The intense polarization around the Israel-Hamas war reminds me of a story from another polarizing Middle East war that occurred 20 years ago.
In the spring of 2003, soon after United States launched the Iraq war, a retired Army officer drove by his church. He did not see an American flag hanging out front. So he drove to Home Depot and purchased one. He returned to the church and began drilling a hole in the wooden church sign for a flag holder.
As he drilled the hole, his pastor showed up and asked, “What are you doing?”
The man replied, “There’s no American flag here, so I’m putting one up.”
A heated discussion ensued.
The pastor argued that as a house of worship, the church must be free of political statements. The retired officer argued that the church, blessed by American liberties like freedom of religion, had an obligation to express patriotism. Neither man yielded an inch to the other.
As the argument continued, the retired officer revealed that two of his children served in the military and both had been deployed to the Middle East. He told his pastor, “If I can’t pray for my military children in church, then I’m done with church.”
The pastor replied, “Of course you should pray for your children in church. But doing so does not require posting a flag in the churchyard.”
The man said, “What’s wrong with asking God to bless America?”
The pastor replied, “God is the God of all nations, not just America.” The pastor also implied the war with Iraq was misguided and the church should not support an immoral war.
The retired officer took strong issue with his pastor’s opinion. The battle continued. But in the end, the pastor pulled rank, asserted his property rights and removed the flag.
The retired Army officer turned his heels and disappeared into the church. He sat in a pew near the altar and said the Lord’s Prayer over and over again until he stopped shaking. A moment later, he heard the pastor slide into the pew behind him. For a long time, the two men sat in silence, looking at the altar and the cross. Finally, the retired Army officer heard his pastor’s voice behind him.
The pastor said, “What are the names of your two children? If you will tell me their names, I promise you that I will pray for them every day until they come home.”
Although the two men never agreed about the Iraq war, their mutual prayers for two soldiers in a scary war created a truce in their conflict.
Like that pastor, many people today believe that, given massive civilian causalities, the Israeli war in Gaza has become immoral and must stop. Many others, like that retired Army officer, support the war and believe Israel has the right to protect itself in spite of civilian causalities.
No simple answers exist for this complex and tragic dilemma. But demonizing people who hold different opinions from us doesn’t help. Instead, the incident from the Iraq war mentioned above can be instructive.
If we will listen to people who disagree with us, attempt to understand their opinion, and show compassion to them, perhaps we can find some relational peace in a time of war. And at the same time, we can hope, pray and advocate for literal peace.
Martin Thielen, a retired minister and writer, is the creator and author of www.DoubtersParish.com.