Franciscan Spirit Blog

Beware the Contagion of War

Young girl holds a peace sign | Photo by ev on Unsplash

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.  

Mirroring Behaviors

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.  


31 thoughts on “Beware the Contagion of War”

  1. Arlene B. Muller

    Whatever suffering Palestinian people claim to be enduring does not excuse & cannot compare to the atrocities committed by HAMAS.
    HAMAS & other fanatical fundamentalist jihadist terrorist groups are not merely seeking a land of their own, but they are committed to destroying Israel & denying Israel’s right to exist.
    On October 7, 2023 HAMAS broke into private homes & private places of worship to torture, rape & kill innocent civilians, among who were women, children, babies & even cutting unborn babies out of the wombs of their mothers! This goes far beyond bombing missions with a warning that an area is being bombed with a plea for innocent civilians to evacuate.
    HAMAS & similar terrorist groups are doing what is inhumane & even demonic. The world should express moral outrage at these atrocities & must act to stop them. To sympathize with HAMAS would be akin to sympathy with the Gestapo of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany!
    The only point I would concede is that we must refrain from stereotypes & must not allow hatred for the evil committed by HAMAS & the intent to destroy terrorism & terrorists to spill over into stereotyping all Palestinian people, all Muslims, or all Arabs as terrorists. There are many decent Palestinian people, many decent Arab people–some of whom are fellow Christians–and even many decent Muslim people who have nothing to do with jihad or terrorist acts & who do not justify terrorism. The contagion of war is found in stereotypes & attititudes & acts of hatred toward people who share the same ethnicity and/or religion. What is particularly alarming is not only that terrorist atrocities are being accepted & even hailed but also that there is creeping antisemitism that has led to violence & destruction & even threats & physical harm to Jewish people! We must NEVER allow America in 2023 to resemble Nazi Germany & Eastern Europe in 1943!
    We also should never allow our desire that HAMAS & other terrorists be destroyed to spill over into threats & physical harm & destructive attitudes toward innocent civilians who are Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims.

  2. It’s immoral and factually false to establish a moral equivalence between the actions of the “Palestinian” people in Gaza and the West Bank and their leaders and the actions of the Israelis and their leaders. If the leaders inn Gaza and there West Bank laid down their arms, there would be peace. If the Jews laid down their arms, they would be wiped out. Israel moved out of Gaza in 2006, but the people in Gaza kept trying to kill Jewish civilians.

    1. Arlene B. Muller

      I agree.

      Although we must have compassion for innocent civilians on both sides, there is a huge difference between defending one’s country according to the rules of engagement (Israel) vs terrorist atrocities. (HAMAS).

      Thank you for sharing.

  3. Israel is fighting a crisis on three fronts
    (1) Hamas on the south / Hezbollah along the northern border
    (2) international antisemitism
    (3) the corrupt Netanyahu coalition

    Qatar and oil rich Muslim countries control the world!!!
    a. They have the oil and they fiddle with prices to influence elections, protect their GOP interests.
    b. Qatar controls the press, social media and by pouring billions of dollars into US universities they control the minds of generation after generation
    c. Qatar controls sports primarily the world of ‘football’ (soccer)
    d. Qatar controls Hamas by pouring billions of dollars into Gaza that goes directly into the pockets of Hamas, a terror organization whose leaders are billionaires living safely in Qatar

    United Nations and the EU are also guilty by pouring billions into Gaza that goes directly into the pockets of Hamas.

    We need leaders on all sides of the equation who sincerely are interested in peace.
    The Middle Eastern leaders are not interested in peace or supporting a two state solution.
    They prefer war, conflict and stirring up antisemitism – it’s so easy!

    Until the Middle East returns to the vision of Bill Clinton (he was closer to a two state solution than any other president in the past 75 years), return to the vision of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. We need to help Palestinians rid themselves of corrupt politicians, Sharia Law. We need to help Palestinians find the means to live within a democratic, free nation, surrounded by Muslim countries that are not democratic, but run by theocratic, absolute Monarchies…..
    Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
    Pray for peace

  4. My group, the Saint Therese Brass, is holding a benefit concert for the victims of the Israel-Hamas War on Monday, November 13th, at Assumption Parish in Cincinnati at 7:00 p.m. All proceeds will be given to Catholic Relief Services.
    While it is easy to wring your hands and preach peace, it is better to do something positive. All believers should take a call to action and not retreat in silence. Have courage.

  5. In 2001, during the Second Intifada, I stood with a group of Palestinians on a rooftop in the Bethlehem refugee camp, overlooking the field where angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth, and goodwill to men on whom God’s favor rests.” Pasted on a wall adjoining our perch was a memorializing poster of a young Palestinian who had been lured by hate to become a suicide bomber. Observing the tension between the juxtaposed messages of peace and hatred, a young Palestinian who had lived in the camp his entire life turned to me and said, “If only our leaders would get out of the way, give up their hatred, and let us be at peace with the Israelis. We could be neighbors and friends.”

    A day or so later, I sat at a family dinner table in a West Bank Palestinian town and heard, “My Palestinian family has been friends and worked with an Israeli family for generations in the same business. We are friends, but the hatred of others has separated us, and we are crushed.”

    There are men and women of peace, forgiveness and goodwill on both sides who wish to be “neighbors!”

    Let us pray that the contagion of war will cease and their prayerful dreams will come true… AND SOON!

    1. Well written Bill. We have Palestinian friends who live in Gaza. They are Dr.s we came to know as my husband has traveled to Gaza 16 times since 2000 on surgical missions with the Palestinian Childrens Relief Fund. He operated at Shifa hospital and 2 other hospitals which are now virtually destroyed. Nahed, an anesthesiologist, told me years ago prior to 1987 they had Jewish neighbors who played cards with is Mom. There was no animosity or hatred-normal neighbors living side by side. He recently told me his son in Gaza received a phone call just after Oct 7th from a young Jewish man he became friends with when they worked together in Kyrgyzstan. He called after Israel began the assault on Gaza. He wanted to be sure his friend from Gaza and his family were ok. Until now our friends are all alive but fear every minute of every day it could be their last.There are good people on all sides. It is time to say CEASEFIRE and let the governments of the world find a viable solution. In my opinion, with all the technology the US and Israel posess there could have been a better solution then to bomb Gaza to near oblivion and kill thousands of innocent people. Where is the humanity????

      1. I agree with your comments. People who have the freedom from fear and hate can bring about a lasting peace. The destruction of Gaza and Hamas will only bring on the next group who will be deadlier that this group. It becomes a vicious circle.

        1. Arlene B. Muller

          I think we have lost of the fact that the enemy is not the ordinary people on both sides. Our enemy is TERRORISM. We need to stop terrorist acts.
          Acts of terrorism like those that occurred on October 7, 2023 are atrocious, inhumane, inexcusable & demonic & MUST BE STOPPED.
          The problem & prevailing question is how to destroy terrorism & terrorists without harming & killing innocent civilians. This seems to be humanly impossible.
          HAMAS & other terrorist groups do not have any regard for innocent human life–they are so fanatical that they do not have any regard for their own lives!
          HAMAS DELIBERATELY pulled innocent Israeli civilians & pilgrims from other countries (including Americans) out of their homes & places of worship as they were innocently spending time with family & friends & worshipping GOD on a Jewish holy day! They took hostages, tortured, raped, cut unborn babies out of their mothers’ wombs, & beheaded babies!
          How do we stop this evil? Not by appeasement & concessions or else we have forgotten the result of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler. He consented to give Hitler one more piece of Czechoslovakia & Hitler proceeded to invade Poland & continued exterminating Jewish people & others who did not meet his criterion of an Aryan master race & did not go along with his murderous & power mad agenda! Hitler did not stop until he was destroyed.
          Bottom line: you cannot end terrorist acts by conceding to & appeasing demonically inspired terrorists & singing KUMBAYA!
          Personally I think that the only way to destroy terrorism while seeking to protect innocent people on both sides & to seek peace is by DIVINE INTERVENTION!
          GOD performed many mighty deeds on behalf of His people Israel in the Old Testament. Korah & others who rebelled against Moses were swallowed up by the earth! On one occasion the enemies of Israel were beset with such a spirit of confusion that instead of killing Israelites they wound up killing each other without Israel even entering the battle! The prophet Elisha saw myriads of angels fighting on Israel’s side!
          The same GOD Who forgave those involved in His Crucifixion is the same GOD Who is able to destroy evildoers & the remembrance of evildoers from the earth without doing harm to any innocent person! GOD can accomplish miraculous conversion, as he dramatically converted Saul of Tarsus, which would be the most desirable solution, & miraculous destruction of evildoers.
          GOD intervened in giving Israel victory in the 6 day war 50 years ago & He is able to do it again!
          If GOD would only destroy the evil terrorists & the evil spirit of terrorism while protecting innocent people on both sides, then decent & reasonable people on both sides could safely lay down their arms & finally sit down & negotiate a just and lasting peace!

  6. When faced with these momentous issues of our day, I am always reminded of my grandmother’s saying when I was faced with being in the middle of two difficult people trying to convince me that they were right in their view of the other. Although not directly related to world peace-shattering issues, I think it underscores a point Mr. McLaren is making with his story. It goes something like this: “In any argument/fight there are always THREE sides to every story: his side, her side, and the truth which usually lies somewhere in the middle.”
    I applaud the women in this story for being able to hear each other, not judge each other or their backgrounds and be in the middle for each other.
    I believe that as Catholic Christians we are all called to be “in the middle” for all our fellow men, in order to achieve real peace you have to be there for all the sides.

  7. Charlotte Presler

    As another former English teacher, I am grateful for the wisdom of your words. Just as we avoided contagion with covid, so must we “purify [ourselves], just as He is pure.” (1 John 3:3) And yet this process must not be misunderstood as one that is sudden, overly simplistic or too extremely severe. A tragic result is violence, as we now see. Yesterday I read the conclusion of Wuthering Heights. Love – true love – is indeed a great mystery. It can be seen in the eyes of a child. So let’s begin again. Every day. And return to our center point – God – who is the One who can renew our ability to love.

  8. All of you who have made your comments you do not worship the same God as I do! Do you really believe this is what Jesus would do and or approve of? Violence does not solve anything only begets more violence.

    1. I think that you should read all these comments again because the overwhelming majority of the reader comments to this story are very Christ-like and espouse the desire of hope for the peaceful solution to this difficult centuries-old conflict now killing people on both sides of the Gaza border. Comments like yours fan the flames of what Mr. McLaren is trying to prevent.

  9. Great article I admire and respect the four women! They are doing what Jesus would do! Are you?

  10. We cannot forget Our Mother’s exhortation to the Faithful at Fatima: “Pray for the conversion of Russia.” It is the nexus of Satan’s efforts to destabilize us and destroy Peace through its authoritarian ruler.

  11. Hamas commits horrors while Israel atrocities? The world needs to know and accept the saving grace of Jesus. He is the personal savior of all who accept him. He is for Jew, Muslim, Gentile. The true path to peace is through Jesus.

  12. Before you speak of peace, you must first have it in your heart. —Francis of Assis
    Peace starts with me. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear that we are to love, to forgive, to be merciful, and to not judge. I know that is easy for me to say when no one from my family or friends was slaughtered and I am in no eminent danger of a bomb being dropped on me. I pray for all those who are suffering so grievously in this conflict.

    Unfortunately, Plato’s observation of war is true: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” We need to do better. We must do better. We must end this cycle of conflict. This is not what God wanted.

  13. After reading all the comments so far, it seems a majority of them still perpetuate the idea that one side must destroy the other in order to have peace. One said that there are 3 sides to every story, and the third side is the “truth”, which lies in the middle, between the two other sides. I disagree. I believe the third side, while it is the “truth”, does not lie in the middle, but outside the whole realm of where the other two sides reside. This is where Jesus comes from. Rather than take a stand in the middle of two sides, he refused to judge one side or the other. Only through mercy and forgiveness can we have real justice. And only through real justice can we have real peace. While the proposed “two state solution” may be what is necessary right now, true peace and justice will come only when all sides can live together as one, and not divided. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, in the grand scheme of things), I do not believe this is possible until we have this in our hearts, and when that happens, this world will end.

  14. There will be no winners in the Middle East’s war. In fact, it could easily become the catalyst to World War III. China, Iran, and Russia are looking to create a new world order. It’s the Axis vs Allies all over again. Wake up, America!

  15. The article was very nice and the concept appreciated. I do not agree with the comments that follow which oppose what the author of the article is expressing.
    There is so much misconception and misinformation it makes me sad. I do not in any way condone what Hamas did to the innocent Israeli citizens in the Kibbutz or at the concert on Oct.7. It was horrific and barbaric and they should be held accountable. However, in NO WAY is it acceptable that, to date over 11,000 innocent people- nearly 50% of which are children, can be massacred in Gaza and this be justified. Killing of innocents is murder no matter where. There is much ignorance and falsehood written in the comments above. May I suggest educating yourselves by being enlightened by the words of Jews who understand and speak out. To name a few: Dr. Gabor Mate (holocaust survivor), Dr. Norman Finklestein (family members died in the holocaust), Miko Peled (who’s father was a General in the Israeli army), former IDF soldiers who speak out on the atrocities some did to Palestinians -men, women & children alike (Israeli veteran reflects on everyday abuse of Palestinians – video Breaking the Silence). Read articles in the Haaretz (an Israeli newpaper) by Gideon Levy and Amira Haas- honest journalists, Then please view the video: Israel’s Hilltop Youth:Thou Shalt not kill/Radicalized Youth. These settlers who live ILLEGALLY in the settlements are not held accountable but their actions are accepted by the Israeli gov’t.There is so much more I could say but I want to keep this as brief as possible. Lastly, please read about the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Deir Yassin massacre where the Irgun, under the leadership of Menachem Begin aka “freedom fighters”, massacred innocent villagers- Palestinian women & children and forced them to leave their homes and posessions to flee to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Gaza and live there as permanent refugees. They could NEVER return to their homes where they left all their posessions and properties. My husband, a Palestinian Catholic Christian was born in 1946 in Haifa. My father in law was an eye, ear, nose & throat specialist. His family ancestry goes back centuries in Palestine. His 5 brothers and their families also fled for their lives, never to be able to return even though they were a short distance away in Lebanon. Somehow the concept that this was a land (Palestine) without people for people without a land (Jews) is false. Finally, I want to state categorically, I nor any members of my family have any animosity toward Jews. We have dear friends and family that are Jewish. We celebrate Hannukah & Passover with them as they celebrate Christmas & Easter with us. Let us love & respect one another as children of the same God. My Catholic faith is a continuation of the Jewish faith. Jesus, his mother Mary & most of his Apostles & disciples were Jews. My Old Testament is nearly the same as the Jewish. So let us love & respect one another and make this a better world to live in not only for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren.

  16. William H, Slavick

    T0o many comments on the present violence in Palestine omit key facts:
    1 In the 1890s, Zionists decided to forcibly remove a million Palestinians from Palestine to have it to themselves contrary to justice and law.. 1948 and 1967 enacted that massive denial of Palestinians; humanity and rights.
    2.The U.S> and Israel forced a Gaza election Hamas won. Israel and U.S, then failed to remove Hamas in a coup. Israel then initiated a short of starvation blockade of Gaza that the U.S. and West tolerated for 16 years Norman Finkelstein: producing “a monstrous rage”
    3, Hamas exploited Israeli transfer of troops to abet settler violence. Horrific violence but too many false claims.
    4. Since, Israel has been killing thousands of Gazans, thumbing its nose at international law which forbids military attacks where civilians will be killed. Now 11,000 killed !
    5. Israel’s actions and warnings indicate using the situation to empty Gaza of Palestinians.
    6, Unconscionable U.S. blind support of whatever Israel does joins us in war crimes. Funds and arms compound complicity.
    7. Concerted opposition to the Gaza blockade could have ended it and occasioned Gaza opposition to Hamas violence

  17. What would Jesus have advised. Turn the other cheek and take the punishment dished out. Innocent civilians in Gaza should be fed, and their medical care facilitated, before they’re killed, but providing that’s done its OK to go on killing them. That seems to be the thinking of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (and, presumably, President Biden) about the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in Gaza (at least 10, 569 dead, 40% of them children with at least 26,275 injured) by the Israeli Defence Forces. An immediate ceasefire, as urged by Arab leaders a week ago, would only allow Palestinian militant group Hamas to regroup and attack Israel again, he said. This attitude raises many questions. Is it morally acceptable (its clearly contrary to international law) to kill, or maim a whole civilian population in an attempt to exterminate a minority militant terrorist group within it? And Mr Blinken’s refusal to endorse the call by Arab leaders for a ceasefire suggests that the US considers that criminal policy acceptable.

  18. my heart is breaking for all the civilians involved in this terrible situation that they have been injured and lost their lives and their livelihood because of this extreme hate and unwillingness to compromise. I think it’s not just one side or the other, it’s both at the top where people are bent on their own agendas and forget that it’s the innocent people who suffer. I don’t know what else to do, except pray and do what I can to Foster peace among people that I come in contact with, who are as confused and frightened as I feel when I keep hearing these news reports and it just gets worse and worse. there is no help except god. may we turn to him and listen. that’s the only piece we can find. I don’t think any of the leaders really realize how many innocent people are paying for their decisions.

  19. Charlotte Presler

    I once worked as a counselor at a mental health facility. At that hospital we would always say “Good group!” to each other after a particularly rich session of discussion. Just like athletes who shake hands from opposing teams often line up and pass the peace after their endeavors by saying “Good game!”

    Thank you, Mr. McLaren for the insights that proved so fruitful for us all. I learned a lot.

  20. A well-written article bringing awareness to the contagion of war I had not thought of. I’m enlightened. Peace, my friends in Christ.

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