The Friend/Enemy Distinction

Vermigli and Schmitt on How to Live Out Christ’s Command

Of the many teachings and sayings of the Lord Jesus Christ in the gospels, none are so universally catechized in children and taught from the pulpit than these words: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). To many this seems like a radical concept, to answer with love toward hate and blessing toward cursing. Yet as the command of Christ, it is binding on all Christians. 

A natural question many grapple with is the import and place of this command for Christian politics? Is political pacifism mandated by our Savior? Must we embrace a martyrdom complex? If Christians do command political power, should they wield it for explicitly Christian interests? Or is it incumbent on Christians to handicap themselves politically for the sake of fairness and love? Is it right to conceive of political opponents—those with diametrically opposed visions for society—as more than friendly competition, but rather as “enemies,” in this sense? And finally, is there a difference between private relations and public (political) relations?  

German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) may be of assistance in helping answer these questions. In his work, The Concept of the Political, Schmitt conceptualizes politics through the antithesis of the friend-enemy distinction and in this directly speaks on the command of Christ to love one’s enemies. From this Schmitt makes another distinction between the private and the political enemy, positing that the command of Christ applies particularly to the private enemy. Is this distinction an innovation unique to Schmitt to justify his conception of politics, or is there precedence in the broader Christian tradition? The answer to this can be found in Italian Protestant Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), who in his discussion on the magistrate distinguishes between public and private individuals. From this older writing, it can be seen that Schmitt’s distinction between the private and political enemy is not an innovation to help push his friend-enemy antithesis of politics but is something that has precedence among the Magisterial Reformers.

Politics as Friend-Enemy

Chief to Schmitt’s conception of politics as laid out in The Concept of the Political is the friend-enemy antithesis. Schmitt lays the groundwork for this by noting that various realms are defined by particular antitheses. For morality it is between good and evil, for aesthetics it is between beautiful and ugly, and for economics it is between profitable and unprofitable. Schmitt notes that while there is overlap between some of these antitheses, ultimately the friend-enemy antithesis of politics must operate independently of these other antitheses. A political friend may be morally good or aesthetically beautiful, but this need not always be the case. Many who voted for Donald Trump were aware of his scandalous comments and affairs and would rightfully see this as morally repugnant. Yet he was voted on not because of his morality but because of his political relation as a friend in contrast to the enemy, the other. The friend can always be defined in contrast with the enemy, as Schmitt states, “But he [the enemy] is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.”1 Despite Schmitt’s call for the independence of the friend-enemy antithesis, he does not deny that each of the antitheses may draw on the others for support. Though this is the case, Schmitt is primarily concerned that each distinction may be treated independently of each other. 

Schmitt on Private vs. Political Enemies

Having established the fundamental antithesis at the center of politics being the dichotomy of friend and enemy, Schmitt speaks of Christ’s command to love one’s enemies. He begins by noting that the political enemy is not a private adversary whom one hates by virtue of personal quarrels. Instead, “An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship.”2 The political enemy is the public enemy, not the private one. Schmitt goes on to note that Christ’s command to love one’s enemies is referring not to public enemies but to the private, as the Greek word for private enemies (ἐχϑρός) is used in both Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 rather than the Greek word for public enemies (πολέμιος). No mention in these verses is made of the political enemy and this was common knowledge throughout the history of Christendom as, to quote Schmitt, “Never in the thousand-year struggle between Christians and Moslems did it occur to a Christian to surrender rather than defend Europe out of love toward the Saracens or Turks. The enemy in the political sense need not be hated personally, and in the private sphere only does it make sense to love one’s enemies, i.e., one’s adversary… It certainly does not mean that one should love and support the [public] enemies of one’s own people.”3 With this distinction, Schmitt sees his conception of politics as fitting comfortably within a Christian framework that seeks to honor the commands of Christ. One need not cowardly stand by idly in the name of loving one’s enemies as those who hate him destroy his way of life. He can instead follow his Christian forefathers who so bravely waged war against the Muslims and fight back. In doing so he demonstrates a love for his own.

Vermigli on the Magistrate and Private Individuals

Vermigli in his Commentary on the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah speaks on a wide variety of topics as he offers his exegetical insights on Jeremiah’s lamentations. In his commentary on Lamentations 1:21, he notes that under the new covenant Christians are called to mildness, clemency, and kindness to not only one’s own people, but to all people and even one’s enemies. Vermigli implores the readers to recall how the apostles had wished for Christ to rain down fire on those in Samaria in Luke 9:53-56 and how in return Christ rebuked them for their retributive spirit. Vermigli continues on by noting that despite this there are still examples of retribution in the New Testament, although they are rarer than how they occurred in the Old. From here Vermigli transitions to noting that, “Whatever has been spoken here you should receive as pertaining to private zeal for vengeance, because Christ’s Spirit has not changed that which concerns magistrates-the state and public life.”4 In light of the various changes wrought under the new covenant, that which pertains to the state and public life is not one of them. A magistrate ought not to have mercy on all and to love his public enemies as magistrate, as, “magistrates ought not to use the pretext of the change in status to diminish the severity of justice; at the same time, they may follow mildness of spirit and evangelical kindness by not pursuing but pardoning injuries done to them as private individuals.”5 In regard to that which was done to them as private individuals, they are to show mercy and forgive. In regard to that which is done to them as public persons, they are to execute justice because they bear the authority of God and wield the sword to punish evildoers. Vermigli expands on this by transitioning from civil authority to ecclesiastical authority, noting that one ought not to abstain from excommunication in order to demonstrate love or mercy, as ultimately this is not a personal sword but the sword of Christ. Vermigli concludes by noting that, “For what we discussed about clemency in the New Testament age pertains to particular desires of private individuals for vengeance.”6


Both Schmitt and Vermigli distinguish between public and private persons in regard to political life. Schmitt notes that the enemy in the friend-enemy antithesis is solely referring to the public political enemy and that the words of Christ regarding loving one’s enemies do not eliminate this reality but pertain strictly to private and personal enemies. Likewise, Vermigli notes that the various calls for clemency seen in the writings of the New Testament pertain particularly to the retributive desires of private persons for their personal enemies. This has significant implications for Christian politics, as no longer can one rationalize their retreatist pietist politics by simply shouting “love your enemies,” but must actively seek to defeat their enemies who threaten and attempt to usurp their very way of life. A robust Christian politics must be strong and bold, willing to identify enemies and unwilling to back down from defeating them. In so doing one honors Christ and demonstrates a profound love for neighbor. 

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Show 6 footnotes
  1. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), 27.
  2. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), 28.
  3. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), 29.
  4. Pietro Martire Vermigli, Commentary on the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah, EPUB (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2002), Chapter 1, verse 21.
  5. Pietro Martire Vermigli, Commentary on the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah, EPUB (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2002), Chapter 1, verse 21.
  6. Pietro Martire Vermigli, Commentary on the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah, EPUB (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2002), Chapter 1, verse 21.
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Matthew Pearson

Matthew Pearson is a graduate from the University of South Florida with a major in Religious Studies and minor in Philosophy. He works in construction and is a prospective student at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando. He can be found on Twitter @_matthewpearson.

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