I have been having some ongoing social media debates with people about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. There have been points when I have wanted to give up on this conversation only to find my passion revived by scenes of more children being harmed.
Most, all though not all, of those arguing against my position are from what might be called the conservative evangelical end of the church. I have continually maintained that we are primarily neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian but pro-peace: and as such have tried to condemn violence whenever I see it. It seems that many of those who find offence at my words keep misreading them and presume me to be anti-Israel.
My main point is that as followers of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, we cannot stay silent whilst we see people being oppressed and killed.
The main arguments I have received in response could be categorised as follows:
1) Israel is God’s chosen nation therefore we should support them. The reasoning seems to be that what is taking place is part of an end time scenario and that to criticise Israel we are siding with Satan who wants to see them destroyed.
2) Israel is only protecting their borders and have the right to do so.
3) Hamas are causing the violence – even using children to protect their missiles.
4) Israel give plenty of warning to the Palestinians before bombing their homes and hospitals.
5) The land was stolen from the Jews 1878 years ago and so is rightfully theirs.
Now there are many responses I could give here but I want to offer a point that I feel is often missed in dealing with such a complicated situation, namely: the direction of the criticism.
It is not difficult to see a theme running through the bible suggesting that those in positions of power have greater responsibility than those being oppressed. The people might have rebelled against God but it was Moses who was not allowed to enter the promised land. Time and again we see the prophets warning the nation about their attitudes to the needy. Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees displays a different approach to his compassion for the crowds and individuals caught in sin and the mess of life.
Church leaders might be worthy of double honour but there is greater call for them to live in ways that reflect the holiness of Christ.
In this we get a sense that the judgements we make are linked to the position held by those choose to critique.
Now added to this is a continuing confusion that the evangelical church has between our understanding of sin and the nature of evil. It has probably served evangelistic campaigns well to suggest that cheating on a high school exam leads to the same level of damnation as would the destruction of a whole people group. This is both a misunderstanding and a dangerous mistake.
Sin is essentially a moment of , or a path towards, missing the mark or standard that is set by a particular ideology. For the Christian it would be anything that would not be in keeping with being a disciple of Christ. Some of these things will be universal for all Christians and some might be at a personal level and linked to our own daily walk of faith.
It needs to be said that sin is undoubtably the fuel that produces evil but these two things should not be too easily conflated. We see that the bible speaks of some things as being more detestable than others. Jesus indicates such when he suggest that it would be preferable to have a millstone around ones neck than to cause a child to stumble. The one-size fits all model of soteriology does not always easily translate when discussing the nature of evil and the need for judgement.
This is important because when it comes to critiquing acts of violence it is all too easy to fall into a similar ‘one-size fits all’ mentality. We need to see, however, that the aggressive violence of an oppressor is not the same as the reactive violence of a vulnerable person.
As followers of Christ we can offer a critique to both in the context of our theological musings but the reality is that it is the oppressor that is more overtly involved in an act of evil not necessarily the oppressed.
With regard to the nature of the Israeli-Palestine conflict we can see a similar pattern appearing. The Palestinian people have been repeatedly oppressed by Israeli occupation. In fact it would be unusual if some of this community didn’t respond in a violent way. The Israelis and their supporters (in particular my own government here in the UK) continually speak in tones that suggest they are simply defending their borders. The truth is more sinister. Evil is at play and it didn’t just start with the evil of a Hamas rocket. It began with the oppressive culture imposed upon a people by a nation that would do well to hear the echoes of its own people’s history and know better.
So will I condemn the rockets being fired from Gaza: Yes. Will I consider that some of the more militant Palestinians might be guilty of treating some of their people as commodities toward their own political ends; Possibly. But will I speak of the Palestinians as being equally as guilty of evil as the Israeli government: No.
As Christ followers we have a responsibility to be salt and light in offering an alternative way of peace in every place we find ourselves. We must not, however, allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that situations like the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict are a level playing field.
Those in positions of greater power have the resources to make the greatest steps forward towards peace. When they do not chose to do so they are worthy of a greater criticism than those who are subject to oppression. Our voices need to be louder in speaking out against the powerful. The ‘first shall be last’ model of the kingdom of God demands that we do not stay silent: in fact it may even suggest that at times we deliberately side with the subjugated in opposition to those who have the resources to work for peace but refuse to do so.
So if you want to tell me to be quiet because Israel is God’s chosen nation I will ask you what it is he has chosen them to do and remind you of Isaiah 49:6 that says: ‘I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’
If you want to show me examples of Hamas committing atrocities I will join you in condemning them as acts of evil but I will ask you to consider who created the culture that allowed such people to be radicalized.
Or if you want to tell me that the land was stolen from the Jews 1878 years ago I will ask you to offer that same principle to the people of the USA and suggest they give it back to the native Americans or that the Australians should return ownership to the aborigines. Indeed the British Isles would not belong to Norman stock like my own family. See how far you get with that idea.
Those with much power have much responsibility. When they use their power for ill the church needs to hold them to account and not suggest that they are only as guilty as those they oppress.
Try and convince me that that the nation of Israel is acting as a light to the nations in killing Palestinian children and I will suggest you might have misunderstood both the nature of evil and the holiness of light.