Can Israel love its enemies in Gaza and keep its people safe?

I realize I’ve had blogorrhea lately about the Gaza crisis. This is probably my last piece on it, taking a more theological angle considering Jesus’ command to love your enemies as a pragmatic foreign policy strategy and also proposing that we understand Satan to be the Great Terrorist who makes us all terrorists to varying degrees according to our influences, privilege, desperation, and access to tools of violence. I’m cautiously hopeful because the Israel/Gaza ceasefire scheduled for 2 pm EST today includes two provisions that I suggest in this piece. That’s why I decided to go ahead and post it. Please pray for peace.

Many of my fellow Christians see Jesus’ command to “love our enemies” as an impossible moral standard that we are exempted from fulfilling by accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. What’s even more ludicrous to many is to claim that Jesus’ teachings are relevant not only in private life but in the most complex geopolitical situations. I am convinced that loving your enemies is not only a moral standard but could be a very successful foreign policy strategy, even though it gets laughed out of the room by the same people who claim to advocate “Biblical” values in our government. What would loving your enemies look like in the greatest foreign policy crisis in the world now? What would it look like for Israel to love Gaza?

The first objection that other Christians make when I propose this in conversations online is to say that loving your enemies amounts to “appeasing” them like Neville Chamberlain did to Hitler in the 1930’s. But this is a misunderstanding of love in the Biblical sense. Ephesians 4:15 tells us to “speak the truth in love,” because love and truth cannot be separated. In a marital relationship, “appeasing” an abusive spouse is not loving. So a call upon Israel to love Gaza is not a call for appeasement; it’s a call to treat Gazans with unilateral, unconditional dignity, which does not have to do with abdicating your responsibility to protect your citizens, but rather to replace the logic of retribution with pragmatism in dealing with your security threats.

For example, the rocket attacks from Gaza have shown that Israel’s blockade of Gaza has utterly failed to achieve its stated objective of preventing weapons from entering the country, though it has destroyed the Gazan economy and caused an unemployment rate of almost 30%. Young men who are unemployed and have no hope for the future become terrorists. From a pragmatic standpoint, it makes the most sense for Israel to end the blockade. This is consistent with Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that economic development is the solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But many would object to removing the Gaza blockade because they see it under the logic of retribution as “rewarding” the terrorists.

In the Hebrew Bible which Christians and Jews share as scripture, Proverbs 25:21-22 says: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” These “burning coals” are the seeds of conviction. When you treat your enemy with unilateral dignity, you make it possible for your enemy to see your humanity. This is not weakness; this is power deployed subversively as love. As long as the conflict remains a battle of wills, the more that Israel deploys its overwhelming firepower punitively in Gaza, the more that every Palestinian’s existential survival is defined as a refusal to let Israel win, which means that barring genocide, the rockets will never stop.

One belief that Jews and Christians share is that there is a thing in the universe that is the source of all evil. The ancient Hebrews called this thing the satan, the “accuser” or the “heckler.” The Greeks called it diabolos, which is a compound word combining ballo, “to throw,” with dia, “amidst,” rendering a translation of “bomb-thrower,” or if you prefer, the Great Terrorist. Satan, the Great Terrorist, wreaks havoc on humanity by throwing spiritual and physical bombs in our midst that cause us define other people, whom Satan might be using to throw his bombs, as terrorists who don’t deserve to live.

The broader the range of people you define as terrorists unfit to live, the more thoroughly you serve the Great Terrorist. The reason that Hamas commits terrorism against Israel is because they have defined all Israelis, civilian and military, as terrorists who don’t deserve to live. While this is absurdly evil and unjust, Israel contributes to this mentality with its policy that not only can Hamas members be assassinated at any time without trial or warning, but their families don’t deserve to live either, at least not in their homes. Most of the civilian casualties in the recent Gaza flare-up have been the result of deliberately bombing the houses of Hamas members’ families. Making a robocall to the house in advance may give the Israeli military spokesperson a talking point, but it hasn’t prevented civilian casualties.

Furthermore, the practice of extrajudicial assassination itself is problematic from a pragmatic standpoint. The military chief of Hamas, Ahmed Jabari, was killed while in the process of negotiating a ceasefire, which triggered a furious retribution in response. Jabari’s relationships with the other rocket-launching fringe groups in Gaza who are way more radical than Hamas was the reason that ceasefires were possible in the past. His death is why they may be impossible in the future.

What Christians believe is that every single one of us needs to be rescued from the Great Terrorist. Nobody is irredeemably trapped in his clutches. Those of us who have escaped must put forward every effort to help liberate those who haven’t. Christians believe that we are saved from the retribution cycle that is Satan’s death-trap for humanity through Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins and the sins of everyone who has hurt us. Because Jesus paid the price for all sin, I gain the freedom to admit my mistakes without losing face and to treat my enemies with unilateral dignity regardless of how much evil they inflict on me.

There is nothing more powerful than responding to hate with love. And since I believe that Jesus defeated Satan through the cross, I believe love can indeed defeat hate even without the intervention of some kind of fire and brimstone finale by which God inverts the logic of the cross to finish the job as though Jesus’ work were inadequate. I remain unconvinced that John the Revelator’s vision for the fall of the Roman Empire has to be the destiny of humanity instead of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah’s vision of a Zion where swords are bent into plowshares (Isaiah 2:2-4).

I’m not saying that Israeli Jews need to become Christian. Based on what I have read from Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler and Immanuel Levinas, the Jewish tradition has its own resources for understanding the power of love over hate better than most Christians do, at least in America. But knowing the beauty of Jewish thought, I ask the same question that King Jehoshaphat asked King Ahab in 1 Kings 22: “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord in Israel?” Someone in Israel needs to be the Micaiah ben Imlah from that story and declare that the path of endless retribution will never result in victory.

Israel can be a better agent for peace when they are willing to do more than appease the consciences of their benefactors with precision weaponry. They need not compromise their security to engage in good faith acts of genuine care for their enemies’ dignity and flourishing of life. I don’t know how to reason with Hamas, but I know that people in Israel believe in Zion, the mountain of God’s peace that Isaiah dreamed about. It is not a mountain built with checkpoints and barbed wire fences, but one built by God through the power of His love. All the nations will stream to it when the Great Terrorist is banished from their midst forever.

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