A new holy war rises in America, Israel and Europe — people of faith must stand against it

From Jan. 6 rioters to the West Bank, the poisonous distortion of scripture is fueling conflict. We can stop it

By Ariel Gold

Contributing writer

Published August 18, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On Aug. 7 — the day that Jews around the world celebrated Tisha B'Av, the traditional day of mourning for the disasters that have occurred throughout Jewish history — the state of Israel brutally slaughtered at least 44 people, including 15 children, in the besieged Gaza Strip. Beyond the horrible irony of this massacre, it is difficult for me not to see it as part of a larger global holy war.

Not in the sense of the Crusades of history or American and European fears of Islamic jihad. We don't have a name yet for this holy war, but its variants stretch far beyond Gaza into the American heartland. We refuse to recognize it because it would require us to look in the mirror. It is a holy war based on fantasies of power and "chosenness." Most troubling of all is how these fears and fantasies are grounded in a poisonous distortion of sacred scripture and religious tradition.

As a veteran peace activist, a person of Jewish faith and the former co-director of CODEPINK, I've spent most of my life working to end U.S. wars and militarism and for freedom and justice for Palestinians. As I begin my tenure as the executive director of our nation's oldest interfaith peace and justice organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA (FOR-USA), the dimensions of this holy war are impossible to ignore.

Closer to home, the ideological underpinnings of this conflict were on display recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas where Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who rails against race mixing and same-sex relationships, advocating instead for "Christian democracy," was the opening speaker.

After the 2020 election, right-wing pro-Trump activists planned and carried out a series of "Jericho Marches" to invoke the bloody biblical story of the siege of Jericho as a call to action to keep Trump in office. As Jan. 6 neared, Proud Boys members could be seen praying near the Washington Monument, comparing the "sacrifice" they were preparing to make to the crucifixion of Jesus. The next evening, they rampaged through town, attacking African-American churches and other houses where Black Lives Matter signs were displayed. Tennessee pastor Greg Locke praised the Proud Boys and lauded America as "the last bastion of Christian freedom."

On Jan. 6 itself, the Jericho Marchers traveled with shofars (Jewish ritual instruments, made from rams' horns and meant to evoke freedom, holiness and a call to be in the service of God) and American flags to Washington.

The fusing of violence with a blasphemous interpretation of Christianity in the U.S. has roots in the concept of Christian duty that animated the era of lynchings. Today it takes the form of simple marketing copy. A Florida gun manufacturer, Spike's Tactical, markets AR-15 style rifles with Psalm 144:1 — "Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle" — emblazoned on them. 

The fusion of lethal violence and a blasphemous interpretation of Christianity has a long and ugly history, including the era of lynchings.

The weapon used in the mass murder of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, was manufactured by the Georgia-based company Daniel Defense, whose social media that day included a picture of a toddler with a rifle in his lap and the text of Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." 

The U.S. far right movement largely trends older, but American neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are making vigorous efforts to recruit youth. The Israeli ultranationalist movement, however, already contains a large number of teenagers. 

On the morning of July 20, the Israeli front of this holy war saw thousands of largely young Jewish extremists belonging to the Nachala settler movement flock to seven uninhabited sites in the occupied West Bank. With religious fringes dangling from their waists, blue and white flags in their hands and M16 rifles slung across their backs, they set up tents and makeshift kitchens and yeshivas. One outpost even included a bouncy castle and cotton candy machine.

They were praised as "inspired," "dedicated" and "wonderful," by Israel's Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, and criticized by the ultra-religious Jewish-Israeli Hilltop Youth movement for not being militant enough. Israeli soldiers and police ultimately dismantled the encampments, but the Nachala group has pledged to return and rebuild. That is neither surprising — they claim the Jewish people "were promised the Land of Israel in the Bible" — nor is it an idle threat, given the history of violent settler attacks.

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Regardless of your political or religious outlook or how deep the divisions among us currently are, I have to believe that all people of conscience are sickened by this perversion of sacred texts to justify white and Christian supremacy or, in Israel's case, Jewish supremacy.

In the spirit of those members and leaders of FOR-USA who preceded me — Martin Luther King Jr., A.J. Muste, Jane Addams and more — it is time to engage the full moral force of our combined faith traditions in condemning these forms of supremacy and violence that co-opt and pervert religious scripture. It is time to say clearly and unequivocally that the manipulation of the divine in the service of lethal political goals and human rights abuses, whether orchestrated by Christian, Jewish, Islamic or Hindu fundamentalists, is unconscionable.

As an interfaith peace and justice organization, FOR-USA believes this message must be spread through houses of worship across the country. In memory of Dr. King's voice telling us, "It's not the violence of the few that scares me, it's the silence of the many," we call on faith leaders and congregants from every faith tradition and political persuasion to break their silence on this distortion of the divine and do what communities of faith do best: preach, pray and pay attention.

  • We implore them to preach from the pulpit about the God of peace, love, justice and mercy.
  • We ask them to pray for healing and reconciliation amid great division, and to use their institutional religious platforms and influence to call for freedom and safety; from lifting Israel's strangling blockade of Gaza to no longer sending U.S. police to trainings sponsored by weapons manufacturers.
  • We need them to pay attention to where the spirit is moving among us, and to call out this obvious deformation of the sacred wherever it occurs —and to respond to a world of violence in the only logical way possible, with love and nonviolence.

By Ariel Gold

Ariel Gold is executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation — USA, the oldest interfaith organization in the country. Previously, she was national co-director and senior Middle East policy analyst at CODEPINK.

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Christian Nationalism Commentary Extremism Israel Jan. 6 Judaism Occupied Territories Religion