Is there a hierarchy of pain?

Further reflections on the war in Gaza

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Tango,” featuring jazz songstress Dianne Reeves. When the Spirit transcends human language, and faith, hope, and love join in a brawl with all who would foreclose history’s predicted demise.

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War—whether declared or merely pursuant—carries within its logic the capacity to feed off its own momentum, like a perpetual motion machine. It’s never merely an eye for an eye. It’s two eyes for one eye. Lose a limb? Here’s a quadriplegic response. Thousands dead? Tens of thousands in requite. It’s never only compensatory; it’s also punitive, an ever-deepening escalation.

This is why Hebrew scripture’s lex talionus ethical standard—eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth (Lev. 24:20)—was designed to limit retaliation. But the impulse of revenge often ignores that restriction.

Recall the pledge of Lamech, great-great-great-great grandson of Adam and Eve—making a vengeful vow that echoes to this day. With his two wives, Adah and Zillah, as his witness, he pledges “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23).

I’ll call your carnage and raise you an annihilation. “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist,” declared Giora Eiland, former head of the Israeli National Security Council. “There is no other option for ensuring the security of the State of Israel.”

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An achingly tender hymn of lament. “Wishing tonight that tomorrow will never come / Countless dreams and loves and losses, I cry and cry and cry as though beaten down by rain / Don’t display me, not like this / I need something to keep on living / If I can’t even believe in myself, what can I believe in? / The answer is so close I can’t even see it / Shedding black tears / I am nothing. Filled with sorrow, / Unable to say a word / The pain is welling up inside me, and / I can’t bear this alone.” —“Kuroi Namida” (Black Tears), Shavnabada and Gori Women’s Chorus

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• You can read about Eiland’s chilling “Lets not be intimidated by the world” op-ed here.

• For more cogent commentary, see Brian Kaylor, “A Call for ’Biblical’ Genocide”

• See “A Call for Repentance: An Open Letter from Palestinian Christians to Western Church Leaders and Theologians,” 21 October 2023

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From Valerie Kaur

“Our most powerful response to the horror in Israel and Palestine is to refuse to surrender our humanity.

“You will be told by some: The deaths of Israeli children are unfortunate but inevitable, because Israel’s occupation of Palestine is brutal and wrong.

“You will be told by others: The deaths of Palestinian children are unfortunate but inevitable, because it is the only way to keep Israel safe from terror, and Hamas brought this on its own people.

“Both will say: Our aggression is the only response to their aggression, our fear more justified than their fear, our grief more devastating than theirs ever will be.

“But oh my love, the hierarchy of pain is the old way. The moment we allow our hearts to go numb is the moment we shut down our humanity.

“I don’t know the solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine, but I do know the starting point: To grieve ‘their’ children as our children.” —9 October 2023 Facebook post

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Benediction. “History is what it is / Scars we inflict on each other don’t die / But slowly soak into the DNA / Of us all / Us all / I pray we not fear to love. / I pray we be free of judgment and shame / Open the vein, let kindness reign / O’er us all / Us all.” —Bruce Cockburn, “Us All

Above art: Mary & Jesus – Palestinian artist Wadei Khaled

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23 November 2023