God is on our side

John 3: 1-21

Last month we released a new series of resources for small groups of progressive Christians. The first in the series, ‘How to be a Good Christian Ally’, is about our allyship as Christians, and how we can grow the kingdom by our actions. But while we’ve been working on it, I have been thinking about God’s allyship. Because God is on our side. We often think about allying ourselves with God, as if it is all on us to find him and put ourselves where he is. But mercifully, as our reading in John chapter 3 tells us, it is not all on us to find him and put ourselves with him. First and foremost he comes to us.  

Even the most ardent campaigner among us has nothing on the passion of God to protect, accompany and encourage his children.  

Protect, accompany and encourage are carefully chosen words. In one of the videos we filmed for the course, a vicar called Tom talked about his image of allyship as sometimes standing in front, sometimes behind, and sometimes alongside. Sometimes we need an ally to protect us, to stand in front of us and take what is being thrown at us. Sometimes we need an ally to walk alongside us, to experience life with us and talk about the tough times. And sometimes we need an ally to say nothing but push us forwards, encouraging us to use and own our voices.  

I think it is great advice, and applicable to all forms of allyship, not just to the queer community. I was reading an article the other day about how the Government painted over child friendly murals in detention centres, for fear that children seeking asylum would feel welcome. That feeling you have right now, in the pit of your stomach? That's the fuel for allyship. That horror that a vulnerable person is being neglected or hurt. That sense of injustice and despair at the evil in the world. Those feelings drive us forward. But what do we do about it? Standing in front of the children arriving at those centres is neither practical or actually kind. It wouldn’t comfort them if we were there shouting in their defence. Standing behind is a non-starter, and encouraging them to speak up for themselves at that moment is absurd. But a group of cartoonists found a way to stand alongside. They came together to draw a lovely friendly colouring book, introducing life in the UK with Mr Men and Britannia drinking a cup of tea. Putting something warm and positive into the hands of people who have experienced the worst the world has to offer. It doesn’t make that feeling of horror we had go away, it doesn’t fix life for the child. But in a small way they are less alone.  And that is what allyship literally means. It comes from the same root as alloy, the blending of metals, and ligamentm the joining of muscles and bones. It’s a binding together in a meaningful way to make something better. 

I doubt I need to make much of a case then for God being then the ultimate ally. He sees us broken and afraid, and he comes to be with us. We know this, yet again and again we struggle to remember that God is on our side without us earning it. For progressive Christians I think the particular way we struggle with this is forgetting that our activism flows from God’s love and acceptance and not the other way around. We don’t have to make the world a better place so that he loves us, so that we have a place in it. We are already secure in his love and we act from that security not to earn it.  

So I’m going to do something a little out of stereotype for SCM, I’m going to use a little systematic theology to think more about how God’s allyship manifests itself.  

Firstly, God behind us. Just by creating us and giving us free will, God began the whole project of humanity as an ally. The act of creation is entirely about standing behind us. Drawing the human out of the clay of the earth and setting them in the garden is a profound act of belief in us. Picture a child playing with a doll, let’s make it topical and call her Barbie! The doll’s movements about the dream house are dependent, she mimics a life, but she doesn’t really have one. The agency is all in the mind of the child playing with her. The child doesn’t prompt and encourage the doll, they own her. We are used to thinking of our free will as a contrast to this kind of image, but perhaps we don’t think so much about the nature of God in that choice to make us free. In the beginning, God is an ally of his creation, watching what we will do like we might hold our breath watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis rather than stiffly perform the actions of our owner.  

Secondly, God beside us. This is the divine accompaniment of the Holy Spirit. The companionship of God is not theoretical. Jesus did not say he would be with us always in in some vague metaphorical way. I think this is why the LGBTQ+ community get so angry about rainbow washing from big companies, or for that matter from churches and individuals. A bland generalised statement of support is no used to you as you trudge through life’s messy bits, or skip through life’s joyous bits. We want to know we have support for the whole journey, that our lives are seen, understood and made part of a greater whole. God’s spirit is with us in exactly that way, present for the whole of our lives and offering fierce comfort to keep us on our way. God will never leave us standing alone, or lost from view. God is an ally who is more committed to us than any other, not just on our side but by our side.  

So finally, God ahead of us. Sometimes an ally stands in front and takes the brickbats being thrown at us. Sometimes we just need to stop being hurt, because the hurt is too overwhelming. Sometimes getting in the way of the clenched fist or the angry word isn’t infantalising, or robbing people of their agency; it's just kind. When we pray for protection for those we love, we are asking God to stand in the way of the grief that is coming for them because they lost a child, or the humiliation that they feel when they are rejected, or the fear they feel when stepping out in courage. Sometimes what we seek from God is the everlasting arms which protect us, and enable us to just keep living within the space he makes for us. But not all assaults come from the outside. The most pernicious attacks can often come from within, and they need a more permanent solution than God’s comfort can offer. The shame of our failures, the propensity to damage our own relationships, the self-destructive turning away from God. These things needed a greater allyship, that of the cross. A lot of progressives struggle with the way atonement gets talked about. But if we picture Jesus standing between us and these things which hurt us we see that God being on our side means he is more on our side even than we are. This is allyship we can never hope to mimic, because we cannot get between a vulnerable person and they ways they keep hurting themselves. Yes, we can stand beside them, yes we can catch them from behind while it happens. But we cannot stand in between. But God can and does, taking all the pain into himself, dying with it and restoring us to life when he is resurrected. 

So yes it is good to think about how we can be better allies in the world. To stand with, behind, and in front of our queer siblings, trans siblings, those experiencing racism, sexism, ableism, and hatred in all forms. But let’s never be drawn into thinking we have to do that or else the Kingdom of God is lost. God’s allyship began before creation and lasts until the end of time. When we speak up, we act bravely or we offer comfort we are not initiating God’s goodness, we are expressing it another way on his behalf. We are putting ourselves where God puts Godself, learning from the nature of the one who created, redeemed and empowers us. When we become allies we are putting ourselves on God’s side, because he is already on ours. 

Find out more about our first Affirming Christianity course for small groups, How to be a Good Christian Ally.