In response to ongoing war and violence, Bishop David Alan Bard calls us to rigorous discipleship as we open ourselves to new ideas, deeper acts of care, and fresh initiatives for peace…
On November 13, a group of Michigan United Methodists and I were scheduled to travel to the Holy Land. That trip has been postponed for understandable reasons. The Israeli government is now engaged in a war against Hamas in Gaza. The immediate precipitating event was the brutal Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. Over 1,400 Israelis were killed, including 260 attending a music festival. Over 200 hostages were taken back to Gaza.
In a pastoral letter on October 10, I wrote: “Let me be clear, these actions are morally unjustifiable and deserve condemnation.” To emphasize the point, I said such condemnation should be unambiguous.
In that brief letter, I also referred to the complex history, which provides the needed background for understanding everything happening. It is critically important to distinguish between gaining a deeper understanding of the historical context for current events and justifying an action. We can understand the historical context while simultaneously stating that there is no moral justification for these attacks on civilians, which included rape and torture.
We are now watching as Israel responds with incredible force. Again, it is important to understand some of the history of the Jewish people. The current state of Israel came into being following World War II and the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust. The Hamas attack occurred exactly 50 years after forces from Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, beginning the Yom Kippur War. The experience of the Jewish people as being ostracized, segregated, persecuted, and killed reaches much further back than the Holocaust, and recent attacks evoke that entire history.
One can understand something of the response of the Israeli government, and one can affirm the right of Israel to defend itself without morally justifying all that it is doing.
I don’t intend to offer commentary on every moment of this ongoing war. I am a bishop, not a politician. As a bishop, though, I make “a commitment to the teaching office” and “a prophetic commitment for the transformation of the Church and the world” (The Book of Discipline, ¶403). That latter sub-paragraph continues, “The role of the bishop is to be a prophetic voice for justice in a suffering and conflicted world through the tradition of social holiness.”
In this spirit, I want to remind us of the call of Jesus for his followers to be peacemakers. I want to remind us of Paul’s encouragement to “pursue what makes for peace” (Romans 14:19, NRSVue).
Here are some things we can do to pursue what makes for peace. Pray. Pray daily for peace. Israelis continue to grieve. There is deep grief in the Jewish community worldwide. The destruction and suffering in Gaza are incredible. Innocent people have been killed, and the grief among Palestinians is profound.
Along with prayer, we can encourage generous humanitarian aid to be provided for the Palestinian people and warring forces to allow for the delivery of needed food, medicine, and other supplies.
Peacemaking includes deepening our understanding of the history of this conflict. I have mentioned the long history of the persecution of Jewish people and the recent attacks against Israel. We also need to be aware of the history of Palestinian displacement in the creation of the modern state of Israel. We need to be aware of the injustices in the treatment of Palestinians and the violence perpetrated against them, for instance, by Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Intellectual engagement involves learning this history. I am convinced that if we take this complicated history seriously, we can avoid Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, which have increased since the beginning of this war.
Deep thinking that makes for peace also entails refraining from snap judgments when evidence may be lacking. A recent bombing of a hospital in Gaza was quickly attributed to an Israeli air strike. Evidence emerged suggesting that the bombing, which struck the hospital parking lot, may have been the result of a misfired Palestinian rocket. I encourage us to think deeply and accept the moral responsibility to be intelligent.
Such deep thinking also includes making important distinctions and considering important ideas. I have noted the crucial difference between understanding the context in which something happens and morally justifying an action. Here are some additional ideas I consider important. In Christian ethics, there is a tradition of considering under what circumstances resorting to war might be morally justifiable. The presumption is that war is morally unjustifiable except in certain circumstances. This tradition of thought is sometimes called “just war theory.” War is only justifiable when there is a justifiable cause, legitimate authorities engage in it, it is a last resort, aims are clear and declared, and it is a proportional response. In this thinking, if a war is justifiable, it must also be conducted in ways that are proportional, and the direct, intentional attack on noncombatants is prohibited.
This tradition of Christian thinking about war is often contested and debated. Can we really ever justify engaging in war? If we do, then some criteria should guide our conduct, and when I think about these criteria and the current state of the war between Israel and Hamas, I am deeply concerned. I am concerned by dehumanizing rhetoric. I am concerned about the civilian death toll in Gaza. I am concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. To support Israel’s right to defend itself cannot mean supporting anything it wants to do in the name of defense.
Among the most important things we can do, in addition to prayer, is to cultivate a heart of peace in ourselves and our communities of faith. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” In Luke 6, he says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” One way we can cultivate a heart of peace is by expanding our empathy. If we feel only the pain of the Israelis and the Jewish people, it is insufficient. I hold their pain in my heart, and I also need to hold the pain of innocent Palestinians. Parents grieving a dead child should be held in our hearts, regardless of their identity.
Expanding our empathy is a difficult discipline. The pain in the world is enormous. As I was preparing to write this essay, news was coming over the airwaves of another mass shooting, this one in Lewiston, ME. At least 18 people are dead and more injured in the worst mass shooting of the 566 mass shootings in the United States in 2023. This cannot be simply what it means to live in the United States.
Expanding our empathy will break our hearts, but by the grace of God, our hearts might be broken open to new ideas, deeper acts of care, and fresh initiatives for peace. We trust that our work in pursuing the things that make for peace will contribute something to the final work of God — a new heaven and a new earth, where the river of the water of life runs through the city of God. “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). The healing of the nations.