Dietric Bonhoeffer was a brilliant, young Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1930’s and ’40’s who stood up against the Nazis, was involved in the plot to kill Hitler and was executed just days before the surrender of the Third Riech. As I read his biography last summer I thought about his courage and willingness to have enemies. Bonhoeffer was a unique guy who was not afraid to stand up for what he believed was right. He spoke against the church and even his friends when he thought they were acquiescing to the evil of Hitler’s regime and I’ve been thinking: One of the things that all great leaders have in common is the right enemies.
Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, FDR, and even Jesus had enemies. In each case they had the right enemies; and that seems to be the key. Anyone can have enemies, and there is no virtue in having enemies for the sake of having enemies. Having the right enemies means that you are standing up for what you believe is right and are being opposed by those who don’t agree.
The issue seems to encompass two factors. First you must believe in what is right, and second you must be willing to stand up for it.
What is right: Most of the time we know what is right. Americans knew slavery was wrong when Lincoln stood up for emancipation, and they knew racism was wrong when Martin Luther King was marching. Germans knew Hitler was wrong when they gave in to him and allowed him to take over their country. The crowds knew it was wrong to crucify Jesus, but they let it happen anyway. How did the evil persist when the common morality knew what was wrong?
Here it is appropriate to reference the quote: “Evil is allowed to flourish when good people do nothing.” Which brings us to the second factor.
Standing up: You create enemies when you stand up for something strongly and someone else opposes you strongly. Standing up for right invites conflict and most of us don’t like conflict. We want peace; we want to get along. It’s our nature to want to get along. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “who can I fight with today?” We want peace, but conflict in a world where there is evil is inevitable.
Conflict usually occurs when leaders attempt to change the status quo and when they cause the world to see the truth that lies in the depth of our own conscious. Lincoln changed slavery and he caused America to see it for the evil it was. Martin Luther King changed civil rights and caused people to see the evil of racism. Franklin Roosevelt changed America’s isolationist mindset and caused the world to see the evil of Nazism. Jesus changed everything and caused the world to see the presence of evil everywhere.
Seeing a need for change, and standing up for that change will bring on your share of enemies. If you are going to lead change you must be willing to absorb the attacks from the right enemies. The key is to have the right enemies.
We live in a culture that has elevated “nice” to a level where any hint of an enemy is somehow a sign of flawed character. Great leaders all have enemies because they are passionate about what they believe is right, and they are willing to stand up for it. They are willing to oppose the “group think” of a generation and call others to follow them in changing the culture. When others follow great leaders in standing up against evil it is the beginning of victory.
Bonhoeffer could have escaped the evil of the Nazi’s and stayed in the United States where he was studying, but chose to return to Germany and fight Hitler. He was killed just days before the end of the war. At that point he wasn’t killed because it was strategic to the war – he was killed because he was an enemy of Adolph Hitler. He had the right enemy.
To again quote Harry Truman: “It doesn’t matter what you stand for, it matters what you stand up for.”