Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure. Psalm 122:6
Dear Friends in Christ,
With so much going on in our parish in recent weeks, I have not said much about the violence erupting in the Holy Land. It was horrifying to hear of militants killing families and pulling villagers from their homes to take as hostages. And now a roused nation seeks to destroy the group who long planned this slaughter. But the battlefield is in densely populated cities. On top of a devastating war of conquest in Ukraine, and rumors of intention of war in the far east, we face the specters of the 20th century returning to haunt the 21st.
I am no international expert, but as a Christian pastor, I can make some observations and remind us of our understanding of what God values and what God has called us to pursue. We have lessons to learn for ourselves in our own country as well.
This small stretch of land between Africa and Asia has always had a mixture of nations and cultures. Aside from some of the centuries in Biblical times where Hebrew tribes and kingdoms ruled, the Holy Land has mostly been ruled by foreign powers. At the crossroads of continents and empires, the land was conquered by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Then after the Byzantines, by Arabia in the Muslim conquests, then Persia again, then the Turks (and briefly European Crusaders). All this time, many rival peoples, including Jews, then also Christians, then also Muslims, lived together in both harmony and conflict, in a peace usually held together by foreign dominance.
The British, who held the mandate of governance following World War I, and who faced mounting pressure from Jews in the Holy Land, gave a path to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, following the atrocities against Jews in World War II. Now dominance was held not by a foreign power, but by one of the local factions. The other factions (predominantly Muslim) pushed back. Conflicts in 1948 quickly concentrated most non-Jews in the “occupied territories” of the West Bank (bordering the west bank of the Jordan River) and the Gaza strip on the Mediterranean Sea.
Palestinian groups protested and some used violence and terrorism against Israel, including against civilians. Wars were fought with Arab neighbors. Political steps toward peace made progress at times. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) eventually recognized the right of Israel to exist and now holds a large measure of autonomy in governing the West Bank. But in Gaza, the people democratically elected Hamas, an Islamist group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and refuses to turn away from terrorist violence. Gaza was isolated by most of the world, but Hamas received aid from Iran and fired rockets into civilian territories from time to time. Israel often blockaded Gaza, but did not mount a full scale invasion. Until now.
On October 7, Hamas unleashed a long-planned attack against civilian gatherings and villages, slaughtering families and taking scores of people hostage. Israel was devastated and decided to destroy Hamas. But what does that mean? How does one destroy Hamas? Gaza is densely populated with civilians, and Hamas often places troops, weapons and firing bases in civilian locations (neighborhoods, schools, hospitals…) and uses civilian casualties to stir up opposition to Israel. How will Israel destroy Hamas without enormous loss of civilian life? And loss of military lives on both sides? If Hamas flourishes, lives are lost. If action is taken, lives are lost. Where is the path of peace?
Christian teaching starts with a preference for peace and an aversion to violence and war. Many of the first Christians were pacifists because of this. But Christians are also called to respect earthly authority, set in place by God to keep the peace, for the authorities “do not wield the sword in vain” (Romans 13:1-4). When the empire became Christian and Christians were responsible for protecting people, theologians developed over time principles under which deadly force might be justified. These became known as “Just War Principles.” There are principles for choosing to go to war, and principles for the conduct of war, all based on the value of human life.
“Jus ad Bellum:” just principles for going to war:
Principle of Just Cause: only for the protection of innocent life.
Principle of Just Authority: only when authorized by the proper authority.
Principle of Right Intention: to protect innocent human life and never for revenge.
Principle of Last Resort: only after all other attempts have been made to protect innocent human life.
Principle of Proportionality: only when the good to be obtained outweighs the harm that is inflicted.
Principle of Probability of Success: only when there is a reasonable chance that it will be successful in protecting innocent life.
“Jus in Bello:” just principles for the conduct of war:
Principle of Proportionality: only when the good to be obtained outweighs the harm that is inflicted. (Think of this when you hear “disproportionate response”)
Principle of Discrimination (Non-combatant Immunity): only against those who threaten innocent life and never against non-combatants. (Think of this when you hear of “indiscriminate violence”)
So, what do we make of wars in the Ukraine and the Holy Land? Putin is clearly unjust in his invasion and the conduct of the war in Ukraine, and Ukraine is justified in defending itself, though the odds of success have been questioned from time to time. Hamas was savagely wrong in their October 7 attacks. Israel is justified in taking some action to protect their people. But Hamas will make the cost high—even at the cost of their own civilian population. How might Israel achieve their goals most justly? Hamas would be better to press their grievances through peaceful means and gain support of peaceful nations. Terrorism will only serve to fan the flames of hatred between Jews and Muslims, between Muslim nations and the West. This is part of Hamas’s goals, of course. But like most violence, it is self-destructive also. God help us all.
And for us?
Perhaps it is easy to see ourselves in relatively peaceful North America as different and above violence and hatred. But these violent acts are in part the outcome of emotionally driven polarization. And we are clearly not immune to such dangers. Our political and cultural differences are less and less thoughtfully considered in recent years. More and more, Americans merely lash out against each other. Peaceful transfer of power is rare in human history, but cries of “stolen election” in 2000 and 2020 are part of a post-modern slide into widespread American tribalism. Such trends do not end well.
We may not have an influence on Russia or Hamas. We could call for care in Israel’s response, and judicious support of Ukraine. President Biden recently said to Israel that they are rightly enraged, as we were on 9/11. But we made mistakes in our rage, he said, and he expressed hope that they would avoid similar mistakes. It was a wise approach—not dictating to Israel nor pre-judging them, but offering wisdom from our own experience.
I wonder if we as a culture can take similar advice in how we communicate with each other and how we disagree, tempering our convictions with humility. Each of us can have an influence on taking down this polarizing tribalism. Each of us can seek understanding and bring care to the face of conflict. Each of us can hold ourselves and our friends and our leaders accountable to higher standards. Each of us can form our gut reactions to love as God loves, with self-giving care for the other, where justice and mercy go together. When we do, we will join with the Holy Spirit’s work, pressing back the darkness.
Pray for peace in Ukraine and in Israel and in Gaza. Pray for peace in American hearts—in your heart. And work to influence the way we disagree and work out our differences with clarity and charity. Seek God’s peace and truth and help us all flourish.
Yours in Christ,