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A dozen years ago the Vatopedi Monastery, an Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos in Northern Greece, loaned to Vladimir Putin and the people of Russia an artifact believed to be the belt of the Virgin Mary.
When Russia received the ancient relic and put it on display in a glass-enclosed reliquary, hundreds of thousands of Russians stood in line and waited over twelve hours in the winter cold, to pay homage to and to receive blessing from the Mother of God. The only person who did not wait in line, first in line, as the spiritual head of his people, was Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He sought out the holy relic so that the Mother of God could bless Russia with children to serve in Russia’s army and to bless Russia with success in their bombing missions in Syria.
“For surely,” Vladimir Putin commented, “God is on our side.”
This certainty of divine favor is on display also in Russia’s Cathedral of the Armed Forces.
Built in only 600 days, the government reportedly covered half of the six billion ruble cost; so that, it would be complete and ready to unveil on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, May 2020. The sanctuary and adjacent chapels accent iconography commemorating Russia’s past military triumphs. The Cathedral of the Armed Forces forsakes the elegant domes of a traditional Orthodox cathedral to resemble instead nuclear missiles. It’s perhaps an appropriate likeness given that Russian Orthodox priests have, under Putin’s regime, written an entire liturgy for the purpose of blessing Ukraine-bound Russian munitions. The domes are not the only alteration to the traditional Orthodox architecture. Rather than the typical two dimensional apse mosaic of Christ, the Cathedral of the Armed Forces features a three-dimensional sculpture of Mary in the likeness of a Tsarist Queen.
This past fall Vladimir Putin coordinated a conscription order to coincide with the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, at which time he delivered a fiery speech accusing the West in general and America in particular of “outright satanism,” and of having turned liberal secularism into a religion at odds with the God of the Bible. At the same time, Patriarch Kiril, the bishop of bishops in the Russian Orthodox Church, promised believers that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty [in Ukraine] washes away all sins.” It is not surprising then that when Russia unveiled the Cathedral of the Armed Forces almost three years ago, visitors noticed that the sanctuary also featured open display space, intentionally left blank to later one day visually celebrate Russia’s “liberation” of Ukraine. Already artists have been working on a mosaic of Mother Mary hurling a cluster bomb at a maternity ward. Amazingly, this will be only the newest not the first mosaic at the cathedral which depicts Mary as an advocate for and even participant in Russian warfare.
“For surely, God is on our side.”
Meanwhile, on the other side, a different image of Mary has emerged.
The sacred image representing resistance to authoritarian Russia, the Virgin of the Passion, first appeared among the Orthodox Christians who found themselves on the losing side of the Crusades. In this symbol of defiance, angels hover above Mary, who holds her toddler son in her arm. The child, who is looking up, looks frightened. The Mother has her head turned, toward the viewer, as though she’s appealing to you to act, to do something, to help them, for— can’t you see— the angels hovering above her boy carry the instruments of the Passion—the cross, spear, and sponge.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, this icon, the Virgin of the Passion has appeared with Ukrainian priests celebrating battlefield masses. It’s been carried by frightened children into Kyiv bomb shelters, and packed hastily in the luggage born by refugees on the way to Poland. This Mother of God reminds those who take up weapons in her Son’s name that weapons were similarly deployed against God, and those weapons ultimately guaranteed the victory not of the aggressors, but of the aggrieved. The sad and frightened Virgin of the Passion gives hope to the war’s victims, for surely Mary’s son and Pilate’s victim is on their side.
God is on our side.
Quite obviously, both cannot be right.
But if we obey the Bible, if we attempt to say only what scripture permits us to say, then neither can both be wrong.
Neither can both be wrong.
One of them is correct.
The God of Israel is not a God who refrains from taking sides.
God’s partisanship is baked into the very name he reveals in the Book of Genesis. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is synonymous with, equivalent to “I am the God who has taken a side.”
Our text, Genesis 31, is but a small example of a pattern upon which all of scripture hangs together; namely, the true God is a God who chooses sides. Just as Jacob’s exodus from home began with a sword hanging over his head so too does it end with Jacob’s life endangered. Jacob’s cruel and conniving father-in-law was off shearing his flocks of sheep when the Lord warned Jacob that he could no longer trust Laban.
“Pack it up and return to your father’s home pronto,” the Lord warns Jacob, “Scram before Laban decides to kill you.”
Jacob and his haram sneak away and Laban does not learn of their exodus from the east until the third day.
“What have you done?!” Laban rages when he realizes he’s finally been deceived.
“What have you done?!”
It’s the same accusative question that Jacob had screamed at Laban when he realized he’d been conned into marrying the wrong sister. Jacob has stolen Laban’s daughters, Laban’s livestock, and Laban’s gods. It takes a week for Laban and his lynch mob to catch up to them. Heretofore in the narrative, Laban has shown no scruples whatsoever so we should not be naive about his plans.
Laban intends to murder Jacob. Only, on the seventh day, the Lord speaks to Laban in a dream, warning him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”
Remember, God has made a promise to Jacob. “Behold,” the Lord promised Jacob at Bethel, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” In other words, on account of his promise, the Lord has guaranteed Jacob’s safety.
The Lord’s warning to Laban, therefore, should be heard as a threat.
“If you say anything, good or bad, to Jacob— if you do anything to him, watch out!”
As Jacob puts the matter plainly at the end of the text, the Lord thwarted Laban’s first degree designs because:
“The God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac— he [is] on my side.”
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, wrote an essay called "Meditation on the Divine Will,” the kernel of which later appeared in his Second Inaugural Address. Wrestling with the fact that believers of great and genuine faith fought on both sides of the bitter conflict, Lincoln wrote,
“In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time…... in the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”
The God of Abraham Lincoln is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Unlike the mythologies we’ve constructed around the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln was actually a churchgoing Christian and the Calvinists with whom he worshipped taught him well how to read the Bible.
The God of the Bible is not like the Greek religion of Plato or the Dharmic religions of the Indian subcontinent.
The God of Israel is not immune to time but enters into it.
The God of Israel authors history rather than stands above and beyond it.
Therefore, history is not one damn thing after another; history is what is determined by the Lord’s decision-making.
In 1864, Lincoln wrote a letter to a Kentucky newspaper editor who had lodged an inquiry as to why the President had changed his mind on the subject of emancipation. Lincoln put it in terms the Old Testament writers would recognize,
“In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years' struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised or expected. God alone can claim it. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.”
History is what happens as God enters into time and takes sides— even if the side God takes is exclusively his own inscrutable side.
And as Lincoln knew firsthand, more often than seldom casualties are the consequence of the Lord’s choosing. Since Cain, the fallen world is precisely a world of violence. That being the case, the Lord cannot take sides in such a world without, as it were, getting blood on his hands.
This offends us.
Of course it offends us.
Most of us have enough wealth and security not to need such a God.
According to the historic Passiontide liturgies of the tradition, the beating heart of the biblical narrative is the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of the Book of Exodus. The Easter Vigil liturgy, for example, makes clear that cross and resurrection are the culmination to these chapters and not their contradiction. In Exodus 14, as the escaping Hebrews see Pharaoh’s army approaching, they cry out in terror to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?“
With boldness, Moses replies to them:
“Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.”
“The Lord will fight for you!”
In the following chapter, after the Red Sea has swallowed up the Egyptian troops, Moses’s sister, Miriam, sings in triumph,
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song… The Lord is a man of war…”
The Lord is a Man of War.
The claim that God is on one side of a conflict strikes us in the modern world as not only a despicable error but as exactly what is wrong with much of our modern world; ie, Allahu Akbar.
Nevertheless, if Jesus Christ is Lord, then we must let him be Lord of our metaphysics too.
Straightforwardly, the God of Jacob fights for his people. As God is to Laban so God is to all of the enemies of his Israel, often resorting to violence to accomplish his promises to them. The God who fights for Israel even fights against Israel, sending Babylon, the “worst of the nations,” to chasten his chosen people for their unfaithfulness. As the prophet Ezekiel laments, “The Lord takes the field against his own people.”
Such a God offends us.
The assertion that God can be wrathful when rebelled against and even jealous of his people’s love, further offends our modern, pagan prejudices.
As Robert Jenson writes,
“We may try to escape by the popular supposition that God in the Old Testament could be wrathful and that the New Testament changes all that. But this notion cannot survive slightest acquaintance with the texts.”
After all, this God who so offends us does not offend the Lord Jesus, who not only worshipped this God but called him “Abba,” Daddy. I hear so many would-be Christians question how the Old Testament can be Christian scripture the point bears repeating.
Jesus does not have any of the problems with his scriptures that we do.
To accept him is to accept them, and to reject them is to reject him. Jesus literally stakes his life on the Old Testament God, trusting the Father’s election of him to triumph even if over the grave. Nor was the Old Testament an affront to the apostles who knew it only as the Bible and for whom it served as a reliable narrative that leads intelligibly into the story about Jesus of Nazareth, who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly.
Pay attention to the way the words run.
Jesus does not simply pray to the Father. Jesus is in the Trinity. He is “of one being with the Father.”
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel— these are not simply the people from whom Jesus descends, as though it could have been any other random assortment of names. These are the people through whom the Father chooses to make his way forward to Mary. These are the people through whom the Father charts his inexorable path to the incarnation. As Karl Barth puts it, Jesus Christ is the beginning of all the ways and works of God.
Therefore, every decision God makes and every side God takes he does so as the contingent twists and turns on the way to Mary’s womb.
To be sure, this raises hard and disturbing questions:
Is God a God of violence?
Does God deal death and suffering to those who take the field against him?
Does God’s election entail also rejection?
No honest reading of scripture will permit us to wash God’s hands of the consequences of his partisanship, his preferential option for Israel.
Indeed if such a redaction of scripture were possible, none of us would be here today.
There would be no Israel; and if no Israel, no Christ; and if no Christ, no redemption of the world, if the Lord had sat on the sidelines and allowed the Egyptians or the Philistines or the Moabites or whoever to overwhelm and destroy his people Israel.
There would have been no Man of Sorrows had God not been a Man of War.
Or, as the logic of the Trinity requires us to say, Miriam’s Man of War is of one being with Isaiah’s Prince of Peace.
As Robert Jenson writes, these are “the facts on the ground. We cannot ignore them in the name of an idealistic pacifism.”
God is a Living God, not a philosophical abstraction.
His name is YHWH, and he is both wildly passionate and deeply partisan.
A year ago this week, Father Ioann Burdin, a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, provoked the ire of the president of the Russian Federation as well as the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Shortly after Vladimir Putin made opposition to the war in Ukraine a crime, made it a crime even to call the war a war, Father Ioann, uncowed, stepped into his pulpit on March 6 and to a small congregation of a dozen elderly worshippers he preached a short, simple sermon.
He insisted that “Christians in Russia can no longer close our eyes or continue calling black white and white black. The blood of our brothers and sisters in Christ will be on the hands not only of the leaders who orchestrated this war and not only on the soldiers who carry out their orders but on the hands of all of us who stood silent and refused to take a side.”
For his dangerous homily, Father Ioann was questioned by the police. Later, he was arrested and put on trial where his parishioners were forced to testify against him. Rather than prison, he was fined a month’s salary. His congregation, unhappy with the attention, pushed him out of his pastorate. The patriarch responded by informing Father Ioann that if he could not find another parish to hire him within a few months then he would be defrocked from the priesthood. In speaking with a reporter from the NY Times, Father Ioann appeared embarrassed by the admiration his actions had inspired in the West and expressed regret to have put his parish through what could have proved a far worse ordeal.
When asked if he had done the right thing, taken God’s side in the conflict, Father Ioann refused to presume. “I don’t know if God is on my side,” he said:
“Thinking God is always on your side is the lie of the false prophets that led to the destruction of Judah in the Bible. I don’t know if I’m on God’s side. I only know that God is not impartial in his judgments.”
I only know that God is not impartial.
The true God is an Outlaw God.
He does not obey religion’s rules for who God can be. He does not obey religion’s rules for what God can do. The Greek religion of Plato decreed that God must be impassible— without emotions, but the true God rages at his Israel even as he romances her. All other religions insist that God must be immune to time, but the true God defines himself according to the history he makes with us. All religions assume God rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous, but the true God not only sometimes wields the sword, he suffers our violence in order to declare righteous the ungodly. Religion asserts that God is transcendent, above it all, but the true God’s boundless personal investment in his creatures is his most determining characteristic.
That is, the God of Israel is not above the fray.
Indeed, as Robert Jenson writes,
“We must hope the Lord is not above the fray for if God does not fight the forces of evil, they [will] triumph incrementally. Surely, after the twentieth century’s oceans of shed blood and the beginning of the twenty-first century’s even more threatening prospects, we can no longer entertain modernity’s great illusion, that our creaturely good intentions are a match for sin’s energy and cunning. Moreover, in the conflicts of actual history, there is never a moral equivalency, however flawed and infected both sides may be; and we must hope that God fights for the better side. For if he does not, then [the best we can expect for the future] is a long dark age.”
We must hope the Lord is not above the fray.
Actually, we need not hope.
We need only to come to the table.
For the bread that is the Man of Sorrow's body and the wine that is the Man of War’s blood is not merely the edible promise of the forgiveness of your sins, it is also a visible word, “Lo, I am with you still [in the fray] even to the end of the age.”