I am ordained, but I do not pastor a church. Still, I am often invited to be a guest speaker or lecturer in congregations and universities. Lately, when people ask me questions afterward, they want to know my opinion about the war between Israel and Hamas. I am happy to answer them. Members of the clergy aren’t shut off from the world, and I don’t think our words should be either — we can be a force for good.
The United States is a better nation because of the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s resistance to apartheid helped transform South Africa.
The church has also known deep failure. Christianity’s dark history of antisemitism spanned centuries. And my family has personal experience with a different strain of evil, as I am a descendant of enslaved persons owned by Christian ministers.
And yet, history unfolds before us, giving properly humbled churches chances to begin again. We are at such a moment with the war in Gaza. So if our congregants want to know what we think about the war that began with Hamas’s terrorist attacks, what is the appropriate response? How might churches engage with a complex history that has so many competing claims?
The fraught history of the Middle East may seem to be beyond the expertise of most clergy members. The standard preparatory divinity degrees focus on things such as understanding biblical texts, articulating theology and creating programs to care for the poor. Most pastors counsel parents and struggling couples, not presidents and prime ministers.
Church work may seem like poor preparation for analyzing international politics, but it is actually what makes members of the clergy useful in this moment. We claim to answer to a higher calling than the needs of any particular nation-state. Our concerns are free to range widely, since we know that empathy need not be bound by any political borders.
A central teaching of Christianity arising from Genesis, a text it shares with its Jewish neighbors, maintains that every person, regardless of country of origin, is made in the image of God and deserving of respect. We are not alone in this belief. Other religious and secular traditions have articulated a similar idea. This provides an opportunity for cooperation. The belief in the inestimable worth of human beings can be a moral anchor in the turbulent seas of conflicting concerns.
There is no more crucial time to press this basic truth than in times of war, when the humanity of one’s opponents gets tossed to the side. Contending for the dignity of Palestinian and Israeli civilians is a theological act when the goals of victory and of the protection of the innocent struggle with each other for supremacy. Giving equal value to human beings on both sides of the conflict does not entail making moral equivalences between Israel and Hamas. It requires considering the lives of noncombatants in Israel and Gaza as equally sacred.
George Zabelka was a Catholic chaplain for the United States Air Force during World War II. While stationed on Tinian Island, he ministered to the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, giving them his blessing before the attack. He realized his tragic error when he was forced to face the loss of civilian life those bombs caused. He thought to himself, “My God, what have we done?”
Why had he supported the bombing? He explained, “I was told it was necessary — told openly by the military and told implicitly by my church’s leadership.” During a time of war, Father Zabelka felt pressured to trade in his religious principles (love for enemies and mercy toward those who suffer) and instead think of his own “side.”
During the Vietnam War, Dr. King saw the tremendous danger of sacrificing morals for pragmatics. After reflecting on the tremendous loss of innocent life in Vietnam, he said: “The casualties of principles and values are equally disastrous and injurious. Indeed, they are ultimately more harmful because they are self-perpetuating. If the casualties of principle are not healed, the physical casualties will continue to mount.”
After the horrible events of Oct. 7, over 2,000 evangelical leaders issued a statement correctly condemning the actions of Hamas. They asserted Israel’s right to self-defense and affirmed that the people of the Middle East had “dignity and personhood,” but that statement did not speak explicitly about how that personhood ought to affect the conduct of the war. I would have liked to see the group outline how the humanity of all those involved places moral limits on military actions during wartime.
A statement released by the National African American Clergy Network, on the other hand, condemned the attack on Israel by Hamas but also directly addressed the suffering of the people of Gaza. It called for “humanitarian pathways and aid,” including food, shelter and medical help for civilians. The evangelical and Black church statements evoked the just-war tradition and the right to self-defense, but only the latter tied that tradition directly to the protection and rescue of the innocent.
Attempting to do anything positive around divisive issues can feel like an exercise in futility since our public discourse is often reduced to yelling at one another on social media. Nonetheless, I believe it is possible to engage in activities that form the moral imagination of the country.
Church can offer the setting. According to one study, 30 percent of Americans attend church at least weekly, and 40 percent go at least once per month. People gather to worship God and make sense of the world around them.
I am not suggesting that members of the clergy turn sermons into glorified MSNBC or Fox News segments. I don’t think they should use God to launder political ideas gleaned from elsewhere. But if we really believe God values the lives of all civilians, then we ought to say so in our sermons, in our conversations and in our prayers. We ought to follow the events of the war and comment on them through the lens of protecting the vulnerable. We should encourage people to do what our faith tells us to do over and over, which is to see the humanity in everyone, even our enemies.
All nations know how to pick up swords. They don’t need encouragement to do so. But they may need help finding ways to put them away.