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Hello, fellow wayfarers … Why “both sides” language about the war in the Middle East is morally wrong … What God means when he says, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” … Where another birthday led my thoughts on time present and time past … a Desert Island Bookshelf from Cape Cod … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

‘Bothsidesism’ About Hamas Is a Moral Failure

Sometimes certain moments in history reveal in minutes what was concealed for decades. And sometimes those moments of revelation come with hearing oneself say the words, “Yes, but …” or “But what about …”

The aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel is not one of those times. In this case, saying who is to blame—and who is not—is not factually or morally difficult at all.

“Bothsidesism” is an imprecise label, much like deconstruction or evangelicalism. There are several senses in which an appeal to “both sides” of the reality here are completely right. For one, both sides—all sides—are human beings created in the image of God. We ought to care about the lives and deaths of Israelis and of Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza, or anywhere else. An Israeli life is of no more value in the eyes of God than a Palestinian life, and vice versa.

“Both sides” also refers rightly to who is harmed by this atrocity, and the inevitable war to follow. Hamas is killing and destroying the futures of both Israelis and of Palestinians, as the inimitable Mona Charen wisely wrote. That’s one of the reasons we shouldn’t think of this as a war between Israel and “the Palestinians,” but, exactly as Israel defined it, a war on Hamas, in response to a vicious and unprecedented attack.

“Both sides” is also perfectly appropriate when it comes to working for and hoping for a better future for both Israelis and for Palestinians. That rules out the unthinking acceptance of anything the modern state of Israel does (God certainly didn’t accept everything even biblical Israel did!). And it rules out chanting “From the River to the Sea” in Times Square, just as it rules out any viewpoint or program that would see Israel completely eradicated. We want “both sides” (here referring to Israelis and Palestinians, not to Hamas) to thrive and to co-exist.

All of that is far different from the kind of “both sides” language that has been used in some conversations about the morality of the Hamas attack. Hamas targeted innocent civilians. Hamas butchered young people dancing at a music festival. Hamas murdered elderly people and toddlers and babies, reportedly in the most sadistic ways imaginable. There is no “contextualization” needed to condemn that, to recognize Israelis (and innocent Palestinians) as victims here, with Hamas as the evildoer. As President Biden put it, “full stop.”

This is one of the quickest ways to recognize if you have outsourced your conscience to some ideology or sect: If your first response to seeing obvious immorality or injustice is some version of, Well, obviously that’s bad, and no one supports it, but do you know what the victims did?—then you are in a morally dangerous place. That way lies hackery.

How do you know if that’s you?

I do not agree with the philosopher John Rawls on much, but one of the popular appropriations of his thought can be helpful here.

The “veil of ignorance” argument asks what sort of political order you would want to construct if you were planning it, completely unaware of where you would be in the social system. If you didn’t know whether you would be desperately poor or incredibly rich, what sort of social safety net would you want? What sort of tax policy?

There are, of course, clear limits to this. We don’t, in fact, exist as disembodied beings planning the world we’ll inhabit ahead of time. And our imaginations come out of our psyches, so they are quite able to deceive us.

It’s easy for me, for example, to say in 2023 that I would have refused to fight for the Confederacy if I lived at the time of my ancestors. But I can’t know how my mind and conscience would have been shaped if I had lived in 1861 Mississippi. I really hope that if I had lived in 1930s Germany, I would have stood with Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer with the Confessing Church against the morally and theologically debased “German Christian” movement. But how do I know how my heart could have bewitched me if I were there?

The exercise, limited as it is, can help us think through whether our choices may be shaped more by cultural assumptions or political ideologies than biblical convictions and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In a given situation, try to imagine how you would react if you saw the same thing being done by (or to) whatever you deem to be “the other side.” Take a sentence and switch the names involved. Would you respond differently? Why?

Again, we can trick ourselves—but at least this helps us stop, if only for a moment, and interrogate our own motives.

We see repeatedly in Scripture the “court prophets” who testify only what a ruler wants to hear (1 Kings 22:1–28), without considering the moral implications. And we see what happened to the prophets who would not do so, but let their “yes” be “yes” and their “no” be “no.” It is possible, though, to be a court prophet to one’s own heart. We may even find ourselves telling our own consciences to “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:13, ESV).

No matter how you look at it, there is no justifying the killing of unarmed non-combatants. There is no justifying setting bodies aflame or reportedly beheading babies and toddlers. To do so would be to look past obvious moral atrocities to prioritize a distorted version of bothsidesism. It would be a moral failure.

For those of you who are Americans, I don’t think many of us would have responded to September 11 by suggesting we side with al-Qaeda, or that “both sides” ought to call a ceasefire. And not many of us would have responded to Pearl Harbor by noting that the United States Congress really shouldn’t have provoked this by passing the Lend-Lease Act.

There are lots of morally ambiguous questions—that’s why I would give my ethics students case studies where sometimes I didn’t even know the “right” answer. Even biblically-grounded Christians of the exact same theological tradition will find situations in which we genuinely don’t know what is the morally right decision. In those situations, we have competing goods, and it’s hard to see how to do the right thing without also doing something wrong.

But this is not one of those situations.

Hamas is genocidally evil. They and their co-conspirators are solely responsible for their actions. Whatever our views on Middle East policy, whatever our thoughts on military strategy, let’s not be afraid to say that. And let’s not forget our God’s justice and mercy overcomes the wickedness of man.

Does God Bless Those Who Support Israel, and Curse Those Who Don’t?

This past weekend I wrote about why I believe we ought to support Israel as it is under attack from terrorists. Some wonder whether that’s because God said to Abraham and his offspring, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3).

Christians, of course, have differing views about what Scripture means when it says that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26), but we do know, if nothing else, that Paul tells us it matters that Jesus is Jewish. He is a descendant of David, of the tribe of Judah, of the house of David, and “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20, ESV).

Those of us who are in Christ are united to him—hidden in his life (Col. 3:1–3). His story is now our story, his people are now our people. The curses that God warned about have fallen on him at the cross, and the blessings that God promised find their Alpha and Omega in him (Gal. 3:7–18). That’s why Paul refused to allow church teachers to mandate circumcision in order to follow Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he wrote (Gal. 3:28).

God did not command people to support everything the modern, secular state of Israel might do. If Israel were to drop a bomb on Canada tomorrow, we would not be morally right to applaud. And people are not veering away from God’s blessing by calling for just treatment of Palestinians (quite the contrary). People are not courting a curse by criticizing the Knesset for their judicial policies, or for calling out Israel’s religious liberty violations.

God likewise did not “bless” the United States in this way. The United States can, and does, do wrong, as does Israel. That doesn’t mean that, for those of us who are Americans, we don’t love our country, that we don’t fight for our constitutional principles. One can believe America is flawed and fallible and still believe (as I do) that American leadership has been much more good than bad for the rest of the world.

We can say “It ain’t God, but it ain’t bad” at the same time. I don’t have to ponder whether America or China has the moral high ground in the world. I don’t have to contemplate whom I would side with if Russia invaded the United States (for my fellow Gen Xers: “The chair is against the wall. The chair is against the wall. John has a long mustache”). That’s not because I’m afraid God will curse me if I don’t. It’s because I love my country, and I believe in what my country stands for.

Israel can, and often should, be criticized. At the same time, we can acknowledge that it’s a comparatively liberal democracy in a sea of authoritarian states. We can acknowledge that Israel has generally stood with the rest of the free world against challenges to the small-L liberal world order.

And we also can, and should, acknowledge more than that. Not everyone who criticizes Israel’s policies is antisemitic, but antisemitism in its most virulent form is at the root of what attempts to destroy Israel and Israelis. Hamas is not a champion of Palestinian freedom. It is an antisemitic terrorist organization.

We should recognize every form of violent hatred as wrong, but the evil of antisemitism should be especially obvious to those of us shaped by the Christian story—the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

We ought to resonate with the words of the apostle Paul, of his (and in Christ, our) “kinsmen according to the flesh”: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (Rom. 9:4–5).

One doesn’t need to adopt what one considers to be an unbiblical eschatology to see that what has sought to wipe out the Jewish people for thousands of years is of the spirit of the antichrist, and that we should oppose it, wherever it is.

Birthday Thoughts

Thank you for all your kind words on my birthday on October 9. As you know, I love to talk and think about the nature of time (and Maria is tired of it). You also know that I love T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and especially the poem “East Coker.” This part is on my mind at the passing of another year on the calendar:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it, and so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating

Thank you, readers, for being with me each week for another attempted “raid on the inarticulate” and for a new kind of failure each time. We can remember together, with Eliot:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Desert Island Bookshelf

Every other week, I share a list of books that one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a deserted island. This week’s submission comes from reader J. D. Wilson Jr., a retired high school English teacher from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

He writes:

If these books look a lot like the kinds of books you were forced to read in school, it is because I was one of those that thought these books valuable and important enough to be worthy of coercion, though I did not have the opportunity to teach them all. These are the books that provoked my love of literature and drove me into the teaching profession. So I loved them before I tried to inflict them on others.

Here’s his list:

  • The Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis: I have this in a boxed set, but can’t find it, but I believe it is also available in a single edition. The last book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, tells in a story what Lewis writes in his theological/philosophical book Abolition of Man. One could make a list of just science fiction novels; it was a heartbreak to let go of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

  • Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory: A selection from this book that I read in my sixth-grade literature book first provoked my interest in literature. I wanted to read the rest of the book so badly I rushed to Williams Bookstore in San Pedro, California, to get a copy. The language was many miles above the head of a sixth grader, but I eventually grew into it.

  • The Sagas of the Icelanders. The Icelandic sagas are wonderful stories. When I first encountered them, I was amazed by them. They tell of a Tolkienesque world. They are stories with history mixed in. This collection has most of the best sagas, though I was saddened that “The Volsunga Saga” and “Burnt Njal’s Saga” were missing, but almost all the rest are there. In these sagas, we are introduced to the “Law Rock” where a kind of national town hall met. Iceland has a parliamentary form of government, the “Althing,” that has met since the tenth century.

  • The Complete Novels by Jane Austen. This is available in a single edition, but I do not have it at present. A famous scientist whose name I’ve forgotten was asked if he reads novels. His reply was yes, all six of them, once a year. The six novels were those of Jane Austen.

  • Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Dickens is one of my favorite novelists and this is my favorite. Wish I could bring more of his work.

  • Middlemarch by George Eliot. This is a novel that captured me the first time I read it. In it, there are characters who are corrupt, opportunistic, naive, misguided, and principled, even when that comes with a cost. Dorothea Brooke, Rev. Casaubon, and Will Ladislaw make an interesting triangle of sorts.

  • The Arden Shakespeare. An English teacher can’t survive without Shakespeare. The plays should also be seen in performance, so it’s too bad there is nowhere to stream movie versions of the plays on a desert island.

  • The Riverside Chaucer. Perhaps not all English teachers feel as I do about Chaucer, but I need to have him with me.

  • The Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar. I agree with Aristotle that stories are better than philosophy or history, because in story we see philosophy and history imagined, and see how it works in practice. These are the earliest stories and we find these motifs in the more canonical literature. In a sense, for example, Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a “Beauty and the Beast” story and Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale is a “Sleeping Beauty” story. Some thin fairy tales are childish, but as Tolkien pointed out, they were only sent to the nursery when the adults tired of them. I also agree with W. H. Auden who said, “There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children.”

  • The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate. I cannot find my copy of this book, but it is around here somewhere. As with poets, I have too many favorite essayists. So this has to suffice as well. It is a pretty broad selection from most all times and places.

  • The Book of Common Prayer. Though I belong to an evangelical church whose service is built around worship and a message, if on a desert island, the prayers in The Book of Common Prayer do an excellent job of reminding me of the nuts and bolts of what I believe. And if the island is deserted, it could be very easy to forget these nuts and bolts.

Thank you, Mr. Wilson!

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like, along with the city and state from which you’re writing.

Quote of the Moment

“Protest against the German Christian heresy cannot simply begin with the Aryan Paragraph, nor with their rejection of the Old Testament, the Arianism of their Christology, the naturalism and pelagianism of their teachings of justification and sanctification, nor the idolization of the state that characterizes German Christian ethics. Rather our protest must be directed fundamentally at the source of all those individual heresies: at the fact that, next to the holy scripture as the sole revelation of God, the German Christians claim German Volkstum, its past and its political present, as a second revelation. We thereby recognize them as believers in another God.”

—Karl Barth

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