National, political, and religious leaders commonly insist that “God is on our side.” Just a couple of examples from recent history:
“Our movement is stronger today than it was a week ago,” said Ibrahim al-Janabi, a senior al-Sadr aide. “But most important of all is that God is on our side,” he said one Friday after prayers in Sadr City, the movement’s Baghdad stronghold.
In one of his State of the Union Addresses President Bush stated that, “With the might of God on our side we will triumph over Iraq.”
There is an abiding sense in most of us that if we believe what’s right, do what’s right, and act with love, then God will have to back us. In most political debates, both sides seem convinced that God supports them while despising their opponent. We gather this idea from our religious heritage, or at least what we think we remember of our religious heritage. After all, wasn’t God on the side of the Israelites when they went into their promised land after suffering the lash of slavery for hundreds of years? God rescued them and set them free. Yet, after the plagues of Egypt, after the parting of the Red Sea, after forty years of wandering, after daily feedings of manna, this interesting exchange occurs between Joshua and the angel of the Lord:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” (Josh 5:13-14a NIV)
Very puzzling if we want to insist that God is on the side of justice and righteousness. Aren’t the Israelites God’s chosen people? Hadn’t he just broken their chains? How could God not be on their side?
It is hard to miss the obvious theological point of this exchange: God is on his own side. The question for Joshua and the other freed slaves is the question for all of us: are we choosing to be on His side. God is not for or against anyone. If he’s not even on his chosen people’s side, then what hope does anyone else have? God isn’t on our side, whether it’s a basketball game, a legal battle, or a war. During the Democratic debate of February 29, 2004, Senator John Edwards said:
“Well, there’s a wonderful story about Abraham Lincoln during the middle of the Civil War bringing in a group of leaders, and at the end of the meeting one of the leaders said, ‘Mr. President, can we pray, can we please join in prayer that God is on our side?’ And Abraham Lincoln’s response was, ‘I won’t join you in that prayer, but I’ll join you in a prayer that we’re on God’s side.’”
Asking if God is on our side is the wrong question. God is neither for us nor against us. The question that needs asking is far more difficult. Are we on God’s side? And the follow up question is equally nasty: how do we know?