But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14)

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)

I have been thinking about these verses in the context of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. There is much to be said about the conflict. But what has struck me over the last couple of weeks is the utter moral vacuity of so much that I read.

As a descriptive matter, lex talionis is in the driver’s seat. By the logic of international affairs, since Hamas is the agressor, Israel has the prerogative to respond with force. Even in very sources that favor Israel in the confict, I have not seen this argument advanced explicitly.

Interpreting Hamas’s actions as a violent cry of frustration (or hatred) feels like the null hypothesis to me. As I’ve thought about it, the only satisfying explanation is this: they were caught in a frustratingly static situation with Israel. Since Israel’s response has been completely predictable, I conclude that it was part of the plan. The goal was to use Israel’s inevitable military response to drum up support for the Palestinian cause from around the Islamic world. If my Facebook feed is any indication, this strategy is working. (Sympathy from the Islamic world, and indeed from Europe, has admittedly not worked wonders for the Palestinians.)

But setting aside the events themslves, the response to those events around the world has been depressing in itself. War is the solvent of moral judgment. Watching people react to the conflict is like watching an aphasic try to speak. The capacity for moral coherence has been, an it seems, completely destroyed.

In support of this thesis I would offer my own hesitation to address the conflict. I fear being labeled a partisan of one side or another. Consider that most people would hesitate in endorsing such an uncontroversial statement as “It’s wrong to kill children” without checking to see if it was uttered on October 7, 2023, or October 21, 2023. This is the mechanism by which war—any tribalism, but especially war—destroys moral judgments. The desire to be fairminded—perhaps I should say, the desire to be perceived as fairminded—stifles thought itself. (And it’s worth remembering that the insights behind Orwell’s 1984 came out of his experience World War II, which is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of morally ambiguous conflicts.)

Here are some starting premises in case anyone wishes to reason with me:

  • Human life is valuable.
  • There is no guarantee that one party in the conflict is in the right.
  • Being the weaker party does not put you in the right. (The most frustrating thing about postmodernism intellectually is that every argument that can be created out of it plays out in the — exact — same — way — every — time. It’s an argumentum ad misericordiam, metastatized into a worldview.)

Further to the first point, within a week of the inciting event, a friend whose politics trend left emphasized to me in a conversation that both Israeli and Palestinian lives were important. I observed that at various points in the past decade it has been controversial to assert that “All lives matter” — it being common to interpret that statement as detrimental to the idea that “Black lives matter.” Moral paralysis.

I remarked recently to my sons that as a pacifist I free from having to maintain a moral distinction between killing non-combatants and killing non-combatants’ fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers. I suppose to be sure I could ask a bereaved family if they felt the loss less keenly for the fact that they were spared, and their father (or husband or son or brother) was after all fair game; but I think I can predict the response.