Taking Sides

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On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln stood against the backdrop of the U.S. Capitol and presented his Second Inaugural Address.
Less than five weeks later, the core goals of his presidency – the surrender of the primary Confederate forces and thus the preservation of the Union – would finally be accomplished.  The expectation of those victories buoyed the nation’s capital.   
If the assembled crowd thought that Lincoln might use this opportunity to gloat, rejoice, or rally his supporters, they didn’t know the president. 
His speech was short – a mere 701 words, most of them just one syllable.  It took only six or seven minutes to deliver.  Yet somehow in that short time Lincoln managed to utter some of the most eloquent and memorable phrases in the history of American rhetoric.  Frederick Douglass, the former slave and civil rights activist who stood in the crowd, later declared that the speech sounded more like a sermon than a political statement. 
Instead of summoning his listeners to carry out righteous payback against the Rebels, he called for compassion and reconciliation.  As Ronald C. White points out in his book Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, the president even daringly suggested that both North and South shared the burden of guilt in bringing about the catastrophe of the Civil War. 
Concerning those who had squared off during the previous four years, Lincoln said, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other… The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.” 
No one knows how many combatants died during the Civil War.  For about a century, the most generally accepted number was 620,000.  But recent historical research suggests that as many as 750,000 young men never returned from the battlefield. 
After each engagement, volunteers undertook the heartbreaking task of going through the pockets of the fallen.  The bodies needed to be identified before burial, and their personal possessions gathered so their families might collect them later.  Typically there were diaries, letters, photographs, pocket watches, jewelry, and various keepsakes.
But far and away what showed up most often in the pockets and backpacks of the dead were Bibles. 
There were hundreds of thousands of them.  The American Bible Society had produced small copies of the New Testament, as White puts it, “almost as quickly as bullets.”  The ABS had decided to make them available to Union and Confederate soldiers alike.  From North to South, the words of Scripture had long been foundational for daily American life.  Those who fought in the Civil War were without question the most religious soldiers in our nation’s history.  
Thus, as Lincoln observed, it wasn’t as if one side trusted God and the other did not.  It wasn’t Bible Believers vs. Bible Deniers.  “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God…”
And that generated a sort of spiritual crisis.  Was it really possible to say, “These are the Good Guys and these are the Villains?” 

The Old Testament book of Joshua reports a fascinating and often overlooked incident.  Shortly before the armies of Israel come against the city of Jericho – the very first battle in which the Hebrews begin to claim the land God had originally promised to Abraham – Joshua, their commander, “saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand.  Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’”  (Joshua 5:13)
This is one of the oldest questions in history.  Are you for us or against us?  Are you on our side (which is God’s side) or have you made the cataclysmic mistake of  aligning yourself with “those people”? 
Joshua doesn’t seem to know who he’s talking to.
The man with the sword replies, “Neither.  But as the commander of the army of the Lord, I have now come.”
There’s no other text in Scripture quite like this.  It would seem the people of Israel have every reason to believe God is “their” God, and therefore on official retainer.  Surely he’s in Israel’s pocket.  But when the commander of the angelic army is asked, “Are you on our side or their side?” he answers with that one amazing word:  Neither
God is not on our side and he’s not on our enemy’s side.  God is on God’s side.  And we had better do everything we can, with utter humility, to make sure everything we think and do and say is aligned with God’s deepest wishes.
Joshua doesn’t need a second hint.  “Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’” Israel’s leader is saying, “This is your show, Lord, and not ours.  I’m standing by for further orders.” 
Abraham Lincoln did not flinch at claiming that the cause of the Union was just.  Slavery was an unmitigated evil and needed to be destroyed.  But he wisely and humbly recognized that God, for his own reasons, had allowed the war to take place – and to be more dreadful than anyone could have anticipated.  And at every step along the way, there were people counting on God in both blue and gray uniforms. 
Instead of trying to make sense of such a deep mystery – and to say something like, “I know exactly why God has allowed all this” – he declared instead, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” 
Indeed, he does. 
One of the most painful aspects of America’s culture wars of the past 40 years is that brothers and sisters in Christ, even in the same church, have come to believe there are two sides: The Other Side (held only by deluded and sinful people) and Our Side (which is unquestionably God’s Side).  Both sides read the same Bible.  Both sides quote Jesus.  Both sides feel certain that God will vindicate their cause. 
Instead of fighting our own civil war in God’s name, may God give us the grace to remember that we have just two jobs today.
We are to love God and love each other
And always, in the end, to run to the shelter of God’s side.