Sitting on the fence is not always the most comfortable place to be.
In trying to avoid aligning yourself with a particular group, belief or political party, it is often easy to alienate yourself from all parties in the debate, thus potentially becoming irrelevant.
I was recently asked by a new group of friends which Lebanese political party I followed, and told I would be welcome to join with them in their allegiance.
Playing the “dumb foreigner” card was helpful for me. However, it’s not always that easy.
So, which side are you on? The Israeli or the Palestinian? Assad or the Free Syrian Army or another Syrian opposition group? Republican or Democrat? Labor or Conservative?
Maybe these questions are not at all helpful, despite the fact that we probably have some opinion on many of them.
Maybe a more important question is how you decide to be on a particular “side” and what being on that “side” represents, both to you and to others.
Do we simply follow the “party line” on all issues? Do we unquestioningly accept what a particular media outlet feeds us?
Does aligning yourself with a certain group necessarily require wholehearted allegiance to all their values and beliefs in an unquestioning manner?
All too often it seems that we are happy to label either others or ourselves and, as a result, assign them to a particular bounded category.
It strikes me that this approach is simplistic, uncritical and ultimately leads to further conflict within any given context, as being “with this group” means being “against that group.” Surely there must be another way.
Or how about this question: Whose side is God on?
Now wait a minute, you might be thinking, “God doesn’t take sides? Does He? Really?”
Whether or not we believe God actually takes sides, the reality is that many of us claim God’s support for our own views, be they political, social or religious.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that people often worship little more than a symbolic representation of their own traits and values, and, as a result, essentially end up worshiping themselves and their selfish convictions.
Our views on particular issues have the potential to become idols, as we seek God’s divine approval. In a sense, our “religion” potentially becomes a useful hat stand on which we hang our political views.
The two become almost indistinguishable and God becomes, in the words of Miroslav Volf, a marker of identity rather than a maker of identity.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
Easy words we might say, and given the deeply divided context into which he spoke, we would be right.
Also dangerous, if understood to mean that those “not on God’s side” may be treated in a way at odds with His divine nature and character.
However, given our present reality – fraught with one side seeking power over another – maybe they are words we might do well to reflect on.
So does God take sides? And if He does, does He take sides in specific conflicts or political debates?
Does a God who does not “take sides” become irrelevant in the debate? And, if we are convinced that Lincoln has a point, how do we determine which side God is on and join in with Him in a way that honors Him in our treatment of the other?
Unlike the power struggles that are all too common in our part of the world, maybe those of us who claim to follow Jesus need to get to know Him and what He stands for, prior to taking any side in any conflict or debate.
And maybe, in this search for, dare I say, the real Jesus, we will find someone less interested in “winning” in the conventional way – a way that tends to seek dominance over the other, typically through violence or the threat of violence or sanctions that harm those already most vulnerable.
Instead, we will find the Jesus who takes sides with those on the margins – the weak, the displaced, the poor and the poor in spirit. However, in taking sides with these, He refuses to become part of the vicious cycle of hate and retaliation.
Mother Theresa always talked about seeing the face of God in those she served. Regardless of which “side” someone may be on, the truth remains that they are still created in the image of God, and therefore to be ascribed with dignity and value.
In our “side taking” may we never lose sight of the face of God in those we oppose.
Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies, based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.
Arthur Brown is the BMS World Mission Regional Leader for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and former BMS youth and theological worker based in Lebanon, working with a Christian theological seminary regularly dialoguing with Islamic scholars.