The song: Bob Dylan - With God on Our Side (Official Audio) - YouTube
The song (The Neville Brothers’ cover featuring the replacement verse (3:13)): THE NEVILLE BROTHERS - WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE - YouTube
The song’s lyrics: Bob Dylan – With God on Our Side Lyrics | Genius Lyrics
During the nineteen-sixties, Bob Dylan’s anti-war lyrics became anthems of protest for the flower-spangled crowds of countercultural America. The Vietnam War continued to bring young men back to them in boxes as stories of opium addicted soldiers, napalm charred children and Saigon street executions filled their newspapers paired with pictures.
Decades later, the world’s witness to needless and heinous war appears to persist…
Dylan is largely deemed one of the best songwriters of all time. Significantly, in his third studio album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, he released one of his most politically and theologically thoughtful songs: With God on Our Side. Its simple lyrics leave much to be considered:
The First World War boys
It came and it went
The reason for fightin'
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side
According to Proverbs “it is the glory of God to conceal things” such as His secrets, intentions, truths and nature (25:2 NRSV). God ‘reveals’ to us only what He wants us to see. He tells us only what we are capable of knowing. “He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him” (Proverbs 30:5). Like a parent, He does not tell His children everything. Consequentially, this concept of divine revealment and concealment is often used by Christians to well-intendedly explain why bad things happen. However, this isn’t an approach to theology that everyone can accept. Without going into too much detail, since hundreds of thousands of pages have been written about only subsections of this topic, the Problem of Evil challenges how a loving God can knowingly allow atrocities to occur on Earth. For example, the circumstances by which World War One began were (relatively) simple and linked to military alliances that remain extremely relevant to today’s European climate. (If your historical knowledge is sketchy, take a watch of this brief overview from Horrible Histories). Politically, World War One was caused by a diplomatic domino effect. However, in terms of the widescale suffering it caused, according to the Problem of Evil, it is not so easily legitimated.
One of the deadliest wars of all time, an estimated 9-13 million people died in combat alone (1) for reasons theologically unknown. Theodicies about divine concealment used to vindicate God of responsibility tend to fall short when we reflect upon devastation of this magnitude. While humans may not be able to comprehend the answers which God keeps for us regarding human suffering, without answers, nor can we understand how wars such as this one can be justified by a benevolent God when all that grew on churned and blooded mud was poppies.
Knowledge of humans’ unknowingness regarding evil and suffering may be of great comfort to you, yet maybe it’s not. Though “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32), some freedoms are costly and truth too harsh to hold. It’s ok not to be sure. “Do not claim to be wiser than you are” (Romans 12:16), it’ll only serve to make you unsure of others and the points of view they have. In another verse, Dylan sings that “you never ask questions when God’s on your side”. However, I say, be willing to learn and do not be afraid to ask questions even if they are directed towards God. He will understand your concerns. It is not your responsibility to justify evil and suffering on the behalf of God. It is not your burden to know all the answers to life’s big questions.
Importantly, in the eighties, Dylan replaced a verse about World War Two with this one, which is featured in The Neville Brother’s cover:
In the nineteen-sixties
Came the Vietnam war
Can someone tell me
What we were fighting for?
So many young men died
So many mothers cried
Now, I ask the question
Was God on our side?
To the surprise of his liberalistic fanbase, in the late nineteen-seventies (shortly after the end of the Vietnam war), Dylan began his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. This was followed by the release of multiple gospel albums which are still performed today. Dylan has stated that it is in listening to music that he feels most connected to God (2). This is one reason why SCM’s monthly Everyday Theology blogs focus on individual songs. They are a powerful yet accessible medium of communication. Music builds monuments to the broken hearts of the past and future; songs tell the stories of joyous and bolstered souls; poetry can represent the power of the people and ballads the believer’s vision of a better future. Faith can be found in the melody. God can be heard in the anthems.
Music is Dylan’s religion. And it is perfectly ok to find your own faith and spirituality in a place other than scripture. God doesn’t mind where you pray, so long as you do it; He doesn’t mind what you sing, so long as it’s for Him.
Dylan’s use of satire is revised for this new verse. Rather than mock the ‘God Bless America’ attitude of the Vietnam war, he instead questions it directly: “was God on our side?”. Crucially, over one hundred years earlier, Abraham Lincoln stated "my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right". Given both the political and moral circumstances which brought about the Vietnam war as well as the vicious attaches on civilians by US soldiers which made it infamous, the answer to Dylan’s question here is very likely “no”.
I’ve learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side
This verse has become unavoidably relevant to us today. Similar to our discussion about Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from The Great Dictator (1940), which we published just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, history has a habit of repeating itself.
Proverbs very simply explains that “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (10:12). It is important for us personally not to allow hatred or dislike to warp our judgement of the current situation. Understand that lots of those living in Russia are perfectly kind and decent people. Even with contrasting points of view being shown on social media, it is very difficult for them to grasp what is happening when the mainstream news speaks of fascists in Ukraine and a Europe who has turned against them. There is a Russian man at my Dad’s work who has been outwardly calling Ukrainians Nazis. It doesn’t matter that this man is seeing the same news reports as the rest of the UK and has lived here for years. Love is one of the most powerful things in the world… but so is nationalism; it is built on the bones of love for one’s country, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, when this patriotism turns into doubt and hatred for other countries that is when it becomes too toxic for love alone to wash away. That is why war is such a frightening thing. It is not as simple as love and hate. It belongs to everything in between and is often led by leaders who appear to feel neither for those they effect.
The citizens of both Ukraine and Russia are victims to powers above them. It is healthy to feel angry and upset about the war, particularly when there is so little that we as individuals can do to help. So long as your anger does not become generalised hatred, do not be afraid to acknowledge the negative feelings you have. You don’t need to pretend that everything is ok. Embrace your feelings. Just remember to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
If you’ve been struggling, here is a link to SCM’s Resources for Prayer and Reflection that may be able to bring you some comfort during this uncertain time.
Through many dark hour
I been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for ya'
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side?
It is this single verse that inspired Tim Rice to write the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (3), which is written largely from the point of view of Judas. Nonetheless, the nature of determinism (the belief that all events are pre-written by an external force, i.e., God) has long been a conversation within theology. In 1845, John Calvin, a theologian not known for his sympathetic nature, stressed that Christians must “ascribe to Judas the praise of our redemption” (4). As we discussed briefly in our Easter blog, it is Judas who we should acknowledge for laying out the foundations of Christ’s execution and, thereby, our salvation.
But, surly, we cannot praise Judas merely because what he did happened to bring about good? It is for this reason that the side on which God stands becomes a vital part of our understanding and forgiveness of Judas Iscariot.
Written 700 years before the death of Jesus Christ, Isaiah 52-53 predicts the coming of the Messiah “who upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (53:5). This is crucial because it shows that the execution and resurrection of a “despised and rejected… man of suffering” (53:3) was prophesied. “Who could have imagined his future?” other than the God who predestined it to occur (53:8). Meaning, born to die on the tree a traitor, Judas was a necessary unimpeachable part of human salvation whose fate was likely foreordained alongside the death of Christ.
In walking the path to salvation we must step in the blood of the executed, whether it is the blood of one or two people is up to you. Jesus was “struck down by God” who held the hand of Judas as He did so (53:4). That is not to say that what Judas did was right, however, it is to be aware of how naïve of us it would be to assume that his bloody crime was unforgivable. Judas “repented” before his death (Matthew 27:3). Perhaps, that action was fated in order to save him too.
Dylan ends this lengthy song on a poignant and conclusive note. Despite his uncertainty in determining who’s side God resides, if any, he closes this contemplation stating that “if God’s on our side He’ll stop the next war”.
What do you think?
Gilbert, M. (2008). The First World War: A Complete History. London: United Kingdom: Phoenix. Page xv.
Gates, D. (1997). ‘Dylan Revisited’, Newsweek. Available at: Dylan Revisited (newsweek.com) (Accessed: Tuesday 19th April 2022)
Winston, K. (2018). ‘The stormy, surprising history of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’’, AP News. Available at: The stormy, surprising history of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ | AP News (Accessed 11th April 2022).
Calvin, J. and Beveridge, H. (translation). (1845). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Volume one. Edinburgh: The Edinburgh Printing Company.