In one of his letters, Seneca said:
“homines dum docent discunt”
(“people learn while they teach”)
The Romans had two words for “enemy.” Unlike us, in fact, they had precise definitions for two different kinds of enemies. As intermediate Latin students will know, the first type is encountered when reading Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. In this work, Caesar constantly refers to “the enemy” (the non-Roman Gauls) using the term hostis. A hostis was a foreigner, an outsider, someone who was wholly other, an enemy who was dehumanized. The ancient Romans, for example, were unable to consider the Germanic barbarians as humans like themselves. They thought them to be actual longhaired beasts living naked in the woods across the Rhine–and there were no “basic human rights” for non-humans.
The second type of enemy, as the more advanced students who have read Cicero will know, was a private enemy called an inimicus–the opposite of a friend (amicus). This was an adversary within one's own society, more like a personal rival. A hostis could never be an inimicus because he was considered a subhuman unworthy of the same life as the members of the group that defined him. And the opposite was also true, someone inside the group could not be a hostis for the simple fact that he did belong to the group. You may not like him, you may in fact hate him, but he can only ever be a rival, an inimicus.
To illustrate, there was no chance of mere rivalry between Caesar and, say, the Helvetian warlord Orgetorix; he was a hostis. A fellow Roman such as Cicero, on the other hand, even if he became an enemy, could only ever be an inimicus. Killing an inimicus was murder. Killing a hostis was justice. And this was Satan’s scheme in the pagan world: each group was as though a unique species, every tribe its own universe, existing only for itself in a system of pocketed isolation and false peace.
This pagan distinction shines an interesting light on our modern social situation. We like to see ourselves as citizens of the world. We are told the importance of this from all angles of secular influence. But would any secular mind acknowledge how we’ve come to this place? Would even the modern Catholic have eyes to see from where this proposed unity comes? We are not permitted to dehumanize another, no matter how unlike ourselves. Have we forgotten who taught this to us? Do the readers and lovers of Scripture realize that Jesus of Nazareth spoke this maxim, and that it was Jesus who extended the neighbor category to the foreigner (The Parable of the Good Samaritan)? This is a blatant contrast to the pagan world where every foreigner was ispo facto an enemy.
Today, a member of one nation may be friends with a citizen of another, whether online or as multicultural neighbors, even while their respective nations are at war. You might love the person while hating his people and, to the extent that it is experienced today, this is new in the world. What’s more, one might even find great fault with the militaristic actions of his own country; one might even identify and sympathize with the people of the land that is on the receiving end of these actions. Again, and by contrast, the Romans considered all of their hostis-enemies as sub-humans.
But it was different for them to deem others as less than human. Divine revelation hadn't come to the Roman Senate. The good news was given to peasants who were commanded, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole of creation.” Part of this good news, as St. Paul recognized, is that: “There is no longer Jew nor Gentile... all are one in Christ Jesus!” He spoke of a new kind of man for a new community. “Putting away falsehood,” he wrote, “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” There would be no dehumanized, public enemies in the world to come, no more hostis-enemies after the Great Commission of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus himself told us to love our private enemies, our inimicus-rivals, and it could be argued that this was because he took no account for the dehumanizing hostis category. In other words, he saw all men as neighbors and no men as foreigners. Our modern experience of humanizing people who, if we acted like the Romans, would have unquestionably been our hostis-enemies, implies that we have moved on as a global society, citizens of a shared world, from the pre-Christian category of hostis.
But there’s a problem. There’s a problem in practice with our modern and secular usurpation of this love-your-neighbor commandment. Unlike the pagan world, we can’t help but notice that as these enemy-lines have become increasingly distorted, there has been a corresponding perversion of Christ’s teaching to love one’s neighbor. In America at least, two factions have emerged which seem to be at such odds that no one would consider one from the other party as merely his personal rival (inimicus). Rather, they paint one another as public, hostis-enemies, deserving of the worst that might come to them. And no one can simply go about their lives without having others assume which faction they belong to. I’ll give an example.
During one of the early, soft lockdowns in 2020, I entered a store in my little town before it was required to wear a mask at this location. Upon entering, I heard the angry shouts of a customer, a neighbor, who was viciously chastising another for not wearing a mask. She screamed, “You don’t care about other people!” and many other such accusations. As much as I could tell through her mask, she looked just like any of my elderly neighbors. I felt disheartened to see this confrontation. I mostly felt sad for the children in the store, having to watch. The way she treated the other person, the way she shouted at him, made it clear that she thought of him as a killer, a non-human for acting, in her view, so inhumanely. When it was over, I thought about how just weeks before, I might have seen the man mowing her lawn, or helping carry groceries to her car. But in this conflict, she considered him a hostis for not wearing a mask and she likely assumed that he was a dyed-in-the-wool member of her enemy faction. And many of us have had similar experiences involving those closest to us, those in our midst, our neighbors.
In this confusion, we find ourselves today in the unprecedented position of asking, “Who is my enemy?”––which is quite possibly the last question of Christendom––much like the expert in the law who asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”––which was quite possibly the first. We simply don’t know how to treat each other, much less how to love one another. In this flipped scenario, we’re often more concerned with whom we should hate. And to make it worse, in true diabolic fashion, we have many hate-champions willing to yell an answer at us loudly. It seems as though this pagan hostis category has been reasserted with our neighbors as the target––neighbors who are the necessary objects of Christian love, according to Jesus. But then again, in the secular West, we have removed Christ, the one who revealed this teaching so emphatically that no one dared ask him anymore questions regarding it (Mark 12:34).
Nevertheless, he’s been removed, and, in his place, we imagine that through human evolution and progressive civilization we’ve reached this good on our own. In the absence of Christ, the anchor and object of our faith, an exaggeration materializes which takes us out of the virtuous mean. As a result, we swell with civilized pride as we purchase fair-trade goods from a faraway source rather than our own neighbor who needs to earn a living and would thus contribute positively to our own local community. It’s cheaper and it’s all the same, right? With recent mass immigration, national borders are condemned, and national, or even local, pride is seen as a symbol of exclusion and likely racism. We’ve been conditioned to consider the needs of the foreigner while vilifying our own neighbor.
No doubt, we’ve succeeded in flipping the status of the pagan world on its head in that we’ve systematically offered the stranger a place in our home while dismissing our neighbor to some unknown, foreign destiny. In so doing, we wager our own destiny and that of our children. And we congratulate ourselves on this giant leap forward for mankind without ever realizing that we’re not so progressive if we consider the eighth-century B.C. prophets who were persecuted for this very message. And we especially don’t acknowledge that the way we conduct ourselves often harms our neighbor and our very own future. We forget that we are not permitted to dehumanize those near us, no matter their political and world views. Will the Christian position prevail? Will we ever move past this Godless theater of virtue practiced out of turn and out of time? Will we resist the temptation of this world to find new hostis-enemies amongst our neighbors?
Let us remember the words of Paul, the Apostle to the Nations: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” For people of God's kingdom, there can be no more hostis-enemies, no more dehumanizing those who are not like us, those who do not view things the way we do. Neither is there any more time for silence about the truth and half-truths that purport a unifying peace at the exclusion of Christ. We are in fact people of one world, but it is not this world.