The way to resolve the Israel-Hamas war is very simple, journalist Matt Yglesias recently explained. We could do it in just five steps:
It’s great, right? I love it! Only—well, that third step seems a little tricky.
And that’s the point, as Yglesias wrote at greater length on Substack. Obviously, the five-step plan is a joke. But it gets at something that so much commentary on this subject seems to miss—certainly in America, and probably elsewhere—which is that Israeli political leaders (to say nothing of the murderers in Hamas) are not ignorant of what we outside observers believe is the right and prudent way forward.
“They just disagree,” Yglesias notes, and they are unlikely to stop disagreeing, and we are unlikely to shift their thinking much, if at all. By “we,” I partly mean the US government, which, for all its power, is objectively limited in its capacity to shift the behavior of combatants who believe, quite rightly, they are in an existential fight. But I also mean you and me specifically—as well as our fellow Christians in America and around the world.
We cannot fix this crisis, no matter how faithful, factual, and fervent we are.
This bears saying, I think, for two reasons. One is our modern habit of “awareness,” as in, I am posting this article on Facebook because I want to raise awareness.
On many issues of great import, the reality is most of us can do very little to effect significant change. Sometimes we can give money to a relevant cause. Always we can pray (1 Thess. 5:17) and take care we do not sin in our hearts or our speech as we react to the news (Matt. 5:21–30). But most of us are not scientists who can find a cure for cancer, or politicians who can rewrite American immigration law, or generals who can decide on whom bombs will fall. Our duties to God and neighbor are usually more imminent and mundane, and if God answers our prayers, that is far more God’s work than ours.
Still, we find ourselves with so much information about problems near and far. It is the background noise of every digital conversation. We feel a pull to respond—but how? What tangible good can we do? Often, as finite people in a fallen world, the frustrating answer is: nothing. Often the only visible action we can take is what we call “awareness,” and often this amounts to a fun run or a social media post.
Awareness isn’t bad, but buzz is not change. Awareness—and the opinionating that attends it—is not by itself a solution. Having ideas and information in our heads will not resolve a crisis halfway around the world and wholly outside our influence. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life”—or subtract a single hour from some distant conflict? (Matt. 6:27).
Not only that, but this kind of worrying may also sap our attention and energy from other, better uses. Is it better for me to raise awareness about cancer or to make dinner for a member of my church undergoing chemo? This is not difficult to answer.
The other reason is that, as Christians, we rightly have a high opinion of faithfulness and its effects. By faith, God’s people have “administered justice,” “shut the mouths of lions,” and “received back their dead, raised to life again” (Heb. 11). We can be “co-workers in God’s service,” as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, whose faith rests “on God’s power” (1 Cor. 3:9, 2:5). The “prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” James taught, reminding us of the story of Elijah—“a human being, even as we are”—whose earnest prayer led to both famine and plenty (5:16–18).
But faith is not magic, nor is it a guarantee of a happy ending on this side of eternity. It does not always succeed in protecting us or turning others away from evil.
The heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 did not reliably triumph over adversity in any immediate sense: “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated” (vv. 36–38). They “were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection”—and though they will gain it, they were still tortured (v. 35).
Christian faithfulness also can’t have effect where it does not exist. A recent essay about the Israel-Hamas war at Red Letter Christians ends with an exhortation from a Palestinian Christian peacemaker, who, “when asked what he thinks will contribute most to ending this violence,” said, “When we follow the Jesus we talk about, this crisis will be over.”
The part of me that’s convinced Jesus calls his followers to peacemaking and nonviolence wants to agree, but the realist in me says this simply is not true.
Yes, Christians should follow Jesus, in war as in every circumstance. But Christian faithfulness will not end this crisis, in large part because the people at war here overwhelmingly are not Christians. There are some Messianic Jewish Christians in the Israeli Defense Forces and among Israeli civilians, and some Arab believers are part of the civilian population of Gaza, where they and their churches have not been spared attack. But by and large—especially in the upper echelons, where strategy decisions are made, and entirely among Hamas—this is a conflict between non-Christian combatants.
We can’t expect them to follow Jesus if they haven’t made him their Lord. We shouldn’t expect them to value a Christian perspective about what to do (1 Cor. 2:14, 5:12–13a). That’s the Christian version of Yglesias’ third step—which is just as much a joke as the secular variant.
That’s not to say our faith is of no import here. It is beyond our power to end this crisis, but it is not beyond God’s power.
We often say Elijah’s famous prayer brought plenty, and in a sense it did, but when “the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops,” that didn’t happen by Elijah’s hand. It was the work of God. And we can be “co-workers in God’s service” whose faith rests “on God’s power,” but it is still God’s service and God’s power. When God’s people “administered justice,” “shut the mouths of lions,” and “received back their dead, raised to life again,” it was not really them, but God working through them.
What would it look like for God to end this crisis? I don’t know. The practical difficulties seem insurmountable to me. I have no good ideas and no power to enact them, anyway. I can only put my “hope in the Lord both now and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3), refrain from concerning myself with “things too difficult for me” (131:1, NASB), and pray for peace. Maybe God could get on with the Second Coming. “Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?”
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of books and ideas for Christianity Today.