Gott Mit Uns (or “The Uses Of God”)

“Gott Mitt Uns.” I first saw the phrase while poring through my uncle’s memorabilia of his service in the first world war, the war in which he sucked nerve gas until his organs would never work right again. Along with his deeply-destroyed body he brought home the stuff in the cigar box: a couple of shell casings, some ribbons, some French coins, and a belt buckle. The words were engraved in gothic relief on the bronze buckle. German soldiers wore those buckles, my uncle told me. And, he said, the words mean, “God With Us.” “And that means?” I asked. “The German soldiers believed that God was on their side.” “But how could that be?” I said, “They were the enemy.” Ah. Out of the mouths of babes is parroted the foolishness of their elders.

My uncle was quick to point out that from the German’s point of view; we were the enemy – thus, “Gott Mitt Uns.” “Did our soldiers have words on their belt buckles?” “Nope. We didn’t need ’em. We knew God was on our side.” I probably went on and on about how we knew God was on our side but the point was made, God was ours, whoever “we” happen to be at the time.

From the 33rd chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures, “There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, Who rideth upon the heavens in thy help, And in his excellency on the sky. The Eternal God is thy refuge, And underneath are the everlasting arms: And he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; And shall say, Destroy them.” I find it ironic that the lines, “The Eternal God is thy refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms,” are frequently used as words of comfort at funeral Services, with the following lines, of course, omitted, “and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; And shall say, Destroy them.”

God’s warrior, Joshua, is commanded to go to the city of Jericho (which has seriously displeased God). He is commanded to march around it first six then seven times. As we all know from Sunday school and the song, “And the walls came tumbling down.” After the walls “came tumbling down” came divinely-ordained genocide. So it is written, God commanded Joshua to put every man, woman, and child in Jericho to the sword, and all the cattle and all the creatures, and then to burn the city to the ground. All of which Joshua, being dutiful, did. In fact, the entire Book of Joshua is an accounting of all the cities Joshua laid waste, all the kings he deposed and “put to the sword,” and all the lands he conquered for Israel.

At the end of the account, we read that Joshua died peacefully at a ripe old age, rewarded for his years of rampage and destruction. The final lines of the Book of Joshua read, “And Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the LORD, that he had done for Israel.”

Jews and Christians have been attempting for centuries to justify this and other examples of divinely-sanctioned violence in the Hebrew Scriptures. I attended a conservative (to say the least) Christian school for the last two years of my college career. Bible study was required. The explanation there was simple; the people of those cities and nations (apparently even the little children) were evil, pagan, given to every perversion, and deserved what they got. Besides, who are we to judge God’s ways?

My biblical studies in a liberal seminary took a different viewpoint. There the problem of a good God with blood up to the elbows of his everlasting arms was approached this way: Why did Joshua do all those horrible things, including the slaughter of the innocents (for which Herod is later condemned, by the way)? The answer is, “Because God told him to.” Did God really tell him to? Joshua believed he did. Or, at least, Joshua said God told him.

What is most likely, in objective retrospect, is that Joshua and the leaders of Israel perceived that, if they were going to survive and prosper in a land in which they were vastly outnumbered and surrounded on all sides by “unbelievers,” they needed to clear the land of their enemies and make sure there were none left, like children, to rise up against them in the future. Firmly believing that their God was the only true God, and firmly believing that the only true God had covenanted with them as his chosen people, it was simple enough for Joshua to “hear” God order him to take the obviously “right” course.

All of that supposedly changed with the dawn of the Christian era. The image of God as warrior-king was transformed to that of loving father. “Love your enemies, bless them that persecute you.” “If your enemy smite you on your left cheek, show him your right cheek also.”

In a short time, however, the path of violence became increasingly more expedient than the path of cheek turning. Given my classical education, I was able to impress the thugs I hung out with in my youth by translating their Pall Mall cigarette packs. Some may recall that the distinctive royal red pack pretentiously carried (perhaps still does carry) the Latin phrase, In Hoc Signo Vinces. Around 320 A.D. the struggle raged for control of Rome. The Emperor Constantine was losing heart – and several battles. Then, in the sky, he saw (at least, he told Bishop Eusebius that he saw) a huge cross that filled the sky and the words In hoc signo vinces “In this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine had the sign of the cross put on the uniforms and shields of all his soldiers and, of course, went on from victory to victory.

However, toward the end of the eleventh century, the “godless hordes” of the east were perceived as a threat to all of Europe and particularly to the power of the church. God was invoked by kings and popes to carry out the slaughter and ravages of the twelfth and thirteenth century crusades. The motto of the crusades was “God wills it.” It was true, said the theologians and monastics of the Middle Ages, that Christ taught peace and love. However, they said, violence may be necessary to bring about the conditions under which the missionary endeavor can be carried out.

The American Indian learned that. On the American continent, good Christians, like Columbus and the Puritans, began with the slaughter of the “savages,” and moved over the bodies of the people into their lands by the doctrine of “manifest destiny.” It was the editor John L. O’Sullivan who coined the phrase in his United States Magazine and Democratic Review prophesying “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence. . . .”

I don’t for a moment suggest that western nations and their God are the only ones to bring deity into their deeds. It was certainly clear to the Muslims that God willed nothing less than the annihilation of the “infidel.” To hear the rantings of the Muslim religious leaders against America and its allies is truly frightening. The vision of millions of Muslims arrayed against us drove one man I overheard off the edge of rationality. “We believe God is on our side,” he said, “but those crazy people really believe that God is on their side.”

Our nation, its people, and its leader are the inheritors of the sustaining idea that there is a God who chooses sides and, naturally, is on our side. If those of the “other side” believe that God is on their side, well, they are obviously mistaken.

The concept of separation of church and state has significant limitations in this regard. The state may not support any particular church or faith. But the ship of state is very much stocked and steered by the strong stuff of religion: conservative, traditional, Gallup Poll, old-time religion as practiced by its leaders and its god-fearing masses.

During the first Gulf War, Bush the first said,

Across this nation the churches, the synagogues, the mosques are packed – record attendance at Services. In fact, the night the war began Dr. [Billy] Graham was at the White House. And he spoke to us then of the importance of turning to God as a people of faith, turning to him in hope. And then, the next morning, Dr. Graham went over to Fort Myer, where we had a lovely Service leading our nation in a lovely prayer Service there? One cannot be president of our country without faith in God . . .And without knowing with certainty that we are one nation under God. . . God is our rock and salvation, and we must trust him and keep faith in him?

“Gott Mitt Uns.”

Gary Wills, writing in the New York Times magazine , says “[president] Madison was aware that most nations have made an instrumental use of God (as the endorser of secular policy) and that this dishonors God rather than honors him. It recruits God to secular purpose and literally takes the Lord’s name in vain.” Madison called this, Wills says, “The usurpation of religion by the state.”

And what of the present day? Do the leaders of our nation believe that they have been engaged in a holy war, with God on our side? It would certainly seem that this is the Presidents Bush’s conviction. At the national prayer breakfast in February, Mr. Bush said, “Behind all life and all of history there is a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God.” Furthermore, Mr. Bush believes that he has an integral part to play in that divine purpose. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention says that Mr. Bush said to him, “God wants me to be president.” And, after September 11, Mr. Bush spoke of, “being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment.”

Now how does Mr. Bush know that there is a dedication and purpose in all life and history and that he has been chosen by an all-powerful God to play a major role in it; perhaps the major role? Mr. Bush does not see signs in the sky and, to the best of my knowledge, he does not hear voices in flaming bushes. There is an important distinction that we need to acknowledge. As far as I can determine, Mr. Bush does not believe he is following divine directions such as God gave to David, for example, and to Moses. Mr. Bush did not have us invade Iraq because God told him to.

What Mr. Bush believes (and, to be fair, what millions of Christians and Jews believe) is, not that God directs human behavior and events, but that what takes place in the world, natural and human events, are in accordance with God’s intent and will.

It’s a subtle difference. But it is a difference.

If the president had gone on television and said that he had seen the words “Invade Iraq” emblazoned across the sky, well, Mr. Cheney would be president today. But, if the president interprets what has taken place as being God’s will and intent, that’s acceptable with most people of faith. Mr. Bush says that God wanted him to be president. How does he know that? Because he is president. How does Mr. Bush know that it is God’s will that Iraq be invaded and subjugated? Because it happened. It’s really as simple as that – or, if it isn’t as simple as that, I don’t have the theological skill to complicate it. The vast majority of believing Christians and Jews believe that whatever happens – from the fall of a nation to the death of a child – happens because God wills it to happen.

There is something called “The logic of faith” or “consequential faith.” Or, if there wasn’t, there is now. It would go something like this: I believe in a good and all-powerful God. I have just won a victory in battle (or the lottery). Therefore, it was part of God’s plan that I be victorious (or win the lottery). Obviously, so the logic goes, if I had won the victory, but God did not want me to, God would not be all-powerful and, if God is not all powerful, then he is not God.

Of course, what does not enter into consideration here is the possibility that, if I was not victorious, there is an all-powerful God who did not want me to be victorious. But, then, there’s no point in having an all-powerful God if he is not on your side. Gott Mitt Uns.

What ought to concern us in the logic of Mr. Bush’s faith (and, again, for all practical purposes, Mr. Bush’s faith is the faith of the nation), what ought to concern us, is that the logic is confirmed with each outcome of an action the faithful consider “successful.” After Joshua reduced Jericho to rubble and ashes, confirming God’s will, intent, and dependability, he went on to “victory” after “victory,” that is, he went on to slaughter after slaughter until he went to sleep peacefully with his fathers, a job well done. We might be concerned that, if the outcome in Iraq is deemed a “success,” and that outcome is seen as clearly God’s will, other divinely-sanctioned successes might well lie awaiting accomplishment to the greater glory of God.

Let’s quickly look at the faith of another president, Abraham Lincoln. Facing the apparently inevitable prospect of a horrendous war, Lincoln rose to his Second Inaugural address. In it, he did not suggest for a moment that God would be on “his” side. He did suggest that the sin of slavery, of the shed blood and wasted lives of millions, had brought the whole nation, north and south, to the edge of the battlefields. And he ended his brief speech by saying, “Let us do the right as God gives us to see the right.”

Again, the difference is subtle, but I believe there is more humility, more room for human interplay with the divine, in Lincoln’s faith. This was not Davy Crockett’s arrogant and self-serving “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” But a deep listening for that still, small voice in the whirlwind out of which may come a fearful and uncertain course.

One listens in vain in our time for any hint of doubt, any deep regret over the awful inevitable, any frightened whisper of “Not my will but thine be done.” The faith of our nation’s leaders and, indeed, that of our nation’s faithful believers, is the Davy Crockett faith in which the right is known because it is what we do and God is with us.

I end with part of Mark Twain’s “War Prayer.” It is not pleasant parody to hear – but, then, neither are the cries of the homeless and the dying.

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; Help us to cover their shining fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire?

Help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land…

We ask it in the spirit of love, of Him who is the Source of Love. Amen.