Whose Side Is God On in War?

Whose Side Is God On in War? January 6, 2020

“Battle of the Reconquista from the Cantigas de Santa María,” 13th Century {{PD-US-expired}}

A day after ordering the deadly strike of a celebrated Iranian general, an event which Iran deems an act of war, President Trump was reported as saying at an “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering: “‘I really do believe we have God on our side. I believe that, I believe that,’ the president said from the stage.” While the President believes God is on America’s side, and his party’s and Evangelical supporters’ side, can one ever rightly claim that God is on their side, for example in a war, or in any conflict of note?

The President’s claim was situated in his discussion of his prior election victory and re-election aspirations. A political war wages in our country, as he and his followers contend with his Democratic challengers who fight to unseat him as President, and as he awaits the impeachment trial in a deeply divided Congress. Still, I maintain that the President’s notion of God “on our side” extends to include his decision to take out the Iranian general in the face of ongoing and increasing tensions with Iran and in the Middle East.

History is full of similar claims during wars and conflicts that often lead to war. In fact, in U.S. history, both the North and South claimed that God was on their side during the Civil War. President Lincoln referred to this state of affairs in his second inaugural shortly before the war came to an end: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”

Even though some observers may think the current ordeal involving the U.S. and Iran involves two different religious traditions, including different sacred writings, or at least nominal associations with Christianity and Islam, we would do well to caution against claiming God is on a given side in a particular conflict. Take, for example, Joshua’s conversation with the captain of the Lord’s army recorded in Joshua 5. Joshua basically asked this imposing figure who appeared to him: Whose side are you on—Jericho’s or Israel’s? The response was sobering. Here’s the passage:

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so (Joshua 5:13-15; ESV).

Even though God had called Israel to take possession of the Promised Land, including Jericho, they were to guard against presumption, including the claim that God was on their side. As we see from Joshua’s conversation with the angelic/divine captain of the Lord’s army, God was not on anyone’s side. The real question for Joshua then and for us today is: Whose side are you and I on—God’s side, or our own?

Whether President Lincoln called to mind the passage in Joshua 5 when crafting his second inaugural, one thing is certain: Lincoln was not quick to assert that God was on the North’s side in some black and white manner. Lincoln’s public and political theology involving a deep respect for divine mystery and a keen perception of human frailty and depravity helped to guard him against epistemological arrogance and hubris. Here’s Lincoln again:

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

God’s ways are beyond our ways. Moreover, our ways—including the North’s own deeply problematic involvement and benefit gained from the slave trade leading up to Lincoln’s day—are far from straight. Therefore, we must always guard against presuming to operate as God’s moral policemen of the world, especially when beating the drums of war. We must humble ourselves before God.

It is worth noting that even while Joshua led his people to victory over Jericho, he did so only after humbling himself before God. Here it is also worth noting that even the great king Josiah of Judah, one of the most righteous rulers in biblical history, acted presumptuously in taking up arms against Pharaoh. As a result, he was killed in battle (See 2 Chronicles 35:20-27).

Will we take off our sandals in God’s holy presence? Will we recognize our unworthiness as individuals and as nations in his sight, beat our breasts and repent of wrongdoing,* including our idolatry and immorality, and failure to care hospitably for the orphan, widow, and alien in their distress? Will we repent of claiming God is on our side and do everything possible to be on God’s side? Without in any way seeking to minimize the wrong-doing of other parties, will we consider our own role, fault, and responsibility that leads to a conflict and discern how we might work with the other nation(s) in question to make amends for our faults as well as theirs? Will we who are Christians call to mind our Lord Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? (See Matthew 5:43-48) Only after doing all this and more should a nation’s leader who invokes God, and those religious leaders who support him or her, consider beating the drums that will likely or inevitably lead to war. But by that time, it could just be that the better angels of our nature will have prevailed.


*This is a very different kind of chest beating than that critiqued by Tucker Carlson of Fox News. One news article reports: “Carlson condemned ‘chest-beaters’ who advocate for foreign interventions. He asked four questions that made clear his anti-war point of view: ‘Is Iran really the greatest threat we face? And who’s actually benefiting from this? And why are we continuing to ignore the decline of our own country in favor of jumping into another quagmire from which there is no obvious exit? By the way, if we’re still in Afghanistan, 19 years, sad years, later, what makes us think there’s a quick way out of Iran?’” Refer here to the video of Carlson’s critique.

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