Friday, October 20, 2023

Gazing at Gaza

Several times in the last two weeks I have tried to write a response to the attack by Hamas upon Israel and the
subsequent attacks by Israel upon Gaza. Every time I have deleted what I wrote and started over. Words fail me. Whenever I see photos of Gaza today, I think back to my visit to Gaza thirty years ago. Much has changed since then, but much has remained the same.
 

I entered Gaza in a United Nations van with other clergy who were studying at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute outside Bethlehem. It felt like entering a prison camp. Inside the gate was squalor like I had never seen. Open sewers and despair on faces. I visited the same hospital that has recently been in the news because of the controversial bombing. It was founded as a Baptist mission hospital and still had Baptist missionaries working there. We visited a children’s ward. We shopped at a small Christian bookstore.  


These people and places are what come to mind when I read the news today. Gaza is not a news story to me. It is a memory. I wish I knew the solution to this never-ending war in the Holy Land between Palestinians and Israelis. All I know for sure is that present actions are sowing seeds for future wars.  


When I gaze at what is happening in Gaza, I see the epitome of the “us versus them” mentality that is present in so many countries these days, including my country. An antagonistic view of the world is destroying the United States from within and threatens to undo our democracy. Our brothers and sisters are seen as enemies. Our common humanity is lost among religious, moral, and political differences. 


I don’t know what the people in the Middle East must do to end the cycle of war, but I know what I must do. I will follow Jesus. When so many people are angry and vengeful, I will turn from anger. When so many people – including Christians – are lusting for political power and influence, I will follow the Way of Christ. Jesus sought neither power nor influence. When put on trial for treason and blasphemy, he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight…. But my kingdom is not of the world.” 


Yet Christians – both conservative and liberal, evangelical and progressive – talk and act as if Jesus’ kingdom is of this world and can only be achieved by fighting politically or militarily. One of the worst things that has happened in my lifetime is the Church’s abandonment of deep spirituality and choosing worldly strategies instead. Spiritual matters have been forgotten in favor of attempts to legislate morality. That is not the way of Jesus. 


What is the Way of Jesus? Read the Sermon on the Mount and you will find it. Read his parables and you will hear it. It is the way of the cross. It is turning the other cheek and not returning evil for evil. It is about taking the role of the servant, washing one another’s feet, and taking the lowest place. It is about unconditional love, including love of enemies.  


There will always be people – including Christians – who will employ worldly strategies to temporarily solve worldly problems. There will always be rulers and warriors, statesmen and politicians. They may keep evil temporarily at bay, but they never address the root problem. Jesus had another plan for his church.  

 

The apostle Paul said that our fight is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces. Jesus’ brother James wrote that the cause of wars is the war in the human heart. While most of the world thinks that one more war will solve the problem, let us address the root of all war. The problem is not “them,” whoever “they” may be. The problem is us. For that reason, the solution must begin with us.

 

Jesus is our commanding officer, and he has given us orders. He has commanded us to love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. Instead of hating and killing our enemies, he commands us, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  


That is countercultural. It is a radical approach. It is the way of the cross. To the world the way of the cross is foolishness. It is labeled impractical, na├»ve, and idealistic. It is ridiculed by the world as a recipe for disaster. It is seen as surrender to evil. That is why Jesus’ disciples abandoned him. They wanted to fight to prevent him from being arrested, but he told them to lay down their weapons.  


The way of Jesus conquered evil then, and it conquers evil now. There will always be those who choose the sword – or in our case the gun. But there is a need for some who will try a different approach, the way less traveled. There is a need for a company of spiritual warriors willing to take Jesus at his word and try the Way of God rather than the way of Caesar. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”