The unholy trinity of authoritarianism, religion and violence
While we pray, hope, and work for an end to the violence on all sides, we need to watch, reflect, and learn lessons from this dangerous moment.
After the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7, Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza was delayed. Such a siege would undoubtedly cause enormous civilian casualties, along with the suffering already occurring in Gaza as a result of daily Israeli air strikes. Collective punishment of Palestinians is not justified as a response to the terrorism that killed 1,400 Jews, wounded about 5,000 more and kidnapped an estimated 200 hostages.
It is a faith obligation to focus on compassion for the suffering on all sides, to protect civilian lives, and to work for the release of hostages.
Four hostages have been released, due to the efforts of the U.S. government; the status of those innocent people is a good reason for preventing an immediate military invasion. Focusing on the hostages and encouraging the Israeli government to delay a invading Gaza has been an important American contribution to the war. The Israeli need to defend itself should include deep reflection on how to do that in ways that don't cost many more civilian lives and spark a wider war. And supporters of the Palestinian people need to hold Hamas responsible for the loss of civilian lives on both sides.
As I have said in previous columns, genuine peace will require justice and a real two state solution in which security for all prevails over occupation and terrorism, with an honest accounting of leadership failures on both sides. That agenda can’t be put off until the war is over. The United States has not acted strongly enough to establish a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. On Wednesday, Biden finally said that will be required for any peace going forward:
“When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next,” Biden said. “And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution. And it means a concentrated effort from all parties — Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, global leaders — to put us on a path toward peace.”
But conversations about what comes next are becoming harder to hold, not just in the Middle East but here in America and the UK, where I just visited. Divisions between students on campuses, and even between old friends and within households are all on the rise. And as the war worsens, so will the divisions.
There is a constant temptation to succumb to binary thinking or one-sideism in crisis situations. Sorrow and pain that move across boundaries and truths that need to be told on both sides can become disconnected. It’s a struggle I feel everyday.
So while we pray, hope, and work for an end to the violence on all sides, we need to watch, reflect, and learn lessons from this horrible moment.
One reflection I had this week and want to share with all of you is the dangerous connections between autocracy, religion, and violence.
First, anti-democratic forces are clearly at play here. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pursuing a scheme to override democracy in Israel by ending judicial independence and allowing for a more autocratic state – creating a crisis in Israeli society, including among the military, which seemingly led to fracturing and distraction that may have contributed to Israeli vulnerability. Netanyahu seemed to be following the autocracy plans in places like Hungary to replace judicial integrity, diminish a free press, and eliminate permanent government civil service.
Coming home to America, Donald Trump has openly admitted his plans for doing the same if he can return to the White House: turning the Department of Justice into his own law-enforcement agency, attacking his political enemies, censoring the media, and replacing career civil servants with government operatives loyal to him.
In the House of Representatives, Trump intervened to help elevate a new Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson, who voted to decertify the 2020 election, led the strategy to change electors, and vigorously promoted The Big Lie about a stolen election. The House of Representatives is even more MAGA now, with so-called moderate Republicans caving at the end to Trump and his agenda, as they have done again and again.
“When it came to overthrowing the election, (Johnson) was not a backbencher,” Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice, told The New York Times. “He was a strategist.”
One can only hope that Johnson, a right-wing evangelical legislator, will stay true to his reputation of being personable, civil, and respectful, and will work in bi-partisan ways on critical issues. And, I will add, to read the Scriptures that he likes to cite, that call all people of faith to defend the poor and oppressed.
Second, on religion. I don’t believe it is unrelated that Netanyahu built his ruling coalition by reaching out to Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders who press him even further to the right, want to expand settlements that make a two state solution even harder, and disrespect Muslims, Christians, and even other Jews who disagree with them. Compassion for others is not a religious value for the far-right religious in Israel, who have no interest in peace or justice, and call for extreme violence in military solutions – though they hypocritically ask for exemptions from military service.
And, of course, back in America, the religious right here offers uncritical support for Israel, calls for the most violent military action from Israel, and shows absolutely no concern for Palestinian lives – not even for Palestinian Christians.
Third, autocratic religion leads to violence, and even justifies it religiously. It is completely opposed to religious pluralism in Israel and in the United States. And the combination of political autocracy, right-wing religion, and the resulting violence is becoming more and more dangerous – in Israel, America and other places around the world. An incredible fact in the American House Speaker's race is how those Republicans who decided not to back Jim Jordan received death threats – even Republican families were threatened for not going along with one autocratic man’s desire for power.
Also, ironically and revealingly, Netanyahu has three indictments for corruption awaiting him if loses his Prime Minister’s office — compared to 91 felony counts against Trump over four criminal cases that will come to bear on him unless he wins back the presidency and acts to dismiss or distract all the legal jeopardy that he can. If these two totalitarians who use religion and violence for their political and personal agendas don’t have the protection of political power, they will both spend most of the rest of their lives in jail.
There are things we must all learn to get unstuck from political ideologies on all sides, demonstrate our compassion for victims on all sides, challenge leaders on all sides, and find our way forward – together with people on other sides – to the ways of peace which require justice, on all sides.
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