The Haunting of Christ in the Holy Land

The Haunting of Christ in the Holy Land

The Israel-Palestine vortex of human suffering that has flooded eyes on social media over the last weeks has been stupefying. As a result, many people have been rendered numb to the human empathy evoked with each new report of grisly murders of innocent lives, from grandmothers to toddlers and babies. In the midst of the catastrophes of Hamas’s terrorist attacks and Israel’s reciprocal strikes on Gaza, it is easy to feel the social pull of conformity to one side or the other. Such polarity is tempting to assuage inflamed emotions and confusion in the fog of war. There is also a magnetic pull for those who wish to signal solidarity with one of the many identity group parallels being painted by propagandists on both sides of this fight. However, in this time, it is important more than ever to remember the opening words of Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.”

Those who profess to imitate Jesus—regardless of their doctrinal particularities—are obligated by definition to make peace between warring brothers. That means Christians in America cannot justify the killing of a single innocent life as “collateral damage” for righteous revenge. Endless blood feuds—whether motivated by ethnicity, land, ideology, or religious zeal—have no place in the Christian life. Jesus says, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” However, many of his followers—on the left and right—seek to insult or shame others for questioning the killings and policies of both sides. Swept up in an ocean of algorithmically-mediated anger, many Christians contradict Christ by insisting their side must seek mercy via sacrificial violence.

It is a well-documented fact in Israeli and American media that Hamas has been supported, nurtured, and promoted over secularist and milder Palestinian groups since the late 1970s. In a 2019 article, Haaretz quotes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech to his party: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy—to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.” Similarly, foreign policy journalist Scott Horton recently highlighted Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s comments that “[The more moderate] PA is a liability and Hamas is an asset..on the international playing field in this game of delegitimization.” By what standard would the promotion of a more violent, extreme opponent be an asset in the Western persuasion battle? It is the standard ushered in by the work of Jesus Christ in shaping the world, particularly the West, to be attentive to the plight of victims. Indeed, in a world shaded in the shadow of the Cross, it is one’s perceived proximity to martyrdom that engenders social and political passion.

In the world prior to our Christ-haunted modernity, one did not appeal to the Roman public by supporting a local extremist opponent so that one looked more threatened and aggrieved to the rest of the world. In the Roman empire, like all others before ours, might simply made right. World myths—with their detached, abstract violence of gods—reflected this ethos. As the world has become demystified by the presence of Christ’s inversion of mythic violence and renunciation of vengeance, the gods fell to Earth and their graves are found in the structures of decaying temples around the world.

The late anthropologist Rene Girard said, “We did not invent our gods. We deified our victims.”

Every modern group is now seeking the sacred status of sacrificial victim. In the wake of the Gospels in which God is identified with the innocent victim of an angry mob, zealous supporters of Israel and Palestine can only see their side as the true victim acting in restraint. Each side feels that their group is only acting in self-defense and did not start the violence. The Christian vocation of history is to examine the victims and facts of a conflict as impartially as possible—standing in solidarity with the cause of all slain lambs since the foundation of the world. Violent zeal requires a misrecognition of the history of a conflict in which one selectively rewinds the tape of history at a moment that catches their first received insult.

Rather than choosing a side or arming and manipulating both sides as Americans have done for far too long, Christians must take the leadership position to which their role model calls them and demand a cessation of all killing and retributive violence. Christians must not be ashamed of the Gospel in its penetrating solidarity with all victims of war. Perpetrators of terrorism must be brought to justice but serious Christians cannot make excuses for violent overreach that kills innocent lives.

Whether Christians heed this call, history will continue to unfold under the frame Jesus inaugurated—the meek shall inherit the world. No image has more power than that of a slain child.

Jesus predicted the end of the 2nd Temple and its way of life as an inevitable result of his people’s rejection of his message of self-emptying forgiveness and nonviolence. Instead, zealots rejected his way out of a self-righteous wrath of being occupied by foreign powers—in a similar spirit that animates the terrorist elements within today’s Palestinian territories. He also said his body would be the new temple that would be destroyed as well but raised again. In 33 AD, Rome destroyed Jesus’s nonviolent, personhood-structured temple. God raised him in vindication. In 70 AD, Rome destroyed the nation’s collective Temple. God did not raise it. The world has since moved slowly, in fits and starts, from one dominated by competing claims of ethnic supremacy to one in which the human person, particularly the innocent victim, has ascended to a position of supreme concern.

Thus, old media and social media political operations scramble to shape myths to justify power grabs and vengeance in the name of victimhood. Yet this same digital media environment also inevitably opens windows for seeing victims in their rivals’ neighborhood—in real time and in history. Hence, the backfiring reactionary calls for censorship. This process unravels the ability of governments to maintain any semblance of unanimity to cement their version of events—myth does not conceal or empower in a Christ-infected media ecosystem.

Rejection of the metaphysical claims of Christianity does not loose Christ’s yoke on the world’s imagination. Christ’s work was a structural one of perception, not a mere ideological concept. The way we do society and politics is shaking at its core. Violent subjugation of persons and its revolutionary twin of vengeance are being exposed by their respective impotent impositions. The body of the slain victim since the foundation of the world has been devoured. Now its memory will devour our hearts and minds until we have the courage to renounce our participation in violence.