Some Chattanoogans see deep biblical themes in Israel-Gaza war; for others, it’s political

On Thursday, Israeli soldiers carry the flag-covered coffin of Shilo Rauchberger at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
On Thursday, Israeli soldiers carry the flag-covered coffin of Shilo Rauchberger at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

The Bible gives clear instruction for moments like these, said Bret Jaeger, the pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Dalton: Pray for Israel.

For Christians, few conflicts entangle politics and faith like that of Israel and Palestine. Around Chattanooga and across the nation, as Israel bombs Gaza following Hamas's attack last week, many observers see a Holy Land conflict running deep with biblical themes.

For many Palestinians, however, the conflict is less religious than political. They see a history of oppression. As many Americans have rallied behind Israel's military response, Palestinians and their supporters wish the public would study and appreciate the historical context in which Hamas's Oct. 7 attack on Israel took place.

Many U.S. leaders this week drew on the religious angle. U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, told Fox News on Thursday the U.S. needs to stand back and give Israel the moral support to fight Hamas. In a speech this week, President Joe Biden called Hamas's attacks "pure unadulterated evil," earning rare plaudits from Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary whose podcast, "The Briefing," has a wide Christian conservative following.

"He is emphatically right," Mohler said of Biden's remarks. "The question nonetheless is engaged. In what sense is that right? What kind of worldview is required for that sentence to make sense? What kind of definition of evil is necessary in order for that sentence to have teeth? This is where Christians come in."

(READ MORE: How a pledge involving the Middle East came to be mandated in government contracts across Tennessee)

Mohler was among the numerous influential evangelicals, including Southern Baptist Convention President Bart Barber and Christian magazine editors such as Russell Moore and Richard Land, who signed onto a letter Wednesday describing Hamas's attack as evil and citing Scripture endorsing what they said was Israel's right and duty to defend itself under the Christian Just War tradition.

"Furthermore," the letter said, "we recognize the dignity and personhood of all persons living in the Middle East and affirm God's love for them as well as his offer of salvation through Jesus Christ to all people."


Religion lens

Jaclyn Michael, a scholar of Islam at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, doubts religion is the best lens by which to understand the events of recent days.

Talk of "evil" — a word she feels gestures toward something inherent about the entity in question — smacks to her of antagonistic religious discourse dating back to the Crusades.

"There are some folks that will say that there's something inherently evil about Islam and about Islam theologically that predisposes Muslims more than other folks to participate in acts of terrorist violence," Michael said.

But that is not a helpful analysis by which to understand either Islam or the world, she said. That story takes events shaped by political, social and economic grievances, she said, and pathologizes the result as something theological.

"If to any extent that narrative succeeds," she said, "I think it's just further evidence of the real power of Islamophobia still in our society."

  photo  On Thursday, Palestinians pull the body of a young girl out of rubble from a residential building leveled in an Israeli airstrike on the Al Shati Refugee Camp. Israel's retaliation has escalated after Gaza's militant Hamas rulers launched an unprecedented attack on Israel on Oct. 7, killing over 1,200 Israelis and taking captive dozens. Heavy Israeli airstrikes on the enclave have killed over 1,200 Palestinians. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
 
 

Fighting back

Chattanooga has a relatively small Palestinian community, of which Sarah Elghalban is a member. In a phone interview Friday, she said she felt complex emotions on the morning of Hamas's attack.

"On one hand, as a Palestinian, I'm seeing people fight back against this occupation, against these inhumane conditions that they have been living under for years," she said. "Part of me is like, oh, 'They're fighting back. They haven't given up hope.'

"But then I'm immediately confronted with the reality that they have zero chance of surviving this."

Like many Palestinian families, Elghalban's is quite scattered, she said. Her maternal grandparents lived in what has become the Israeli city of Ashdod before being expelled, she said, with the formation of the Israeli state in 1948.

They moved to become refugees in Gaza, but her grandfather became an activist, and in his visits during Elghalbans's childhood to Chattanooga, she said he did what he could to ensure their Palestinian identity would persist into future generations. He told stories of how things were, she recalled, "and then this lingering hope that one day, things would be right again with the world."

Elghalban was raised in a moderate Muslim family, which taught that at the end of the day, it is essential to be a good person and that it's no one's place to judge but God's, she said.

"All we can do is contribute to building a positive, healthy, peaceful world," she said.

In the days following Hamas's attack and Israel's retribution, Elghalban said she watched English-language Al Jazeera nonstop, or occasionally mainstream U.S. news outlets like CNN — which she said gave her nausea with talk of an "unprovoked" Hamas attack — or with pundit panels that left Israeli leaders' descriptions of their foes as "animals" go unchecked.

Israelis, Elghalban has observed, have been asked to tell their stories. But she said when Palestinians were interviewed, the first thing they were asked was whether they condemned Hamas's attack.

Death and violent suffering is heartbreaking to everyone, she said. But as an Arab and a Muslim, she said she understands the violence as part of a reality that only gets seriously acknowledged when the victims are a certain kind of person.

Elghalban said 10 of her family members have been killed this week — three of them children.

She hasn't yet been able to mourn, she said, adding, "I know more is coming."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Ofer Musan, the Jewish Federations newest Israeli cultural emissary, speaks to the room. As war breaks out between Israel and Hamas, the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga hosted a public rally to support Israel at the Jewish Cultural Center on Monday.
 
 

'Murderous assault'

At the Monday evening gathering at Chattanooga's Jewish cultural center, area rabbis reflected on antisemitism and their feelings of sadness, anger and hope. The Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga's new emissary from Israel, just days into his move to town, told the story of his cousins' house being hit by a missile, of seeing his father cry, of learning that his friend's body was found at the site of a massacre.

Margaret Bean, of Ringgold, was there, alongside Jaeger and other pastors.

"I want to show that Christians United for Israel members in North Georgia — we stand with Israel," she said in a phone interview.

She said she's long sought to let her Jewish friends know that in their time of need, she will be there. And the time, she said, has come.

(READ MORE: 'Shattered hearts': Sadness and anger as Chattanoogans rally for Israel)

Ever since a life-altering trip to the Holy Land, Bean has dedicated much of her time to pushing Americans to support Israel in spiritual and material ways — and her convictions have in recent days only intensified, she said.

"These people have suffered an unprovoked, murderous assault," she said, adding that Israel has no choice but to invade Gaza. "They're not going in there to get civilians. They're going in there to get the terrorists who did these horrendous acts."

The U.S., meanwhile, should send Israel anything it needs militarily, she said. Supporting Israel, she said, not only abides by God's command; it's just a logical thing to do.

"The terrorists have said Israel's the little Satan," Bean said. "We're the big Satan. They get them, then they come for us."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / An American flag stands next to the flag of Israel. As war breaks out between Israel and Hamas, the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga hosted a public rally to support Israel at the Jewish Cultural Center on Monday.
 
 

The end

In a phone interview Thursday, Jaeger, the Dalton pastor, said he printed out guides to give attendees at his upcoming Sunday service direction as they pray for Israel. And he said he was preparing an email to send to the congregation about the testimony he'd heard from the Israeli emissary at the Jewish Cultural Center.

He said he wants his congregation to know there are people close by who have faced some of the consequences of the seemingly distant violence.

Through his own trip to Israel, Jaeger developed a great fondness for that nation and became even more attuned to biblical mandates, he said, to stay aware of things that are happening in Israel and support its people.

"We should be praying for them," he said by phone, adding that "we should be doing things to encourage our government leaders to be of the same mindset."

Like many Christians, Jaeger also sees in the tumult resonances with Scripture pertaining to the second coming of Christ, said to be presaged by wars in which Israel looms large.

"That always heightens people's thoughts of, 'Are we getting pretty close to that occurring with this happening in Israel?'" he said. "And it definitely is what we call 'signs of the times.' And things are moving in that direction."

Still, Jaeger cautions that the Bible says no one knows when Christ will return — and believers should not assume it will happen tomorrow simply because of the violence in the Holy Land.

"Obviously we don't desire to see war going on," Jaeger said, adding, "It does make us aware that this is getting closer. And the return of Christ ends all wars."

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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