In several ecumenical and interfaith settings since Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, I’ve been reminded that finding common ground is at least as hard for people of faith as for national and political leaders. Calling Hamas’ attack terrorism is likely to be construed as inattention to the historic plight of Palestinians. Demanding a ceasefire may suggest one is inattentive to Israel’s security. If you’re a pacifist, someone will say it means that you just don’t know how the world works.
All in all, the maelstrom of escalating crisis is not a good setting for political debates about Israel and Palestine. As a matter of fact, it’s a local story as well. I know Jews, Arab Muslims, and Arab Christians in the Los Angeles area who have lost loved ones in the last three weeks. All who love the region and its people, especially if we have family or friends there or have had the privilege of visiting as pilgrims, have our passionately held beliefs. When the war is over, it will be up to all people of good will to do all they can to demand that all in the region at long last receive the inalienable rights of peace, freedom, security, and national self-determination. For now, even if we are feeling prophetic, it may be more helpful to wax pastoral.
Whatever our feelings and views, perhaps we can agree on least one thing. It’s been a cardinal value of religious ethics for centuries. We must insist that all in power, especially those making military decisions during wartime, do everything possible to protect and care for noncombatants. This includes releasing all hostages, ensuring that Gaza’s internal refugees get food, water, medical care, and shelter, and taking the utmost measures to make sure that the innocent are as safe as possible from airstrikes and other military actions.
That taking these steps imposes difficulties on military tacticians on both sides does not relieve decision makers of their moral responsibility to protect the innocent. Does anyone doubt that our God in Christ, or any conception of the divine or of justice, demands anything less? We can insist on this without taking a side or needing to be absolutely certain who’s more at fault. If we’re unsure whether to draw this line, or tempted to think that failing to put the innocent first is ever justifiable, perhaps we’re being offered an opportunity for further personal discernment. There will always be people whose consciences, weakened by trauma or the desire to dominate, will have no trouble putting this value to the side. If our desire is for God, we never can.