What is peace?
One common definition is the absence of violence or war.
Such a condition with no active violence can certainly be created through the suitable application of violence: overwhelming power applied against the enemy, until the enemy is no longer able to wage war. Such a situation is common when two nation-states enter into conflict, and one is able to gain superiority over the other using force. The larger the power imbalance, the faster such peace is gained. Of course, in such cases, the overwhelmed, defeated state has little say in the terms of that peace. They may, as it is said, “sue for peace,” but the suit is not from a position of merit or authority but from a position of weakness and surrender and capitulation to the power of the winning state. The terms of such a peace are rarely favorable to the loser.
Given these dynamics, an indisputable fact is that for the losing state, and more precisely the people of the losing state, the new situation does not constitute peace. Because peace, as a concept beyond an absence of war, also refers to the psychological state of well-being and rest, and a sense of inherent harmony in the world.
To a people that has just been subjugated by an overwhelming power, there is no peace. The physical conflict of war may have ended, but in every other aspect the situation opposes any sense of peace. Their way of life has been upended. A usurper has stolen their autonomy and authority over their own land. Great uncertainty exists; someone without their interests in mind now rules their lives, and may capriciously upend it further at any moment.
The people, in such case, will likely not rest, but instead wait for an opportunity to cast off their oppressors. Years or decades may pass, with no active outbreak of war, but without true peace. A people are oppressed, and they will not forget the violence (whether physical or psychological) done to them on a daily basis by the oppressors standing guard with weapons ready to quickly suppress any dissent.
And the oppressors cannot rest either: they must not let down their guard, lest the oppressed rise up and retake their territory.
So there may be absence of active fighting, but there is not real peace, as long as one party controls another without their consent.
Such was the situation in Israel many times in its history, with various occupying nations over many centuries. For much of the prophetic histories in the Hebrew Bible, we read about Babylon or Assyria capturing their lands and taking their people captive. In the New Testament, the Romans occupy their lands and many of the parables and stories involve conflict with Roman occupiers. By the time Revelation is written, the Roman occupation is even described in terms of Babylon, the historical great evil occupier of the land of Israel.
And such is also the precise situation we see in Palestine today. Israel has, for decades, controlled the Gaza Strip. They violently suppress opposition through superior military firepower. They routinely upend the lives of the Palestinian citizens, dislocating them to expand Jewish settlements in land formerly occupied by the Palestinians. They claim peace, but it is entirely one-sided.
Under such conditions, it’s hardly surprising that the Palestinians struggle to throw off that oppression.
And it’s also hardly surprising that the Israeli citizens living around Palestine, and even within the settlements created by Israel by incursion into Gaza territory, are constantly wary, on guard, ready to fight – because naturally there are Palestinians willing to fight to reclaim what was taken from them. It’s unsurprising that these settlements are ringed by high fences and walls topped with razor wire. There is no true peace on either side of those borders.
Lest we forget, the entire modern political state of Israel was land captured from Palestine.
It should not take much imagination to realize that this problem cannot be resolved amicably. No Palestinian, nor those who support them, will ever accept the validity of the state of Israel. No Israeli, nor those who support them, will ever accept the dissolution of the state of Israel to restore land to the Palestinians.
We have an impasse.
I am far too wise to suggest that I have any idea how this problem might be resolved on a political scale. That issue has been debated since 1948 by people far wiser and better studied than I. Let’s be serious: that issue has been debated since the Crusades in the Middle Ages.
So the obvious question, perhaps, is why would I say anything?
I suppose the best answer is that I have no interest in speaking to the Israelis or Palestinians. But I do have something to say to fellow Americans who claim to follow Jesus and the ways of the Bible.
I have heard a surprising number of people recently calling for the total elimination of the state of Palestine. I heard several of them in person just the other night, in fact suggesting that the best solution to this problem is to literally nuke the Palestinian territories, to turn the sand into glass, to utterly wipe the Palestinian people off the face of the earth.
Most such calls from American supporters of the State of Israel hearken back to Old Testament commands to utterly destroy idolatrous nations in the territory God was commanding Israel to capture. Israeli President Bibi Netanyahu made such a statement the other day, reminding his followers to never forget what Amalek did to them – a clear reference to Deuteronomy 25:17, and by extension verse 19 – “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Netanyahu was challenging his followers to be willing to utterly wipe Palestine off the map, replacing it with a unified, uncontested, unblemished state of Israel.
However, and most critically, anyone familiar with Jewish history ought to realize that in today’s world, such things simply cannot happen. The very reason the state of Israel even exists today is because in 1948 the scattered remnants gathered together after nearly two thousand years and recaptured territory from their ancient homelands. These were people that had lived among their oppressor nations for generations, a virtual nation scattered among the world’s political states.
And so it is with Palestine. One could literally wipe the Gaza Strip bare, turn it into nuclear glass, and the Palestinian people would not cease to exist. Hardly. They would become a scattered remnant state, much like Israel was. And just like those angry Israelite people forever remembering and cursing the very memory of Amalek, the result would not be peace: it would be even more deeply entrenched violence, a cultural memory of the injustice cemented forever in the hearts and minds of the dispersed but very much alive Palestinian people.
In fact, many of those Palestinians live among the Israeli people today.
And just as Obi Wan Kenobi said to Darth Vader: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.“
Yes, that prophecy clearly is fictional. But it represents something very true: particularly in communal cultures typical to the Middle Eastern world, cultural memories are extremely long and extremely unforgiving. Harm to one’s group is deeply felt and passed down from generation to generation.
Wiping a Palestinian state off the map would only entrench this problem with the Palestinian people even more deeply. And instead of having a fairly localized problem to deal with, Israel would inflame the Palestinian remnant – and its brothers from the extended tribe of Ishmael – forever.
Don’t forget that this fighting goes all the way back to Abraham himself: his firstborn son Ishmael (born to Abraham’s concubine Harah) was thrust out of Abraham’s family by his wife Sarai, with Isaac the second-born taking all the family inheritance. That injustice has never been forgotten by the sons of Ishmael, and never will be. The family feud will continue until the restoration of God’s Kingdom on earth.
So let me turn to a second definition of peace: instead of the absence of war – which (as I have proposed) may be just as violent as war itself – let us consider a Godly type of peace. This kind is the absence of oppression, the presence of justice.
Since we are discussing a concept of peace in light of the conflict that began in the Hebrew Bible, let’s consider Amos 5 from the same Bible. The prophet is discussing the woeful state of the house of Israel – “Hear this word which I take up for you as a funeral lament, O house of Israel: she has fallen; she will not rise again – the virgin Israel. She lies abandoned on her land; there is none to raise her up.” (Amos 5:1-2) He goes on to discuss the decimated cities of Israel, going forth by the hundred and returning only by the ten. But quite importantly, the prophet lays the blame for Israel’s fate upon injustice: “Seek Yahweh that you may live, lest He come mightily like a fire, O house of Joseph, and it will consume with none to quench it for Bethel, for those who overturn justice into wormwood and put righteousness down to the earth.” (Amos 5:6-7) This theme continues into Amos 6 when the prophet repeats the same charge (Amos 6:12) and predicts in Amos 6:14 “For behold, I am going to raise up a nation against you, O house of Israel, declares Yahweh God of hosts, and they will press down on you from Lebo-hamath to the brook of the Arabah” (the same regions, incidentally, as challenges against Israel from modern-day Syria and Lebanon, who both stand with and fight Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people in Gaza).
Such warnings to Israel abound in the Bible, and generally Adonai was more explicitly concerned with justice and righteousness than idolatry. “Justice and righteousness” is a pair of words almost always found together; righteousness had more to do with right treatment of fellow man than with right worship practices. Consider that also in Amos 5:20-24, the prophet castigates Israel for God’s hatred of their feasts and rejection of their solemn assemblies when they simultaneously fail to treat the oppressed with justice – finishing with “but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.”
With this in mind, one can hardly look at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian citizens of Gaza and not wonder how God would respond to modern Israel’s desire to wipe this modern-day Amalek off the map, when considered in light of how they treat Gaza. Might God once again respond that the nations around them will arise and press them from every side, for their failure to do justly against those that they themselves also oppress?
As I said, I harbor no misconception that I can propose a solution to the Middle East conflict. The resentment there goes all the way back to the rift between the sons of Abraham, and the memories are long.
However, the Bible does describe a future ultimate solution to the problem: it is when the Sons of God, the embodied Christ spoken of throughout the New Testament, finally arise and take their place to rule and reign with true righteousness and justice. And one must not fail to note the prophecy of Isaiah 60:7, when Ishmael’s sons Nebaioth and Kadar will go up to the altar of God who says they “shall adorn My glorious house with beautiful glory.” God is very pointedly going to reclaim the offspring of Ishmael. If God considers their presence an essential aspect of the very glory of God’s house, how could we Christians possibly believe that wiping out the sons of Ishmael is our – or Israel’s – holy duty? We would be directly fighting against Adonai.
One essential aspect of Biblical prophecy, that appears across the entirety of Scripture, is God’s utter determination to assemble one holy nation from every tribe, tongue, language, and people. Gone are any hint of days when entire nations were “devoted to the Lord” – slaughtered to the very last infant and animal. A comprehensive understanding of Scripture should produce a recognition that God is not in the business of eradicating God’s human enemies, but instead is utterly determined to reclaim every human into a people that rule and reign on the earth with true justice and righteousness.
With this in mind, there should not be any hint among God’s people today that the proper solution in the Middle East is to wipe Palestine off the map, to kill every last one of them. That was never the heart of God, and it can never rightly be our heart either.
Instead, I would propose that the one thing we can do, even from afar, from our comfortable living rooms where we spend hours on social media becoming inflamed about the messy ugly world far from our borders, is to recognize that this warlike definition of peace is utterly unable to bring true peace. Occupation and subjugation of another people’s land will only perpetuate the problem. Promising to eradicate another nation will drive that other nation into an absolutely just war. Terrorism is never right and just, but self-defense by other means is entirely proper. And you might notice that this applies to both Israel and Palestine. It is no more right for Israel to wipe out Palestine than it is for Palestine and the rest of Ishmael’s Arabic offspring to wipe out the children of their younger brother. What’s going on is a family feud, and both sides are wrong.
So I would suggest that we Christians, the spiritual descendants of Isaac and Jacob, cannot choose to side with Jacob (Israel) over Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. Both are our brothers. Our ultimate calling is to bring them into Adonai’s family, to rule together with justice over all of God’s creation: Isaac and Ishmael alike. Our calling is to bring peace, not through superior firepower and the complete destruction of our enemies. Rather, it is through Christ’s ultimate mission: the restoration of relationship, the reuniting of son to father, and – as in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal, the restoration of brother to brother. That story did not end with the return and restoration of prodigal son to waiting father: Jesus’ story ended with the father’s appeal for the brothers to be reconciled. And that, truly, is God’s heart: that the brothers would be one, not that one would destroy the other.
Finally, recall that in Revelation 5:4-6, John heard “Behold, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah;” he turned and saw the Lamb as if slain. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, the story is of the upending of human expectations; dying to live; surrendering to win; loving those who would kill us; God choosing the weak over the strong.
So let us sue for true peace: the presence of justice, not the absence of war through superior firepower; the presence of righteousness, not the destruction or subjugation of one party or the other.
Peace should not be through superior firepower; peace should be through superior love.