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How We Live with Our Enemies

Rich Egger
Betsy Perabo

In his novel Atonement, Ian McEwan writes: "It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you."

“Other people are as real as you.”  I’ve thought about that a lot lately, alongside a related question:  How do we live with our enemies?

I study the history of how Christians think about war, and have found that many of them – politicians, missionaries, soldiers, and chaplains– have considered this question too.  I recently wrote a book on Russian Orthodox Christian perspectives on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.  Some Russians believed that this war was a war against Buddhism and would allow Russia to fulfill its destiny to spread Christianity to the “pagans” in Japan.

But other Russians had very different perspectives, including one Russian Orthodox priest now known as Nikolai of Japan.  Nikolai went to Japan as a young missionary in the 1860s and served there until his death in 1912.  He learned Japanese and founded a mission that would eventually become the independent Japanese Orthodox Church.   When war broke out in 1904, his congregation asked him to stay in Japan, and he agreed.

Nikolai’s diary describes his experiences of the war in detail.  He expresses much grief over the death of friends and over Russian military defeats.  But he also reports kindness from the Japanese, not only by the members of his church, but also by Japanese Buddhists – sometimes complete strangers - who honor him for making the best of a difficult situation.  Though dismayed by their lack of interest in Christianity, Nikolai praises their gentleness and goodness.

At his church, Nikolai is surrounded by Japanese Christians, including a scholar named Pavel Nakai, who worked with him daily for many years to translate Russian Orthodox texts into Japanese.  Early in the war, Pavel Nakai writes a prayer asking God to give victory to the Japanese troops.  Nikolai says the prayer is appropriate, but adds that when it was read in Tokyo’s Orthodox cathedral, he prayed silently “for the granting of victory to [his] own Emperor”:  two men worshipping in the same church but praying at the same time for different outcomes to the ongoing war.

On Christmas Eve 1904 Nikolai writes about the difficulties of living alongside Japanese Christians as he grieves for his homeland, Russia.  He says: 

I live now in a two-story house. On the upper floor we are all children of the Heavenly Father; on that floor, there are no Japanese, no Russians. Most of the time I try to be there….  Together we engage in… translation, book publishing, even Christian aid to the [Russian] prisoners of war or the Japanese wounded… But sometimes an oppressive state of soul pulls me down to the lower floor, where I remain by myself, without the Japanese [and the Japanese have their own lower floor] …I must go to the upper floor, where there is no anger…I must be an inhabitant of the upper floor.

On this “upper floor,” Nikolai reaches across the Russian-Japanese divide, as he has across the Buddhist-Christian divide, and others reach back.

In our own time, there are many people who try to reach across divides.   This September, the Interfaith Alliance of Macomb hosted an event in Chandler Park that celebrated its goals of “promot[ing]respect and increas[ing] understanding among the various faiths and cultures within the Macomb community” and “offer[ing] a voice to express condemnation of bigotry, hate, fear, and violence.” Mayor Mike Inman spoke alongside representatives of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and several Christian denominations, as well as my own group, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Macomb.  

This is of course only a start on one of the many problems we face.  And I’m not so optimistic as to suggest that we can always be on the upper floor.  There may be enemies who cannot be made into friends, and people who will never accept that other people are as real as they are.  Sometimes, there is wickedness and cruelty; sometimes scheming has to be combatted.

But Nikolai’s example gives me hope that with time, it is possible to be on the upper floor more than we think.  Time is key.  The painter Georgia O’Keefe said, "To see takes time, like having a friend takes time."  Researchers say that even people with great natural talents need 10,000 hours to develop them fully.   Perhaps we need to spend 10,000 hours alongside our enemies in order to learn to live with them. 

The image I take away, the one that’s most vivid in my mind, is Nikolai and Pavel Nakai sitting quietly, night after night, at work together on their translation project in the midst of a war between their two countries.  In the dim light, they take something that makes sense in one language and translate it into another.

Betsy Perabo is a Professor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University and she is Board President of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Macomb.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.