By Chris West
I recently had the chance to sit down (virtually) with Melissa Florer-Bixler to discuss her new book How to Have an Enemy: Righteous Anger & The Work of Peace.
Florer-Bixler is the pastor of a Mennonite congregation in Raleigh, NC, that is actively involved in social justice work and advocacy for marginalized peoples. In the Raleigh area, this congregation has a reputation of being incredibly active, socially conscious and speaking out against issues of inequity. It is a reputation that has made a few enemies.
Early last week, I sat eagerly by the mailbox in the North Carolina heat, waiting for her new book to arrive. And I was NOT disappointed! The message of this book is clear, concise and challenging.
In this book, Florer-Bixler investigated the often-overlooked notion of having an enemy and what that looks like for a church called to pursue gospel justice. She challenges our notions of unity and tolerance as our highest priority, instead directing our attention to biblical examples of division for the sake of truth, wholeness and the work of peace.
Reading through this book, I was moved by the examples of injustice that have become so commonplace in the church. One particular example that has lingered with me was that of the pastor who bragged that undocumented people and ICE agents all worshiped together and took communion together at his church. On one hand, this is an example of unity; but if we look more closely, we see a shocking disunity that should cause us to sit up in our seats. These people might sit near each other in church, but they cannot do life together!
Florer-Bixler invites us to consider what terror and trembling this power dynamic must have caused those undocumented peoples. I could only imagine sitting in church and suddenly feeling the anxiety and fear and grief based on my political status. The fear of knowing that someone sitting near you could pull over your car the next day and “disappear you” from your home, your family… your church.
After reading this book, I knew I had to speak to Melissa Florer-Bixler about this and wanted her insight on the topic of racial justice and equity, the subject of my new podcast, The Fellowship Hall. Below is part of this interview about her story and the content of her new book.
Chris: Melissa, what inspired you to write a book about this difficult topic?
Florer-Bixler: One thing that I always tell people is that the first audience for anything I write is myself. This question is one that I am working out for myself. I don’t presume to know what anyone else wants to know, but hopefully there are some other people who want to be on this journey of discovery with me. So, this book emerged from my own experience of asking this question that is given to us by Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemy.’ We are given this command; but there is a question before that we must ask: Who is my enemy?
This is actually THE focal point of our lives as Christians. We sort of jump to ‘we have to love our enemy’ but we never answer that question that is sort of floating out there: ‘Well, who is our enemy and how do we have enemies?’
I wanted to take some time out of this period of national crisis and trauma for people and communities that are significant to me that I have poured my life into and begin to ask that question.
Chris: In the book, you discuss power a great deal. One of the points I found most salient is your breaking down the idea of tolerance. You said that tolerance works so long as you’re standing in the fellowship hall having a conversation; but when you put power dynamics on that, it becomes a lot more complicated. Could you share some thoughts on recognizing this relationship and navigating conflict as the church body?
Florer-Bixler: Something I talk about in the book is how unity sounds good but we actually all come to church with bodies that carry histories and stories that communicate and amass power in different ways. So, depending on who we are, some of us actually bear the weight of unity in the ways that people in power don’t hold in congregational life.
I think being honest about this is important in order for us to do the work of conflict well in our congregations. In a congregational setting where women aren’t ordained or aren’t allowed to serve in any sort of leadership role or capacity, it is very different to have unity as men or women or think of queer people in that context. We don’t each hold the burden of unity in the same way. There are people with power and there are people who are disempowered. Being honest about that is such an important first step for us in congregational life.
Chris: In your treatment of sexuality, you talk about having to make the decision about aligning yourself with people in power or those on the margins. Could you speak some about that and our responsibility as the church?
Florer-Bixler: Yeah. I did grow up in a church that was the birthplace of the culture war in the Episocopalian church around LGBTQ people and there really was this moment where the question came down to, if I state it in a different way, am I going to be a person who prevents people? Where am I going to put my risk?
When I show up before God, am I going to really be willing to say, ‘Hey I read what you gave us and interpreted this with the community and I saw people who loved Jesus who were married to people of the same sex and who were in these relationships and they wanted to love you and follow you so that is what we did. We put those people in the center of our lives and followed in their love for you.’ Or, am I going to say, ‘I am not even going to engage that because it’s too confusing or that was too hard for me.’ Honestly, I don’t think I would feel comfortable going to Jesus with that second position.
That is what I love about the book of Acts in particular— that we actually get to see how messy it actually is to work out all this Jesus stuff with real people in real time. We have all these people who are just like us. The folks who were like, ‘oh gosh, now Jesus said all these things and now it is all this messy stuff where Jesus never told us exactly what to do’ and, in the midst of it, there is all this grace for the messiness of it and God meeting people over and over again. That feels like good news to me and that feels like something I want to be a part of!
Chris: Growing up as a very conservative evangelical Christian, I was always told that the other folks on the side of this “culture war” just haven’t read their bibles or they don’t love the bible. That is just false. It is clear from reading this book and your first book, Fire by Night (which is also incredible), that you know the bible and love the bible. If someone is listening who is still holding to this false narrative or misconception, could you talk about how the bible informs and inspires your work in this area?
Florer-Bixler: I describe myself as a biblicist. I sort of have to be– the Mennonite tradition emerged as a reaction to a failure to attend to scripture. That’s how we got here. What is interesting or a little different perhaps is when people hear that you say you’re so committed to the bible. What is distinctive about Mennonites or the broader tradition or Anabaptists is that we have a tradition of communal readings of scripture.
So, instead of saying that only the people who have studied scripture or who have gone to seminary or the priest can tell us what we are supposed to believe about the bible (which is where a lot of evangelicalism is), what Mennonites have done is create a form of scriptural interpretation that emerges from the community. There are always new questions we have to discern together as a local congregation!
How are we going to respond from the faith that we have borne out of the followers of Jesus? That puts us in a different place than espousing the idea that scripture is this one thing that is always going to say the same thing for all time and if we just peel back enough layers, somewhere in there we will find a core truth that we can hold onto. Mennonites would say that there is no core, this is just the thing. God has given us everything we need because we have each other and we have the Holy Spirit and we have God continuing to speak through us, through the word proclaimed among us. If you have not encouraged people who read the bible in ways that didn’t align with the political positions of your church, that is probably because it is being withheld from you.
That was a pretty big shock to me to read the words of faithful Christians who interpreted the bible in ways I had never heard before; but these people are out there. They love Jesus and they love the bible and take the word seriously; it’s the center of their lives.
Chris: Is there anything that you want to leave the listener with?
Florer-Bixler: What do we actually think that the church is for? If your answer is that the church is for the people to change their minds or get together and have a moment of unity in the midst of like… that’s fine. That’s not what I see reflected in the gospel. If we are going to start asking this question of how to love our enemy, the next question is, ‘What is the church for’ and that will take us a pretty good way into some conversation for our future.
You can find the rest of the interview here.
Chris West is a CBF Leadership Scholar and student at Duke Divinity School.
Rev. Melissa Florer Bixler is the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church, and a graduate of Duke University and Princeton Theological Seminary. She spent times studying in Israel/Palestine, Kenya, and England. Much of her formation took place in the L’Arche community of Portland, OR. Now she prefers the Eno River and her garden in Raleigh, NC. She is the chair of L’Arche North Carolina and a steering committee member in broad-based organizing in her county. Melissa’s writing has appeared in Christian Century, Sojourners, Geez, Anabaptist Witness, The Bias, Faith&Leadership, and Anabaptist Vision. From time to time she publishes academic writing. She and her spouse parent three children.