Published by Herald Press on April 21, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Memoir, Politics, Racial Reconciliation
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Award Winner in the Social Change category of the 2020 Best Book Awards sponsored by American Book Fest.
Are you my enemy? Am I yours? Violent stories surround us. Brutal beginnings, horror-filled middles, despair-inducing endings. We need better stories: stories forged in the furnace of conflict, narratives that kindle compassion and ignite hope. In the pages of I Am Not Your Enemy, writer Michael T. McRay visits divided regions of the world and interviews activists, peacebuilders, former combatants about their personal stories of conflict, justice, and reconciliation. In Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, he hears from grieving parents who partner together across enemy lines, a woman who meets her father’s killer, and a man who uses theater to counter the oppression of his people, and many more. In a time of heightened alienation and fear, McRay offers true, sacred stories of reconciliation and justice, asking what they can teach us about our own divided states. Must violence be met with violence? Is my belonging complete only when I take away yours? Will more guns, more walls, more weapons keep us safe? We need stories that cultivate empathy and tell the truth. We need stories to save us from our fear.
We are a divided and divisive people. I’m writing this review amid the United States’ tumultuous exit from Afghanistan and the day after an ISIS suicide bomber killed a dozen US military personnel and several dozen civilians. A prominent conservative radio host tweeted that we should destroy an Afghan city for each dead American as retribution. While I Am Not Your Enemy doesn’t cover that particular relationship, the stories that Michael McRay covers are quite similar. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of stories when it comes to explored hate and violence and division and conflict.
I Am Not Your Enemy is founded on the premise that we are kinder, gentler, and more understanding of those whom we truly know. Our fear and our violent reactions come from stories that we’ve told ourselves about the Other. Stories that may not be true. Stories that may be rooted in a history of injustice or oppression. Stories shape us and that is why truthful stories must be told. In this book, Michael McRay seeks to challenge what may be a prevailing but incorrect narrative about enemies, using his specific experiences to then extrapolate beyond them to ask questions about our own.
The first example of this comes quickly. McRay is in Jerusalem, hoping to speak to a Palestinian professor about efforts at reconciliation. His request is rebuffed via email: This is an inappropriate conversation. We are being occupied. We should talk about justice not reconciliation. And it’s here that some of you reading this will need to fight the urge to rebut that statement. The prevailing story told by the West and American Christianity is already playing out in your head. But hang on. Keep reading. Listen to the story.
Even though that story won’t be told, McRay spends time talking with Palestinians and Israelis. He humanizes (a terrible term, for they were already human) a Palestinian people who are often denigrated in Western Christian thinking. He tells the other side’s story. He gives us the story of oppressed unfiltered by the oppressor. And it’s eye-opening. McRay does this without castigating or demonizing Israelis, as well. He recounts conversations with Israeli soldiers, one of whom admits that he thinks Palestinians are treated terribly—but that he is convinced that they will kill all Israelis if left unchecked.
It’s not just Palestine. McRay takes us to the north of Ireland, where centuries of ethno-nationalist conflict have recently quelled but still seen in scars—both literal and metaphorical. This is a story that most of us may not know as much about. Thus, we may not have a story in our head that plays against McRay’s narrative. It’s jarring to me, because as a current supporter of Palestine who grew up staunchly pro-Israel, moving from Palestine to the north of Ireland, from a story I knew to one I didn’t, I could clearly see the biases I had in the former, even ones I thought I’d left behind.
The last set of stories take place in South Africa and concern apartheid. McRay does make connections from each storyline to other divisions within America. He has reflections on how these stories compare to racial, political, or socioeconomic divisions in America. It’s refreshing, actually, to read a book about justice and reconciliation that isn’t about Black/white relations in America but is able to give a unique perspective into that conflict through telling these other stories.
I Am Not Your Enemy is an eye-opening book that doesn’t seek to change your mind or tell you that everything you believe is wrong. Instead, Michael McRay simply offers stories. He humanizes the “enemy” and in so doing gives them a face that looks not unlike our own. It is a prophetic challenge to the prevailing narrative, one that if taken seriously could change the world.