What We Owe Our Enemy: A Look at Justice and Bullying

Here's to the last paper I wrote in my undergraduate career! This one is for my Classical Political Philosophy class and is on justice according the Plato's Republic versus the Bible…


Book One of Plato’s Republic addresses an important question: what is justice? And, specifically, it discusses what we owe the other—both our enemy and our friend. Though in theory much of what is discussed seems rational based on Just War Theory and the idea of ought and owing, these principles don’t line up with Biblical teachings. Jesus had a very different concept of justice and treatment of enemies than Polemarchus and Socrates did, and I think it is important for us as Christians to consider this when deciding what we ought to do.

The first thing I think of when I consider the idea of justice and what we owe our enemies is the topic of bullying.

Bullying is becoming a major problem in our society today: we see it in middle schools, high schools, friendships, relationships at work, and even within the context of unhealthy relationships. The reaction I witness the most towards the bullies in these stories (who we view as “enemies”) is one of hatred. After the Amanda Todd tragedy, the internet was swarming with people shouting out “justice”, which in this context took the form of lashing out at the bullies, pointing out what detestable human beings they are, and expressing the need for something to be done to them. Not about them, but to them—there is a difference.

The first definition we get in The Republic of justice comes from Cephalus. To him, justice is all about property and the rights surrounding it. To him, being “just” means possessing money, not cheating or lying, and paying back what you owe. Sure, doing these things is “just” and right (apart from the money part), but there is so much more to justice then just that. Paying back your debt and not being dishonest are, in my opinion, really just the results of living a just life and not the foundational elements of it. So I don’t have much else to say about little old Cephalus.

According to Polemarchus and his ideas of Just War Theory, we owe our friends goodness, and our enemies evil.

The standard responses to the Amanda Todd situation and bullying in general exemplify this perfectly. The bullied are our friends and the bullies are our enemies; therefore, the victims deserve goodness and the bullies deserve evil—plain and simple revenge.

Polemarchus was a war guy, and within the context of battle, this does make sense. You owe your fellow soldiers a commitment to do right by one another, to have each other’s backs, and to treat each other well. And those fighting against you? Well, you don’t exactly owe them peace or loyalty, you are at war with them—so technically you “owe” them evil. But outside of the context of war, this idea of justice doesn’t necessarily make for a peaceful society. And if you think of it, if we all spent time loving each other—friends and enemies alike—is it possible we wouldn’t need a separate principle for “just war” at all, because war would cease to exist?

Maybe I’m a bit idealistic in this regard…

Socrates doesn’t give much of a definition of justice because he’s Socrates, and he doesn’t really define anything—to do so would be to claim he has knowledge outside of his knowledge of his ignorance. However, Socrates does view justice as a compilation of oughts, shoulds, and shalls. He also speaks of the Noble Lie. The Noble Lie, according to Socrates, is a lie told to a friend to prevent him from carrying out injustice (so I suppose Socrates does define this). Socrates believes it is unjust to allow a friend to do injustice to another, and so you owe him what he calls a “noble lie” to prevent him from carrying out the injustice. The concept of the noble lie doesn’t apply directly to cases of bullying. However, Socrates would say we owe our friend a “noble lie” if it will prevent them from carrying out an injustice like bullying towards someone else. However, this doesn’t say what we owe the enemy, so is helpful only in understanding the treatment of friends.

The Biblical view is something else entirely.

To decide what we owe our friends and enemies, first we must look at who our friends and enemies are. In discussing the treatment of others, the Bible speaks of three main categories: friends, enemies, and “neighbours.” One could easily decide “neighbours” is meant to refer to = our friends; however, because the term “friend” is used elsewhere, I believe there is meant to be a distinction between the two. The treatment of others is not addressed from the standpoint of enemies versus friends/neighbours; instead, I believe the Bible tells us how to treat our enemies, how to treat are friends, and how to treat our neighbours.

Based on this, both our enemies and our friends fall under the category of “neighbours” because “neighbours” refers to those we coexist with—whether on good terms or bad.

It is important to realize this because when we read “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31 ESV), we know Jesus is not talking about only our friends; we are to love our neighbours—to love all people—as we love ourselves.

Aside from the treatment of neighbours, the Bible distinctly discusses how we are meant to treat our enemies. Proverbs 24:17 states, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your hearts be glad when he stumbles.” Rejoicing in your enemy’s misfortune is no different than inflicting injustice on him yourself. If you take pleasure in seeing someone else get mocked, is that much different than you mocking him yourself?

Yet time and time again we see people filled with pleasure and amusement when we see bullies come crumbling to their defeat. We want them to lose. We want them to suffer. We want them to be inflicted with the same torture they inflicted on others. But this is not love. And this is not just. Not according to the Bible, anyways.

Proverbs 25:21 says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” I believe this goes beyond mere physiological needs. I think bread and water are used as an example because they are basics, but I believe what is being said is if your enemy is in need of something, you offer it to him, in the way you would offer the same to your friend. This is what you owe him. The passage continues on to say, “For you will heap burning coals on his head” (Proverbs 25:22) and although this sounds harsh, I believe this is what is meant by “turning the other cheek”—you are taking his hatred and repaying it with love, which points a mirror at him, showcasing his own faults. This is not meant as a way to harm or to mock him, but rather to help him see what he has done.

If you fight back a bully’s hate with more hate, are you showing him there is any other way to live? What kind of example are you setting by using the same methods he does?

However, when we respond to a bully with love, which is something often lacking in their lives, we show them an alternative. We lead by example.

Leading by example is an important theme throughout the Bible. In Matthew 5:43-47 Jesus speaks specifically about living a life “set apart” from the average in our relationships with others, especially our enemies:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?

In addition, Jesus also says in Luke 6:27-31:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

This is how we are called to live. This is what we owe the other—both our friend and, possibly even more so, our enemy.

When a seventeen year-old bullies a fellow classmate, it is our instinct to label him/her an enemy, and this is alright—we don’t have to view them as “friends”—but we do owe it to them, and to society as a whole, to treat them in a way that is just. And not a way that is “Just War Theory” just, but a way that is biblically just.

We need to respond with love, not anger. We need to extend mercy, grace, and forgiveness, not hate and retaliation. Jesus has extended these gifts to us, what gives us the right to decide someone else is undeserving of them?

We are not called to judge. We are not called to pay back in kind. We are called to be different, to assess a situation and fill in the gaps. In this bullying epidemic we are facing, what’s missing is forgiveness. What’s missing is love.

Yes, in these situations the victims need love, but the bullies need it just the same. We must remember people don’t often become bullies “just for kicks”; they become bullies because someone else bullied them—it’s a vicious cycle. And if we retaliate with anything other than love, we are merely allowing the cycle to continue.

The passing down of anger and violence needs to end; the hand-me-downs must stop with us, and it only will if we change the way we respond to it.

Movements such as Love is Louder, are working hard to bring about this very type of change. I only hope the church will follow in these footsteps.

Polemarchus would say bullies are the enemy, and we owe them harm, we owe them evil and revenge. It is a war: us versus them, and in fighting the battle using retaliation and harm, we will come out victorious and justice will be served. But this is not justice—not the type of justice that will bring about change, anyways.

Jesus brings forth a new form of justice; not “an eye for an eye” but rather “turning the other cheek” and paying back hate with kindness. With grace and forgiveness.

When we fight back with love we are saying that we are rising above the set standard, that we not only strive for something more but we believe in it—we believe in the power of good over evil, of love over hate.

That is the only hope in our battle against bullying (note: not against bullies, but against bullying). Responding with hate will not bring us any closer to peace; it will instead only take us further from it. Responding with love, however, changes the rules. It reverses the system.

To fight back hate with hate is hypocritical and gets us nowhere, but to fight back hate with love? Well that changes everything. And who knows, the world may even become a better place.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” –Friedrich Nietzsche


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My name is Lauren Bersaglio and I am the Founder and Editor of Libero Magazine. I am a writer, speaker, and dedicated mental health advocate based in Vancouver, BC. I love writing, makeup artistry, strategy board games, and going for runs with my Goldendoodle Zoey.

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