Back in the 1990s, I was working for some very zealous Christians. I had recently come out of atheism and was a spiritual seeker. I was open to God but not prepared to be a Christian. My employers often talked about God and I listened carefully, evaluating the truth of what they said. I remember my manager telling me he knew that the Toronto Blue Jays would win the World Series because he was praying for them. I asked what God did with the prayers going up for the other team. He didn’t appreciate my question and insisted that he knew that God would give him what he prayed for in faith.
That could lead us into a long discussion about the nature of prayer but I want to go in a different direction. Does God have a preference for a specific baseball team? Can we say that God is on the side of the Blue Jays or any other team?
More seriously, is God on the side of a particular nation? Especially in times of war? Can we look at a conflict and say that God is on this side but not that side?
I suspect there have been times in history when Christians have been confident in such a thing. God is so obviously with us, because we are the good guys and against those others because they are the bad guys. This is natural thinking but it shouldn’t go unchallenged.
To understand God’s role in war, we need to turn to the scriptures.
Joshua and the Angel
The passage that we are looking at takes place on the eve of battle. Joshua is about to lead the Israelites against the city of Jericho. I’m sure that Joshua’s mind was racing with the possibilities of what would happen. We might be familiar with the story of the fall of Jericho but he didn’t know what was going to happen.
As a man of God, Joshua was likely praying. He was praying for his troops, for his leaders and for himself. He had already seen evidence of God’s leading in the past, Still, there may have been some anxiousness about how things would turn out.
Then he saw a man with a sword that he didn’t recognize. It would be dangerous to have a warrior from Jericho that close to the Israelite camp. Joshua asked him whose side he was on, Israel of Jericho. The man was not a man at all but an angel. Not just any angel but the commander of the army of the LORD. This angel represented the power of God that would be present in the upcoming battle. But whose side would he be on?
The angel tells Joshua that he is on neither of their sides. That is not to say that he was only a neutral observer. God’s power would be present in the battle and Jericho would fall, not by the military might of Israel but by a miracle of God.
The point is that God did not put his allegiance with Joshua, it was to be the other way around. Joshua is commanded to take his sandals off, a humbling experience for the Israelite general. But it was the same way that Moses began his career as a Hebrew leader at the burning bush.
Was God on Israel’s side? No. But sometimes Israel was on God’s side. God helped Israel at numerous times but was also willing to use foreign armies against them them in their disobedience.
There is an important lesson for us in this.
Our View of War
The Christian understanding of war is complex. There are Christians who hold to complete nonviolence and those who believe in just war, that is war is acceptable under certain limited conditions. I am not going to sort through those debates other than to acknowledge they exist.
What I want to focus on is where we see God in these conflicts, especially in major wars such as the world wars.
I suspect that if we talked with people, on both sides, who lived during either world war, they would argue that God was with them. German soldiers during the first and second world wars wore belt buckles that said “Gott mitt uns” which means God is with us. I know that many people among the Allies felt just as strongly that God was with them. I have read a number of Winston Churchill’s speeches and he often spoke with confidence about God being with them. Whether this was his belief or just rhetoric to rally the people is besides the point.
We might believe today that God was definitely on our side. After all, the enemy were the aggressors and had done some very bad things. It is just obvious that God was on our side in the first and second world wars and hopefully in every other conflict since then.
But what if we look at this through the lens of Joshua. If representatives from both sides could have asked God directly whose side he was one, what would he have said? I suspect he would say the same thing as the angel to Joshua: neither.
God is on God’s side. That means that God is on the side of truth and justice and charity and compassion. So yes, there were things that the Nazis and others did that were plainly evil and that God would oppose. But God would oppose them because those things are wrong, not because he is on our side. But that also means that when our side did bad things, and there were bad things, including the killing of civilians and prisoners, as well as the internment of innocent people, God opposed us. Canada was wrong when we turned away Jewish refugees. The United States was wrong when it imprisoned Japanese civilians. I would also say that we were wrong when we firebombed German cities like Dresden and dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
This makes things more complicated. We want it simple with God on our side, giving us blanket approval of all we do. The truth is that we need to be on God’s side. We need to value the things God values, even in times of war. Especially in times of war.
We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war. And yet the un-Christian attitude toward Germany, by punishing them severely for their role, paved the way for Hitler and the Nazis. What if our side had actually treated Germany as if we were on God’s side? How many millions of lives would have been saved?
I am not a pacifist and I am a patriotic Canadian. I am thankful that our side won world war one and two. I am proud to have served in the Canadian Armed Forces and do not see that as a contradiction to my Christian faith. My role as a chaplain was not to bless the bullets or to pray that soldiers would kill as many as possible. My role was to be a Christian influence and to encourage ethical behaviour. It is dangerous for any side to make assumptions about God’s approval of everything they do.
I have been blessed to meet veterans from wars ranging from the second world war to Afghanistan. I always walk away from those conversations filled with respect for their courage and their loyalty to their comrades in arms. I will never speak ill of our veterans. They deserve all our respect.
But what about the veterans from the other side? I once talked to a lady who lived during the Battle of Britain. She told me that she saw some Spitfires heading out to intercept the Germans and said, “Go get ‘em boys!” Then it dawned on her that those German pilots were just normal guys with parents and wives and children. There was nothing evil about them. She was thankful for the protection of the RAF but there was nothing to celebrate about dead Germans.
We need to pray for people in the military, for people in all militaries. We need to remember that it is never the issue of God being on our side. Rather we should seek to be on God’s side. I happen to believe that there are times that the use of force is consistent with being on God’s side. Not every Christian agrees. But we should always avoid every act of injustice and immorality, lest we stop being on God’s side.