My daughter called me recently to process an experience she had the previous weekend. She had enjoyed a rendezvous with two of her close friends—a Jewish American and a Palestinian American. They met at the home of her Jewish friend’s mother, whose own mother escaped the Holocaust and fled to America.
The four of them sat together for some hours, trying to process their experiences brought to the forefront since the compounding traumas of October 7 began. The mother, having heard her own mother’s experiences of Naziism in Germany and having experienced anti-Semitism in America, felt acutely the ongoing vulnerability of Jews. The daughter sought to hold a tension: empathy for the Israelis who live in fear of terrorists who want to see them erased, and empathy for the Palestinians who suffer greatly under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the blockade and bombing of Gaza.
My daughter’s Palestinian friend, having recently visited her ancestral homeland in Gaza and spent time with her relatives there, not only felt the accumulating weight of Palestinian suffering after decades of blockade and occupation, but she felt acute fear for the lives of her family in the daily onslaught of bombs. And my daughter, a deeply empathetic woman, felt the pain and deep sadness of her three companions—and her own pain in the midst of a morally and historically complex reality.
The four women did something too rare: they sat with their complexity, shared, and heard honest and vulnerable feelings. They listened across difference to express their own humanity and affirm the humanity of one another.
My daughter told me about an exchange that especially touched me. After October 7, her Jewish friend’s mother put on a Star of David necklace and wore it at home, because it felt right to express her connection to the Jewish people and their shared history. Before leaving the house, though, she felt it best to take off the necklace. Why risk a potentially violent confrontation with an anti-Semite in these tense times? Then my daughter’s Palestinian friend shared that she also wears a necklace, with a small Palestinian flag, an expression of her solidarity with her people. Since October 7, though, she has sometimes turned her necklace over in public for fear that she might be seen as supporting Hamas or expressing anti-Semitism. She has no desire to add to the trauma of Jewish people.
Israelis and Palestinians have suffered intense and sustained trauma at the violent hand of the other, and each is being retraumatized in unimaginable ways with every passing hour. Each community fears genocide at the hands of the other. Each group fears that the other might at any moment heartlessly murder them, their children, their parents, and their grandchildren and feel justified in doing so. Each feels trapped by the actions of their own governments, and abandoned by the international community.
Compared to the fear and agony being experienced every day by people in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, the challenges and choices faced by these four women may seem minor. But they pushed back against a phenomenon of war that is too seldom considered and that touches us all. We often speak of the fog of war, but we seldom speak of the contagion of war.
When two groups are caught in a violent conflict, extremists on both sides often engage in mirroring behaviors. One set of extremists presents itself as purely innocent victims and the other as absolute villains; their counterpart does the same. The horrific wrongs of one side are used to justify or excuse virtually any behavior undertaken by the other side, and vice versa. The wrongs of the other side are exaggerated and fabricated; the wrongs of “our side” are minimized and even erased.
Narratives are shaped that show how the other side started the conflict, leaving “our side” no choice but to retaliate. “We” become brave, misunderstood, and victimized human beings and “they” become dehumanized beasts and monsters: mere numbers in the “collateral damage” that cannot be avoided. Religious texts and tropes are employed to legitimize “us” and delegitimize “them.” God is with “us;” “they” are anti-God. Any regard shown for the human dignity of “them” is interpreted as disloyalty, a betrayal of “us.”
‘The act of resisting
the contagion of war is an expression of the
change and growth we need.’
This narrative creates more extremists who adopt this mirroring behavior. They then pressure everyone on their side to join with them. Gradually, non-extremists in each community who do not participate in this dance of escalating antagonisms face, not one, but two escalating dangers. First, they face the obvious enemy on the other side, and second, they face the more subtle and more intimate enemy on their own side. The obvious enemy from the other side is out to kill them with bullets or bombs. The intimate enemy from their own side is out to test their loyalty again and again by requiring increasingly extremist thinking, and if they fail the test, they face social shame, rejection (or “cancelling”,) and even violence.
And that’s where the contagion of war threatens beyond borders. Around the world, groups seek to “borrow” the innocence and valor of whomever they assess to be most useful, whether the victim or the victor. Through “virtue by association,” they create a cult of innocence that in fact parasitizes the actual suffering of the side they identify with and discounts the suffering of the other side. In seeking innocence, they become the very opposite of innocent. The war of bombs and bullets may stay geographically contained for a while, but the war of words and political posturing spreads like a deadly pandemic, forming a hateful abyss in which society turns on itself.
‘Let Me Sow Love’
As we talked, my daughter and I realized we are acutely feeling this contagion here in the US, in groups considered “left ” and “right.” On one side, criticism of Hamas is intolerable; on the other side, criticism of the Israeli government is intolerable. On one side, to care about Palestinian lives is to support Hamas and its horrors; on the other side, to care about Israeli lives is to support the slaughter of innocent Palestinians. Calling for peace and empathy rather than revenge and dehumanization feels unacceptable. For both sides, this contagion of war becomes a driver of hate. Real fear among real people leads to very real acts of hate against Muslims and Jews around the world.
These four women resisted this contagion and engaged in the heart-stretching heart-work of listening, humanizing, trying to understand the truths behind the stories being spread in public. They resisted the urge to accept a single story and erase any other story. If we follow their example, by resisting simplistic good-guy/bad-guy dualisms, by learning to hold deep and painful tensions, by facing all the complexity of reality that we can bear, we begin to see both “us” and “them” as part of a bigger human story, a story full of violence that will only cycle on unless we change and grow .
The very act of resisting the contagion of war is an expression of the change and growth we need.
Yes, this work of peacemaking is hard. But even as we grieve, even as we protest, we need masses of people to do this heart-work. Otherwise, even in fighting the monster, we can become the monster. Even in decrying the violence of one side, we can unintentionally spread the more subtle contagion of war. Where you live, there may not be bombs falling or bullets flying, but this contagion of war is spreading quietly like a virus, from mouth to ear, from words to thoughts, from mind to mind, from heart to heart. Each of us would be wise to guard our hearts from it.
Last weekend, my daughter witnessed friends from communities in conflict moving toward each other, and moving together toward empathy, humanity, and love. As I listened to her, I found myself praying the words of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity”—working with people of all faiths for the common good. He is the dean of faculty for the Center for Action and Contemplation.