Gaza, Porphyrios & the Contagion of Violence – Bradley Jersak

Headlines of the October 19th bombing of the Church of St. Porphyrios in Gaza rocked the world for a brief news cycle. I witnessed the sickening images of sections of the world’s third oldest church (407 AD), where over 100 civilians sought shelter, now reduced to ruins. Eighteen confirmed dead, including two entire families and many children. Dozens more were injured; their Orthodox priest rescued from its rubble.

War is always hell, always the fruit of some wound, of some great fear, of some deep hate, of some lurking greed. Cities are flattened, widows are made, children are killed—‘round and ‘round we go / when will it stop? / Nobody knows.

I wondered what St. Porphyrios (bishop of Gaza from 395-420) would say. Perhaps he wrote some poignant word of wisdom? Or had an ancient biographer or hymnographer left us a prayer of comfort in his name? Since patristic research is one of my areas, I checked. What do we know of Gaza and this historic Christian presence there?

It’s awful. Gaza was, at one time, a religious center for pagan temples to gods such as Zeus. Lots of temples. And apparently, a particularly ominous version of Zeus, hitched to imperial dominance in the region. So, in the second great Jewish uprising against Rome (Bar Kokhba Revolt – 132 AD), you can guess what the Imperial religion did in the name of its god. They crushed the Jews, flattened their homes, and established Gaza as a hub for selling Jews into slavery.

Later, when the Christians arrived, they faced similar hostility and persecution from the imperial temples that had wiped out the Jews before them. While they were able to erect a church, the Christian community remained very small (estimated at 280), and they were forced to build outside Gaza’s city. Fair enough—had not Christ likewise been crucified outside the walls? But the marginalization and martyrdoms were such that the bishops appointed to Gaza were uniquely called “the Bishops about Gaza.”

Then came St. Porphyrios. What would he do? What would he say? What would his legacy be? I have some very bad news. His victory in Gaza came—but not by love, not by prayer, not by God’s Spirit. He would continue the tradition of imperial carnage and death-dealing. Now that the emperor of Rome ruled in Constantinople and gave Christianity his imperial stamp of approval, Porphyrios  (I recant of using his saintly honorific) obtained approval to have the imperial Christian troops (an oxymoron) march to Gaza, destroy its temples and show no mercy to the Gazan people. In the name of Christ (or some Zeus-like counterfeit).

As I look at the rubble in Gaza, hear the cries of her people, and consider another senseless uprising and the heartless revenge that’s being inflicted, Porphyrios has nothing to say to me. But Jesus has something to say to all those who become death-dealers—especially in the name of his Father: “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” That’s not a threat from heaven. It’s a basic law of escalating violence that caused Jesus to weep and to warn.

Today, it is not those who advocate for peace who are the naïve dreamers. If we stubbornly cling to the archaic idea that war is a practical way to rectify the evils of the world, we will eventually have total war between nations deploying their nuclear and biological arsenals. The world cannot be rectified by war, only ruined by it. The madness of modern warfare argues that the only way to save the world Is to kill the world. In a world after Hiroshima, war is not salvific; it’s suicidal. —Brian Zahnd

The same week that the church was being pummelled, a band of old rockers released a new song with a familiar refrain…

If you live by the sword, gonna die by the sword,

If you live by the gun, you’re gonna die by the gun…

If you live for revenge, gonna feel the backlash,

If you look to be cruel to be cruel, gonna bite you in the ass.

That’s not a warning you’ll ever hear from any sword-rattling or pseudo-religious head of state. But as Jesus said, if his disciples don’t chime in, even the Stones will cry out.

Back to Gaza…

First, my Jewish and Palestinian friends agree in their condemnation of Hamas’ death-dealing violence. While they can cite the history of generational oppression and injustice, they unequivocally denounce the massacre and kidnapping of Jewish civilians. It was evil. It was terrorism. And their next word is not—must not be—a justifying “BUT.”

No ‘buts’ at all. Just a deafening ‘AND.’ AND now we’ve seen the violence escalate past the initial attacks on Israel into the uncontrolled devastation of Gaza, remembering that roughly 50% of the population are children. Today, they are under siege; they have no water, no food, no medicine, no phones, no internet. Before this war, 50% of the children would express suicidal ideations and no access to mental health care. They don’t have PTSD—they live in constant trauma.

Leading into today (Oct. 27), 7028 Palestinians, including 2913 minors, have been killed since this war started. That number will rise exponentially. Some sources claim a quarter of dwelling places in Gaza have now been destroyed.

Hoping to avoid antisemitic propaganda, I’ve turned my ear to Jewish peace advocates such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Breaking the Silence (Israeli military veterans), and holocaust survivor (as an infant) Dr. Gabor Mate. From their personal experience as Jews, they condemn the scale of their government’s retaliation—not as self-defense, but in their words, ‘genocide’ and ‘war crimes.’ For their critiques on humanitarian grounds, they get labeled “self-hating Jews.” But as peacemakers, I believe they have a voice.

Despite the lopsided decimation, my Palestinian Christian friends are calling for a nonviolent response, and they repudiate the cycle of vengeance and violence. It is not the way. It’s suicidal. These are Christians with roots in Palestine going back centuries who co-existed in peace with Jews and Muslims long before 1948. They tell me they are called to serve Christ’s mission to pray and to speak and to act for the peace of Jerusalem… but they are being pushed out. Unfortunately, their witness for peace is being mowed from the land, often to the cheers of Western Christian Zionists, whom my rabbi friends accuse of clueless antisemitism and apocalyptic heresy.

Further, many of our Jewish friends outside of Israel are terrified that the merciless bombardment of Gaza from air, sea, and land will lead to massive antisemitic blowback across the world. They want security and peace—they do not want to relive an ethnic cleansing of any people group. They remember. As their rabbis say, “Never again means never again for anyone.”

Back to the St. Porphyrios Church in Gaza. My friend Yousef has family and friends still sheltering in its remains. As I write this, their priest is baptizing all the remaining children and babies as they expect they will be killed soon.

This is not collateral damage. These are people with dreams, with stories, … in despair. Their children are heard saying, “I can’t wait for this world to end.” I’m not creating anecdotes here. I’m speaking for real human friends who live in fear for loved ones with whom they’ve lost all contact earlier today.

Meanwhile, they hear Christian believers abroad promoting their annihilation as the path to peace. They are heartbroken. Their dehumanization and demonization are absolutely anti-gospel and will never bring peace. What to do then?

The prophet Micah said it: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” We’ve already tried, “It’s us or them” to death. Literally. It didn’t work. Jesus showed us: It must be “us for them.” I can’t speak to the Israeli government or Hamas. If they could hear me, they wouldn’t care. And my appeals to Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians are privileged and pointless.

But to Christian readers, at least, I have this reminder from Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers. THEY shall be called children of God.” And from his brother James’ commentary on that verse, “Those who sow peace will reap a harvest of justice.” This is the only Way. Let’s stop stoking hatred and offering theological excuses for violence. And to those who feel powerless, for those who don’t even know how to pray, let’s pray this for everyone: “Lord, have mercy.”

From AP on YouTube:


Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More