There are endless opinions about what is going on in the Middle East right now. Unspeakable acts of terrorism. A vicious military response. The Gaza strip is a war zone seemingly overnight, but the contributing factors to this conflict didn’t happen overnight. In fact, they’re as ancient as the land itself. And while many Americans have fallen into quick-fix mode, trying to sum up the problem and solution in one 60-second TikTok video, or marching in the streets for Palestinian “liberation,” or putting a “Pray for Jerusalem” banner on social media, the problem is much deeper. I’ve included a few links at the end of this article that provide some backdrop for this conflict specifically and how a Christian can respond to war in general.
And while I don’t want to add to the voices who are oversimplifying this conflict, I do want to reflect on one angle of this conflict that I believe can be instructional for average people and can be actionable for our everyday lives. You and I aren’t going to solve the problem in the Middle East. Yes, we can pray, cry out, show compassion locally, and give our money to great causes that are working toward peace, but this conflict provides a moment to contemplate the hopeless cycle of revenge in our own lives and to choose the way of Jesus.
An Ancient Discovery of Revenge
John Ortberg once talked about visiting some ancient Roman ruins from thousands of years ago where archaeologists had discovered tablets containing countless ancient prayer requests. People would pay to have prayers sketched onto tablets and then stored and archived. Not so surprisingly, the most common kind of prayer recorded on these tablets were curses. They came to be known as “curse tablets.” They generally went like this: “Dear god or goddess of choice, such-and-such person hurt me, and here’s how they hurt me, and I want payback. I want you, Mr. god or Mrs. goddess, to hurt them on my behalf. Please inflict pain on them for me, and then I will feel better.”
Here’s a summary of one person’s prayer in hoping the gods would get revenge on poor Eucherios the Charioteer: “I invoke you, holy angels and holy names, tie up, block, strike, overthrow, harm, destroy, kill, and shatter Eucherios, the charioteer, and all of his horses tomorrow in the arena of Rome. Let the starting gates not open properly. Let him not compete quickly. Let him not pass. Let him not make the turn properly. Let him not receive the honors. Let him not squeeze over and overpower. Let him not come from behind and pass, but instead, let him collapse. Let him be bound. Let him be broken up. And let him drag behind…both in the early races and in the later ones.”
That last part is just in case the gods got confused about the race schedule.
What is that prayer about? It’s about revenge, it’s a curse. “That guy hurt me. I hate him. Hurt him back please. Amen.” This is by far the most common prayer recorded on these tablets in the ancient world. Do you know what kind of prayers were NOT common on those ancient tablets? A bless-my-enemy prayer. No tablets read, “Eucherios hurt me badly, I have been deeply wounded by him. But please god deliver me from my vengeful tendencies? And please help Eucherios to find genuine repentance? Please forgive his sin and mine? Please heal our relationship. Amen.”
People did not pray prayers like that to Jupiter or Apollos or Quirinius. Fierce loyalty to your friends and fierce hatred for your enemies was considered to be noble. It still is. This approach to one’s enemies has dominated both ancient history and recent history. It’s difficult not to get sucked into an endless cycle of bitterness and revenge. Into that vengeful world, came a carpenter from a tiny village in Nazareth who was laying a new foundation that would change everything. He said these counter-cultural words from his famous sermon in Matt. 5:43-46.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
Instead of seeking revenge, he says, seek forgiveness. This goes completely against our nature. We are more prone to anger and hurt and bitterness. So, Jesus started by describing the way the world naturally works. We’re all conditioned to love our friends and hate our enemies. But then he proposes a seismic shift, he says, “let me propose something completely different. If we’re really going to turn the world upside down, then let’s do relationships a different way. What if instead of always biting and clawing and scratching and fighting for revenge against your enemy, instead you would put all that time and energy and intentionality into fighting for forgiveness? We could change the world!”
Remember Inigo Montoya from the great cult classic The Princess Bride? He was a Spanish fencer who spent his whole life obsessing about avenging his father’s death. All he knew was that his dad was killed by a six-fingered man. He searched his whole life to find this man and kill him. Repeating, to anyone who would listen, the speech that he would deliver one day upon finding the 6-fingered man. “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.” Now, I don’t think there are still spoiler alerts for movies made in 1987, so I’ll jump to the ending. He finally finds the 6-fingered man, says his rehearsed little speech, and then kills him. But the less-famous quote afterward is the one that seems more profound. After completing his final act of vengeance, he says, “It’s very strange, I’ve been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” The thing about being in the revenge business is that it leaves you empty in the end. On top of that, it creates a vicious cycle of revenge which can never be satisfied.
The Israeli-Hamas War: An Endless Cycle of Revenge
Revenge is an easy go-to because it is evil, and evil comes easy. You don’t have to tell a child how to respond when another child pulls her hair. She pulls theirs right back, it’s built in. And sadly, the practice of revenge doesn’t stop with children but has infected the whole world. The Israeli-Hamas war is just one example. Two groups have fallen into an endless cycle of revenge, retaliation, and retribution. Then a ravenous pattern of paybacks, getting even, and settling the score. But the problem with revenge is that that score is never settled, and eventually, the thing that started the conflict in the first place is forgotten while the lust for endless revenge remains alive and well. Generations go by, and people are left fighting each other even though, after generations, many are not sure why anymore. Just that my people are supposed to hate their people. There is a name for this endless cycle of offense and revenge: it’s called ‘world history.’
And we can shake our heads at the Palestinians and Israelis or Ukrainians and Russians or the Indians and Pakistanis; but if we’re honest that need for revenge hits much closer to home. When we are wronged in deep ways, we too can fall victim to the lust for revenge. We get consumed by the need for paybacks. But paybacks never even the score, and here’s why … because wounded people never use the same math to keep score of wrongs. Enemies never agree on who is winning and losing because each feels the wounds he receives differently from the wounds he gives. How may Beiruts can ever equal a Holocaust? How many Pearl Harbors equal a Hiroshima? How many of her put-downs equal his shove across the room? We can never truly get even; and this is where revenge fails.
The Answer to An Endless Cycle of Revenge
But forgiveness takes us off the escalator of revenge so that we can stop its never-ending cycle. We can start over. Not only does Jesus say don’t retaliate against your enemies but he gets even more radical. He says love them. And remember, Jesus didn’t present this mind-blowing new ethic of loving your enemy in the safe confines of the American suburbs. Or around a campfire at a Christian summer camp singing kumbaya. He lived in a violent world where his homeland was occupied by foreign troops. So, his statement had some teeth – some real grit. Anyone can love those who love them, he said. Look at the most violent gangs, the most brutal organized crime rings, or the most evil terror cells. They look out for each other. As long as you stay on the inside. But Jesus declares that his followers are going to be different. We’re not just going to love the insiders, but we’re going to bring a forgiveness revolution to the world. We’re going to love and forgive and bless and pray for the outsiders too, even the people who hate us. We’ll love our enemy. And by loving our enemies, he says, we can become the most like Jesus. Remember the final moments of Jesus’ life. He was on the cross, and Luke 23:33-34 says,
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Jesus pleaded with God to forgive his murderers, those who had hurt him the most. In both his life and in his death, Jesus proved that It is possible to want God’s best for those who have treated you the worst. He was brutally opposed and finally murdered by his enemies. He field-tested all these ideas with perfect results. So, when Jesus says “forgive your enemies” it’s not just some idealistic platitude being spewed by a slick preacher on a screen. It is the Jesus way of life. And if you are a follower of Jesus, I’m here to remind you that we are a people of forgiveness. Jesus was a radical forgiver and he showed us a different way to do life than the world shows us. A new way to respond when we are wronged, even when we’re wronged in brutal ways like he was.
I’m not naïve enough to think that the war in Israel is going to be solved by quoting the sermon on the mount and crossing our fingers. But I am convinced that the way of Jesus is the answer to everything. And the way of Jesus is the long-term answer to peace on earth. But it will only happen when one-by-one Christians around the world in their marriages and families, in their neighborhoods and work cubicles, in their workout gyms and pickleball courts, decide to stop the cycle of revenge and instead choose forgiveness.
Israel and Palestine Conflict: Additional Resources
Here are a few resources that provide insight into a Christian response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Bulletin – Making Sense of the Israel-Hamas War (bonus podcast episode)
Truth Over Tribe – A Debate: What does the bible really say about war? (podcast episode)
Christian Post – 4 Biblical Responses to the war in Israel (article)