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How redemptive justice could be a way out of a long and costly war

Dynamics of shame, dis-honour and vengeance swirl around the decision makers in the Israel-Hamas war. Steven Firmin explores how redemptive justice could restore a relationship of peace.

Steven Firmin is a lecturer in Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford. His research interests include the interaction of Christian and Muslim political thought.

An army general in green fatigues stands and address a group of soldiers sitting, squatting and standing around him
Israeli Chief of the General Staff Herzi Halevi addresses troops.

The horrific, indiscriminate attacks against Israel by Hamas terrorists have brought the larger Israel-Palestine conflict back to centre stage in international politics. The event has been called “Israel’s 9/11”, and senior Israeli political and military officials have vowed to “exact a price that will be remembered by [Hamas], and Israel’s other enemies, for decades to come.” , and to turn Gaza into a “city of tents”. Israel has begun bombarding thousands of Hamas targets and preparing for a ground invasion in Gaza.  

The die thus seems to be cast for a long and costly war which may not ultimately be able to achieve its aims, and that will halt or reverse any progress towards a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict in at least two ways. 

Much more important is that fair-minded Palestinians and their supporters in the wider Arab and western world are also able to understand Israel’s military actions as fitting and discriminate. 

First, the trauma resulting from a large-scale Israeli air and ground campaign in Gaza will be enormous for Palestinians. This trauma will almost certainly be the seedbed of resentment which gives the next generation of Gazans sufficient reason to hate Israel and work for its demise. Indeed, if the tragedy of October 7 is Israel’s “9/11” then it is imperative that Israel not neglect the difficult lesson the US learned through its “war on terror”: when you punish terrorists in a manner that destabilizes and alienates the wider population of a region, you merely create more terrorists. This is not to say that responding to Hamas’ attacks with military force is unjust. Military action should form part of a just response to Hamas’ actions. But this military action needs to be conducted carefully. Any military judgement must be done in such a way that not only Israelis and sympathetic westerners see it as a rightful judgement on Hamas. Much more important is that fair-minded Palestinians and their supporters in the wider Arab and western world are also able to understand Israel’s military actions as fitting and discriminate. This would require Israel, at minimum, to go to extraordinary lengths to minimize civilian casualties, even to the point of significantly increasing risks to Israeli soldiers.  

In the recent past, however, and perhaps also now, Israel’s military strategy, known as the ‘Dahiya Doctrine’ has geared in the opposite direction: it deliberately strikes back at enemy targets in a disproportional manner, in an effort to deter the enemy from further aggression. And when it faces a choice between increasing risks to Israeli soldiers or civilian populations, it often chooses the latter. If that strategy continues to play itself out in a drawn-out air and land campaign, any short-term military victory will only result in long-term creation of new and more determined enemies of Israel.   

A long and costly ground war against Hamas will only make things worse for Israelis and Palestinians. 

Second, Israel’s pursuit of a war against Hamas makes it all but impossible for the wider Arab world to pursue normalization of ties with Israel. Prior to Israel’s declaration of war, a fresh start was within reach. The 2020 Abraham Accords normalized ties between Israel and Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, and this year an historic, US-brokered deal between Israel and Saudi-Arabia was well on its way to being agreed. Now, the Israel-Saudi deal is in tatters, and other Arab countries with diplomatic ties to Israel are feeling political pressure to show distance. This pressure is not arising because any of these Arab countries support Hamas. All are opposed to its Islamist ideology. It is because they are tied by bonds of affection and loyalty to the Palestinian people, and these bonds prevent Arab countries from negotiating in good faith with Israel when they have serious doubts that Israel’s military actions are making sufficient provision for the welfare of ordinary Palestinians.  

A long and costly ground war against Hamas will only make things worse for Israelis and Palestinians. But what would make things better? Rather than a vengeful justice, Israel might consider pursuing what is called ‘redemptive justice’ in its war against Hamas.  

This kind of justice is exactly the path Jesus urges his followers to follow in his Sermon on the Mount: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist by evil means. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  

The teaching here about retaliation has three parts. 

First, Jesus presents a traditional teaching from the Mosaic law, sometimes called the lex talionis: ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”’ In its Old Testament contexts, this principle was supposed to prevent violence from spiraling out of control. When someone wronged you, your injury didn’t give you unlimited right of revenge. Wrongdoing had to be addressed with strict retribution. No more.  

Next, Jesus warns of a deeper dynamic which leads to problems: ‘But I say to you, do not resist by evil means’. Jesus’ warning is not opposed to the lex talionis. What Jesus is warning about, as New Testament commentator Peter Leithart argues, is not to apply this law in ways that perpetuate violence rather than limit it. The example Jesus gives next is illuminating: a slap on the right cheek is not a violent threat to life. To slap someone on the right cheek, you must use either your left hand, or the back of your right hand. Either of these would have been understood as acts of dishonour and shame to a first century Jew. They were not acts intended to harm grievously. And when someone is intent on publicly shaming or dishonouring you, responding with a counter-act of shame or dishonour only heightens the antagonism between you and encourages further retaliation. Strict retribution in these situations will not achieve the law’s aim of limiting violence.  

This leads us to the third part of the teaching, where Jesus proposes a creative solution to the danger: rather than respond to dishonour with dishonour and risk creating a cycle of vendetta, take the penalty of the law on yourself he says – “accept the second slap rather than giving it” as Leithart puts it. This is what redemptive justice means. It cuts evil off at its root and restores a relationship of peace. After all, a person seeking to humiliate you runs out of ammunition very quickly when you show yourself willing to be humiliated.  

Lex talionis is a principle which limits violence to strict retribution. Adopting this approach would require Israel’s leadership to renounce formally the “Dahiya Doctrine.” 

How then might Israel’s political and military leadership enact redemptive righteousness in the situation it now faces in Gaza and in the areas under its effective control? First, let me say it again, Jesus’ commands do not abolish the lex talionis “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Judgement via military force against Hamas is thus not forbidden by the Sermon on the Mount. But as was noted earlier, the lex talionis is a principle which limits violence to strict retribution. Adopting this approach would require Israel’s leadership to renounce formally the “Dahiya Doctrine” and commit publicly to a more proportionate, discriminate form of retaliation to the Hamas attacks.  

Second, we should note that the political situation which has been created by these attacks has deeper dynamics than merely trying to achieve justice for the victims of the attack. The situation also has important dynamics of shame and honour. Unable to prevent this horrific tragedy, the competency of Israeli political and military leaders has been called into question. They have been humiliated by these attacks, and the great temptation for them now is to ‘resist by evil means’, projecting strength by responding to dishonour with counter-dishonour, humiliation with counter-humiliation. This teaching warns Israel’s leadership to do otherwise: accept the second slap, rather than give it.  Although it may sound counter-intuitive, allow yourself to be humiliated by Hamas rather than perpetuate further humiliation that will alienate the wider Palestinian population and potential Arab allies. Undercut the cycle of humiliation by going out of your way to honor ordinary Palestinians, protecting them from harm and blessing them even if it means incurring greater risks to your own soldiers or civilian population. This is the kind of bold, innovative leadership that Graham Tomlin has argued is needed in this most complex of global conflicts. 

Would adopting such a self-sacrificial military strategy be ultimately self-defeating? Would it weaken Israel’s military advantage and prevent them from achieving victory over Hamas? The opposite is true. The Israeli military, with its superior military capability, is not at all in danger of ceding victory to Hamas by fighting a more self-sacrificial form of warfare. But if Israel fails to adopt a self-sacrificial strategy as it pursues military action, the sweetness of any initial victory will sour into a long-term defeat as the contagion of resentment is sown among a new generation of Palestinians and their supporters.  

But surely this would be politically unfeasible for Israel’s leadership to implement? Any leader who enacted redemptive justice towards Hamas and the wider Palestinian population amidst the current national mood of mourning and outrage would face certain political demise. That may be so. Jesus warns those who follow him that they must be prepared to take up their cross. What would motivate that kind of decision, given the cost? The confidence to enact redemptive justice cannot ultimately be separated from confidence that death has been overcome through resurrection, bringing life to the whole world. The call to enact redemptive justice can only be sustained with a recognition of both the wisdom and the ultimate victory of the Jew from Nazareth.  

Israel’s leadership is at a cross-roads. In response to the horrific attacks of Hamas, it has begun a severe bombing campaign in pursuit of a vengeful justice that will soon be followed by a ground invasion. If it wants long-term peace, it must consider changing course quickly and drastically. It must pursue the redemptive justice of the crucified Messiah that overcomes evil with good.  

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.