A Moral Compass and the Ball Peen Hammer

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So Hamas launched a surprise attack against Israel which involved thousands of rockets, and a deliberate murdering of civilians, along with the kidnapping of multiple hostages. Counting both sides, to date thousands are injured, and hundreds dead. This came just a few weeks after the Biden administration released $6B back to Iran, which serves as a funding source for Hamas, and so this attack happening now is probably not a coincidence. As a result, Israel is now in a state of war.

And because war always brings along with it the fog of war, especially in our times, an age already bewildered and wandering around in the fog of peace, it is important for us to remember certain key things. And if we are not in a position to remember these principles, then we must recover them.

We really do need to recover them. Some of the conservative Christian hot takes over all of this are revelatory, and not in a good way.

Know Your Bad Guys

The bad guys in this kind of mess should not be hard to identify. If you murder civilians in such as way as to declare to the world that you are absolutely fine with murdering civilians, and with the cameras running, then you have also declared to the world your desire to be considered among the damned and depraved.

And if you look at the spectacle of such civilians being murdered in this way, and your reaction is to start talking about “root causes,” or various forms of “whataboutism,” or you bring in any other distractions, then even though you may not applaud the depravity directly, you are nevertheless still complicit in it.

Grasping this principle has been made difficult for some by the inflamed state of our modern politics, but that inflammation is itself a symptom of our disease, and not an excuse for it. If you then point to what is sure now to be an Israeli invasion of Gaza, in which Israel will very likely “go medieval” on the leaderships of Hamas, and you simply assert a moral equivalence between what Hamas just did and what Israel is about to do, then you are simply revealing that someone, most probably you, has been beating on your moral compass with a ball peen hammer.

Here is why. I am going to explain this carefully, as though the point were a subtle one, but we must also at the same time recognize that it is not really a subtle one. There is no real nuance here at all.

In order to make my point, I am going to postulate an Israeli war crime, perpetrated during this upcoming flattening of Hamas in Gaza. I am asserting nothing, predicting nothing, and accusing no one, but rather I am simply laying the groundwork for a thought experiment. Suppose a particular Israeli unit was filled with soldiers who were absolutely furious with all Palestinians, and who found themselves with an opportunity to do to a family of Palestinian civilians what had been done in the week prior to a number of Israeli civilians. Say that one of the soldiers had a mother who was killed by a rocket, and another one had a sister who had been raped and murdered by Hamas. So the men in that unit looked both ways, and then executed this Palestinian family in cold blood, down to the little kids. But in looking both ways, they failed to see the news drone that caught it all.

My point is that when the footage was released, there would be an uproar, and the men involved would all be court-martialed and tried for their war crimes. They would be tried for these crimes by Israel. The fact that some of them had family members who had been brutalized by Hamas would constitute no defense at all . . . nor should it.

And so let us change it up a little bit. Say that the murders were not caught on camera, and the bodies were discovered in such a way as to reveal that they had been summarily executed by somebody, but nobody knew who did it. You would not find various Israeli units “claiming responsibility.”

And this tells you everything you should need to know.

If footage of a Hamas outrage were released, the chances are very good that it would have been released by Hamas. And if the specific criminals involved were identified, those men would not be tried for their behavior, but rather lionized. If you tried to shame some Hamas spokesman with the incident, he would just shrug. He would say that killing Jews was the point, and if you did not know that by now, you should probably give up on a career of news reporting. He would look into your camera and say that the point of everything they were currently doing was dead Jews. Anything else would be mission drift.

And you, sitting there with your ball peen hammer, wouldn’t know what to say. But you should know what to say. Wickedness is wickedness, hammer or no hammer.

Seeing Red

I have called this inability to make this distinction a moral blindness. But such blindness can come through various causes.

The ancients said that “anger is a brief madness.” There are people who go blind, who see red, when a martial fit is upon them. They do things they would never do in ordinary circumstances. This is not exculpatory in any way, because we are still responsible for what we do in whatever condition we are in, but it nevertheless happens. This is why civilized armies need to be careful to police their own. But when they police their own . . . by what standard? And where does that standard come from? Why, and who says? More on this in a minute.

Another cause of blinkered reactions is ideological. A person is so accustomed to dropping every political issue into the slots of his particular concerns, that when something like this happens he just moves seamlessly into a different subject, which happens to be his issue. His talking points are the constant, and the outrages that are happening get woven into his talking points.

And it really doesn’t matter whether or not I agree with him or not on that different subject. I happen to believe that it is perverse that our federal government is more concerned about the integrity of Ukraine’s border than they are about the U.S. border. But how would that make the Russians the good guys? And an intelligent person could believe that more of our resources should be deployed to the Texas border than to the border between Gaza and Israel. But how would that make Hamas any less wicked? You can stop making excuses for Biden without starting to make excuses for Hamas.

And it doesn’t help if the “talking points” are evangelistic in nature. If we were all to be shocked by a macabre set of murders that happened in Connecticut, and somebody online started to say things like “well, the victims probably weren’t Christian,” and the judgments of God are inscrutable, the only conclusion I would draw is that we had found ourselves an evangelist with a tin ear, and a tongue like a brick.

Relativism and the Just War Tradition

But what if someone were to say that the just war tradition began in the West, and that Muslims are not heirs of that tradition? Augustine began wrestling with the issue because in the centuries prior, Christians had simply been the persecuted, and did not need to worry about how Christ would have them deploy force. But after Theodosius made Christianity the religion of the empire, and the use of force became an option for professing Christians, they had a significant problem to figure out. What do the servants of the Prince of Peace do with this sword in their hands? Augustine stepped in and supplied a number of principles that Christians would need to remember—both ad bellum and in bello. What would justify going to war in the first place, and what principles should govern our conduct once the fighting had started?

So what about this objection? This just war standard is a standard that begins with Christianity, and the Muslims are not Christians. The customs of the West—the Geneva Convention can trace its genesis back to Augustine—are not the customs of Islam. So there.

This actually illustrates (and very nicely too) why we cannot adopt a humanistic approach to ethics. And the lameness of relativism applies to geopolitical ethics as much as to any other kind of ethics. Moreover, the vacuity of relativism is thrown into high relief by the fact that massive amounts of bloodshed are involved, and all the relativist can do is stammer and look around awkwardly.

Our source of ethics has to come from outside the world. If there is not a transcendental foundation for right and wrong, one that outranks every human culture, one that over-arches all of them, regardless of their traditions, then everything really is relative. Some societies are cannibalistic, and some of them are not. Some of them encourage atrocities against the enemy and others do not. Some of them sacrifice thousands of victims on top of pyramids and some don’t. Tomayto, tomahto.

Speaking of victims on top of pyramids, my son in one of his novels portrayed the Aztec outrages as outrages, and had a battle with one of his editors over it. Relativism, a bastard stepchild of secularism, is really not in a position to condemn anything. Well, actually, they can condemn one thing, which would be any authoritative word from outside the world, telling them to stop being silly.

So according to the Christian faith, a member of Hamas who gives way to his hatred, and who commits atrocities against Jews simply because they are Jews, is going to be condemned for his atrocities at the last day by Almighty God. “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Matthew 16:27). Christ will judge every man, and not just the Christians. Christ will occupy the judgment seat and all the nations of men will assemble before Him. “And before him shall be gathered all nations . . . (Matt. 25:32). Christ will judge every Hindu, every Buddhist, every atheist, every agnostic, every Muslim, every Christian, and every Jew. His seat of authority is outside this world, and His dominion extends over every nation.

We know that Christ will judge every man, and not just the Christians, because God has given us proof of His authority by raising Him from the dead. Because Christ rose, we know that He has the authority to evaluate and weigh the deeds of every man. “Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

What this means is that when the Last Day arrives, one of the first things that will blow away, like wisps of smoke in a gale, is all our vaunted religious pluralism. Not only will it not constitute any defense of any of our sins then—for every mouth will in fact be stopped—but it will also be revealed that this pluralism of ours was always a sham, always a shift, and always an evasion.

Another way of putting this is that Muslims are not justified in their behavior simply because they can point to a passage in the Quran. There are such passages, but pointing to them will avail nothing. The man who gave them the Quran will also be standing before the judge of the whole earth as well. Muslims will discover at that time that Allah is not the true God, and that their warrant for hatred that they thought they possessed from him was not a valid warrant at all. All of that was forbidden by the true God, the one who will do the actual judging.

The reason why people retreat into cultural relativism is because they do not understand the God of the Bible. His authority is absolute. And so the fact that these Muslims do not trace their understanding of war back to Augustine is their failure, not their excuse.

Be Careful What You Deify

Although Israel is located in the Middle East, they are still in effect a Western nation. This includes, not just their virtues, but also their sins and failures. They, together with other nations in the West, are still able to identify war crimes as war crimes. But they, also together with all secular nations, are unable to give a satisfactory explanation as to why any war crimes should be considered crimes at all. Because of this inability—they have no transcendent Word—they have to rely on shock for whatever sympathy they get. But, as we are seeing, the shock soon wears off. And, as we might anticipate, in the next few days there will be shocking images coming out of Gaza too. And for the depraved, the shock can even become a recruiting tool for Hamas. Shock is no substitute for transcendent authority.

Israel has no more right to their secular state than anyone else has a right to a secular state. Any secular state, including Israel, has no transcendent reality to point to in order to condemn certain crimes, like those currently being committed against them by Hamas. The fact that the crimes are being committed against Israel doesn’t solve the problem. Why is this behavior by Hamas wrong? By what standard is it to be condemned? Who says? And remember, Kant is dead now.

If there is no God above our geopolitical turmoil, then our geopolitical turmoil has become god. And if our geopolitical turmoil is god, then we just have to let Israel and Hamas fight it out, like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat. If that is the standard, then Israel will take this one. But never forget that the Middle East is crammed full of hungry dogs.

Going back to a point made earlier, it is not enough simply to avoid moral blindness. Because we are created in the image of God, and are reasoning creatures, we have to be able to give an accounting for the moral judgments we make. And this should be a simple test case. Can you condemn the behavior of Hamas, period, stop?

It should be an occasion of dismay that there are quite a few in the West who cannot bring themselves even to do that. But there are even more in the West, enervated by secularism, who are willing to say they are repulsed by Hamas, but if you asked them their grounds for objecting to it (by what standard?), all they can do is blink slowly. Why? Who says?

But real evil does exist in the world, and a good example of it would be Hamas. This evil must be opposed by those who have a basis for identifying it as real evil. Anything else is just secularist posturing. And the reason I call it posturing becomes evident if we think about it carefully for a few moments. There can be no ethical judgments between nations unless someone has been established by the Ancient of Days as Lord of the nations.

The good news is that He has been.