A Guest Contribution by Heinrich Arnold from the Bruderhof Community.
Note: This article by a leader of the Bruderhof Community , Heinrich Arnold, provides a valuable challenge and contribution to our considerations on the complex topics of enemy love/self-defense/state violence/just war (bellum iustum), which has become extremely relevant due to recent events in Israel.
The Gospel of Peace in a Time of Terror
A Bruderhof pastor asks how Christians should respond in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack on Israel.
By Heinrich Arnold
October 12, 2023
Last Friday, October 6, 2023, was a day of festivity in Israel, as throngs of people attended synagogues to celebrate the end of Sukkot and the beginning of Simchat Torah, “rejoicing with the Torah.” As this joyful holiday dawned on Saturday, unimaginable evil was unleashed. Thousands of rockets struck nearby towns as well as cities as far away as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Masked gunmen breached one of the most heavily surveilled borders in the world, massacring whole families still sleeping in bed, raping women, and rounding up an estimated 150 hostages.
By now, everyone has heard of the shocking atrocities perpetrated by Hamas in Israel over the last week. In the face of this horror, how should Christians respond?
The New Testament calls on us to mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:14). At a time like this, we should grieve with the people of Israel, especially the survivors of Hamas’s attack. And we should mourn too, with civilians in Gaza who are already suffering as collateral damage in the military response to it.
We must pray for peace. To say this may sound like a platitude. But if we believe in God’s power to intervene in history, prayer remains vital all the same.
Beyond grieving and praying, what else should we do?
From many corners, there are demands for stern action from world leaders. This is more than understandable because of the depth of fury, fear, and panic that Israelis feel at being violated in such terrible ways by an organization that has pledged to eradicate their country. The desire for a swift and severe reaction is at the core of our human response to evil. Like many, I have traveled to Israel and the West Bank on several occasions, most recently last year, and have made close friends on both sides of the long-standing conflict in the region. Many of them have spent years working for peace and dialogue in order to overcome the deep-seated hatred in their communities. When I’ve spoken with some of these in the last few days, they describe their incredible pain. They are living through a level of anger and dread of the future beyond anything I can imagine.
In my church community, the Bruderhof, one way that the terror has come close to home is the massacres that took place in kibbutz communities such as Kfar Aza and Be’eri, in which hundreds were killed, including toddlers and babies. The ties of friendship between the kibbutzim and the Bruderhof as two community movements go back ninety years. Though the Bruderhof is a Christian church and the kibbutzim are Jewish, we share a commitment to a communal way of life and have historical roots in common. Our hearts go out to these communities, and to all who are suffering the anguish of the past few days.
For my own part, as a pastor, I am not in a position to tell the governments involved what actions they should take. Nor do I have any say over how other world powers will respond. Government leaders will do what they do anyway. Let us pray that their decisions in the coming days and weeks are for the wellbeing and protection of all the people affected, especially the most vulnerable.
But though I don’t know what governments should do, I do know what followers of Jesus are called to do.
The only thing Christians can do with absolute certainty is to testify to Christ’s gospel of peace. Our calling is to pray for peace and for all the victims of violence, to refuse to support violence ourselves, and to be peacemakers. As members of his church on earth, we are to be an embassy in the present world of the future peaceable kingdom.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9). He taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:43–45).
We should deplore all war; we can never cheerlead for violence, however justified it may seem to be.
Christians should protest the barbarity of the attacks on Israel – the coldblooded targeting of civilians, the rapes, the massacre of children, women, and elders. We should speak up, too, against depriving civilians of water and electricity and the bombing of residential targets. We should deplore all war. That is our duty; to be silent is sinful. Especially in moments when the public mood grows bloody-minded and vindictive, we can never cheerlead for violence, however justified it may seem to be.
What force can overcome such evil? Again, Jesus teaches us the answer: Only love can truly win over enemies.
The apostle Paul echoed Jesus’ teaching on peacemaking, writing in his Letter to the Romans: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
For Christians, it can be easy to lose sight of Jesus’ teachings about how to confront evil. It is tempting to reach instead for answers that seem more “realistic.” Yet hard-power responses to enmity are no guarantee of safety (witness the massive intelligence failure that left open the door to the Hamas attack); in fact, it’s easy to think of examples of how they can backfire. In any case, above and beyond considerations of effectiveness, Christians believe that Jesus’ way of peacemaking is the only truly realistic answer to evil.
We who profess Christ must testify confidently to his command to love rather than to trust in armed force. Christians must hold fast to his promise that his kingdom of peace will come, and that in it is the world’s hope. That is the future promised by the Psalmist:
Come and see what the Lord has done …
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
This article was oiginally published in English on Plough.com as “The Gospel of Peace in a Time of Terror.” Copyright ©2023 by Plough Quarterly. Posted here by permission.