Israel - Hamas War

Thursday, March 21, 2024

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Dear Pastors

Israel – Hamas War

I doubt few people would disagree that what has been and currently is unfolding in the Middle East is nothing short of tragic and a humanitarian crisis of major proportions. I have previously written a couple short comments on this issue and supported 100% the call for a ceasefire.

Recently my friend, Steve Tollestrup, wrote a short post on Facebook on this topic. I appreciated what he wrote so I called Steve and we had a chat. As a result I agreed to publish an ‘open letter’ that Steve agreed to write. Here it is. I simply ask that we all prayerfully reflect on its content - it’s ever so important – and by all means feel free to be in touch with Steve and/or me if you wish.


As a Christian I feel deeply distressed by the events in Gaza and by the lack of response from the church and its leaders. Alternatively, there have been marches and protests and forums uniting various groups, some I might not choose to endorse, but appreciate, at least, the intention to challenge injustice. But what I’m looking and listening for is a specifically Christian voice. In the resounding silence, I’ve been experiencing a growing sense of embarrassment and resentment, at the absence of comment from the churches and their leaders; first to our own congregations for guidance and then to a wider public audience who do have an expectation for a Christian response as evidence that the Church still has a pulse. Surely, this is a moment for the clear voice of the churches to be heard, a what-would-Jesus-do moment if ever there was.

Israel has a right to protect its citizens, respond to the atrocities of Hamas and recover Israeli hostages, but the disproportionate and wholesale punishment of the entire Palestinian population of Gaza is unjust and irrational Not only is this collective punishment of the Palestinian people and destruction of their homes arguably a war crime, but it is also, and more to the point, morally reprehensible to Christian conscience, values, and the character of Jesus we seek to live out and embody.

The growing death toll, which stands presently at 31,000 deaths (over five times the number of US servicemembers killed in both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts), the unknown number of injuries and life limiting disabilities, the number of children orphaned presently set at 17,000 by UNICEF, the outbreak of disease and hunger, the displacement of millions, and the targeting of relief and medical centres are blameworthy and unacceptable by any standard.1 These are sobering realities for Christians to reflect on and demand that we intelligently respond. Our faith is one of justice, compassion, peace-making and reconciliation and takes place as salt and light in the real world. The silence of churches and its leaders is a failure of Christian conscience.

I am asking that the churches (diverse as they are) begin to find their voice, and through its leaders provide clear guidance that addresses the following key points:

  • That as Christians we stand against the collective punishment of the people of Gaza as morally indefensible to Christian moral sensibilities and any standard of just war. We are to be clear that the campaign against the people of Gaza must immediately stop.
  • That the failure to secure the provision of humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza must be addressed and all avenues of humanitarian aid and its distribution are open.
  • That there is an important difference between antisemitism and the critique of Israel’s conduct. We need to be very clear that to stand for justice and advocate for the end to the suffering of the Palestinian people, question the expansionist vision of political Zionism and support the existence of a viable Palestinian state and a just peace is not being antisemitic. On the contrary, we should remember that YHWH and the prophets relentlessly challenged the people of Israel to seek justice and to encourage the oppressed.2
  • That recognises the importance for the churches to take steps to counter the uncritical rhetoric, highly questionable eschatology and millenarianism, and the Islamophobia of so-called Christian Zionism (a blatant oxymoron) and its divisive influence in the Church, with sound biblical scholarship and theology.
    Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Most of the reluctance to speak out is the desire to avoid the consequences of conflict, criticism, or accusations of antisemitism from the strident Christian Zionist movement entrenched in pockets of our congregations, especially evident in some evangelical circles. This current letter hasn’t the space to unpack and respond to the weak and unsound theology of this movement. Perhaps a later post. But here in Aotearoa / New Zealand, we urgently need a clear and thorough response; suffice to say, the Christian Zionist position disintegrates easily in the presence of good biblical scholarship. 3
  • That as churches we need to grasp that a prophetic critique of Israel’s actions in Gaza, and for that matter historically in the occupied territories, is based on mercy and compassion and intended to advocate a way forward to lasting peace and reconciliation for both Israeli and Palestinian. Hamas couldn’t wish for a better recruiting strategy or call to arms than the present destruction of a Gaza by the state of Israel. The implications of such violence are now even more generational and far wider than Gaza. In this vicious cycle, violence begets violence.4
  • That because of Israel’s conduct in Gaza a growing and global antisemitism is festering. Israel as a nation has lost significant credibility impacting on its economy and diplomatic standing, even with its staunchest allies including the United States. To really care about antisemitism and the future wellbeing of Israel it is necessary to advocate for the relentless campaign of bombing and humiliation of the people of Gaza to end.
  • That our Christian Faith is connected historically with the Holy Land. We are part of it, have a right to speak into it, and a responsibility to do so. While acknowledging the complexities of the wider situation, as representatives of Jesus Christ our only position can be to advocate for compassion, mercy, justice, and peace. The Church loses credibility in silence.
  • Can I urge my Christian friends, colleagues, and our leaders to take these steps toward truly being ambassadors for Christ and his mercy at this critical and pivotal moment.
  2. Isa 1.17, Amos 5.24, Micah 6.8, Jer 22.3, Zech 7.9-10, Hab 1.3-4 / Luke 11.42, Mark 12.31, Matt 25.31-45, 1 Cor 13.13
  3. Some suggested resources to begin reading: Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism; Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land? Donald Wagner, Anxious for Armageddon; Alistair Donaldson, The Last Days of Dispensationalism.
  4. Matt 26.52.

About the Author

Stephen Tollestrup was formerly Executive Director of TEARFund NZ and Director of the World Evangelical Alliance Peace and Reconciliation Initiative working on the ground in Palestine, Sri Lanka, Southern Sudan, Mindanao, and other regions of conflict. Stephen was an elected representative for Auckland Council serving on the Waitakere Ranges Local Board. He currently serves on the executive council of the Association of Christian Spiritual Directors. Through his business Ploughshare he advises and consults to community organisations, Christian missions, churches, and leaders. Stephen lives in west Auckland and attends Cityside Baptist.

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