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.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.