As I follow the daily news from Gaza, I find myself needing to actively resist feelings of anger, helplessness, and despair. I feel pressured to not only understand but justify Israel’s retaliatory and indiscriminate killing and destruction, based on its right to rescue its hostages, punish offenders, and defend its national security, or to justify Hamas’ killing, hostage-taking and escalating war based on historic and current injustices. What does it mean to actively pursue the way of Jesus as a viable alternative? How do we practice the Apostle Paul’s admonition:
“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
I was horrified by Hamas’ attack on October 7. As I’ve traveled through that region and spent three months living on a Kibbutz I was able to envision it. I have deep sympathy for the families of the 1,400 killed, and for the hostages and their families. I recognize Hamas’ strategy of deliberately attracting Israel’s retaliatory violence against its own people, the Palestinians, to turn the Arab world and global public opinion against Israel. And I can also understand but how Israel reacted as they have.
Yet I can understand Palestinian rage as I’ve studied the history, visited and seen from a distance illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, witnessed Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets on Palestinian youth, and heard first-hand accounts of atrocities committed by Israelis against Palestinians.
I am outraged by daily death tolls, and sickened by today’s update on the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza, 9,061– 3,760 of whom are children! Israel’s bombing of a refugee camp, a church, residential apartments, and possibly a hospital, show there is no safe place where human life is respected. The situation is dire and worsening, with ongoing killing, destruction of buildings, infrastructure, and much more death to come.
Lines are being drawn everywhere as people jump to defend Palestinians or Israel. Antisemitism is escalating in Europe and divisions between people are increasing as we all take sides. Sadly, Christians are caught up in the division, right when we have an opportunity to more fully embody and articulate Jesus’ refusal of violence, and alternate way of retaliatory love articulated clearly in Luke 6:27-28.
“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 mistreat you.”
Though Jesus lived his life under the brutality of Roman imperial occupation, he never called for or justified retaliatory violence, and neither must we his followers today! Jesus called for and embodied active enemy love (Lk 6:27-36), practicing indiscriminate healing, deliverance and acts of compassion, including Jews and non-Jews alike.
Jesus raised a Jewish synagogue official’s daughter from the dead, healed a Roman centurion’s slave, delivered a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from evil spirits and drew crowds from Syria and beyond (Mt 4:24-25). He refused retaliatory strikes against hostile Samaritans (Lk 9:55-56), and the use of violence for self-defense against those who came to arrest him (Mt 26:52). Jesus did this from a place of extreme realism regarding human nature, his own distinct mission, and the world around him, telling his followers:
“For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are the beginning of birth pangs.” (Mk 13:8)
He prophesied that lawlessness would increase as history unfolded, which we are certainly experiencing today. Jesus didn’t speak about the coming turmoil to justify or endorse it. Rather he warned his disciples of the dangers of their love growing cold, a warning we must urgently heed now:
“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” (Mt 24:12-13)
In the face of state violence and oppression, Jesus consistently embodied and openly stated his (and our) priorities:
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Mt 24:14)
For Jesus the kingdom of heaven was not about establishing an earthly kingdom. Nor was Jesus about defending or expanding the State of Israel. Jesus prophesied and lamented the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, calling his followers to flee to the mountains in the face of an invasion rather than take up arms (Lk 21:20-21). His lament came out of deep love for his Jewish brothers and sisters, who he and the Apostle Paul never gave up on– but never liberated or defended with the use of violence.
Jesus actively lived out his humble, non-violent, retaliatory love to the extreme, allowing himself to be condemned to death by his own people, and brutally executed by the Roman Empire. Jesus died on the cross to forever “break down the walls of division,” “abolishing in his flesh the enmity” (Eph 2:15), “putting to death the hostility” (Eph 2:16), “preaching peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who are near” (Eph 2:17).
Now is the time for followers of Jesus to make a clear and consistent break with normal human reasoning and justifications regarding violence and war. Otherwise, we present the world with a counter-witness to Jesus’ way of saving and announcing the kingdom of God!
In these polarizing times we must be careful to not bear witness from a place of judgment or condescension, but from a humble posture of seeking understanding, and informed solidarity with victims. Jesus leads the way in identifying with the victim by himself becoming a victim. He models extreme intercession, asking his Father to forgive the worst perpetrators of injustice and violence- those torturing and killing God himself!
In these times of war may our intercession and lamentation include Israelis and Palestinians, civilians and soldiers, Hamas and Hezbollah combatants, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Israeli Defense Force, children and adults, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. And while we’re at it let us include Russians and Ukrainians, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, believers and non-believers, and anyone else who’s on the other side of whatever lines we’ve drawn.
Our intercession will also lead us to denounce injustices, pursue concrete peace-building activities, advocacy for the vulnerable, and other prophetic actions. May these actions be deliberately informed by indiscriminate love that refuses evil and drives away all fear. In this way we will offer the world an alternative that looks more and more like overcoming evil with good, rather than being ourselves overcome by evil.
It is true that “the word of the cross is foolishness”—or looks like it! However please remember it looks that way “to those who are perishing.” In contrast, “to us who are being saved [those actively drawn to Jesus and his way] it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). May we knowingly embrace by faith the fragile-looking realism of the cross as God’s only weapon to defeat evil, and refuse all retaliatory violence.
Also check out “A Call for Repentance: An Open Letter from Palestinian Christians to Western Church Leaders and Theologians” here.