We need more than simplistic slogans for complex issues like Gaza

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The Warden is a novel by the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope that tells the story of what happened to the alms house called Hiram's Hospital in the fictional cathedral city of Barchester as the result of a campaign by the young journalist John Bold in a newspaper called The Jupiter (a fictional version of The Times).

Bold's campaign suggests that the £800 a year stipend paid to the Rev Septimus Harding, the Warden of the hospital, represents a misapplication of the funds of the hospital which, under the bequest of its founder, should be much more evenly divided between the Warden and the upkeep of the twelve inhabitants of the alms house.

Harding is a godly and conscientious man who takes good pastoral care of those who live in the alms house, but as a result of Bold's campaign he eventually retires as its Warden and the finances of Hiram's Hospital are duly reformed. However, this is not to the benefit of those who live there. As Trollope writes at the end of the novel:

'And how fared the hospital...? Badly indeed. It is now some years since Mr Harding left it, and the warden's house is still tenantless. Old Bell has died, and Billy Gazy; The one-eyed Spriggs has drunk himself to death, and three others of the twelve have been gathered into the churchyard mould. Six have gone and the six vacancies remain unfilled! Yes, six have died, with no kind friend to solace their last moments, with no wealthy neighbour to administer comforts and ease the stings of death. Mr Harding, indeed did not desert them, from him they had such consolation as a dying man may receive from his Christian pastor; but it was the occasional kindness of a stranger which ministered to them, and not the constant presence of a master, and neighbour, and a friend.

'Nor were those who remained better off than those who died. Dissensions rose among them, and contests for pre-eminence; and then they began to understand that someone among them would be the last – some one wretched being would be alone there in that now comfortless hospital - the miserable relic of what once had been so good and so comfortable.'

As the OUP edition of The Warden notes, in the novel Trollope uses the specific case he describes 'to illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and behaviour.' In the novel John Bold is a good man and his campaign to reform the finances of Hiram's Hospital is motivated by a genuine belief that the wishes of its founder are not being properly honoured and that justice demands that steps are taken to rectify this situation. However, the result of his single-minded adherence to this principle leads to great unintended harm to the inhabitants of the alms house who think Mr Bold is going to make them rich, but who just end up miserable.

The reason I mention this novel is because I think it points to an important truth for all those engaged in Christian ethical thinking, which is that you need to take into account the potential consequences of what you are proposing. Christians need to constantly ask the question 'What will happen if...?' and not support a particular course of action until they have taken into account all the foreseeable answers to that question.

The application of this truth seems to me to be highlighted by two issues which are prominent at the moment: the conflict in Gaza and the issue of climate change. In both cases not enough attention seems to be being given by Christians to the question 'What will happen if....?'

In the case of the conflict in Gaza there is a temptation for Christians to put forward a simplistic answer to what is happening there. The standard Church of England position, for example, seems to be summarised in the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent call for 'an immediate ceasefire, for the release of hostages and for unimpeded humanitarian aid to reach the people of Gaza.' At first sight it may seem to be obvious that this is exactly what Christians should want to happen. People in both Gaza and Israel are suffering. The steps suggested by the Archbishop would relieve this suffering. Therefore, they are what should happen.

However, if we push the 'What will happen if... ?' question, we find that things are not that simple. The problem is that all the evidence we have indicates that the priority for the leadership of Hamas is to survive the war and to increase their standing within the Palestinian community, and the Arab world more generally, in order to have a better opportunity to pursue their goal of the destruction of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic state. Just as Mr Putin is fixated on seeking to destroy Ukraine, so the leadership of Hamas is fixated on destroying Israel.

This means that their condition for releasing the hostages and for stopping the fighting (thus creating the necessary conditions for unimpeded humanitarian aid) is, as they have repeatedly said, both the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and the complete and permanent withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. The problem with the former is that it would mean people who are guilty of various serious offences, including acts of terrorism, will go free and be able to commit their crimes again, and the problem with the latter is that it will enable Hamas to re-group, re-arm and resume its war against Israel, thus setting the scene for more conflict and more suffering in the future.

Furthermore, there is the wider problem that, just as the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan in 2021 has led to increased jihadist activity around the world on the basis that the Taliban showed that such activity could be successful, so there is the danger that a perceived defeat of Israel and its Western backers by Hamas will again encourage more radical Islamic activity around the world, thus causing more people to suffer and die.

The difficult question that has to be asked, and which Christians need to work with others to find an answer to, is how it is possible to achieve an end to the current fighting in Gaza, the release of the surviving hostages taken on 7 October and the return of the bodies of those who are dead, and immediate relief and long-term reconstruction to help the civilian inhabitants Gaza, without having any of the negative consequences just outlined. Arguably what does not help to achieve these goals is the simplistic repetition of slogans that do not help to answer this difficult question. Silence and prayer while the diplomats try to do their job would be a better approach for Christians to adopt.

Turning to the issue of climate change, there is a temptation for Christians to see both the problem and the solution in simplistic terms. The problem is seen in terms of a disastrous climate crisis caused by 'anthropogenic global warming' resulting from the release of greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution. The answer is seen in terms of stopping releasing greenhouse gases (a move to 'Net Zero') with this being achieved by a change in people's lifestyles and a move to renewable energy.

The temptation to see things in this way needs to be rejected for two reasons.

First, in spite of the fact that we are often told that 'the science is settled' with regard to climate change this is in fact not true. As Garth Paltridge puts it in his helpful paper on the subject:

'While there is certainly a consensus among scientists that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase the average surface temperature of the world above what it would have been otherwise, there is far from a consensus that the rise in temperature will be large enough to be significant. (Bear in mind also that 'what the temperature would have been otherwise' is also subject to natural variability and is therefore very uncertain). There is even less of a consensus among scientists, environmentalists and economists that any rise of temperature would necessarily be detrimental.'

Secondly, there are major 'What will happen if....?' questions attached to the attempt to move to Net Zero that have yet to be answered satisfactorily. Three examples will serve to illustrate this.

First, a slogan that is currently being bandied around is 'Just stop oil' , a slogan which is shorthand for a halt to oil and gas extraction and use. The problem is that there is no satisfactory answer being put forward to the question of how to avoid such a move having appalling consequences. Given that the world economy is currently heavily dependent on oil and gas in all sorts of ways, the most plausible scenario is that if the slogan was taken literally and oil and gas extraction and use was halted immediately, this would lead in very short order to economic collapse, social collapse, and consequent mass starvation.

Secondly, no one has yet satisfactorily answered the question of how renewable energy can provide a reliable alternative to the use of coal, oil and gas. At the moment the technology does not appear to exist to make this happen. Furthermore, the creation of the technology needed to provide 'clean green energy' can itself have a damaging environmental impact, as in the case of the pollution caused by mining the lithium needed for batteries.

Thirdly, it seems to be generally agreed that the move to Net Zero would involve a period of major economic transition and the question that has not yet been satisfactorily answered is how this transition will avoid the kind of hardship associated with other times of economic transition in the past. We know, for instance, that although the Industrial Revolution had long term economic benefits, at the time it caused enormous amounts of suffering, and the question is how we can avoid that pattern being repeated. A pledge to create well paid green jobs is a promise, not an explanation.

Christians need to be assiduous in asking these questions and other similar questions raised by the current climate debate.

What these two cases of the conflict in Gaza and climate change illustrate is that Christians need to be people who press the hard questions. They should not just go along with the mantras of surrounding society, but instead use their God-given reason to help encourage the hard thinking necessary to build a better world in accordance with the will of God.