I grew up hearing a lot about the Israeli-Palestian conflict, and it was always the same story: the Palestinians were the aggressors, Israel barely holding its own and hoping to eventually settle conflicts that had been there for thousands of years. But Israel was for Jews, that much was clear. Because the Babylonians took their land, then the Romans, then all kinds of other people. And, most importantly, because the Bible foretold the Jews returning to Israel (or something) and because this would have something to do with the second coming of Christ. But it was complicated. There was a lot of fighting. War In the Middle East. Peace Talks. All those headlines.
In brief, Israel needed its land back and was fighting to make that happen, which was good progress as far as most people I knew were concerned. But when I actually read the Bible, that seemed a little weird. Or at least when I read the gospels. Jesus was teaching during a time when many Jews, including at least one of his own disciples, were Zealots. Zealots wanted the Roman invaders off their land, and were willing to fight to make that happen. But Jesus said things that were completely anti-Zealot. Such as “render unto Caesar,” “if any man compels you to go one mile, go with him two,” and “love your enemies.” In the context of a people group oppressed and frequently compelled by invaders, this was anti-intuitive, and not all his disciples were keen on it.
Some historians and theologians, in fact, argue that Judas Iscariot was a Zealot, and not just any kind of Zealot, but a sicarious, an assassin who was willing to kill not just the Romans, but Jews who didn’t go along with getting rid of the Romans. Read this way, it certainly puts an interesting spin on things. Alerted by the authorities, who in turn have been alerted by Judas, Roman soldiers and temple guards show up to take Jesus prisoner, Judas in tow. Peter fights back by whacking someone’s ear off. Before anyone can do anything else, Jesus rebukes Peter, and goes off with the soldiers. Judas is upset and hangs himself. A very quick change of heart for such a heinous action, unless you assume Judas was betting on the other disciples fighting back, betting on Jesus acting in self-defense and from there sparking a larger Zealot following to rise against the Romans and re-gain Israel. Jesus could do it: Judas had seen the crowds adore him. But that wasn’t Jesus’ style.
So this is why it is puzzling that Christians are defending civilian killings of Palestinians in the recent Gaza airstrikes. It’s puzzling even if you accept the premise that all of Israel should belong to the Israelis. It’s even more puzzling when you look at the map of Israel over the last 60 years and see how the Palestinian territories have shrunk — it’s not the Jews who are being invaded this time; this time, they’re the invaders.
So it seems to have less to do with theology than with religious propaganda. If you can convince a group of people that something is a necessary part of their religion, they’ll go along with it, no matter how many children are being killed in the process. Of course, this is easier if you label the Palestinian extremists who kill two citizens “terrorists,” while maintaining that Palestinian death tolls of hundreds of children, bombing of hospitals, using chemical weapons on neighborhoods, calling for the killing of Palestianian mothers and so on, are all part of a war, a two-sided conflict. And justified, at that. Jesus would have wanted it that way. Someone in your territory kills one of ours, well, our military will kill a hundred of you. The true meaning of “turn the other cheek,” no doubt. A hundred eyes for an eye.
But maps of invasions don’t lie. Civilian casualty numbers don’t lie. They’re cold and hard, removed from the spin of either side, and they should trigger appropriate condemnation from all people — Christians included.