God on our side
The myth of divine favouritism
My maternal grandmother, Ruby Price, went home to be with Jesus on December 23rd, 1975. Before she died, Grandma gave me a very special gift which I still have to this day — a copy of the New Testament, but not just any New Testament — a Testament with blood stained pages and a gaping hole in the centre of the book. The Testament belonged to Grandma’s brother, Albert Manderson, and was presented to him by his mother before he embarked for France in 1916.
Albert was wounded by shrapnel during one of the many artillery exchanges at the front line. As was his custom, Albert was carrying the Testament in his breast pocket, and on this occasion it literally saved his life. The thickness of the book prevented the shrapnel from penetrating his heart; although he was wounded, Albert managed to survive and was eventually repatriated to Australia.
My Great-Uncle was by no means the only soldier to carry a Testament in his pocket or to wear a cross around his neck. Faced with the omnipresent prospect of death, soldiers elicited whatever comfort they could get from religious artifacts, photographs of loved ones, and letters from family or friends. That’s not surprising, given the propensity of human nature to seek solace in the familiar in times of crisis. What may be surprising, however, is the realization that ‘enemy’ soldiers on the other side of ‘No-Man’s Land’ were behaving in exactly the same manner.
German soldiers also carried Testaments in their pockets, wore crosses around their necks, and cried out to God for mercy in the theatre of madness that was the Somme of 1916. Which begs the question: Whose side was God on?
In The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, historian Philip Jenkins argues that participants on all sides viewed this terrible conflict as a holy war as much as a geo-political battle. As Jenkins points out, it is important to distinguish between the concept of ‘just war’ as presented by theologians such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, and ‘holy war’. ‘Just war’ doctrine declares that in a fallen world and as a last resort, one nation may use deadly force against another to promote long-term peace and avert grave injustice.
‘Holy war’, on the other hand, is fueled by nationalistic pride and ambition. The lines of distinction between heaven and earth are blurred. The nation’s cause becomes God’s cause. The nation is wholly righteous; its enemies purely evil. Those who serve the nation in battle are servants of the Lord; those who fall in battle are ‘sacrifices’ and ‘martyrs’. This is rather ironic given the fact that the major warring powers of World War I (with the exception of the Turkish Ottoman Empire) all shared a common religious ideology. The ‘war to end all wars’ was in effect a civil war in Christendom, but this fact didn’t prevent combatants labeling each other as ungodly infidels.
Orthodox Russians, who in 1914 accounted for nearly one quarter of the world’s Christians, denounced Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm as the Antichrist. In the Lutheran Church, German pastors likened Britain to the great whore of Babylon. German soldiers went into battle wearing belt buckles inscribed with the words Gott Mitt Uns (God is with us). In the Church of England, bishops assured their parishioners that they were God’s “predestined instruments to save the Christian civilization of Europe.” Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram declared, “The good old British race never did a more Christ-like thing than when, on August 4, 1914, it went to war.” In America, Christians were being summoned by God “to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power.” Like a self-styled boxing promoter, Evangelist Billy Sunday billed the conflict as “Germany against America, hell against heaven.”
The ‘Christian’ nations that engaged in the war all identified God with their own cause and prayed to him for victory. Churches were filled with patriotic believers who integrated the practice of religion with the progress of the war. Indeed, the union of Christianity, nationalism, and militarism was taken for granted. Patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. National flags and patriotic songs were introduced into church services. Christian leaders who fused theology and a call to arms were found in all denominations on both sides of the conflict. Sunday after Sunday, the faithful flocked to houses of worship in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and America to entreat God to look favourably on their righteous cause and to vanquish their enemies. Somehow it never occurred to them that they were all praying to the same God and soliciting the same dispensation of grace!
As Arthur C. Cochrane notes in The Church’s Confession under Hitler, this kind of thinking persisted in the aftermath of the Great War, both among the victors and the vanquished. Rather than diminishing such patriotic fervour, the defeat of Germany in 1918 signaled the start of a new nationalism within the German Church which would culminate some fourteen years later in the pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement.
God is on God’s side
History demonstrates that people have a tendency to ‘put God on the team’ or recruit God to the cause in order to validate what would otherwise be considered outrageous, rapacious behaviour. For in the toxic cocktail of religion and politics known as ‘holy war’, all things are possible and anything is justifiable. However in the final analysis, God is not on anyone’s side; God is on God’s side.
Some people will say, “But wait a minute, what about Psalm 124 in which David says, ‘If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive … Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth … Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’” That’s absolutely right; the Old Testament is replete with examples of the Lord intervening on Israel’s behalf, fighting their battles, dispersing their enemies, and delivering them from their oppressors. But invariably it was because they had repented of their sins, turned to Him in faith, and aligned themselves with His will and purpose. In other words, God was on Israel’s side when Israel was on God’s side.
There was, however, no carte blanche guarantee that God would be on Israel’s side regardless of how they behaved. In fact, the opposite was true. Under the terms of the covenant, God’s blessing and protection was contingent on Israel’s faith and obedience. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses explicitly warned the people of Israel that if they turned away from the Lord and worshiped idols, He would deliver them into the hands of their enemies and they would be carried away into captivity.
On several occasions God warned the people of Israel not to waste their time fighting against their enemies because He had determined to deliver them up to judgment. Moreover, there were times when God declared that He was ‘against’ Israel because of their sins and iniquities (Psa 106.40-41; Isa 63.10; Jer 21.5,10,13; Jer 23.30-32; Ezek 13.8-9). Moses put matters into perspective by drawing a line in the sand and issuing a challenge to the people of Israel: “Whoever is on the Lord’s side — come to me!” (Ex 32.26). Or, as his successor, Joshua, expressed it, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve …” (Josh 24.15).
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul speaks of God being ‘for’ us (Rom 8.31), ‘us’ being the ones that belong to Jesus Christ (Rom 1.6). However, as with Israel under the Old Covenant, this statement is prepositional. It is made in the context and on the basis of (i) our identification with Jesus Christ (Rom 8.1), (ii) our living under the control and influence of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8.14), and (iii) our fulfillment of the righteous requirements of God’s law (Rom 8.4).
It is sheer arrogance to assume that God is on our side simply because we are a Western nation with historic Christian traditions, or because we have a constitution that is based on Judeo-Christian values. The fact is, there are no Christian nations in the world; there are no nations that are aligning themselves wholeheartedly with His will and purpose.
As Billy Graham once said, “We have an idea that we Americans are God’s chosen people, that God loves us more than any other people, and that we are God’s blessed. I tell you that God doesn’t love us any more than He does the Russians.”
God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness
In the discourse often referred to as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus explained how to make sure that one is on God’s side — by seeking first His kingdom (His will and purpose) and His righteousness (that which is right in His sight).
“But seek for (aim at and strive after) first of all His kingdom, and His righteousness (His way of doing and being right), and then all these things taken together will be given you besides” (Matt 6.33 Amplified Bible).
In Jesus’ view, constantly aiming at and striving after God’s way of ‘doing and being right’ transcended loyalty to culture, ethnicity, and tradition. He demonstrated this in his dealings with Israel’s civic and religious leaders, and with the occupying Roman authorities. Whilst he respected human institutions, Jesus recognized the ultimacy of God’s kingdom. Testifying before Pontius Pilate in the trial of his life, he declared, “You could have no power at all against me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19.11). And when the two worldviews collided, it was incumbent upon him (and his followers) to obey the timeless moral laws of God rather than the transient and sometimes amoral laws of man (Acts 5.29).
God’s way of ‘doing and being right’ consists of recognizing the divine image in each and every person, and therefore the intrinsic worth of every human life, irrespective of race or creed. As Paul points out in his great treatise on universal law and grace, there is no distinction between Jew or Gentile — spiritually and morally, we are all the same (Rom 3.9-10; 10.12). Moreover, there is no partiality with God — the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him (Rom 2.11; 10.12).
The prejudicial Jewish apostle, Peter, came to the same conclusion after experiencing a supernatural vision at Simon the tanner’s house in Joppa. Addressing the Roman centurion, Cornelius, he said, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean …. In truth I perceive that God shows not partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10.28, 34-35).
A revelation of the universal love of God enabled Peter to overcome the strongholds of ethnic superiority and religious exclusivism that had been erected in his mind through many years of social conditioning. Significantly, he used the word ‘perceive’ which indicates sudden insight or enlightenment, leading to a whole new perspective on or a whole new way of thinking about a given subject. The revelation Peter received was that ‘God has no favourites’. Simple yet profound, and elemental to the age-old problem of human competition and conflict (Gen 4.4-7).
A Christmas Truce
In his remarkable book, Silent Night, Stanley Weintraub tells the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 which allowed a football match to be played between English and German soldiers in Flanders. However, as Weintraub shows, this was not just an isolated or localized incident. The desire for peace and reconciliation spread spontaneously throughout the Western Front, leading men from both sides to lay down their arms and come together to share food, give gifts, sing carols, and bury the dead, much to the dismay of politicians at home and Generals on the field.
It was as if soldiers from both sides had, for a few precious days, recovered their sanity, focusing on the fundamentals that united them as human beings rather than the peripherals that divided them as nations.
Frederick Niven, a Canadian novelist of Scottish heritage, commemorated this exceptional episode in a poem entitled ‘A Carol from Flanders’.
In Flanders on the Christmas morn The trenched foemen lay, the German and the Briton born,
And it was Christmas Day.
The red sun rose on fields accurst, The gray fog fled away; But neither cared to fire the first, For it was Christmas Day!
They called from each to each across The hideous disarray, For terrible has been their loss: "Oh, this is Christmas Day!"
Their rifles all they set aside, One impulse to obey; 'Twas just the men on either side, Just men -- and Christmas Day.
They dug the graves for all their dead And over them did pray: And Englishmen and Germans said: "How strange a Christmas Day!"
Between the trenches then they met, Shook hands, and e'en did play At games on which their hearts were set On happy Christmas Day.
Not all the emperors and kings, FINANCIERS and they Who rule us could prevent these things -- For it was Christmas Day.
Oh ye who read this truthful rime From Flanders, kneel and say: God speed the time when every day Shall be as Christmas Day.
Indeed, it is the miracle of Bethlehem, the understanding that God is with us (Immanuel) — all of us, not just some of us — that causes nations to turn their weapons into instruments of productivity and not practice war anymore (Micah 4.3). Which is precisely what we have in mind when we pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even so, come Lord Jesus!