The despicable and horrendous attacks by Hamas against civilians last week, including beheading children and kidnapping the elderly, seems a throwback to some distant, barbaric past of human history. We may have thought the world had long ago outgrown such barbarity, but it hasn’t. In fact, as shocking as it is, the kinds of atrocities carried out by the Hamas terrorists are the norms of warfare, at least throughout most of human history. Modern notions of just war, proportionality, and distinguishing between civilians and combatants are exceptions to the kinds of warfare conducted by the Assyrians and Babylonians, ancient Greece, the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Aztecs. Massacre sites found by archaeologists in North America reveal how entire villages were slaughtered by Native Americans centuries before European contact.
Similar barbarity continues today, especially in modern undeclared wars such as the Rwandan genocide, the actions of terror groups like Boko Haram, and in African civil wars. Close parallels can be seen in the horrific treatment by government actors of the Uyghurs in China, the Rohingya in Burma, and dissidents in North Korea.
Such brutality should sicken us, though it is far more common in human history, even modern history, than we admit. But, if it’s so horrifyingly and historically “normal,” where did the world get the idea that such barbarity is so wrong?
The idea that non-combatants should not be killed in war can occasionally be found in ancient discussions of warfare, typically due to pragmatic reasons such as needing peasants to work the conquered land. Christian Just War Theory, in sharp contrast, saw the protection of non-combatants as a matter of principle, not pragmatism. That principle was grounded in a view of human value unique and distinct to Christianity, that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.
Despite the Enlightenment’s hostility to faith and the pervasive scientism of the nineteenth century, Christian ideas about Just War and the value of the individual retained a strong enough hold on Western culture to shape the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war. Also, Western domination ensured that countries and military officers would be held accountable for systematic violations of the Conventions as happened, for example, in the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.
As long as these core ethical ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition hold sway, they act as a check on the worst impulses of our fallen nature, impulses that quickly come to surface in time of war. Of course, war crimes and violations of human dignity still occur by Western actors and should never be accepted or tolerated. However, when barbarities are considered war crimes and violations, rather than norms, they happen far less than in cultures where that ethical tradition is missing.
Last Saturday, the world saw that, in no uncertain terms, that ethical tradition is missing in large parts of the Middle East. This is especially true of Islamic nations. Outside of a few reformers, Islam rejects as idolatry the idea that humans are made in the image of God. The Hadiths, a source of Islamic authority second only to the Quran, calls for the extermination of the Jews, a fact explicitly noted in the Hamas charter. Without grounding for the value and dignity of individuals, a group can be easily defined as “other,” which justifies all actions carried out against them.
It’s important to note that the rejection of the value of each person also means that Hamas can use their own people as pawns and agents of propaganda. Thus, Hamas places missiles and military centers in hospitals and schools, knowing that any attacks will lead to civilian casualties that can be paraded before the rest of the world. In other words, dead women and children are the intended plan, not the unexpected consequence.
When attacks like what happened last Saturday occur, Israel has to target missile sites and other military targets to keep its own citizens safe. When doing so produces civilian casualties, it’s tragic, but it’s still an example of what Thomas Aquinas called “Double Effect.” In his example, it is ethical to take the life of another person, even though that’s usually sin, if it is the only way to prevent him from killing you or another person. This is the situation Israel faces. The only way to stop the attacks is to bomb important military sites and to break up the network. So, when civilians die, as an unintended but inevitable consequence, these deaths are on the heads of Hamas for intentionally placing their civilians in harm’s way.
Given the politics and history of the region, it is expected for many in the Middle East to cheer on Hamas’ massacres while decrying any response by Israel. Their reaction is shaped by a culture, a culture that has been shaped by an Islamist worldview.
On the other hand, many of those in Western nations who defended or even celebrated the massacre in Israel have been shaped by a different set of worldview assumptions, what might also be called a Critical Theory mood. This worldview is also antithetical to Christian ideals about human equality and the value and dignity of the individual. It sees people as belonging to groups, and some of those groups are evil by designation.
With the decline of Christian influence on the West, we should expect to see a resurgence of the kind of bloodlust and sadism that characterized most of human history. All this underscores why worldview is important. Christianity is and has been good for the world, and its decline will bring horrific consequences.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Glenn Sunshine. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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