“Weeping, she hath wept in the night…” —Lamentations 1:2
The State of Israel is now locked in a terrible struggle with Hamas. The rapidly unfolding war will prove brutal and bloody. In the coming weeks and months, leaders in Washington will formulate various policies with respect to the conflagration. American Catholics will have to judge whether these policies are prudent and morally sound. This article proposes a reasonable Catholic perspective on the conflict.
Preliminarily, we must temper our passions, which are naturally aroused by the horrifying butchery perpetrated by Hamas and its allies. Righteous anger is one thing; rash and disorienting rage is quite another. Americans should recall the many foreign and domestic missteps made in the wake of September 11. Discretion is most necessary when emotion pulls in a single direction. We must pursue clarity amid calamity, especially since the crisis is not at our doorstep.
That being said, let us inquire whether Israel’s war against Hamas is morally justifiable. After all, if Israel’s war is unjust, America’s support of such a war would also be unjust, and American Catholics would be compelled to oppose non-humanitarian aid and assistance.
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The Church teaches that a war is just when it is launched in self-defense and when: (1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor is lasting, grave, and certain; (2) all means for neutralizing the aggressor short of war have been tried and found inadequate; (3) there exists a serious prospect of success; and (4) the evils caused by the war do not exceed the evils remedied thereby (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2309).
Here, the first and second elements are surely satisfied: hundreds, maybe thousands, of Israelis are dead in their own homes and streets, slain by savage marauders bent on inflicting maximum death and destruction. Arguably, the third element is likewise satisfied, for even if Israel fails to annihilate Hamas, it will badly degrade the organization’s capacity for further aggression. The fourth element is somewhat disputable. To eradicate Hamas, Israel will have to carry out an operation of tremendous intensity. The operation’s violence risks inflaming residents of Gaza and their sympathizers throughout the Arab and Muslim world, laying the groundwork for a future catastrophe.
However, one could well respond that the continued existence of Hamas guarantees bloodshed and that its elimination opens a possible path to genuine and sustainable peace—not only for Israelis but also for Palestinians, many of whom have suffered grievously under Hamas’ corrupt and vicious administration.
Let us say, therefore, that Israel’s war against Hamas is, in fact, just. This does not mean that Israel enjoys absolute freedom of action in prosecuting its military objectives. A war must have a just cause; it must also have a just execution. For example, America’s wars against Germany and Japan were just; America’s incineration of Dresden and vaporization of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were probably unjust. Further, injustice by one antagonist does not warrant injustice by another. Therefore, we must not rationalize or materially support unjust actions within the framework of an otherwise just war. It is troubling to hear Israel declare a “complete siege” of Gaza: “no electricity, no food, no fuel.” We must hold Israel to its own admirably high standards.
Of course, the justice of Israel’s war does not demand friendly intervention by the United States. Piety requires that we consider the interests of our own nation—without neglecting the humanity we share with suffering Israelis (or, for that matter, suffering Palestinians). Quite plausibly, American interests currently align with Israeli interests. But this alignment is partially a function of first principles and partially a function of circumstance, and it is therefore liable to be more or less compelling as the situation evolves.
At this point, we have to engage a sensitive but critical subject. Many American Christians—including many American Catholics—will approach this conflict under the misguided belief that the modern State of Israel has a unique status in the eyes of God, which entitles it to extraordinary treatment. This notion is neither Scriptural nor traditional. The modern State of Israel is not identical with the Israel of the Bible, nor is it equivalent with the Jewish people at large. Many American Christians—including many American Catholics—will approach this conflict under the misguided belief that the modern State of Israel has a unique status in the eyes of God.Tweet This
God has ever had but one people, one church. In former times, this assembly was composed mainly of Abraham’s descendants, who were ruled by David and his successors, and who worshiped God in the temple in Jerusalem (the ideal arrangement, at least). After the advent of Christ, seed of Abraham and heir of David, the nations were invited to join this congregation, and since then men of every race have become sons of Abraham by faith (Romans 4:16, Galatians 3:7).
The providential destruction of Jerusalem and the temple brought the Mosaic covenant to its definitive conclusion (Hebrews 8:13). Israel was universalized as its Lord, the incarnate and glorified Word, extended His royal power throughout the world (Psalm 2:8, Matthew 28:19). There is a single “commonwealth of Israel,” in which Gentiles are “fellow citizens” with their faithful ethnically Jewish brethren, the two having been made “one new man” and “one body” in the Messiah (Ephesians 2:11-22). Thus, the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), whose history is chronicled in Scripture, is today commonly called the Catholic Church. Israel the modern political reality (established in 1948) is therefore distinct from Israel the enduring and perennial theological reality.
As for the Jewish people—the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob according to the flesh, who observe portions of the Old Testament and deny that Jesus is the Christ—they are at once related to and estranged from Israel, as a branch has a sort of connection to its tree after being severed therefrom (Romans 11:11-24). In short, the Jewish people retain the gracious affection of God, their hardness of heart concerning Christ has providential significance, and they are destined to be reconciled at the appropriate moment, a great mystery (Romans 11:25-36).
Yet none of these attributes can be transferred to the State of Israel, as even many pious Jews appreciate. The State of Israel is a human project not a divine project, except insofar as every nation is God’s handiwork (Job 12:23). (Critically, to assert the State of Israel’s human character is not to deny its legitimacy, which is rooted in international law.)
It may be that the State of Israel has some special role in the consummation of things because of its location and its function as a Jewish homeland. But we cannot, on the basis of such speculation, naively conflate the State of Israel with the people of God; nor can we make it synonymous with the Jewish race as a whole. We must make fine distinctions, lest we lose ourselves in misleading words and phrases or get swept up in platitudinous generalities.
As Catholics and Americans (in that order), we can reasonably conclude that Israel is presently waging a just war of self-defense, while recognizing that its conduct is subject to usual legal and moral constraints. We should regularly weigh the extent to which this war advances our national interests. We should also be mindful that the State of Israel does not proceed as God’s elect vessel—an honored status that belongs to the Church, the true and spiritual Israel. Above all, we should pray for a swift and durable peace, for the temporal well-being and eternal salvation of those involved, and for the safety of the much-neglected Christians of the region, with whom we share a surpassing kinship in Christ.
“The ways of Sion mourn, because there are none that come to the solemn feast: all her gates are broken down; her priests sigh; her virgins are in affliction; and she is oppressed with bitterness…” —Lamentations 1:4
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