Seeing Israel and Gaza Through the Lens of Holy Week

by | Mar 21, 2024

As a Christian leader preparing to preside at services that commemorate Jesus of Nazareth’s last week on earth, I am haunted by suffering. On Sunday, churches in the tradition I serve will read one version of Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire. Next Friday, we will read another. Both are devastating in their detail of human cruelty and what that cruelty does to a human body.

In the greatest of paradoxes, the earliest Christians soon interpreted those horrific events as an expression of God’s unfailing love. They demonstrate God’s solidarity with human suffering and willingness to forgive the worst of human behavior. Even more powerfully, with the resurrection of Jesus, we are assured death does not have the final word. In the resurrection, we believe in life after death—and not just beyond the grave, but for the death experiences throughout our lives.

I live by these faith convictions. On Easter, I will preach this good news to the best of my ability.

Yet there remains at the center of our faith the devastating reality of an innocent human being suffering at the hands of other human beings. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cries from the cross—a cry surely heard throughout our world. All too often we are the ones who forsake the suffering.

Why are human beings so cruel to one another?
And why do we feel so helpless to do anything to stop it?

Like many Christian leaders, I have remained largely silent on the war between Israel and Hamas. After an initial condemnation of the brutality of Hamas’s attacks on October 7 and a plea for a measured retaliatory response for the sake of innocent Palestinians, I have refrained from public statements.

Until today.

I’ve remained silent in part because I haven’t wanted my words to be used as a weapon against people that I love, or to speak simplistically of complex realities that I do not fully understand. I’ve resisted the call to take my place on one side of this conflict against the other, because I am persuaded that there are truths on both sides that must be held together and higher truths to which all are called. Moreover, distortions of the truth, historical ignorance, and outright lies are swirling all around us whose only purpose is to cloud our understanding.

I am well aware that I will never fully understand the nightmare that is the daily reality for the Palestinian people, or for Israeli hostages in caves of darkness and those traumatized by the October 7th attacks. Nor can I fully appreciate the dehumanizing experiences of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that cause such harm in this country, alongside every other manifestation of prejudice that infects our hearts. I have always condemned anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and do so again, knowing that condemnation alone is not enough in the face of the pain they cause individuals and the harm they do to our communities.

But this I know as well:

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Palestinians are on the brink of starvation. They are trapped and have nowhere to flee for safety. Neighborhoods, homes, and entire families have been destroyed. They need food, clean water, and medicine now.

The suffering of Palestinians does not lessen or justify the suffering of those who were brutally attacked on October 7. The trauma of the October 7th attacks on the citizens of Israel and Jews throughout the world cannot be minimized. There is no moral justification for the perpetrators and they must be held accountable for the atrocities they committed. And while over 130 hostages remain captive, there will be no movement toward peace. They must be returned to their homes and loved ones.

The violence, destruction and death underlying this conflict have deep roots and wide tentacles, implicating many across the globe. The trauma begetting violence did not begin on October 7. And still the fact remains that some leaders in Israel and of Hamas are willing to let an entire nation starve or be killed rather than end this war. They must be stopped. All the retaliation imaginable will not erase anyone’s pain. It only inculcates more hate.

Those of us living in a democracy have a part to play in putting pressure on our leaders to do more to stop this inhumanity. We don’t need to be experts on Middle East politics to say, What happened on October 7th was morally obscene. It is also morally obscene to inflict collective punishment on millions of people and for the world to stand by as an entire nation starves. Faced with such calamity, the biblical imperative “You shall not stand idly by” speaks to us all.

Incredibly, there are Israelis and Palestinians who have dedicated their lives to peacemaking and still dream of living in peace alongside one another in homelands of their own. Surely that dream comes from the God who shows no partiality, for whom every human is beloved. They are far from that dream, yet how long can this madness of death continue? For those of us far from this conflict, how might we see with those same eyes of peaceful longing for all human beings, and commit ourselves to that dream?

I join with all those calling for a bi-lateral ceasefire, the release of all hostages, and the free flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza where the population faces hunger and famine. The United States government surely has the means to apply greater pressure to end this war so that the work of rebuilding, repair, and healing can begin.

That is my resurrection prayer this Easter. And while so many must still walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I pray that we might have the courage not to turn away from suffering, but stand in solidarity with all who suffer, with an unwavering commitment to peace.