Gaza and the Failure of the Church

In David P. Gushee’s In The Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013, there are two essays back to back about genocide. First published in 2002, “The Church, the Nazis, and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration” examines the roles of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Europe in the Nazi era to see how they could have failed so spectacularly to thoroughly denounce and subvert the Holocaust. He points out that even the Confessing Church, that thorn in Hitler’s side with leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke out primarily against the Nazi attempts to control the church, not against the Nazis’ plan for the Jews, and very few leaders (with Bonhoeffer being an exception) connected these two issues. At the same time, the debate between historians of the Catholic church during that period on whether or not Pope Pius XII did enough, or anything at all, to stop the Holocaust is still fierce, but it’s clear that the Vatican’s political role hampered his ability to denounce and work against the Nazis.

Right next to this is an essay, first published in 2004, called “Remembering Rwanda: Lessons from the Church’s Complicity in Genocide,” which points out that 90% of Rwandans self-identified as Christian at the time of the Rwandan genocide. I had no idea, and that number stuns me.

There are a number of reasons, in both cases, for the inaction of the church; and it occurred to me as I read these essays that those same reasons likely still stand today in the church’s response to the conflict in Israel. I want to be clear at the beginning: in spite of claims on both sides, neither side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is carrying out genocide. Genocide is, according to Dictionary.com, the “deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” The word was invented to describe the Holocaust, and is very applicable to what happened in Rwanda. Hamas has killing Jews as part of its charter and states it in such a way that genocide is implied, but this charter was written in 1988 and has since been declared irrelevant and outdated by Hamas leadership – nor is Hamas in a position to actually carry out a genocide even if they still wanted to. Israel, on the other hand, has all of the means to carry out a genocide, and could have done so a hundred times over if they chose to; charges of genocide against Israel are naive at best, but are consistently used to undermine Israel and those who support Israel in the eyes of the international community.

So no matter which way you slice it, this is not a genocide. But that doesn’t mean that the church has done a good job of responding to it, and I think we’ve been failing for the same reasons that we failed in Germany and Rwanda. So let’s look at a few of them now, instead of in hindsight.

1. Political entanglements.

In Nazi Germany, the church was state-sanctioned. The Nazis were able to control the Protestant church through its association with the state: pastors were paid by the state, and the mainline Protestant church was quickly co-opted into a state church that assimilated Christianity into Nazism. The Protestants who resisted the Nazis were so busy fighting for their independence from the state that they lacked the social capital to actually speak out against the treatment of the Jews, and those who finally did (with notable exceptions) waited way too long: it doesn’t seem quite enough to speak out about the mistreatment of an entire people group only at the point of them being corralled for killing. And even then, most were silent, or worse, more directly complicit. On the Catholic side, the Pope tried to maintain neutrality during the war, not only to act as an intermediary for diplomatic solutions but also to keep the Vatican from being a military target; because the Pope was both a religious leader and a political leader (Vatican City is a mini-nation), he had a conflict of interest, and his role as a political leader won out over his religious mandate to care for the oppressed.

I don’t know much about the status of the church in Rwanda, but Gushee mentions that it had a very cozy relationship with government, to the point where its interests were intertwined with the government’s interests and it was unable to speak out against government actions.

The nation of Israel was founded by Western governments (Britain) and is still supported by Western governments (USA, Canada, etc.), but there has always been an element of Christian Zionism in the founding and support of Israel. Some people claim that it was and is the primary element of support for Israel; this isn’t true, but the role of Christian Zionism isn’t unimportant, and I mention it here because it is the way that the church is tied up with politics. The word Zionism is used to describe the position of supporting a Jewish state in Israel, but religious Zionism – including Christian Zionism – is the belief that the existence of a Jewish state fulfills biblical prophecies and is one of the signs of, or will even bring about, the imminent coming/return of the Messiah. Jewish Zionists in Israel continue to build settlements in the West Bank, believing that they are accomplishing God’s promise of giving them the land as in the book of Joshua; Christian Zionists support Israel, believing that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is one of the signs of the second coming of Christ; and the government of Israel, which is always a coalition, hangs on the swing-vote of the Zionists and therefore generally can’t risk stopping the settlements, which are the most contentious issue in peace talks. Obama has taken a fairly hard line against settlements in the US’s latest attempts at getting peace talks started again, but faces tremendous pressure from Zionist Christians and Jews in the US because of it. So even though Zionist Christians are relatively few in number, their religiously-motivated support for Israel undercuts the entire peace process, as well as the voice of the church against the atrocities being committed on both sides of this conflict.

2. Political theology.

There is a passage in Romans that says that Christians should obey the government. This passage, and the rest of Scripture, puts some pretty major limits on such obedience, but historically it hasn’t been interpreted that way. The German church during WWII soundly believed that the state was God-ordained, and that obedience to the state was a Christian duty and virtue, to the point where they would proudly enlist to fight a war that they couldn’t help but believe in. One of Bonhoeffer’s biggest challenges was that many of his seminary students willingly enlisted, or didn’t utilize their exemption from the draft as pastors.

This misinterpretation of Romans has led to an inherent church complicity in the actions of the state. I can only imagine that some version of this was true in Rwanda, and it’s certainly true in Israel. This misinterpretation is also at the heart of just war theory at its worst, legitimizing anything the government does in war and stopping the church from speaking out against it. Many Christians, even those who aren’t Zionists, have difficulty thinking of a government as unjust, even if it’s committing atrocities.

There’s also a general lack of awareness of the nature of the Powers and Principalities of this world, or what becomes of governments treated as idols. A revival in this theology came about after WWII, as a way of attempting to explain the Holocaust on a spiritual/theological/social/psychological level. Walter Wink has recently been the biggest voice in this area of theology, and points out that we’re all complicit in systems of violence, and that we’re all also victims of such systems of violence. The Domination System takes on a life of its own, and its power is greater than that of any political or religious leader. It takes collective action and resistance to overturn such a system, but the church has neglected its purpose as the nexus of such resistance, leaving those who are being killed by this system to form their own resistance – which of course only feeds the conflict further.

3. Racism

The church was actively antisemitic for way, way too long. Gushee points out that there was nothing the Nazis said about the Jews that the church hadn’t already been saying for years. It’s absolutely shameful, and it fed the antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust, and that same antisemitism and lies about the Jewish people are still used in many Arab countries today.

The church in Rwanda was part of the colonial system that set up arbitrary and racist social systems in Rwanda.

The church today is party to antisemitism, even among the Zionists. Christian Zionism is, effectively, Christians supporting the Jews as a means to an end. Christian Zionism tends to come from the same churches that believe in dispensationalism, which is a doctrine that holds that the age of the Jews is over and that they have been replaced by the Church. Many Zionists love Jews as a way to convert them, or as a way to bring Jesus back, but not for their own sake. This is not true of all Christian Zionists, but there’s an uncritical assumption among many Christian Zionists about the reasons they support Israel, and it’s subtly antisemitic. To put it another way, it objectifies Jewish people. And of course there are still those out there, Christians included, who are still just openly antisemitic. The church in general is not speaking out about antisemitism.

But more obviously, the church today is party to Islamophobia. Groups like ISIS only reinforce this, but we’re responsible for the way that we reduce all Muslims to a single, homogenous group in the way we think and talk about them. There are about a billion Muslims in the world, and we imply that most of them are terrorists in the way that we talk about them. Many Christians in the West have no idea that there are Arab Christians in Palestine; we assume that Arabs are all Muslim, and Muslims are all bent on genocide of non-Muslims. The church has done little or nothing to combat this racist, Islamophobic attitude.

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So there’s my quick analysis of how the church, in general, is failing. I’m happy to commend Pope Francis for his subtle yet obvious criticisms of both sides of the conflict on his recent trip to the Holy Land, but the rest of us need to get on top of this. I’ll end with a quote from Gushee:

To oppose Nazism with unmitigated passion as a vicious idolatry; to weep with sorrow over the humiliation and then the destruction of the Jews of Europe; to disobey Nazi laws and risk everything to “rescue those being led away to death” — these were the passions and the actions that the times demanded of the Christian churches from 1933 to 1945. We know that now. A very few knew it then. What will be known in 2050 about what we should have known and done in 2002? – Gushee, In the Fray, 51.

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Gaza, ISIS, and Two Types of Just War

I’m currently reading In the Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013 by David P. Gushee, a series of essays and addresses in a variety of ethical topics and issues. Today I read “Just War Divide: One Tradition, Two Views”, written in 2002 just before the US invaded Iraq again, and it got me thinking about the possibility of a third Iraq invasion on the horizon.

Gushee points out that Just War theory has been divided into what he refers to as “soft”, or “dovish” views of just war, and “hard” or “hawkish” views. He then gives an example of each view. I’ll give you his definitions of the two views, followed by more contemporary examples from Gaza and Iraq today. First, “soft” just war:

Soft just war theory is characterized by seven key components: a strongly articulated horror of war; a strong presumption against war; a skepticism about government claims; the use of just war theory as a tool for citizen discernment and prophetic critique; a pattern of trusting the efficacy of international treaties, multilateral strategies and the perspectives of global peace and human rights groups and the international press; a quite stringent application of just war criteria; and a claim of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 32.

Soft just war theory starts with the notion that war is hell. Gushee later points out that soft just war theory developed in the 20th century, in large part in response to the horrors of the wars of that century. The fact that he separates between articulating the horror of war and having a presumption against war may seem strange: if war is awful, why wouldn’t we presume against it? Starting with the presumption that war is horrific, even evil, soft just war theory sees the criteria of just war as a criteria for the limitation of war: if war cannot be carried out justly, it should not be carried out at all. Gushee goes on to describe hard just war theory:

Hard just war theory reverses these emphases, replacing them with the following: a presumption against injustice and disorder rather than against war; a presumption that war is tragic but inevitable in a fallen world, and that war is a necessary task of government; a tendency to trust the US government and its claims for the need for military action; an emphasis on just war theory as a tool to aid policymakers and military personnel in their decisions; an inclination to distrust the efficacy of international treaties and to downplay the value of international actors and perspectives; a less stringent or differently oriented application of some just war criteria; and no sense of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 33.

Hard just war theory sees war as a necessary evil, a regular function of government as a way of keeping the evils of injustice and disorder in check. This is where references to Hitler usually come into play: what’s more evil, to kill thousands of people in a war, or to not go to war and let millions of people die at the hands of a radical dictator or terrorist group? Governments have the responsibility to protect their people, and some would argue that they even have the responsibility to punish those who would attack their people (Gushee points out that this was argued as a reason for the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11). Starting with such presumptions, hard just war theory sees theĀ criteria of just war as a criteria for the justification of war: war must be waged, and should be waged as justly as possible.

Before continuing to the examples, make sure you take a look at the criteria of just war. There has never, in the history of the world, been a war that meets all of these criteria; yet even the most pacifist of us, with the benefit of hindsight and recognizing the life we enjoy today, may be willing to admit that there are some wars that we’re glad were fought. I think I would insert into Gushee’s analysis, then, a difference in the way that the word “just” is understood: soft just war theorists would argue that no war is just, even if war is necessary; while hard just war theorists would maintain that the ends justify the means, i.e., that a war is actually just in the sense of being morally acceptable if it is waged for the right reasons and in the most humane and effective ways possible.

Now take a look at the current conflict in Gaza. Israel and her allies tend to lean pretty heavily on hard just war theory, which Gushee points out is natural for any government to do: he notes that we tend to hold the position on just war that best aligns with our loyalties. Those loyal to a state or military body are naturally going to have their reasoning affected by that loyalty. In Israel, every male and a large portion of the female population is a member of the military; further, their ethnic identity is tied with their national identity, as Israel is a Jewish state. Even further, they have reason to understand their survival and continued existence as a part of that Jewish identity, as from the moment Israel became a nation they have been subject to attack from neighbouring nations whose explicit aim was to completely destroy them for racial and religious reasons – so loyalty to the state and the military can be seen as inherent to cultural and religious identity for Jewish Israelis.

On the other side of the conflict, hard just war theory (of a different sort) also rules: Palestinian governments and militant groups such as the PLO, Palestinian Authority, and Hamas have all at different times and to different degrees justified their militant stances. The difference is that they pay no lip service to just war criteria, and work within revolutionary frameworks that include guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, kidnappings and torture, and targeting civilians. Make no mistake, Western governments do this too (Israel is surely no exception); we just claim that we don’t. In any case, the Palestinian governments’ concept of just war is much broader, with no restrictions on methodology but instead deriving its justification entirely from right reasons for war: being oppressed on one hand, and (at least to extreme conservative islamists) the existence of a Jewish state in a Muslim holy land on the other.

International parties in this conflict aren’t quite so firmly on the side of hard just war theory. The US government affirms Israel’s right to defend itself, but is more insistent that other means of conflict resolution be at least attempted (Canada hasn’t said much in that regard, to my shame). Other nations condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza, but support the Palestinians’ rights to defend themselves. Of course, both nations are defending themselves by offensive means, attacking their neighbour as a way of defending against them, and this is deemed justifiable only by the most “hawkish” of just war theorists.

International groups and individuals are more prone to supporting Palestine than most national governments are. Hamas began as a (terrorist) militia, and other militant forces around the world support their struggle openly and verbally, while governments who support them do so secretly and with smuggled shipments of weapons. Individuals who have no connection to the conflict except through news reports online are more commonly soft just war theorists: Paul Estrin, the now former president of the Green Party of Canada, wrote a blog post in which he lamented the entire war, and even recognized several of Israel’s faults in the conflict, but implied that if Hamas didn’t change their aim of eradicating Israel that Israel would be justified in taking more severe measures. His whole post seemed a long way short of pacifism on one hand, and yet there was nothing “hawkish” in his view that Israel would be right to defend itself. Even so, there were immediate calls for his removal based on his so-called support for “genocide” (the implication being that Israel is engaged in genocide, and therefore any support of Israel was support of genocide). So even people who have no connection to the conflict other than being a human being on planet earth are regularly expressing some form or other of just war theory in support of either side of this conflict.

The Israel/Palestine conflict, to me, gives support to soft just war theory. I’m a pacifist, but when I see that there are elements on both sides of this conflict who won’t stop until the other side is annihilated, I can’t help but think that perhaps defensive violence may be necessary. If that defensive violence could be used in a just way as defined by the criteria of just war, I might be won over to soft just war theory from my current pacifist stance. I recognize that my pacifism is easy, given that I’m not currently under threat. Even so, the convoluted nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict suggests to me that a pacifist response is possible: both sides can recognize that they’re guilty of atrocities toward each other; both sides can recognize that they’re not gaining any ground by fighting; and both sides could at least in theory agree to simply stop fighting. I think this would require that both governments agree to more tightly control their citizens, as the extremists on both sides are the ones who keep the fighting going, but I think that would in many ways be more just than trying to exercise strict control on each other. So I still have some hope for a pacifist option, but in general Gaza makes me think that perhaps soft just war theory is justifiable.

Then ISIS happened. Everywhere I look online these days I see news stories about ISIS (an extremist militant islamist organization) murdering Christians in Iraq, even beheading children. My first thought whenever I see a story like this is about the Christians, my people: “Lord, please help those poor innocent people.” My second thought is about ISIS: “Someone needs to kill those motherfuckers.” Not particularly Christian or pacifist of me, is it? Of course, my sudden swing toward thinking that violence is justified is, as Gushee pointed out, a product of my loyalty to the group in question. It’s also due to the nature of ISIS: they’re a completely unaccountable group that seems to function on mob mentality and religious fervor, and shows absolutely no restraint. This is as near to radical evil as I’ve ever seen in this world, the kind of evil that doesn’t follow the rules of war, the kind of evil that can’t be reasoned with. This is mass-possession, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since…Hitler. And I’ve come full circle, back to the argument that war is justifiable if it’s fought for the right reasons, and that it’s better to kill a few thousand members of ISIS than to let them slaughter Christians for no cause.

Knowing that I have this kind of reaction is helpful, I think. It helps me to identify with those who justify war without immediately resorting to inflammatory and dismissive terms like “warmongers”. It helps me to step down off of my high horse as I offer opinions on the internet regarding the wars of the world from my comfortable couch in Canada. And it helps me to consider the true cost of pacifism, as well as the true potential of non-violent resistance, because all too often we treat pacifism as an ideal that gets thrown out the window as soon as the first shot is fired by our enemies. If we’re going to hold a soft just war position, we need to do so not as a failed attempt at pacifism, but rather as a principled and self-controlled approach to self-defense or the defense of others. And if we’re going to hold a hard just war position, it should be because it makes sense, not because we’re loyal to our state or military body. And finally, knowing that I have a knee-jerk reaction toward a hard just war position reminds me why, more often than not, my standard position is pacifism: because as much as I’m loyal to Christians and may want to defend them, my first loyalty is to Christ himself, who absorbed the violence of Rome into his own body rather than letting himself be rescued by his followers (or a legion of angels), and did so in a way that inspired a more principled and higher resistance in people and shamed the violent powers that ruled by the sword. This is not the kind of action that I can insist that others follow – if I were in their situation, I may feel justified in violence – but it is the action that Christ took, and the action he calls his followers to emulate. I hope I never need to follow him that, and at the same time I watch and wait for an opportunity for my own death or persecution to mean something. If given the choice between justifying killing someone and having a meaningful death, I hope for the latter. Perhaps if more of us looked for ways for our life, and death, to be meaningful rather than looking for ways to justify killing others, we’d have less opportunity for either.