For what shall I pray? Amid the horror of the Gaza war, every time I read or hear the news, especially about the injury or death of noncombatants, whenever anger or sadness overtake me, I say to myself: What do I ask of my God in Christ right now?
I pray for peace, of course. An end to the war, obviously. That all violence will cease, naturally. But these things don’t happen when people driven by ambition or rage pick up arms. God can’t stop them. Or God won’t. It depends on your theology. But it doesn’t matter. Because when people mean to kill, it means their hearts are closed to mercy and grace, and other people are going to die as a result.
When Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, I was astonished that an old-style European war was unfolding in my precious 21st century. Looking back, I remember it first of all as an essentially aesthetic affront. I’d convinced myself that Europe’s systems of alliance and deterrence, together with a generalized quickening of humanitarian impulses, of which there was actually no evidence whatsoever, had rendered such despicable aggression a thing of the past.
That this was white and socio-economic privilege speaking goes without saying. In the early months I prayed that God would enable the only logical and decent thing — end the war, punish the aggressor, and give succor to his victims. Instead, the war is entering its second winter, governed by the classic rules of war, where people fight until they want or are forced to stop. Praying for a negotiated settlement, which more and more seems the only humane and logical thing, is to pray that so much Ukrainian territory will be ceded to Putin that he will say that he won and be more dangerous to his neighbors as a result. So if I pray for a ceasefire in Ukraine today, and it happens, I had better be prepared for the consequences. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But such a peace wouldn’t be the end of the suffering.
The same laws of war are at play in Gaza. This morning NPR aired a heartbreaking story about Israeli attacks on an evacuation area in the south of Gaza. The reporter’s theme was that an evacuation area should be safe. And so it should. But Israel’s response is that Hamas is now there. Guerrillas like the Hamas fighters always melt into civilian populations and put them at risk.
Yet the cries of people looking for loved ones in the rubble were excruciating. End it now, the heart cries. For God’s sake, stop the bombing, extend the ceasefire, end the war now. It is a worthy prayer. Maybe it is the best prayer. And yet if the war ended today, Hamas would remain a threat to Israel. It has promised more attacks like Oct. 7 and remains pledged to Israel’s destruction. Experts say that the two-state solution, moribund before the war, may have new life afterward, but only if Hamas is weakened or destroyed — or unless Hamas pledges at last to be part of the two-state solution. Because if Israel can stop fighting right now, so can Hamas.
So for what shall I pray, above and beyond an end to the killing ? It may depend on the outcome I want. One option is self-determination for Israeli Jews, but at the expense of Palestinians. This is the vision of radical settlers, whose rhetoric and actions seem genocidal, as the “greater Israel” movement of Likud and its allies always has. Another is self-determination for Palestinian Arabs, but at the expense of Israeli Jews. This appears to be the preference of those who label Israel a white colonialist power, notwithstanding the millions of Israeli Jews of color, because what you do with colonists is expel them. And that also sounds genocidal, especially to our Jewish siblings.
So I will continue to pray from the middle of the road — for peace, justice, freedom, and national self-determination for all God’s people in Israel and Palestine. The screams of victims all sound the same to God, from Israel and Gaza, from Sudan to Ukraine — always have, always will. To quiet them, to comfort and protect the innocent, everyone, no matter their trauma or grievances, will have to get out of God’s way and stop fighting and start talking. And they will have to want to. It is the only thing that has ever worked.