This year began with one war in the headlines and ends with two. The war in Ukraine, so shocking when it began in February 2022, is now a dismally familiar feature of the news, grinding on as destructively as ever with no end in sight. The war in Gaza, which began less than two months ago, has already changed the Middle East forever. The governments of many countries, including ours, had been hoping that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—as old as Israel itself—would simply disappear over time as younger generations of Palestinians resigned themselves to statelessness. Now we know better. Despair may sometimes lead to resignation, but more often it leads to rage. Meanwhile, beyond the headlines, other conflicts carry on largely unnoticed in this country: civil wars in Sudan and Myanmar, savage gang violence in Haiti. Behold, the world brings us bad tidings, again and again. Peace on earth? Not now or anytime soon.
In such times, Advent’s beautiful message may appear unrealistic or even impertinent. Herod’s massacre of the innocents seems more relevant. Karl Marx famously described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions…the opium of the people.” Even many believers would agree that this is an all-too-plausible account of religion. Whatever else it may be, faith is a comfort, and sometimes the most appropriate prayer—or the only possible prayer—is a sigh. Does that make religion nothing more than an opium? We shouldn’t be too quick to answer no. Wherever it is offered as an excuse to ignore “soulless conditions,” wherever the earthly suffering of others is glossed over as a mere prelude to heavenly compensations, religion does indeed function as an opium, and those who offer it on these terms are little better than drug dealers. The burden is on us to show that faith is not just a form of escapism or, as the kids say, a “cope.” It may get us through life (if we’re lucky), but it does not get us around life’s central problems. And if it does, or seems to, then we’re doing it wrong.
One central problem for Christians now is how to reconcile two of the beatitudes in our lives as citizens—how to be peacemakers while also hungering and thirsting for justice. In the real world, those seeking peace and those demanding justice often seem to be deeply at odds. To the makers and keepers of peace, the demand for justice may look like an ill-disguised call for vengeance. In the days following Hamas’s brutal acts of terrorism in southern Israel, we heard a lot about Israel’s “right to defend itself,” because this right is recognized by everyone except those who wish to see Israel destroyed. But Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while asserting this right, also promised a “mighty vengeance.” For peacemakers, the difference between defense and vengeance is not trivial: defense is about the future, vengeance about the past. Insofar as the bombardment of Gaza entails the collective punishment of thousands of innocent civilians for the past actions of Hamas, it cannot honestly be described as “defense,” or as Israel’s right.
Meanwhile, to those who hunger and thirst for justice—to the families of those killed or abducted by Hamas, or to the Palestinian parents digging their dead children out from the rubble of their bombed homes—those speaking only of peace may seem to exhibit an obscene insouciance. “Let bygones be bygones” is easy advice to offer from six thousand miles away. Rejecting that advice, angry protestors in New York and London chant, “No justice, no peace.” Yet it is hard to believe that the kind of justice demanded either by Hamas or by right-wing Israeli politicians could ever lead to peace. Both can imagine peace only by imagining the total destruction of their enemies. But as Andrew J. Bacevich argues (“The Israel-Gaza War Will Fail,” page 12), what they are imagining is a fantasy; there will be no military solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, no total victory for one side or the other. As Bacevich writes, “At the end of the day, coexistence remains the only road to peace.”
Advent is the time when Christians prepare to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, who appeared not as a conquering hero, but as a vulnerable infant in a small town in what is now the West Bank. He preached forgiveness, offered mercy, then died a criminal’s death at the hands of an empire that defined peace as domination. Until he comes again, there will be wars and rumors of wars, and leaders who invite us to sacrifice peace—or at least postpone it—for the sake of a perfect and therefore illusory security. One way to demonstrate that our faith in Christ is more than an opium is to reject that false bargain.