Peace on Earth?

George Austin on terrorism

As the war in Afghanistan moves to its inevitable conclusion, television news channels bring us instead the horrors of the place we know as the Holy Land, as Israeli and Palestinian seem to sink deeper and deeper into an abyss of violence. This year there will be no pilgrims thronging Manger Square in Bethlehem, no ‘peace on earth, goodwill towards men’, no ‘holy night’ and certainly no ‘silent night’.

The immediacy of television now brings us war and violence – live as it happens. Just as we watched in disbelief as a second plane crashed into the Twin Towers in New York, so in Jerusalem we saw the emergency services tending the wounded and bereaved after one suicide bomb even as another exploded only a street away. It brings the reality of terror to our own firesides.

Change of Style

Maybe that is a reason why war films have changed their style. As a young boy during the Second World War, I remember the boost to morale when gung-ho films depicted decent chaps with those incredible pre-1946 accents going out to bash the Hun. Some were killed and the faithful Labrador would wait in vain on the airfield tarmac for its master’s return. But it was all sanitized, with bloody the reality of war flushed away.

Not so in films like Saving Private Ryan or programmes such as the BBC’s Band of Brothers, brilliant real-life drama showing the horrors of war as it really is, where limbs are lost, prisoners shot, orders ignored, mistakes made. But at least today, bombs can be guided to their targets with precision accuracy so that the curtain bombing of cities and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians no longer takes place, even though when technology fails civilian casualties do occur. And if there were a deliberate targeting of civilian areas, our TV screens would bring it to us as it happened and the public outcry would be too great for any government.

At least too in Afghanistan, alongside the plans to destroy the terrorist networks, there are as firm and detailed plans to bring humanitarian aid to the suffering people of that country, just as soon as conditions permit.

Old Style

But what of Israel, where increasingly militant spokesmen on both sides show a country seemingly without a future? Nearly twenty years ago, I stood with an Arab Christian on a balcony looking over the rubble between Arab and Israeli areas of the city of Jerusalem. ‘How would you like it,’ he asked me, ‘if you could look across to your home, knowing it had been taken away from you and that others now lived in it?’ The genuine grievances of the dispossessed are hard to counter, and I did not know what to say in reply.

And where does the international community stand? For there is certainly a barely concealed anti-Semitism in current liberal thought as well as a widespread anti-Americanism, both inside and outside the Churches. On a study course in Israel just after Israel had invaded the Lebanon in 1982, we were not far from the border when an Israeli soldier approached our party. Did any of us understand Israeli? One of the leaders did, and afterwards we asked him what the soldier had wanted. Apparently, he had been away from home, out of contact for three months, and asked if a message could be passed on to his wife as soon as we returned to Jerusalem. The next day, I asked the leader concerned if the man’s wife was relieved to hear her husband was safe. ‘How should I know?’ was this Christian’s reply. ‘I’m not passing on a message for an Israeli.’

But history too makes the Israeli response to attack all the more understandable. Having dinner with friends a few weeks ago, we met someone who had been adopted by a Jewish family in England, and he regarded his adoptive parents as if they were his own. He took me to his home and showed me a family tree, framed and hanging on the wall. Two or three generations back, there were perhaps a hundred brothers, sisters, cousins. Apart from his father and two or three others, every single one had been killed in Nazi gas chambers. I stood silent at the horror of looking at that bleak account of the reality of the suffering of the Jews.

Eyes and Teeth

So maybe the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ is understandable, even if its consequence in the escalation of the violence cannot excuse it. There was reason for the contrary saying of Jesus, ‘You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.’ (Matthew 5.38–9). Not resist the terrorists – or at least their cause – whose fanaticism brings such pain to the innocent by its indiscriminate slaughter? I cannot believe that Jesus meant that.

On the other hand, if every Palestinian suicide bomb produces an equally violent response, with Palestinian children suffering alongside adults, where does this deepening hatred end? This is not the clinical search for another Bin Laden and, in the process, the removal of a cruel regime that had brought misery to its people, but a bare-knuckle fight between two nations. Will the dangerous and foolish principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ in Israel in the end bring an Armageddon that will be worldwide in its effects?

I was reminded of Pinchas Lapide’s book, The Resurrection of Jesus. Lapide is a rabbi and theologian who has specialized in the study of the New Testament, and in his book he tells us, ‘I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event.’ For him, (unlike some modern Christian theologians) the evidence is overwhelming.

Passing all understanding

But Jesus is nevertheless not for him the Messiah, for the Messiah’s coming will signal God’s final victory and his reign over all people. And it will be marked by a peace that is clearly not and has never been present in the post-resurrection history of the world. But our Christian tradition, however we have abused it, has the answer to that, in that Christ offers us the grace and strength to become what he would have us be.

Though for me the Christian revelation is the final incontrovertible truth, it is not a sentimental descent into syncretism for me to believe that he seeks to bring about that peace through the ideals of all faiths, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and the rest, for all those harbour ideals which at their best always aim for the highest good.

In a world so full of mindless hatred and violence, of seemingly irreconcilable divisions between nations and tribes, it is easy to descend into despair, to see only a future that spirals into anarchy and godlessness – the world of the terrorist.

But in spite of all, we must believe that it is God’s world and that he reigns.

George Austin is a journalist and broadcaster.