Anthony B. Robinson: Does God take sides?

A generation is coming that is sick of our generation-long culture wars. Maybe we can finally give up adjectives in front of churches.

During a recent month as a “theologian-in-residence” in Honolulu (Yes, I know, “How can I get that gig?”), one of my best assignments was speaking to 150 eighth-graders at Punahou School (President Obama’s alma mater) as a follow-up to a chapel session they had planned on the theme, “Does God Take Sides?”

Two narrators read aloud the opposing sides of various propositions, as signs were held aloft with the two positions on poster-board. The rest of the kids were invited to grab hold of a rope for a tug-of-war. For example, Narrator 1 read: “Does God Take Sides?” Then Narrator 2 said, “Caucasians vs. People of Color.” The tug-of-war began. After a minute one narrator said, “Wait! We’re not in opposition. At least most of us. I’m surely not!”

Some of their other oppositions were “Humankind vs. Nature,” “Heterosexuals vs. Homosexuals,” “Muslims vs. Jews,” “America vs. Al Qaeda,” “Yes vs. No.” “Red Sox vs. Yankees.” A further thought or question followed each contest before they moved on to the next. After “Humankind vs. Nature,” for example, that line was, “I don’t think so, unless you see earthquakes and such as acts of God.”

My assignment was to speak to their question and lead a discussion as a follow-up to chapel. I told them they had come up with a fantastic question in "Does God Take Sides." I also said it was a really tough question.

Tough because if we said “No,” then appeared to make God indifferent to our world. But if we said, “Yes,” we tended to reduce God to our terms and our positions. President Lincoln had pondered their precise question, acknowledging that both sides in the Civil War claimed God was on their side. Lincoln concluded that “God’s purposes may be different than that of either side in the present conflict.” Imagine a President today saying that.

From there we were off into their questions and my responses. Their questions ranged from, “With religion and science, is God against science?” to “Is God against death?” “Why didn’t God just make one religion?” to “This economic thing, what do you call it, the 'recession,' is that a judgment from God?”

I came away with a couple reflections.

These kids have been living with the Culture Wars since they were in their mother’s wombs. They are sick of it. Good. There is hope if the generation coming along is weary of the polarized way we’ve framed nearly every issue we face.

In many churches, we don’t challenge the Culture War polarities, we simply mirror them. Some churches identity themselves as “Bible-Believing,” implying that others aren’t. Some identify as “Progressive,” which is a sly way of saying that others are, then, “regressive.” Maybe, rather than accepting the given terms of engagement, we ought to challenge them. How about a ban on adjectives before church names?

I closed with Jesus’ parable of two men in the Temple from Luke 18. One prayed, thanking God that he was not like other people, and noting that he was committed to performing his duties. The other, a man who was caught-up in a corrupt taxation system, prayed, “God, help me, I’m a sinner.” “Which one,” asked Jesus “went home at peace with God?”

Jesus too had given us “sides.” Jesus asked which side was God was on between these two men. Was God on the side of the good man or the bad one? Jesus said God was on the side of the man who had done the bad things. “How do you react to that?” I asked. Religion, I concluded, is sometimes its best when it asks hard questions, questions that challenge the answers we think we know. Questions like the one they had asked in their Chapel service.

Tony Robinson is a United Church of Christ minister and consultant to congregations and their leaders. His most recent book is “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations” (Eerdmans). You can catch his comments on the weekly lectionary texts here.