The major conflicts in the world today– the wars between Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Gaza, which capture our attention and churn our stomachs, are justified by ominous religious impulses. For instance, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has described Vladimir Putin’s rule as a “miracle of God”, and has been an unwavering supporter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Leaders of Hamas have suggested that their brutal campaign is justified by their aberrant and wildly incorrect adherence to the Muslim faith. And Israel’s ruthless response is sanctioned by some Jews as the God-given right to take full occupation of the land, through any means necessary, a position that is based on an unyielding interpretation of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
Closer to home, with the ascendancy of Mike Johnson as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, it is becoming more and more clear that his allegiance to his literalist understanding of the Bible is shaping how he is proceeding as leader. When asked about his worldview, he responded, “Well, pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.”
What is troubling about these developments is that religion – which by definition provides symbols, stories and practices designed to bind us together in the fullness of creation and humanity, is being co-opted. Instead of opening people up to an appreciation of the expansiveness of life, these and other religious impulses are closing things down. And while I don’t know if any of the aforementioned leaders have actually said it, their faith statements, which undergird their politics, suggests that they believe that God is on their side.
Claiming God as being on one’s side is a breach of the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Like many of us, I learned that this commandment meant that you shouldn’t curse. Particularly when it comes to God. “You can’t call God bad names, or use God’s name to put down others” I was taught in Sunday School. And over the years I have tried not to swear (or at least keep my cursing to a minimum), or bring dishonor to God. An important commandment, to be sure, but it is a domestication of the real intent: don’t say you believe in God if you don’t. Don’t use God as a tool to support your own agenda. And the most egregious – don’t say God is on my side. When that is said, or thought, or implied, we have reduced God to a presence or a power that we wrongly think we can control. And which gives us free reign to control others. And tragedy is often the result.
The only side that God has ever been on is God’s side. I believe that, but I struggle to accept it. I want God on my side. I want God to subscribe to my beliefs and positions. I want God to support my disdain for others. I want God to fortify my being right. Whenever I think this way (which is more often than I care to admit) I end up being rigid and arrogant. And instead of God being a presence that is mysterious, ineffable and life giving, God becomes a talisman that I can put in my back pocket and take it out whenever I feel the need.
Getting on God’s side is not easy, particularly when there are so many forces and voices that reduce God to a disciple of a particular policy or platform. Getting on God’s side takes work. It involves listening and reflecting. Being less reactive. Resisting the temptation to solve a problem before fully understanding what the problem is.
One way to honor and keep the third commandment, and resist the temptation to say God is on my side, is to invest in hope. As writer and theologian Jim Wallis has said, hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change. Hope invites us to embrace a vision of human flourishing; and by doing so we effectively disable our need to control. Hope invites a different sort of action – not to have others submit, but to engage and learn from one another. Hope opens us up to an appreciation of the expansiveness of religion – and honoring the stories, symbols and practices that can bind us together – so that we can strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.