Faith Communities Can Build a Movement for Cease-Fire

More than 100 days after Hamas’ brutal killing spree on Oct. 7, the Israeli Defense Force has callously killed more than 23,000 Palestinians. That means 1 out of every 100 people living in Gaza have died, and an estimated 1 in 40 have been wounded. The U.N. estimates that 1.9 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes, including the families of those originally driven from their homes in 1948. Many people in Gaza have little access to food, water, and medical supplies; humanitarian experts say it is the most extreme example of food deprivation in warfare in “generations.” In recent military conflicts, there is no precedent for the IDF’s destruction in Gaza.

The carnage must stop.

An immediate, permanent cease-fire is imperative, not only to combat the starvation of the criminally besieged people of Gaza, but also to liberate a political, military, and diplomatic landscape starved of courageous vision for a different future. The prevailing public narratives we have used to justify military strategies amid diplomatic fantasies are being exposed as meaningless: Unfettered Israeli military power can never impose a lasting solution nor quench Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty and justice. Likewise, Palestinian armed factions can never defeat Israel’s military power, backed by the unequivocal support of the U.S. These exclusionary self-vindicating visions dominate in a completely zero-sum game. Escalating violence wantonly kills, intensifying the compulsion to eradicate the human dignity of the “other.” In short, there is no military solution to the raging warfare spilling over our screens and tearing our hearts asunder.

So, the carnage must stop — but what will it take to get there? If nothing changes, it’s clear what will happen: Violence will continue to escalate; fear, enmity, and hatred will become more intractable; and the horizon for any lasting, sustainable solution will slip further into the distance. We’ve got to get the questions right, facing all the realities, and courageously claiming the truths which can ground our vision and action. Any return to the former status quo is hopeless: Today, far more is required than life-saving humanitarian aid; the international community must create the genuine prospect of delivering a new political future.

Here are some suggestions for how each of us, in our different contexts, might enter courageous conversations that open hope for such an alternative future.

1. The U.S. must ask: Will we hold Israel accountable?

When U.S. politicians talk about Israel, most begin with the mantra, “The State of Israel has the right to defend itself” — as if each of the 193 member states in the United Nations did not have that same right! Then, politicians use this right to justify Israel’s military actions with moral impunity. If U.S. politicians mention Palestinian “rights” at all, it’s typically as a humanitarian footnote.

Instead, the U.S. and the international community should ask whether and how Israel — like any other nation — will be held accountable for its actions. This is especially important given Israel’s dependence on an infusion of U.S. military, financial, and diplomatic support. As long as this support remains intact, history shows us, nothing decisive will change. Throughout the years, presidents and diplomats have voiced hesitant, awkward words of “concern” over some Israeli actions, but these words matter little as long as Israel knows it can depend, in the end, on U.S. guns and vetoes.

Of course, some will immediately insist on accountability for Palestinian terrorism; I totally agree. But the U.S. already has a complete political consensus condemning Hamas’ terror on Oct. 7. What we don’t have are serious conversations in the Oval Office or Capitol Hill about accountability for what must be named as Israeli war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank.

2. The Palestinian community and its allies must ask: What is the moral vision of the society we want to create?

Many of us are already convinced that the injustice, humiliation, and indignity of Israel’s more than 56-year occupation (recognized by the U.N. as illegal in 2022) must be addressed if there is to be any hope of peace in the land which some still call holy. We grasp the anguish and trauma of Palestinian displacement from their homeland. We’ve witnessed the arrest, imprisonment, and frequent torture of thousands of Palestinians, often without charges, in Israeli detention centers.

But this shared solidarity does not absolve us from asking honest questions about ourselves and the Palestinian cause. All too often, those allied with Palestine invoke decades of Israel’s wanton brutality to grant Palestinians moral absolution for shedding innocent blood — often out of callous, hateful revenge — in their tactics of resistance. This will never lead to a liberating way forward. We cannot let the moral bankruptcy of our adversaries recalibrate our moral compass. Beneath all the tactical and strategic debates about resistance, an underlying question should weigh heavily upon us: What is the moral vision of the society we are endeavoring to create?

Sadly, there are few with formal political power in Palestine offering a compelling moral vision for the future. The Palestinian Authority has lost its credibility, clinging to undemocratic power, refusing elections. Hamas is controlled by an ideology of violent enmity, justifying terror — and thousands of Israeli airstrikes have vastly increased Hamas’ popular support. Palestinians and their allies must elevate new, courageous Palestinian voices from numerous grass roots movements that imagine a future shaped by justice and grounded in the recognition of shared human dignity.

3. The Christian community must ask: How do we remain true to the prophetic biblical vision?

Theologically and historically, there is an indissoluble link between Judaism and Christianity, reflected in how the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament are interwoven in biblical revelation. Ignoring this link has fomented heinous acts of Christian antisemitism throughout history.

But especially in the years since World War II and the Holocaust, a different transgression has emerged: namely, identifying Christianity’s precious connection to the Jewish tradition with unquestioned loyalty to the emergence, aspirations, and actions of the contemporary state of Israel. The complex theological issues here include an idea popularized in many evangelical and Pentecostal circles: That the establishment of the state of Israel and its continuing territorial conquests are divinely ordained, fulfilling biblical prophecy. This idea is known as Christian Zionism and successive Israeli governments have manipulated those beliefs to solidify political support within U.S. politics.

But God is not a real estate agent — and a claim to the contrary demeans and distorts the biblical witness. The Bible constantly warns about nationalistic idolatry and its self-righteous dismissal or even annihilation of those perceived as the “other” — the “others” who actually are at the heart of God’s compassion. In the Hebrew scriptures, the prophets consistently challenged an exclusive understanding of whom God favored, linking blessing to the treatment of the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus offers a radical gospel of social equality and inclusive love — a gospel reaching to all peoples, breaking human boundaries with the spiritual power of God’s suffering and redeeming compassion. It is the unquenchable vision of the Beloved Community that overturns all constructs rooted in exclusive, self-righteous particularity.

Christians must honor the indissoluble links between their tradition and Judaism, reject any form of antisemitism and “replacement theology,” and forthrightly face the prophetic condemnation of Israel’s ongoing miliary destructiveness and territorial dispossession of Palestinian people.

4. All religious and spiritual communities must ask: How can we make space for voices that counter strategies of revenge with a moral vision of hope?

Political and military powers, infused with myths of exclusionary grandiosity, regularly distort and misuse strands from each of the three Abrahamic religions to justify their militaristic violence. But in the process of social change, the response to bad religion is not no religion — it’s true religion. That was true during the Vietnam War and during the Civil Rights Movement; it’s still true today.

Spiritual and religious voices are most indispensable when transforming political options seem foreclosed and popular rhetoric becomes incapable of interrogating reality. When we are locked into binary categories that erase hope, intensify blind trust in violence, and escalate hell on earth, we need spiritual power to break the cycle. And each of the religious traditions embroiled in this annihilating war — especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — can offer what political leadership in Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. have proven incapable of: a compelling vision of a different future, grounded in a unitive embrace of every human life. This shared vision can prevent the past from repeating itself, with worsening conflagrations.

About 7.2 million Jewish people and a roughly equal number of Palestinians and Arabs — in Gaza, the West Bank, and within Israel — inhabit land, contested in multiple ways, where each seek a homeland, an expression of sovereignty, security, peace, and the ability for their cultures and economies to thrive. And contrary to the fantasies of extremists on all sides of the conflict, neither of these two peoples is going anywhere. Either a means of just and acceptable co-existence will be discovered, or tortuous, unmitigated violence will continue, expanding to induce proxies and allies into military conflict.

To make a new future possible, however, honest and open conversations must take root wherever hospitable space is discovered. This should include synagogues, churches, mosques; teach-ins in colleges and universities; labor unions, city councils, and business roundtables; voluntary associations and ecumenical organizations. Before we can enter political campaigns and legislative arenas, the most important task for the international community is to create a “holding space” that halts violence and allows fresh voices to articulate a new future. The anguish of our present tragedy must end — and in doing so, become the midwife of fresh vision.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted, with permission, from a speech given by teh author on Jan. 12, 2024 at the Emergency Summit for Gaza in Chicago, Ill.

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