This week, the conflict between Israel and Palestine escalated to new and devastating highs, with Israeli forces attacking Gaza following a series of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes. At least 122 have died, including 30 children, and 900 have been injured, though the number grows by the hour.
Todd Deatherage is co-founder of the Telos Group, an organization that seeks to inform and equip people to be peacemakers in troubled situations. According to their website, Telos wants to help people “envision a world in which leaders and their communities claim the requisite drive, expertise and relationships to effectively and relentlessly wage peace.” The group champions the idea of “mutual flourishing” — the idea that nobody has to lose for peace to be achieved.
Deatherage talked to RELEVANT about where most American Christians tend to go wrong in their understanding of what’s happening in Gaza, and the difference between hope and optimism.
Can you start by giving us a breakdown of what’s happening in Gaza right now?
As we’re talking this morning, we are on day four of a massive conflagration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You’ve had hundreds of rockets fired out of the Gaza strip into South and central Israel. About nine Israelis are dead, including one or two children. And you had a massive Israeli response, mostly of an aerial bombardment campaign of the Gaza strip. There are about a hundred or more Palestinians who’ve been killed, including more than 20 children.
It’s dominating headlines around the world just this week. But of course, the events that led up to this have been happening over time as well. There’s context that’s required to help us begin to understand what’s really going on.
But right now, we’re in the middle of a really hot and dangerous time in this Israeli-Palestinian conflict that does require our both attention and our willingness to go a little deeper to understand what’s going on and what our role as Americans and outsiders might be.
What are some of the misconceptions you find American Christians have about this situation?
What I saw when I really began to work on this was how much American Christians care about what happens there and the way they care about it often translates into direct action and U.S. policies that actually often make the conflict harder to solve. American Christians in particular have a real role in this. They wield a lot of influence. So basically, we have a vexing foreign policy challenge for the United States that functions more like a domestic political issue, because we care so much about it.
But we often care about it in ways that are not connected to the humanity of everybody there. What I really began to see as a Christian is that there’s a lot of ways Christians think about what goes on there, and often those things have led us to a way in which our faith has been weaponized against people there.
What I’ve been working on for the last many years is helping Christians understand: “How would Jesus have us engage in conflict resolution in places where people are in these seemingly intractable situations? And what if one of those places is the actual place where he came and where he was incarnated and walked in and was crucified and resurrected? And what are the things that he taught us while he lived there that might be applicable there? What did he mean when he said, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and how would we create that?”
Christians have to overcome this idea that this is a zero-sum game. That one side has to win over the other. Most Christians self-identify as very pro-Israel, but often the definition that they’re operating under is one that’s necessarily very anti-Palestinian.
What you’re doing is actually perpetuating the conflict, making it harder to solve. Are you really helping anybody? Jesus said, “love God and love neighbor” and everything has to filter through that. Whatever our political engagements and theological understandings are, we have to always filter it through that. So, that idea that the zero-sum thing is one of the big misconceptions.
In my view, we’re firmly committed to the idea that there is no good future for one people in the land unless there’s a good future for the other. It works in both directions. We talk about being pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace. Properly understood, those are all the same thing. Israelis will not have the security and dignity and freedom that they want unless Palestinians have those things. Palestinians will not have the security and dignity and freedom they want unless Israelis have those things. That is our frame: security, dignity and freedom for all. Mutual flourishing.
Something you hear a lot from Christians when talking about this is the invoking of the Abrahamic covenant: I will bless those who bless you, curse those who curse you. In your opinion, does that apply?
I think that is often misused and misunderstood. It requires a lot more understanding of what was being said there and what it actually meant over the grand arc of the biblical story and that history.
Having said that, I think we can have disagreement around that, but then actually ask yourself, what would blessing Israel look like? Would blessing Israel look like helping them find a way to get out of this central conflict that’s at the heart of their own existence and find a way to live together with their neighbors in mutuality? Or would it look like something else? I think you can have disagreement about what is being said in Genesis in that way, and still work yourself to a place where you’re understanding that to bless Israel is to do whatever you can to help them find a way to disentangle themselves from this conflict that has so shaped their own history and has created decades of insecurity as well.
A lot of us have very strong feelings about it, but it’s frustrating, because we’re just watching it on TV. It breeds a lot of cynicism — lots of heat but no light.
That’s actually one of our little taglines. We aim to shed more light with less heat because there’s a lot of dumpster fires burning and the conversation around Israel-Palestine is one of the biggest in our day. It’s easy just to throw gas on that already raging fire and throw out inflammatory language and uninformed opinions that we’re deeply committed to. It’s much harder to try to actually shed light in the situation. I think the things that we can do right now are to better educate ourselves, learn more, ask more questions.
Try to understand the stories and perspectives of Israelis and Palestinians and not objectify them. Actually try to inform ourselves. As Americans, we project a lot of power into the world. And as American Christians, this is a place in which we have all this power and influence. We have an obligation to use that power. We have a responsibility to use it for good and helpful things. We have an obligation to use it to help vulnerable populations be less vulnerable and not make them more vulnerable.
One last question for you. It’s a simple question, but probably not a simple answer. Do you have hope for progress?
That’s a great question. Yes, I have hope. But by that, I don’t mean I’m optimistic. I choose not to plot myself on a scale between pessimism and optimism, because whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or just life in general, the pessimists too often tend to seem to have all the facts. But I think a different scale is what’s available to us as Christians, and that’s hope versus despair. I can’t live in despair. I can live in hope because I have an eschatological hope that the God we love and serve is about the business of making all things right. And He invites us to join Him in that work. It’s His work to do, but it’s ours to join in. When we live and act in hopeful ways, the possibilities for transformation are real.
I am hopeful but this is a very despairing moment. If you look at the fact that there are two million Palestinians trapped inside the Gaza Strip under a blockade, and now suffering this massive aerial bombardment and attack with civilians being killed, apartment buildings falling, that sort of thing, this is an enormous tragedy. But I do know there are some amazing people, Israelis and Palestinians who, in spite of all this and in many ways because of all this, commit themselves over and over again to finding ways to end the conflict.
I’ll end with a story that gives you an idea of what I’m talking about here. There’s an organization on the ground called the Parent Circle, and this is a collection of about 600 Israeli and Palestinian families. And the membership of this club is one no one wants to pay because two things have had to happen. You have to have lost a direct family member, usually a child in the conflict. And then you have to commit yourself to a rejection of revenge and an embrace of the work of reconciliation.
You have 600 families who’ve lost children, spouses and siblings in this really awful conflict. And they’ve come together jointly to do the work of reconciliation, not just with each other, but to be these agents of reconciliation in their larger communities.
That’s a big part of it. Reconciliation is often misunderstood as just being only interpersonal — you and me having a conflict and then we sort that out. Reconciliation also involves tackling these larger systemic challenges, especially when you have asymmetry and conflict, when you have power imbalances.
You look at our own history of issues of racial injustice in America. People like me, white Christians, always want reconciliation, but we don’t want to have it cost us anything. But we can’t just, “let’s just get along” and have that be the end of the story. We also have to commit ourselves to creating a more fair and just systemic, structural, cultural, institutional reality that we all live in that allows people to actually flourish who are different from us.
There are some people that are doing that work right now. They do it in good times and bad times, and they’ve paid this ultimate price to have the credibility to do it. And that gives me enormous hope.
Learn more about how to get involved at telosgroup.org.