When I became a Christian as a young adult, I decided to make up for lost time by reading the whole Bible as quickly as possible. Not only that, I did not know the Bible came in different versions, so I read fourteen ‘extra” books in the Catholic edition.
The Bible is actually an anthology of over sixty different books, in several different genres. Of course, I ran into a few passages that are puzzling, so I just skipped over them and kept reading. This is one puzzling part; the question Joshua asked God’s representative when Joshua was about to enter the Promised Land:
Joshua…looked up and saw right in front of him a man standing, holding his drawn sword. Joshua stepped up to him and asked, “Whose side are you on-ours or our enemies?” He said, “Neither. I’m commander of the Lord’s army.” Joshua 5:13
“Hmm,” I thought. “That’s odd. He is not on the side of the chosen people. He is on neither side. I guess God doesn’t look at things the way we do.” That God doesn’t look at things the way we do is a great big Duh. He even said his thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways.
We may be a little too arrogant to accept that and a little too ethnocentric to suspect that God is not “on our side” in the limited human concept of what that would entail: namely, successful attacks and subjugation of our neighbors.
It is a very ancient tribal idea that my god fights for my tribe and your god fights for yours-Let’s see who has the stronger god! This is very far from monotheism, but hey, the Hebrews learned as the years went by; or did they? This old tribal idea lingers on in the shadowy recesses of our minds; the god of Americanism is better than yours and we are right to raid you and force you to worship our god. And it is for your own good! I’ll never forget an angry exchange between an American soldier and an Iraqi: “What the hell is wrong with you people? We’re here to bring you f**king DEMOCRACY!”
Ancient peoples carried their gods into battle with them to make sure of success. The Hebrews hung onto this old idea, carrying the Ark of the Covenant into battle and lamenting when it was captured by opposing forces. And it paid to fight on your god’s turf: “Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they.” (1 Kings 20:23).
We moderns might laugh at this old tribal idea. We might, except we still believe it on some level. Most wars start out with proclamations that God, or Right, is on our side. How could we lose? Zbigniew Brzezinski famously told the Afghan mujahideen that they would defeat the Soviets because “their cause was just and God was on their side.”
The mujahideen did win, morphed into the Taliban and have also won the war against the United States. We won’t hear anything about their cause being just or God being on their side now. We might hear that they won because their god is god of the mountains and no one can defeat them there.
When wars are lost, nations are in danger of sinking into despair. Did we offend God in some way? It is not possible that the enemy’s cause was just. It is not possible that God was on their side. Maybe there is sin in the camp? This religious idea was lurking behind Hitler’s ideology: The “camp” must be purified of sinners. (Joshua 7-9)
Listen, wars are almost never fought for God or for justice. Wars are almost always fought for unsavory human reasons, like the lust for power and money; as Major General Smedley Butler said, “War is a racket.” But the old tribal ideas still lurk in the recesses of our consciousness. When George Bush wanted to attack Iraq and said, “You are either for us or for the terrorists,” he was making a (slightly twisted) Biblical allusion. (Mark 9:40) It hit home-look at the standing ovation he got in the video below.
So, whose side is God on? The United States or the Taliban’s? The United States or Vietnam’s? The United States or Russia’s?
But it seems that the answer to that, if only we can ever come to accept it, is still:
“Neither.” Not in that tribal-warlordish way we mean when we
ask the question.
Zbiggy>Your cause is right and God is on your side (and I want Russia to have their Vietnam)