Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Cobelligerents Make Bad Friends

Cobelligerents Make Bad Friends

Apparently Jesus once said something along the lines of: ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Well, no, he didn’t. But the power of co-belligerence is as undeniable as it is pervasive. Our increasingly polarised society has left many scrambling for combat partners, within whatever cause they’re championing. We all seek out allies to join us in shelling the intellectual, ideological, religious, and political bastions of our enemies. Whether we do this online or on our couches, most of us believe that we’re engaged in a pitched battle for humanity, the soul, love, the church, or whatever you think truly matters. But cobelligerents make bad friends.

What is Co-belligerence?

For those readers that aren’t entirely surely what a cobelligerent is, according to that great, modern repository of all truth, Wikipedia, “co-belligerence is the waging of a war in cooperation against a common enemy with or without a formal treaty of military alliance.” Co-belligerence is founded on having mutual enemies or opposition. Cobelligerents are brothers—and yes, sisters—in arms. They huddle together on the landing crafts, headed for the beaches of Normandy, where their glorious march towards the Kehlsteinhaus begins.

Of course, most of you aren’t active soldiers. The camaraderie and conflict I’m referring to concerns ideas and identity. It extends to the maintenance of inner rings, as C. S. Lewis called them. Enemies are often people who’ve hurt or mistreated us, and co-belligerents join us in sniping at them. And don’t get me started on social media, the basic training camp for a combative and divisive way of being—Twitter, I’m looking at. Few places have better prepared us to bond along lines of mutual hatred than online spaces.

Wherever they take place, all of us participate in conversations about perpetrators and perceived enemies. And whether we systematically tear down or simply mock our shared opponents, we discover the community forming power co-belligerence.

Why Cobelligerents Make Bad Friends

However, while co-belligerence brings people closer it doesn’t result in healthy, intimate friendships. Cobelligerents make bad friends. If you paused for reflection I’m sure that you could reach various conclusions as to why this is true. For despite being an effective catalyst for community, co-belligerence results in stunted and precarious relationships. Sadly, many readers will have experienced the collapse of friendships and communities formed around mutual foes. This much is true for me.

Below I will outline two reasons, arguing my case. It is my hope that you’ll reflect on the relationships in your life, particularly your friendships. Because all us need to ask ourselves what binds us to others, distinguishing between co-belligerents and friends. We desperately need the latter, and would be far better off without the former.

1. Co-belligerence Lacks Trust and Vulnerability

Firstly, how much can you trust someone with whom a fundamental point of connection is your hostility towards others? As St Aelred of Rievaulx famously describes friendship: “We call friends only those to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents.” Friendship demands vulnerability. Conversely, intimacy is scarce when trust isn’t shared. Yet the currency of co-belligerence isn’t trust or vulnerability. In fact, cobelligerents usually refrain from sharing their hearts, for fear of upsetting the uneasy alliance.

Think about it. If one of the values you esteem in others is their ability to direct animosity at others, how sure can you be that it won’t eventually be turned on you? This works in reverse, as well. If you prize others primarily for their participation in your aggression then what happens when their position changes? What happens when they change? Having mutual enemies is undoubtedly an effective forge for alliances, but it’s a terrible one for friendships, because it isn’t built on trust.

2. Cobelligerents Will Respect but Rarely Love Each Other

Secondly, and not too dissimilarly from the previous point, Friedrich Nietzsche identified the challenge to love and respect the same person (Human, All Too Human, §603). Respect tends to be tied to status, authority, and utility. Love, on the other hand, eschews power and function. It doesn’t value people—indeed, it doesn’t construct friendships—according to how much they will benefit me or reinforce my own hostilities and causes.

No question, cobelligerents earn each other’s respect as they pool their powers to seek conquest. Tragically, however, we often realise too late that respecting someone for their position on some matter is very different to loving someone. Respect is conditional; love is not. Thus respect must be earned and is easily lost, whereas love is freely given. Love creates room for disagreements and differing views. It acknowledges the various reasons to be enemies but nevertheless makes a way for friendship. It isn’t primarily concerned with power but surrenders it. Contrast with this, the respect shared between cobelligerents leverages others for more power. I’m sure most readers can see why this is always something other than friendship.

Pursue Friends, Not Enemies

The enemy of your enemy will almost certainly never be your friend. Your relationship may bear some of the marks of friendship, however in its essence co-belligerence is always suspicious rather than vulnerable; and driven by power instead of love. This is why cobelligerents rarely go the distance together, while the doomed journey is fraught and precarious. Cultivating meaningful friendships is ultimately incongruent with drawing up battle lines.

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