28 July 2006

Lost for Words - No Answers

I've been trying to think what it is I have to say about the situation in Israel/Lebanon and, the truth is, that I'm lost for words.

I had lunch with a friend yesterday, and we both agreed that we had no words. We both agreed that we can't take sides and that the most atrocious thing about the whole situation was seeing dead bodies on the nightly news - especially those of very young children and babies.

My friend said that all she can do at the sight of dead bodies is cry. So she changes the channel for a few minutes until the news moves on to something else. Then she feels guilty. We should be crying at the fact that human beings are killing other human beings, shouldn't we? But how can a person stand to watch that all the time?

And then the big question - if we can't cope with this sort of pointless death as human beings and if we keep seeing it on television and in the papers, do we just end up desensitising ourselves to the whole thing? What can we do other than donate to relief agencies? But isn't that too simple and just a way to assuage our own guilt?

As a Christian, I believe passionately in forgiveness and reconciliation. I said passionately and I mean 'passionately'. I am a passionate pacifist. A lot of people do not understand that. Some seem to think that pacifism is born out of a stance of 'I can't be bothered. I don't want trouble. Let's all just get along so that I can get own with my own selfish life.'

I believe that pacifism, forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core of the Gospel. They are not pink and fluffy easy-peasy things to do. They are damn difficult things to do; if they weren't the sort of hatreds and rivalries that we have in the Middle East would not be occuring.

Jesus called those who follow him to forgive endlessly - seventy times seven. The twelve recognised that this was an 'unreasonable' and outrageous request when they challenged him and said 'Surely you don't mean that.'

From the point of view of Christian theology, as far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a just war. At best, there is only the regretably unjust war that we may have to engage in for survivial - but it is still sinful.

As a US citizen, I abhor the fact that the US government is refusing to talk to Hezbollah until the latter do what the former want. As a UK citizen, I abhor the fact that the UK government seems to be following lock-step with US policies. As a Christian, I abhor the fact that so many other Christians cheer the fact that Lebanese babies are dying. I do not believe Lebanon are innocent, but I also do not believe the apparent US view that Israel are innocent either. The whole situation is a paradigm of mimetic violence on both sides.


Philippa said...

As a US citizen, I abhor the fact that the US government is refusing to talk to Hezbollah until the latter do what the former want.

Well ... Hezbollah began all this crap. Only yesterday on Radio 4 John Humphreys was interviewing some guy who trotted out the same old tedious depressing propoganda about Israel having no right to exist and how the Jewish people should be driven out of the country and resettled elsewhere. Listening to this myopic, vitriolic, bigoted drivel made me want to punch a hole in the wall. How on earth will Israel-hatred solve anything??? How DO you dialogue with people like this???? (and yes, I realise that the other side is equally myopic).

As a Christian, I abhor the fact that so many other Christians cheer the fact that Lebanese babies are dying.

Pam, where have you read of Christians doing this? It is sickening to think of Christians doing such an awful thing.

I do not believe Lebanon are innocent, but I also do not believe the apparent US view that Israel are innocent either.

What troubles me about the Left is that it demonises Israel and idealises the Palestinian cause (I’m not denying that there are legitimate rights and grievances here, btw). What troubles me about the Right (both secular and religious) is that it withholds legitimate criticism of Israel for a whole variety of reasons (self-interest being one of them). Obviously what would suit US foreign policy is for Israel to pound Hezbollah into the ground. But Hezbollah won’t go without putting up a terrible fight. And I have a hard time believing that they care about how many of their own people die in this terrible business. The more people die, the better for the cause. This is the same mentality that regards suicide bombing as a glorious and noble thing, after all.

There is no denying that Israel has deep wounds in its psyche. Any hint that people want to drive the Jewish people into the sea, and the Israelis will fight back with a ferocity we cannot pretend to understand. But we should try to understand it, without necessarily endorsing all of their policies.

Meanwhile, Lebanese children and babies are dying and like you, it makes me weep. I find it unbearable to watch.

The whole situation is a paradigm of mimetic violence on both sides.

No argument from me on that.

I have mixed views on pacifism. Obviously God does not condone human hubris and He does not endorse our pathetic justifications for so-called ‘just wars’. But I am not a practising pacifist. I believe in a country’s right to defend itself. Heck, I believe in my own right to defend myself. I was attacked by a man with a knife two years ago – thankfully he didn’t hurt me. But believe me, if I’d had the means (and even more importantly, the courage and the presence of mind) to disable him, I would have done so. I’m not justifying vigilante justice. But if an armed man broke into my house and threatened to kill my children (I don’t have children, but it’s easy to imagine how I would feel if I did), and the only way to prevent him from doing so was by killing him, I don't see how that would be a wrong thing to do. I would take no pleasure in it (hopefully). But I would do it, for the sake of those I love.

I’m not denying that war is, as you say, inherently sinful. The suffering it causes is appalling.

I just don’t know what the answer is.

Meanwhile, I weep. And ask God to have mercy.

PamBG said...

Philippa, in my personal opinion, in dealing with mimetic violence, "who started it" doesn't matter. I have my own feelings about who I think is most wrong, but I have very strong intellectual convictions that the right ethical stance toward mimetic violence is that anyone who is not non-violent is guilty. I do not see anyone being non-violent in this situation, so I think you and I are in partial agreement, at least.

In terms of which Christians are applauding the killing of Lebanese citizens, they are out there in blogland. I can point you to blog entries by email if you think I am not being truthful and want justification. Other than that, it's not my intention here to be pointing fingers at individuals.

I hear your concerns about pacifism. At a practical level, for me the answer is "War is sometimes regretably necessary but is still sinful"

If there is a "just war" from a Christian theological point of view, that means that God blesses some forms of violence. I do not believe that. I think God weeps at violence. At it's most extreme, a just war theology supports "God wants us to kill those people". I do not believe that God ever blesses any human being killing another human being.

PamBG said...

I do not believe that God ever blesses any human being killing another human being.

I don't really understand how it is that hot topics inevitably seem to attract a lot of comments, but I'm anticipating someone now saying to me "Abortion is sinful". That always happens whenever I say anything that someone takes to be "liberal" because we all have our stereotypes about what "liberals" believe.

So let me say this now. I believe that abortion is sinful. I believe in consistency on this point. War is sinful. Abortion is sinful. Capital punishment is sinful. Euthanasia is sinful.

There, I hope I've covered that point before its raised.

Sandalstraps said...


Reading your post reminds me of the phrase "there's nothing passivve about pacifism." Pacifism is, at its best, an active engagement with a violent world, bringing and modelling peace. Many of the best models of peace in recent history have been extremely passionate and extremely active: Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as the best examples. In their witness for peace they were willing to take on a great deal of violence in order to take the steam out of violence, just as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

I am not always ready to call myself a pacifist; philosophically I sometimes think that some measure of violence may be necessary and justified. But my deepest sympathies certainly lie with pacifists, who enter into a world of violence and take that violence on, hoping that their suffering will help to end violence. I wish that I had their moral courage.


Well ... Hezbollah began all this crap.

For violence to be justified, according to the classical form of Just War Theory, it must not only have a just cause, but it must also be limited in its conduct. While it may be the case that Israel's cause in this conflict is just (as you argue with the above line), their conduct is certainly not sufficiently limited, and as such it only hurts their cause.

Limited conduct entails a number of things, including but not limited to the proportionality of a response and minimizing civilian casualties. Israel's response has been anything but proportional, and while Hezollah bears some responsibility for the massive number of civilian casualities for their cowardly method of firing rockets from highly populated areas, Israel has shown little regard for civilian life.

Just the other day Israeli tanks fired on a UN building, and then, when that building, which housed four international monitors, radioed Israeli command to inform them that they were taking fire, an Israeli fighter jet destroyed it. While they almost certainly didn't target the UN building (what would Israel stand to gain from attacking the United Nations?), that they hit it, despite knowing its location in advance and despite being clearly informed that what they were firing on was a UN building rather than a Hezbollah target, indicates a flagrant disregard for the collateral damage inflicted by their actions.

In general, in the Arab-Israeli conflict my sympathies lie with Israel. That Israel is surrounded by nations which deny its fundamental right to exist is beyond troubling. But that does not give Israel a blank check to conduct war in any way that it wishes. Even assuming that war is sometimes morally permissible, the conduct of the Israeli military in this particular conflict, no matter how just their cause and no matter how legitimate their provocation, is morally repugnant.

That, of course, says nothing about Hezbollah, who as a militant and terrorist organization shows even less regard for civilian life, seeing all Israelis as legitimate targets. But just because one side is obviously wrong, that doesn't make the other side right.

I recognize that this does not respond to the substance of your comment, which reflected a great deal of heart-rending soul-searching. Like you, I also don't have any answers. I was particularly impressed with your reflection on pacifism and just war, as they apply to both nations and individuals. While I have never been attacked, I have had some martial arts training, and share your instinct to use a measure of violence to subdue an attacker.

The best formulations of Just War Theory are, in my mind, the most limited ones. The presume that violence always entails a certain amount of evil, and they seek to minimize that evil as far as is possible. Fortunately most of us are not subject to the immediate threat of violence. I, for instance, cannot say for certain that I would be justified in killing someone who was attempting to kill me, my wife, and/or our son; but I can say that living a life characterized by peace has made it infinitely less likely that I will ever be in the unfortunate position of having to make such abstract moral reasoning concrete.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, even if violence is theoretically justified, as I sometimes think that it is, living a life of peace is the best policy. Would that everyone agreed with that!

Philippa said...

Pam and Sandalstraps,

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I am pretty much in agreement with all that you said.

I hear your concerns about pacifism. At a practical level, for me the answer is "War is sometimes regrettably necessary but is still sinful".

That is pretty much my stance, Pam. (And I think it applies to some of the other ethical 'life and death' issues you raise as well.)

If there is a "just war" from a Christian theological point of view, that means that God blesses some forms of violence. I do not believe that.

No, neither do I, Pam.

As for 'Hezbollah starting all this crap', I wasn't at all meaning this justifies Israel killing Lebanese civilians in response. Certainly not. I agree that in this dreadful cycle of violence it doesn't matter WHO started it. I was simply referring to the US stance on its dealings with Hezbollah, who to me seem quite impossible to reason with, because of their particular worldview that insists on seeing the US and Israel as satanic entities to be warred with.

Meanwhile, a whole country is being destroyed, and it's just so terrible to see.

Chili said...


As a Lebanese, I would advise to get the thoughts of people in Lebanon. And in order to get a clearer perspective of the situation from inside Lebanon, from a Christian Lebanese, ChristianityToday has posted a well balanced article by Mr. Akkad...


PamBG said...

Chili, thank you for that link. I do know Lebanese Christians personally and what they have to say is in line with this Christianity Today article.

John said...

Just out of curiousity, do you abhor that Hezbollah and most of the Palestinian population is committed to the extermination of Israel?

PamBG said...

John, To repeat what I said, I think both sides are guilty. I think that's a perfectly comprehensible and unambiguous statement. I do not believe that there any innocent parties in this conflict. I think that the intention of all three governments is for war. But I also bet that there are a lot of Palestinians, Lebanese and Israeli civilians who are sick of decades of killing and who would like to be peaceable.

Steve said...

Thanks for this post pam, it's help ful to read.


ps - I love the graceful way you've been responding to comment.


Conrad said...

If I were King of the World I would declare a big part of the area we call the Holy Land an international territory.

Christians, Jews and Muslims all have holy sites in the area and because of the religious importance all three feel they have a "right" to the land.

I do not see any resolution to conflict in the region until there is an international agreement that all sides can live with. I don't think that there is an answer that any of them will be totally happy with.

But alas, I am not king of the world.