Political divides and the disdainful labeling of others are becoming commonplace. I find it increasingly difficult to reach out to those in other camps. Issues include the sanctity of human life, gun control, and capital punishment. Which issues should we stake ourselves on? What message does God have for us in our polarized culture?
I recall an instructive incident in the life of Joshua that addresses these questions. As the people of Israel plan to go to war with Jericho, a defense outpost blocks the way to the Promised Land. Joshua, contemplating the battle, suddenly sees a man with a drawn sword. Startled by what appears to be a divine being, Joshua asks, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” “No!” the man replies, “but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” Joshua falls on his face, worshipping, and says, “What does my lord say to his servant?” The commander of the Lord’s army replies, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy,” and Joshua obeys (Joshua 5:3–15, ESV).
Joshua appears to be receiving a revelation or a theophany—a divine messenger in human form. So, which side is Jesus on? As heaven’s great warrior prince appears with a drawn sword, perhaps he’s like today’s conservatives, who wield weapons, defend the right to bear arms, and advocate a strong military presence. Surely, God is for Israel, coming to protect and save it. God wants to help us more than we know, but perhaps in ways that counter ours.
A sword-wielding Jesus seems strange. We are involved in a highly contested cosmic war transpiring behind the scenes—a satanic force is waging war against God’s purposes—but the weapons Jesus chooses for achieving justice differ from our violent weapons of warfare. At the end of the book, Joshua admits that swords had nothing to do with conquering the land (Joshua 24:12). The book of Revelation depicts Jesus wielding a sword not from His hand but from His mouth (Revelation 19:15). Words of truth and righteousness reflect a different kind of judgment. Jesus judges and wages war in perfect justice—His righteousness is matched by His unbridled love, and the armies of heaven follow Him because He alone captures their loyalty.
Is God on the side of the right—of the rich, the powerful, the privileged? Is He on the side of the left—of the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned? God sides with the impoverished and weak more than we realize, but He also stands with the rich and the hardworking. Could it be that God is more conservative than we realize yet more liberal than we expect? Does Jesus take sides? He answers, “No!” Jesus does not give allegiance to a political or national identity. He is not on the side of Israel or Canaan. He is something else altogether: the commander of the Lord’s armies. In Joshua’s story, He doesn’t come to take sides but to enlist the Israelites in His army. When we think that God will always take our side, we can become blind to the real Captain.
While standing with the theophany, Joshua is ordered to remove His shoes. When I come home from work, my wife often asks me to take off my shoes, for the place I am entering is sacred. Dragging dirt and construction debris into the sanctity of our home is not acceptable, so I try to remember to leave my unclean shoes at the front door. Similarly, I try hard to leave the parts of myself that don’t belong in God’s plan. I want to be on His side as I await the divine voice. I aim to align with what God does in the world, proceeding cautiously in moments when I believe God is on my side. Whenever I feel confident in my self-righteousness, I must remind myself to take off my shoes and stand on holy ground. Instead of arguing and bringing political spin and other unclean things into the space I occupy, I choose to take off my shoes and accept His answer.
The commander goes on to describe how Joshua is to conduct war for God’s purposes. The Israelites are not to conquer Jericho through military prowess. In fact, they are to avoid fighting; no assault is to be made. Like unruly tenants, that which prevents the fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes must be cleared, but the Israelites are not to fight the battle. Theologian and author Greg Boyd suggests that the narrative provides “confirmation that the violence involved in the Israelite conquest was not Yahweh’s idea” (The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Vol. 1, 2017, p. 975). There is thus a precedent for overreach, for doling out judgments beyond God’s intentions. Might Joshua’s violence have gone beyond what God asked (Joshua 6:2; 6:17)?
Those who believe they’re on the right side tend to engage in zealous reformation beyond what God desires (2 Kings 10:16; Hosea 1:4). Christian self-righteousness often poses as moral superiority. Even when we are certain that we are right, however, it’s best to proceed with caution and recognize holy ground. Battles are fought every day; great warfare is occurring behind the scenes, and a great battle is yet to be fought. The Prince of Peace is at the center of this charge. We do not battle with our own tactical skill and might. Only the Captain of the hosts of the Lord knows how to guide us through. We participate in His army—marching and lifting our voices but never engaging in arbitrary violence. In this narrative, Jesus becomes central.
Which side are you on? Do you advocate Christian pacifism or do you justify violence? Are you for drawing swords or for beating them into ploughshares? The man with a drawn sword commands Peter in the New Testament to carry a sword for protection, but when he wields it, Jesus rebukes him and commands him to put it away (Luke 22:36-38, 47–51; Matthew 26:52). Is this a rallying cry for bearing arms or for gun control? Military protection—governments wielding swords to defend—is necessary in a fallen world, yet expressions of violence against humans are often emotionally manipulated by politicians to hijack votes. We may recognize the legitimacy of arms for defensive purposes, but guns can become our idols made of wood and metal (Isaiah 44). Joshua is called to subordinate his protection and security to the presence of God.
Taking one side to the exclusion of another often alienates those who hold the opposite position. Sometimes being right is more complex than we think. We can become so narrow-minded that we run against the spirit of Christ. I realize that not taking sides can also be problematic—there are times when crucial issues are at stake and a side must be taken. In taking a side, I stand with Christ. When I do, I begin to see those taking a different side as fellow image bearers. That’s when God’s presence breaks through in surprising ways—turning the places I meet others into holy ground.
So, whose side is God on? Is He for Israel’s interests? American interests? International interests? Not really. God is in the business of bringing every interest into Christ’s—to place all things under His feet (Hebrews 2:8). The fortified walls keeping people from God’s purposes will fall at His direction, but to enlist in the Lord’s army is to care more for Christ than for political parties and ideologies. It’s to seek the side that is already transformed by God’s presence. It’s to take off our shoes and stand on holy ground. That’s where I want to stand. That’s where I want to take direction. I choose to pursue the kingdom of God first. We can only see what is fair and just when we stand on holy ground, which inspires sensitivity to justice and responsibility for working toward peace.
Following God’s plans is risky, but it allows us to take steps toward the promise of His presence—to belong to a kingdom that is not of this world. I want to be on God’s side more than anything. So, I always try to take my shoes off; I try to take the side of Jesus.
Craig Ashton Jr.