with Robi Damelin, whose son, an Israeli soldier, was killed by a Palestinian sniper and who is a spokesperson for Parents Circle-Families Forum, dedicated to “the transformative potential of meeting rather than killing those on the other side.”
He speaks with Themba Lonzi, a black South African whose anger about apartheid funneled into the creation of a theater group that performs, in part, the stories of white people in apartheid, acting through their experiences to understand what apartheid might have been like for those who were oppressors. These performances serve as an opening for training sessions facilitated by Healing of Memories, an organization providing a place for people to tell their stories about apartheid — and to be heard.
Yet such discussions cannot be the end point for reconciliation, an idea McRay returns to again and again. True reconciliation depends on the dismantling of systems that dehumanize those who are oppressed. The stories McRay shares, as well as the organizations he spotlights that facilitate storytelling, are founded on the belief that stories reflect our shared humanity and offer a slip of light into dark places where rancor and violence have for too long reigned.
McRay affirms that stories can help us find a way out of violence, though it’s easier to hate our enemies than face their shared humanity. He challenges us to believe “we can do better than a world with enemies” and “courage can accompany fear.”
His words, and the words of those he interviews, are exactly what I needed to hear in a time when a pandemic has revealed deep fissures even in my own community and has reflected so clearly the fault lines between the privileged and those subsisting on the margins.
McRay’s book gives me a new way of understanding conflict and reconciliation. It offers hope for mitigating conflict by recognizing our shared humanity and doing the work to make the world more just.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.