Over 1,400 Israelis dead and 5,400 injured. Over 9,000 Palestinians dead and 22,000 injured. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”

The protracted conflict between Israel and Palestine has come to war. The barbaric acts of Hamas resulted in the world crying out for justice. The retaliatory actions of Israel answered those cries, but there must be a line between justice and revenge.  

The world watches as Israel hunts for Hamas and Jewish hostages; hostages we pray are alive. However, that hunt is leaving thousands of Palestinians dead in its wake (over 3,000 children, according to Save the Children).

Over the last two weeks, there has been a lot of finger-pointing and what-about-ism across the mainstream media, social media and personal conversations. While these conversations are necessary to understand the difficult narrative centering on the land and the multiple people calling it home, those conversations are quickly devolving into an unproductive game of choosing sides.

Margaret Atwood wrote, “War is what happens when language fails.”

While I have not heard one person attempt to justify the barbaric actions of Hamas, the conversations I hear are once again drawing familiar lines. The rhetoric has grown so intense that reports of antisemitism are reaching record levels. In addition, Islamophobia is once again rearing its ugly head.

I find myself consoling my Jewish and Palestinian friends all at once, an act that in itself has grown contentious. As I told Rev. Dr. George Mason this week on the Good Faith Weekly podcast, “I am being made to feel as though I am turning my back on one friend to console another.” The purpose of this column is not to choose sides but to raise a simple question: “At what point does revenge overtake justice?”

The prophet Amos famously declared, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:24)

But what kind of justice? Vengeful justice? Restorative justice? Deadly justice? Merciful justice?

There is no doubt that people need to pay for their crimes, but must those payments include the death of innocents?

For too long, the children of Abraham have been killing one another.  

For too long, the tears of Rachel have run down her face.

For too long, we have rejected the truth that we are our brother’s keeper.

How many Jews must die? How many Palestinians? No one can answer these questions, of course, because far too often, we reside in a world shrouded in darkness.

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence, you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie nor establish the truth,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed. “Through violence, you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We can all do some self-analysis during these dark moments. We can ask ourselves: Have we allowed our desire for justice to be overcome with vengeance? Have we let love and mercy be replaced with hate and unmerciful retribution? 

Have we ceased praying for our enemies and started wishing for their demise?  

As a Jesus-follower, I am reminded of the path he championed: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Let me be clear: This line of theological reflection does not deemphasize the unjust and evil actions that have occurred over the years and the last several weeks. Instead, self-analysis forces us to ask ourselves, “Are we becoming what we decry?”

The second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” In moments like we are experiencing, people of good faith need to rise up to be and do better than the circumstances surrounding us.  

Revenge never brings justice. Revenge creates an immense void where hate can seep into the soul.

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer,” wrote Laura Hillenbrand in her biography of World War II POW Louie Zampernini, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.

True justice does not often look like what we imagine, but true justice seeks a path forward where life and peace can dwell for all people. We must not become what we despise. Instead, we must rise up and offer a better way where love and mercy produce eternal life for all of God’s children.  

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