Where will it all end? How should we pray?
Hamas rockets rain down on Israel. Israeli missiles rain down on Gaza. There are endless prayers for peace, with less and less conviction that they will ever be answered. Competing national claims, backed by equally powerful national mythologies and discredited by equally poisonous nationalist extremists, are fought out to gain a little patch of ground that has no profit in it but the name. The human cost to the generations who have lived and died under the shadow of this conflict is immeasurable; the treasure and political capital expended incalculable; the depths of their leaders' folly unfathomable.
I wonder, though, whether all this hand-wringing adds up to much more than "It's all very sad"; and I think that Christians ought to be able to do better than that.
Let's be clear about the present context. According to one well-sourced statistic, since 2004 Hamas rockets have killed 28 Israelis, only one of them in the latest round of violence.
So far, according to Palestinian officials, 192 people have been killed in eight days of Israeli air strikes. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says that more than 1,150 people have been injured. Of the dead, at least 32 have been children. 17,000 people have fled their homes. Hundreds of houses have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Gazans have no water. At the time of writing, an Egypt-brokered truce has been accepted by Israel and rejected by Hamas. Each side accuses the other of playing tactical games.
Relief agencies like Christian Aid have called for an immediate cease-fire, which is fair enough. In itself, however, a ceasefire changes nothing, except for the few hundreds or thousands of Palestinians who might live a little longer because they are not being targeted by Israeli warplanes. The same sore is still running.
At an emotional and imaginative level, there are, I think, at least three possible responses to all this: and it is in the way that we critique our own responses and offer them to the judgment of God that we bring something specifically Christian to bear on the situation.
The first response is to demonise Israel. Despite the reputable news media's attempts at "balance", every picture from Gaza tells the same story: the teenager screaming his grief at the death of his father, shocked survivors picking through the rubble of their houses, wailing women. Israel has nothing to set against this. Gaza's present suffering – and the long history of the thwarted Palestinian struggle for nationhood – means that they are winning the war of public opinion hands down. But a truly Christian response recognises that identifying a whole nation as "bad" is as wrong and dangerous as identifying one as "good". Yes, there are currents of conviction flowing through particular nations at particular times which might be healthy or unhealthy: but we of all people should be able resist labelling individuals with the badge of their tribe. Israel lives daily with an existential threat; of course, arguably its position would be far more secure if it were less intransigent over Palestine; but that is the reality for its people. And we of all people should beware of rousing the light sleeper of anti-Semitism. I still recall the shock of hearing someone comment, in outrage at an Israeli air strike a few years ago which killed a Palestinian family, "Hitler should have finished the job."
The second is to offer Israel unquestioning support. Researching this article led me to some pretty unpleasant places. There are people who believe, for instance, that Israel should invade Gaza and kill everyone living there, and solve the problem for good (you really think so?). That's extreme; but there are plenty of Christian Zionists who appear willing to justify Israeli actions that fly in the face of all law and morality on the grounds that God promised the Land to them in the Bible; they can do what is necessary to defend their claim. But Christians need to critique this, too. When you start saying that wrong is right or that black is white because "God says so", you are blaspheming.
The third is to wash our hands of the whole business. It is filed in the "too difficult" drawer and effectively forgotten. In many ways, this is a tempting option. The issues at stake have defeated some of the best minds and the most talented politicians of the last 60 years. Why should we do any better? And of course, we can't: but that isn't the point. Part of Christian discipleship is a willingness to open ourselves to the pain of others, whether we have a solution or not. Prayer is not always about solving problems.
Neither, though, is it a substitute for either thought or action; and again, a Christian response requires both. If we are serious about thinking things through Christianly, for instance, we should acknowledge that Israel's attack on Gaza is a genuine attempt to deal with a genuine threat. It is almost certainly misguided, in the long term, even setting aside the moral questions; every death is a dragon's tooth sown in blood and springing up for revenge. But it is not to be compared with the massive and indiscriminate attacks on civilians carried out by, for instance, British and American bombers in the second world war.
We should acknowledge, too, the evil of Hamas and its satellites. Not only are they are ideologically committed to Israel's destruction, which makes them fundamentally uncertain partners in dialogue, but they are completely indifferent to Palestinian casualties. They launch their militarily useless rockets from thickly-inhabited areas to invite reprisals, knowing that the images which shout loudest about Israeli brutality are another propaganda victory. The scenes from Gaza might seem to belie this, but their best defence is Israeli restraint.
Where will it all end? How should we pray?
We do not know the answer to the first question. To the second, though: we should pray for peace in all the usual ways, but we should also pray for ourselves, that God would help us to think clearly, feel deeply and act justly. "Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?" (Mal 2. 10, ESV).