What are we to do in the face of the suffering we see in Gaza? And not only in Gaza, but in the whole of the Middle East. We are there, virtually, at around 7pm every evening. Are we to ‘switch off’ at the end of the news and try to return to our normal lives, even if they are not always all that normal? How are we to think of other things? Is it even possible, at the stage which these various conflicts have reached, to do so?
So much has been written. So much has been said, but there is little in the way of sane prognosis for the future, or of how to alleviate suffering in the present. We are left feeling angry, confused and profoundly disturbed by it all. So what can Christians, Muslims and Jews living away from these conflict zones, but watching the events unfold before their eyes day after day on the news, do that would make the slightest difference?
As a Christian, I am convinced, along with St. Paul, writing in his letter to the Romans, that neither hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Rom.8) This does not make me feel especially safe, because engaging with this particular text attentively requires that we also engage with violence.
Furthermore, we have to do this from our most vulnerable place, the inner space where we know ourselves most truthfully. This truthful space is that part of our selfhood which few others know. Only God himself knows us as we really are and loves us as we are. There exists a similar conceptual space for nations and peoples, in which all are both accountable before God and fully ‘justified’ – their cause understood and dealt with justly by him because of his deep love for them. History has shown that in this place of truth he remakes nations.
Here, then, is a place for Christians, Muslims and Jews who want to see an end to the suffering in the Middle East to begin the work of remaking. All people of genuinely good faith can engage directly with God and with his redemptive purpose for the whole world, and for every person caught up in violent conflict at this moment. As people of faith, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew, we need to allow ourselves to feel the pain on all sides by owning it together as our own before God. This is not just a vaguely spiritual exercise. It involves honest thinking, leading to the asking of difficult questions of ourselves as well as of those we either disagree with, fear, or simply hate.
So one way to begin, with regard to the conflict in Gaza, might be to consider what Hamas, itself an agent of fear, represents in the minds of ordinary Palestinians, both in Gaza and in other parts of Palestine/Israel, and what it represents to Palestinians living in other parts of the world.
Do Palestinians believe that Hamas is to be trusted with the wellbeing of a people in the longer term? Has it proved itself, in this respect, so far? To what extent, might it be directly responsible for the carnage which is taking place in that country now? How much does it really value the lives of the people it has been elected to protect and serve? Do its members think of Israelis as in some way less human than they are? Is it conceivable that Hamas might one day think of Israelis as something other than ‘occupiers’, to quote its leader in exile, Khaled Mishal?
Similarly, how do Israelis, who genuinely wants peace and justice for all, view the wholesale appropriation of Palestinian lands and the bulldozing of their homes? Are they prepared to accept that they are indeed, to a great extent, ‘occupiers’? If so, might they be willing to dialogue with Hamas, beginning with this crucial point?
How do these Israelis come to terms with the hugely disproportionate numbers of Palestinians being killed or wounded (the majority being women and children) compared to the relatively few Israelis (mainly military) in the current conflict? Would these Israelis personally be prepared to go into Gaza to help rebuild what has been devastated?
If a climate of trust could be generated in the way I am about to suggest, could they conceive of a time when the brutal wall which divides families and has wrecked lives, might be dismantled with their help? Could they see themselves, as people whose faith centres on a righteous, just, merciful and holy God, rebuilding what has been shattered by decades of conflict? Would they even like to think this possible?
These are questions which need to be addressed from within a place of truth and of deep silence before God. It is a silence shaped by sighing and longing, always in the presence of God. Before there is any more talk of truces and ceasefires, all who long for an end to this incessant killing could perhaps keep silence together for an hour before God, the hour to be followed by two hours the following day, three on the third, and so on, until continuing with the slaughter and the hatred is revealed in all its ghastly futility, and stops.
This would be a time for everyone in that region and elsewhere in the world, to simply stand in the presence of God. Secularists should respect it and try to use it to the highest possible good for all in whatever way they can, but they too should remain silent.