It’s a centuries-long tradition to claim that God takes sides in the affairs of war and politics. In the 11th century, European crusaders believed it was “God’s will” for them to invade the Muslim-held Holy Land. In the 16th, English Protestants ascribed the defeat of the Spanish Armada to divine intervention. And in the 21st, President Trump has claimed that God is on his side in his re-election campaign against Joe Biden.
There’s something right about this impulse. Christians believe that God is active in the world and that he cares how we structure our societies. We reject the idea of a distant, neutral deity in favor of a God who inhabits human pains and struggles. We believe in a God who takes sides.
But both Scripture and Christian tradition challenge the idea that God takes the sides of nations, civilizations, and political parties. Yes, there are places in the Old Testament where God intervenes in a military conflict in order to protect his chosen people. But as time wears on and Israel’s monarchy fails, God’s prophets spend more and more time criticizing the rich and powerful. God is not on Israel's (or Judah’s) side per se, the prophets insist. He is on the side of Israel’s poor, weak, and oppressed.
This is how it sounds when our God takes sides:
“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
his upper rooms by injustice,
making his own people work for nothing,
not paying them for their labor.” (Jer. 22:13)
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?” (Is. 58:6)
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ez. 16:49)
As these passages demonstrate, in siding with the poor, God also sides against those who live at the poor’s expense. The prophets call for costly change, for a radical reorientation of society. They call, in our Savior’s words, for the last to be first.
Jesus’ mother Mary clearly understood this. Even before his birth, she predicted that her son’s ministry would upend the socio-economic status quo:
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)
Jesus lived up to his mom’s expectations. Quoting from Isaiah, he spoke of his ministry as bringing “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). He warned rich people that their wealth was a barrier to the kingdom of heaven, and he told his disciplines that true greatness looks like servanthood (Matt. 19:23, Mark 10:43). He praised the tiniest gift from a poor woman but was unimpressed by the donations of the wealthy (Mark 12:41-44). He spent his time lifting up the lowly, often quite literally. He didn’t just side with them morally or politically by holding some progressive social opinions. No, he knew them, ate with them, (figuratively) fought for them, lived his incarnate life with them. He was on their side.
Many Christians throughout the centuries have treasured this divine preference for the poor. As St. Basil of Caesarea famously wrote to the rich, “The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes.” In the 20th century, Catholics in Latin America began to speak of the “preferential option for the poor,” arguing that a society’s moral state depends on how it treats the most vulnerable.
The Reformed tradition has also embraced this theme. John Calvin wrote that “God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence.” And the Belhar Confession, which the CRC accepts as a contemporary testimony, holds “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, the wronged.”
Our God sides with the weak, and we, his hands and feet, must do the same.
But we have to think carefully and humbly about our side-taking. It’s tempting to assume that God is also on the side of the political parties and leaders that we believe will do the most to help the poor and marginalized. Again, the impulse here is right: it is good to support candidates and policies that will protect the vulnerable. But it’s the poor and oppressed themselves whom God favors, not their supposed champions in Washington or Ottawa or Geneva.
This can be jarring, especially for those of us with strong hopes and fears about the upcoming U.S. election. But in Matthew 25, Jesus identifies himself directly with “the least of these.” It is not Christ who wins or loses elections. Those aren’t the sides he takes. Instead, it is Christ who stands in a breadline, Christ who’s locked in a detention center, Christ whose neck was crushed by a police officer. Inasmuch as we are protecting those people—or, when protection fails, grieving them—we are serving Christ.
Christians do not all need to fight for justice in the same way. We do not need to agree on what social welfare, health insurance, immigration policy, police reform, or climate action should look like. But we should wholeheartedly agree that the hungry must be fed, the sick must be cared for, immigrants must be treated with compassion, Black people must not be killed by the police, and the vulnerable must be protected from ecological disaster.
We must vote and speak and spend and work and worship like Christ is incarnate in the oppressed. Because, in a way, he is.