Which Side Are You On?
In 2003 Natalie Merchant released “The House Carpenter’s Daughter,” a varied collection of folk songs. One of those songs, “Which Side Are You On?,” was written by Florence Reece, the wife of a labor organizer for the National Miner’s Union in Harlan County, KY in the 1930s.
In the midst of the bitter and often violent struggle, the mining company sent some members of its private security force to intimidate the Reece family. Florence Reece’s husband was not at home, and after the men left, Florence wrote on a calendar “Which Side Are You On?” to the tune of a Baptist hymn. The lyrics include the following:
They say in Harlan County
there are no neutrals there
you’ll either be a union man
or a thug for J.H. Claire.
Which side are you on boys,
which side are you on?
In an increasingly polarized world, we feel constant pressure to take either/or positions like the one in the song. In such high-stakes, high-pressure situations, people often claim that they are on God’s side, or that God is on their side. Representatives of each side in the Civil War, for example, made this claim.
An interesting incident in Joshua 5 challenges us to a stance of greater humility.
As the Israelites prepare to go into battle with Jericho, Joshua encounters a man with a drawn sword, leading him to ask, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” The answer is surprising on two levels. First, the man refused to take sides, initially responding with “Neither.” This answer becomes even more surprising when he identifies himself as “commander of the army of the Lord.”
If ever “God’s side” should be clear, this is it. Yet God acted on this important occasion to warn against growing presumptuous about his support. Joshua receives the same message as Moses at the burning bush: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” God’s holiness reminds us that he is above our attempts to automatically enlist him to our cause.
When we take a more humble stance like Joshua did after his encounter, we will not make the same mistake as those closest to both Moses and Jesus who sought to exclude “outsiders” from serving God (Numbers 11:26-29; Mark 9:38-41). Neither will we assume, when we find ourselves in one of those “us versus them” situations that God is necessarily on either side. Instead, we will remember that the way of the kingdom transcends our puny and frequently self-serving categories.