Category: Pondering Peace

The Way of Violence and the Path to Peace

Along with much of the world, I have been horrified by the brutal violence that has erupted in Israel and Gaza over the last couple weeks.  Hamas fighters descended on people joyfully participating in a music festival or quietly living in their homes in Israel and massacred 1400 people, injured many others, and took more than two hundred people as hostages.  Israel’s retaliatory response of bombings has killed almost three times that number, leaving thousands more wounded. Gaza’s over two million people are now under an Israeli siege that threatens the existence of the entire population left without drinkable water, food, electricity, or medical supplies.  Half of those living in Gaza are children under 18 years of age.

It has been heartbreaking to hear the stories of both Palestinians and Israelis as they speak about their terror and loss.  It seems like both sides want the same thing – safety and security, the basic necessities for a good life, and peace.  Instead, they are left with the horror of trauma, unimaginable grief, anguished fear, and rage.  The violence on both sides is to be decried and rejected as morally wrong and pragmatically ineffective.  The way of violence is not bringing either side closer to the peace, security, and the good life for which they all long, but rather is making it much less possible.

As I reflect on this situation, the frequent protest chant “No justice, no peace” comes to mind.  This eruption of violence has roots in a long history of injustice on both sides.  The horror of the Holocaust stands as the genocidal event that led to the founding of the modern state of Israel.  But that effort to provide a place of security for Jewish people resulted in the expulsion of Palestinians from the land in a catastrophe they now call the Nakba.  In that process 15,000 Palestinians were killed and about 750,000 Palestinians lost the land they were living on and become forcibly displaced refugees. A just arrangement in which both Jews and Palestinians have land and access to that which will enable both to become thriving societies is needed.  The two-state solution that at one point seemed a possibility now lies in rubble, along with the buildings each side has destroyed.  The use of violence has only increased the injustices on both sides with the taking of innocent lives and destruction of property. I think that the protest chant rings true that without justice there will be no lasting peace.

This situation also demonstrates again the utter powerlessness of violence to solve problems in a way that leads to stability and peace. How has the brutality of Hamas fighters helped the situation in Gaza?  It has only led to the increased suffering of innocent families and children who are forced to live under their leadership.  And how has the violent response of Israel helped the Israeli people? Before their fierce retaliatory campaign of relentlessly bombing civilian populations, the Israelis may have had considerable sympathy of much of the international community.  But now Arab countries surrounding Israel are furious with Israel’s violence and threatening attack, such that there is more fear and less security than before.

A response of rage and desire for retaliation comes easily to those who have been traumatized by violence, and that is the route that Israel has taken.  But violent retaliation has the effect of making one into the very evil that is being targeted for elimination.  Israel has now killed almost three times as many Palestinians as were killed in the Hamas attacks. According to a Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor report, as of October 19, Israel has killed 4,079 Palestinians, 1,413 of which were children, and injured more than 15,000.  Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s initial words describing the Palestinians as “human animals” was the kind of alarming rhetoric that often leads toward genocide, and the siege that is causing all of Gaza to run out of food, water, medicines, and fuel seems aimed toward that end.

Furthermore, the violence of war destroys everything.  Hospitals, schools, homes, businesses – everything that has taken great resources and efforts to build and are needed for society to meet basic human needs – all are being destroyed along with the people.  When the war ends, what will be left for the Palestinians?  Their plight will be worse, and unfortunately, such trauma and deprivation functions as fuel for more violence, extremism, and resorting to terrorism, as it can seem to be the only option left.

I am reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from a sermon entitled “Loving your enemies,” written while he was sitting in jail in Georgia. King wrote, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Those who are friends and allies of either the Israelis or Palestinians need to use their influence to call for maximum restraint, rather than provide unquestioned support and arms for retribution and violence on either side.  As OMNIA president Shanta Premawardhana wrote recently with specific reference to the United States, “Friends don’t let friends get drunk on vengeance and destroy their countries and their souls.”  Those whose thinking is not clouded by trauma and grief need to use their influence for urging restraint, reducing violence, demanding a ceasefire, protecting civilians, providing humanitarian aid, and negotiating corridors of escape.

The path to peace, as taught by Jesus and other faith leaders, is not the way of violence and revenge.  Lamech’s excessive revenge of killing a man who injured him (Gen. 4:23) was moderated by ancient Israel’s law of equal retribution – “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:24).  Jesus, however, rejected even this level of violence as a response to harm done.  Rather he taught the path to peace as being that of nonviolent resistance to evil (Matthew 5:38-41).  These are hard words to hear for a country at war, and yet Jesus also lived at a time when his own people were being oppressed by the occupying Roman enemies.  His home town of Nazareth was just a few miles from the site where the Romans had reinforced their reign of terror by crucifying 2000 men who had rebelled against them just after Jesus’ birth.  The Apostle Paul reiterated this path to peace with these words, “Do not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Although these words may seem audacious to say by those of us thousands of miles away from the conflict, there are some in the midst of the war who are daring to utter such sentiments.  In Israel it is decidedly unpopular to speak out against retaliation against Gaza for the Hamas massacres. Yet the brother of murdered peace activist Hayim Katsman recently did so at his brother’s funeral with the following words, “Do not use our death and our pain to bring the death and pain of other people and other families.  I have no doubt that even in the face of Hamas people that murdered him… he would still speak out against the killing and violence of innocent people.”

Last week I attended a Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council event celebrating the music of many different religions in our region.  It took place on the evening after a major hospital in Gaza was bombed.  Musicians of Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Sufi traditions spoke words and sang songs with themes of appreciation for human diversity, compassion, and peace.  Awards for interfaith leadership were given both to one who followed the Sikh spiritual path and to an organization committed to education regarding the Holocaust.  I found myself comforted by being in the presence of peoples of many different backgrounds with many different religions, including the Islamic and Jewish faiths, and hearing music with themes that touched me with their truth and power.  At times like these, people of faith need to come together in solidarity, resist the escalation of violence, and promote nonviolence and diplomacy as the path to peace.

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
Photo by Mohammed Ibrahim on Unsplash