Readers may have noticed that after devoting several blogs to the Israel-Hamas War in the wake of October 7, I haven’t written more on that topic. It is not for a lack of concern. It is that I am mindful just how easy it is to offer opinions from a safe distance.
I thought of this — my safe distance — as I read this week’s New York Times account of the systematic sexual violence and torture committed by Hamas on October 7 and in days to follow against Israeli women. It is terrible enough to read this investigative report. I can’t imagine how I would react if I were an Israeli or a family member of one of the victims. Suffice it to say that it is easy enough — from a safe distance — to condemn Israel’s tactics in Gaza. Is that to say I am not horrified by the loss of innocent and civilian life in Gaza at the hands of Israeli bombing? Of course not.
But in returning to all this, I will take a different direction. There is here an urgent warning to the U.S. about what happens when extremists are empowered and manage to gain control of the public debate. As Tom Friedman points out in his most recent column, Hamas has chosen, time and again, terrorism and the most extreme path, namely wiping Israel from the face of the earth. And Israel, under Netanyahu’s leadership, has reciprocated in kind, empowering the extreme right-wing as it pushed “settlements” on the West Bank and by undermining a two-state solution.
Like extremists the world over, Hamas must have the conflict with Israel in order to justify its existence. They are parasites of violence and fear. Netanyahu has, in appears, made the same bargain. In fact, he has been a surreptitous Hamas supporter!
But what of the U.S.? One way to describe our own situation and trend-line is the dangerous empowerment of extremes who require the outrages, whether real or imagined, of the other side as the blood supply for their own malignancy. Such extremes expect, by definition, complete adherence and uniform agreement of their supporters.
I have in mind the MAGA movement and its Congressional faction, of which the current House Speaker Mike Johnson, is one. In 2023 they have taken extreme and uncompromising positions that have paralyzed U.S. governance as well as giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin in his own war aims. Hovering over it all is Donald Trump’s increasingly violent rhetoric. Hats off to Representative Debbie Dingell for her courageous standing up to Trump and the thugs he fuels.
While I don’t think there is a both-sides equivalency between the Trump-fueled right-wing in the U.S. and its left-wing counterpart — at this point MAGA is the more dangerous — there is without doubt dangerous extremism on the left as well. The Israel-Hamas conflict brought it into the open, whether in Congress or on college campuses. Such actors have not only fueled and sanctioned a new wave of anti-semitism in the U.S., they are undermining free speech and truthful discourse and reporting.
My point is that here too, in the U.S., extremes that put freedom and civilized society in jeopardy are being enabled and empowered. The Israel-Hamas War may be the worst case scenario, but let’s not kid ourselves that we in the U.S. are immune from the zero-sum game played by extremists whose existence depends on fear and violence.
Just for the record, I don’t think removing Trump from the 2024 ballot is the answer. Debbie Dingell comes closer to it in being a person in public office who is standing up to Trump and telling others to do it and how. Liz Cheney is another. On the left, I am grateful for the courage of people like John McWhorter and Ruth Marcus in being honest about, as a case-in-point, the fiasco of Harvard President Claudine Gay and the way DEI or anti-racism morphed into an ideology that cannot be questioned, and which funds so much of what’s wrong among progressives.
As someone who writes mostly about religion and matters of faith, what I see going on is this: In the face of incredibly rapid social, cultural and technological change and a global pandemic — and the anxiety and fear to which all this and more has given rise — the lines between religion and politics have been blurred in ways that empower the extremes. In short, political causes and parties have been made into religious crusades.
Politics is the realm of proximate, not ultimate, solutions. Proximate meaning partial and imperfect, approximate. We shall not bring heaven, or any of the proposed “heavens,” on earth. While I believe progress can be made, I am not a utopian. I am an anti-utopian. When politics is turned into the realm of ultimacy and utopianism you get “final solutions,” that is, fascism, totalitarianism, and the true believers on both left and right.
In this sense MAGA and its heretical offspring, “Christian Nationalism,” are more a religious movement than a political one, as are the ideological extremes on the left which reduce everything to the binary of oppressors and oppressed. When politics is made the realm of ultimacy, the result is Hamas, Iran, the National Socialism (Nazis) before which most — though not all — Christianity in Germany caved, and the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church. Religion as a pawn of politics. Politics as religious cause and crusade.
If we think “this can’t happen here,” we are wrong.
For over four decades now I have wondered, and worried, about what would fill the vacuum created by the decline of the liberal Protestant church and faith in America. What I describe above is part of answer to that question. But for now, we’ll leave it there.