If you’re like me, your first response to the news that emerges from Palestine is profound sadness at the horror that this war is creating. The news is awful, it is heavy, and it involves so many innocent people suffering. In our age of disinformation, mass confusion often accompanies mass chaos leaving us not only broken on behalf of the people caught in the middle but bewildered as to what’s right and what’s true. I am in no way an expert on the situation (links to resources can be found at the bottom of this page) there and the first thing any expert tells you about this situation is how utterly entangled and complex this conflict truly is. But, I also think it important to provide whatever clarity I can to help us as a church to be people who hold to truth and justice wherever we can see that clearly and who humbly acknowledge “we don’t know” and to trust God when the situation is far murkier.
I think there are some things that we can know. Hamas is a terrorist organization that has significant footholds in Palestine but they are a brutal minority that does not constitute the whole of the Palestinian people. They have equal disregard for both Israelis and their own people and committed heinous atrocities against the Israeli people in October 7th, 2023. Their actions were evil and should be condemned by government and citizen alike.
The Israeli government, understandably has declared war and responded (I say understandable not from a theological vantage point but from a geopolitical vantage point)). The Israeli government has harsh policies limiting many freedoms directed towards those Palestinians in the West Bank. Most Palestinians are not combatants and have now been swept up into the response of the Israeli government whose officially stated mission is to try and completely defeat and dismantle Hamas. The Israeli government has been reckless at times, not strategic in their offensives that have often, again horribly, resulted in the death of many civilians, mostly women and children.
And that is just skimming the surface of the current state of affairs. Obviously, so much history and so many decades has led to the way things are today.
The Kingdom of God And The Kingdoms Of This World
A couple more things are important. Perhaps you grew up in a church tradition that conflated the people of Israel in the scriptures with the secular nation-state of Israel established in 1948. Underlying this conflation is the notion that Christians should support Israel no matter what. My hope is, especially given that we’ve been in a teaching series on the Kingdom of God, that we would know as Jesus people that we do not fully endorse the activities of any nation government be that Israel, America, or anyone else. Our call as Christians is to bear witness to the kings of this world that a new kingdom has dawned. Psalm 110 is the most often quoted and alluded to Old Testament Scripture in the New Testament.
Psalm 110vv1-2; 6
The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath”
He will execute judgment among the nations,
The New Testament writers knew that the gospel of Jesus stood as a signal that all the kingdoms of the world were to be relativized under the reign of the one true lord: the Son of God. Jesus’ contemporaries hailed Jesus as a conquering king on Palm Sunday with the expectation that he might establish a new kingdom of this world where the perceived promises to David were fulfilled and the pagan nations were judged and defeated. But, he doesn’t lead a bloody uprising, rather he gives of his own blood. As Jesus reminds Pilate and continually reminds us, my kingdom is not from this world.
Moving Towards A Response
The phrase “the right side of history” looms large in our cultural discourse and we all want to conceive of ourselves as people who are both informed and just. But if that information and impulse towards justice leaves us condoning evil as good, we must ask questions of the quality of that information. Pilate’s question to Jesus during his trial, “what is truth?” Is laden with both cynicism and power and it is a question that is put to us again and again.
The question of truth has been answered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “I am,” Jesus says, “the way, the truth, and the life.” This affirmation of truth, in the word of God made flesh, should ground our responses in these grey zone moments. Jesus’ way, truth, and life is not a zero-sum game where we can only allocate so much resistance to evil on one side while needing to acquiesce and accommodate to it on the other. Because we are people of the resurrected Christ who condemned death by conquering death by death, we can stare in the face of the events of October 7th and call them unequivocally evil. Because we serve the God who lived out his days as a human as a member of an oppressed people, we can unequivocally condemn the actions of the Israeli government that continue to place innocent Palestinians in harm’s way.
This willingness to condemn both sides in their evil is not being wishy-washy or refusing to take a side. It is acknowledging that there is another way in the midst of violence and conflict. Jesus in refusing to lead a revolution against the Romans was not adopting the Roman imperial view, he condemned the Roman power by overcoming their ultimate instrument of authority, the cross, by his own suffering love. Jesus in confronting the Romans did not automatically endorse the aspirations of the revolutionaries. Rather, Jesus demonstrated love, for the Romans, the religious leaders, and all of humanity when he prayed “Father, forgive them they don’t know what they are doing.”
So how do we respond?
We lament. Part of our uncertainty in times like these comes from the simple, haunting reality that there is not a thing we can do. We are overwhelmed in the face of evil and suffering at scale and we are helpless. But we are not called to be vindicators of vengeance, freedom fighters, judge, or jury. We are called to be witnesses—to bear witness to the reality of the kingdom. When we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done…” this is not simply an expression of hope it is an expression of longing, of lament. Things are not as they should be. N.T. Wright reminds us: " Part of our primary calling as followers of Jesus is to lament: to stand in the place of pain in humility sorrow and hope….If the Spirit of God does indeed fill the whole world, then what the spirit is mostly doing right now is grieving. And groaning" (N.T. Wright, The Heart of Romans) Lament is a refusal to forget pain that is not our own. It is, in some mysterious, faith-oriented way, to carry the sorrow of this world to the one who will heal it all.
We pray for peace to reign. We pray for a cease-fire, for diplomacy, for the war to stop. This will protect the most people and will prevent the war from cascading. We pray for leaders (1 Timothy 2v2).
We pray for clarity and truth to reign. The story of Rees Howells has always captured my imagination because of the way that he stood against the regime of Hitler and Naziism through prayer. If you know anything about the 1930’s, they were no less confusing times than our own. People would hear news out of Germany and many were deceived into thinking the Nazi’s were somehow honorable. The German church was largely co-opted by the project of the Third Reich. But there were people who saw the landscape clearly and saw the aims of Hitler for what they were: evil. Rees Howells led a group at The Bible College of Wales to intercede in prayer against the Nazi’s.
We humbly acknowledge what we don’t know. There’s so much to this situation, so much information, so much genuine storytelling and suffering, and so much propaganda and disinformation.
We neighbor. I like the concept of neighboring as a verb. Do you have Jewish classmates or Muslim classmates, coworkers, or neighbors? What kindness could you show to say that I see you, I am here. How can you be a peacemaker in the world that you walk in? We refuse to choose sides, we read the story of the Good Samaritan and see how Jesus is calling us to be a neighbor to those who (if we’re honest) our initial impulse towards them might be stereotyping, mistrust, or othering.
We hope. Our hope is not in regimes, leaders, the right side of history, revolutions, and empires. Our hope is in the one who is seated at the right hand of God almighty (Acts 1), the resurrected Lord who has poured out his Spirit (Acts 2), so that all the people of the earth might know him and know that he is God. There will be a day when wars cease to the ends of earth at the uttering of his voice (Psalm 46). This is not disembodied, pie-in-the sky sentimentality, this is a radical defiance of the way things are.
I leave you with one of the central passages of the New Testament which expresses this hope, this longing and the love of God so beautifully:
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor, 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what one already sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ who died, or rather, who was raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Preston Sprinkle has gathered opinions from a wide variety of Christians and others (including Palestinians and Israelis) on his podcast, "Theology in the Raw."
I find Derek Thompson to be consistently adept at wading through complex topics. His podcast here (note: not a Christian)
Bishara Awad is remarkable Palestinian Christian and the founder of the Bethlehem Bible College. His book reflects on his experiences here.