We Have Met the Enemy

We find ourselves once again stunned and disgusted by the tragic news of another school shooting. Once again, the image of a monster is brought before our eyes, and we have no idea what to do with it. In the mixture of rage, heartbreak and fear, the same old lines are being drawn the same pointing of fingers and the same breathless despair hangs in the air. Gun control, mental health service, anti-bullying programs, economic injustice, everyone tries to find and answer to a monster that would gun down 19 children in an elementary school. Yet somewhere deep down most of us know nothing significant will change.

During the war of 1812, the young and inexperienced United States Navy defeated the British Navy in the Battle of Lake Erie. The 9 US vessels managed to capture 6 vessels of the British Royal Navy and ensured that America would control the lake for the rest of the war. Master Commander Oliver Perry wrote to Major General William Henry Harrison saying, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” A simple word of victory, of dominance and control. It has been said to stand up with John Paul Jones’s “I have not yet begun to fight,” and Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici,” as one of the most famous battle reports in history. 

It is this sort of assurance that we all want and even demand when we are faced with the evil that exploded a small Texas town on Tuesday. There’s the enemy. He has shown his face. Now let’s do whatever we can to ensure victory. We’re strong enough, capable enough, passionate enough, we ought to be able to do it. But one thing we learn over and again in these moments of terror and violence is the solution is never so simple and sure as all that. For one thing, we are too late and for another, it isn’t so easy to find the enemy out there before it happens again. We are all slowly coming to expect that it will happen again.

That line from the war of 1812 was later used in a clever way by a cartoonist named Walt Kelly. He had a successful comic strip that engaged is social and political satire called Pogo. Kelly did a poster to promote the first Earth Day in 1970 with the large slogan “We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us.” A fitting twist, I think. A call to see that the problem is not just an “out there”, but one that exists within us all. The subtle but significant change of focus in a healthy way.

But when I read that line, the first thing I tend to think of is the movie Platoon. I’m sure most of you have seen the famous award-winning film written and directed by Oliver Stone. It is a movie set during the Vietnam War, which I had a (probably unhealthy) fascination with as a child. Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran, gives us the opportunity to struggle with the morality of the war and the struggles within the platoon itself. And there is this famous line at the end of the film as Charlie Sheen’s character is being airlifted out of the chaos, blood, and violence, and we hear him reflect via voiceover saying, “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us.”

As Christians we have a healthy confession that we are at the same time saints and sinners. That evil isn’t just out there. It isn’t just contained in pornography or drugs or crime. It is within. This is what St. Paul is confessing in Romans 7, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”

The enemy is within. Perhaps this is a better starting point for a healthy discussion of the monstrosities of our day. Though this is not something handled by laws or the political demands of our day. It’s not just an “out there” problem. Perhaps what we are witnessing is the collapse of a culture in which we thought we could medicate away or successfully channel or endlessly entertain the enemy within. The solution, at least according to St. Paul, isn’t found in our clever schemes or strength or wisdom. But in Christ alone. He cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The grace, mercy, and love of Christ. His compassion and forgiveness, this is how our Lord defeats our enemies within. And this is what you are called to do. Not just to pray for those who are grieving, not just to demonstrate or make political stands. No, you are called to love one another, to love by doing, by acts of kindness and mercy, by listening and having compassion. You are called to take the enemy seriously. After all you’ve all seen him, he looks back at you in the mirror.