5 min read

What it really means to take a stand

George Pitcher is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest, 

George Pitcher explores the challenge in applying moral principle to the savage international crisis that is the Israel-Hamas war.
Two country leaders sit in chairs next to each other with their country's flags behind
President Biden meets Israel's Prime Minister.
The White House.

The first fortnight of the Israel/Gaza war has seen distinct phases in the West’s response. Initially, our leaders united in their resolution that Israel had a right to defend her borders. Of course she did – tell us something we don’t know.  

The danger then arose, after they had projected her flag onto their government buildings and sent armaments to assist her, that we would look away as Gaza was flattened in reprisal for Hamas atrocities committed on Israeli soil.  

We didn’t look away, thank God. The missile strike on the Gaza hospital (whoever caused it) marked the second phase of our horror at what was unfolding in a city under siege. It meant the US president Joe Biden arrived in Israel with a more conciliatory tone: “While you feel... rage, don’t be consumed by it.”  

On his copycat visit, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak was more hawkish: “We will stand with you in solidarity… and we want you to win.” Well, not all of us, actually; he apparently hadn’t noticed, or chose to ignore, loud pro-Palestinian British demonstrators. Sunak’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, evidently had noticed the humanitarian catastrophe  unfolding in Gaza and urged “restraint”. 

A scorched-earth policy in Gaza in reprisal for the massacre of families in Israel cannot be countenanced and we, in the West, should say so and, largely, are saying so. 

Overall, in the past few days, Israel seemed to be grabbing global opprobrium from the jaws of western support. In a turbo-charged burst of whataboutery, Jewish commentators have been reminding us of the unspeakable horrors of the Hamas invasion that sparked the conflict. 

Our respectable, mainstream media don’t need reminding. They repeat the details of Hamas’s crimes against humanity relentlessly as further harrowing details of them emerge. But the story has developed, if not moved on.  

The consequent challenge is to apply moral principle to this savage international crisis. The criteria of Augustine’s “Just War” are a good place to start. One of the sanctions for waging such a war is that it is proportionate. A scorched-earth policy in Gaza in reprisal for the massacre of families in Israel cannot be countenanced and we, in the West, should say so and, largely, are saying so. 

Biden said so in Israel. In doing so, he showed leadership in the best traditions of the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Graham Tomlin has spelt out here our urgent need for such leadership and it would be only faithful to meet that challenge. 

To say we stand with Israel, as Sunak does, is an incomplete statement in this regard. It needs to be followed by vocalising what we stand for. 

From a perspective of faith, the first thing to say, almost to get it out of the way, is that prayer is vital under these circumstances – it never changes an impassible God; it always, every time, changes us to be more effective agents in the world. What we call the Holy Spirit changes events through us. So our agency is as nothing if it remains unimplemented. The Christian voice needs to be articulated in action as well as word. 

To say we stand with Israel, as Sunak does, is an incomplete statement in this regard. It needs to be followed by vocalising what we stand for. And, whatever that is, it can’t be the destruction of a people as the price of the defeat of its terrorist leadership. 

If that were the case, the Allied advance on Berlin from the west at the end of the Second World War would have more closely resembled the horrific brutality of the Soviet advance from the east. There was a moral assumption on our part then that the German people were not to pay, beyond reparations, for the crimes of Nazism. 

To apply similar moral principle to the current crisis, it’s absolutely right to defend Israel from Hamas, but it is right also to defend Palestinians from the crimes of Hamas. To fail to make such a distinction isn’t solely inhumane, it’s racist. 

Gospel injunctions, in truth, can ring hollow in these circumstances. To suggest, on the Gaza border right now, that we should love our neighbours as ourselves would sound tin-eared and trite (yet it doesn’t make it any less true). 

Nor is anyone likely to suggest that Israel turns its other cheek – the Christian cries out for justice as well. But we might be bold to say that the way to exact that justice is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  

Challenges to a Christian response to the conflict are twofold. First, Christian witness is woefully diminished on the very ground on which Israeli military boots currently stand and where they are likely to march very soon. 

It’s been a fluctuating historical demographic, but the Christian population across the holy lands of the Middle East has declined from about 20 per cent a century ago to just 5 per cent today. There is now less than 2 per cent of the population of Israel that is Christian. Gaza has been a hostile environment for Christians since the Hamas takeover in 2007; out of a population of 2 million, perhaps 1,000 are Christian. 

This is not to suggest that Christian presence alone could change the course of Israel-Palestine armed conflicts. It didn’t prevent the Six-Day War in the 1960s, after all, when it was far larger, nor during intifadas since. But, as I have written before, the Christian quarters in Jerusalem have maintained an uneasy stability between Judaism and Islam and their decline has made the city more volatile. As a buffer to conflict, the Christian role is diminished. 

The other complicating factor is Christian Zionism, a doctrine that holds that the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 is eschatological – that is, that the return of the Jewish people to the holy lands is a precursor to the “end times” and the second coming of Jesus Christ. 

None of which is likely to comfort those suffering so dreadfully there. Perhaps, ultimately, we look for the holy voice in the wrong places. I don’t mean to misappropriate her faith or ethnicity, but I think of the traumatised young woman who survived the Hamas massacre at the Re’im Supernova music festival. 

Asked on ITV News if she wanted revenge, she replied through her tears, quietly but firmly: “I don’t want revenge. I want peace.” There speaks the authentic voice of hope.   

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6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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