RIP Bothsidesing – A Review of Jesus Takes a Side by Jonny Rashid
RIP Bothsidesing – A Review of Jesus Takes a Side by Jonny Rashid
Confession: Not all that long ago, but while I was still in seminary, I became a Bothsideser. If you’re not familiar with the phenomenon of Bothsidesing, it’s when a false equivalence is made either to claim that “both sides” of a matter are equally good or equally bad. In journalism, an example is when reporters are tempted to give equal time to the decades-long consensus of climate scientists that Global Warming is the result of human pollution and also to fringe voices of denial that represent an extreme outlier viewpoint. “By giving credence to the other side, the media gives an impression of being fair to its subject, but in doing so often provides credibility to an idea that most might view as unmerited.” To pretend both sides are equally valid is a deception that often dissuades action and therefore serves to prevent real solutions to dire problems. My Bothsidesing was a result of rejecting the Religious Right’s warmongering, disgust at their moral hypocrisy, and an increasing embrace of Neo-Anabaptist convictions. At the time, I believed that faithfulness to Jesus and his kingdom required rejection of all “politics,” because the nonviolence of Jesus was in direct conflict with the violence inherent in the political process. This new identification with Neo-Anabaptism helped me distance myself from the self-righteousness of White Evangelical conservatives who very nearly equated the Republican Party with Christianity itself. But, the White American Evangelical world is so entrenched in two-party partisan politics, that refusing to identify with the Republican Party or “conservatism,” gets a person immediately labeled a “liberal” or “progressive” as a grave condemnation. To avoid this sort of accusation, I learned from many of the White Neo-Anabaptist voices I was listening to at that time to pretend to be neutral, objective, above-the-fray. More than a few times I repeated the now cliche line: “I’m too conservative for liberals and too liberal for conservatives.” I even equated this refusal to “take sides” with Jesus’s own ministry. I parroted the examples of Jesus refusing to decide between two brothers on their inheritance (Luke 12.14) or I wrongfully attributed neutrality to Jesus when he said, “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22.21). I even used the inclusion of both a zealot and a tax collector amongst Jesus’s disciples as evidence that bipartisanship was a kingdom value. Looking back, I can see that I was incredibly naive and deceived. Bothsidesing is only really imaginable when the stakes are very low. When the “sides” in question represent an existential threat, or dehumanizing oppression, Bothsidesing becomes morally inexcusable. In fact, Bothsidesing can only be sustained long-term from a place of substantial privilege, insulated from real harm. That’s why my formation as a Bothsideser fell apart when Donald Trump ran for President in 2015. Donald Trump’s blatant racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and fascism destroyed all my attempts to remain “neutral” (which I never really was). In good conscience, I could no longer stand idly by and watch people whom I love, and the neighbors Jesus calls me to love, be dehumanized and legally discriminated against. I could no longer pretend that matters of justice were just a “difference of opinion.” In fact, perhaps the most famous example of Bothsidesing in recent American history is when literal Neo-Nazis marched in defense of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, and their disgusting racist rhetoric incurred counter-protests from rightfully-outraged residents and anti-fascists. In defense of the Neo-Nazis who largely supported him, the Republican President, Donald Trump, stated on public television, “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Bothsidesing died that day for anyone with a conscience, and especially for those who claim to be Jesus’s disciples. Thank God, today there’s a new generation of Anabaptists who are having none of the Bothsidesing of White Neo-Anabaptists from previous generations. They’ve seen where that path leads and they are going a different direction—back to the Jesus of the New Testament. Jesus Takes a Side: Embracing the Political Demands of the Gospel by Jonny Rashid (along with How to Have an Enemy by Melissa Florer-Bixler) represents an Anabaptist perspective that utterly destroys the false-neutrality and centrism of the past. The generation that has grown up with a conservative movement in this country hell-bent on legislating oppression for marginalized groups will not stand on the sidelines while following the Jesus who took sides. These Anabaptist voices point to the Jesus revealed in the Gospel who didn’t hesitate to call the socio-politically powerful to account and lift up the downtrodden. The Jesus who, as Howard Thurman put it, was born a poor Jew, wasn’t confused or ambivalent about social dynamics of power and class. The Jesus who was executed because his life and ministry threatened the religious, economic, and imperial establishment, wasn’t a Bothsideser; he sided with the oppressed. In Jesus Takes a Side, Mennonite pastor, Jonny Rashid, boldly and straightforwardly confronts the privilege, naivety, and apathy that allows followers to Jesus to fein neutrality on matters of justice. He does this with twelve brief chapters that are very accessible. Rashid doesn’t talk over anyone’s head and he continually points readers back to the words and life of Jesus. This is a very Jesus-centered book! But, perhaps most powerfully, Rashid invites readers into how his own story has been impacted by Jesus—the story of an Arab American member of an immigrant family. He shares his own journey of confronting the Bothsidesing of fellow (Neo-)Anabaptists who didn’t think Trump’s travel ban of people from predominately-Muslim countries was racist or required a political response. He shares with readers the way it made him feel when he was told not to care about how politics affects his actual life. And he shares vulnerably about his own missteps with being upfront about his church’s stanch on LGBTQ+ inclusion. To do all this, Rashid grounds the book in facts about the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is the liberator of the oppressed Hebrews from Egypt. This is the biblical paradigm of “salvation.” The God of the Bible is the One who sees, protects, and makes promises to Hagar, an oppressed Egyptian female slave. She is the first person in scripture to name God! The God of the Bible is the One who is spoken of in Mary’s Magnificat as having ‘pulled down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ ‘filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.’ (Psssst, she’s taking about Jesus!) The God of the Bible is the One who is incarnate in Jesus and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.18-19 CEB) It’s Jesus who taught that neglecting the weightier matter of justice for the appearance of purity makes one a hypocrite. But someone will be offended by this God who takes sides. They will ask, “Doesn’t God love everyone… even the rich and powerful?” Of course! The Gospel is for everyone’s liberation. But, that liberation comes to the powerful in a different way than it comes to the powerless.
Everyone is invited to the table; however for the powerful among us, the invitation comes with a cost. For everyone, the invitation is to liberation, which the oppressed already welcome. The oppressors, however, must risk surrendering everything to take Jesus’s side.” (p.50)
Those whom Jesus called were offered a choice. Many who were wealthy and powerful said “no thanks.” Not much has changed in 2,000 years. Discipleship is still costly and many won’t pay it. In particular, I’m thankful that Rashid takes on the popular “third way” language that was my refuge for years. For many White Neo-Anabaptists, advocating for a “third way” on matters of justice is little more than a convenient way to not get involved in costly discipleship while also appearing wise. Rashid exposes this for the vanity it is:
It is often our vanity that leads us to worry about appearing partisan when truth and justice are on the line. If we are committed to being truth-tellers, then our failure to speak clearly about the truth for fear of being labeled partisan makes us liars. But it is better to tell the truth, and be named partisan, than to avoid that label and continue to deceive others.” (p.56)
He goes on to confront the common and destructive belief among Bothsidesers that “bipartisanship” leads to greater justice. But when has that ever been true? The enslavement of Africans in the Americas as chattel was “bipartisan.” So was segregation and Jim Crow! America’s forever wars have all been “bipartisan” too. But there never were any “weapons of mass destruction,” were there? Rashid exposes our lack of a prophetic imagination trained by Jesus’s vision of shalom. Rashid points out the worldliness of “bipartisanship” and the godliness of “partisan” political action for justice: “…fake peace that is not real peace is what is popular. Unity without transformation maintains the status quo.” (p.111) And Rashid names how our cynicism often leads to political quietism. “The status quo thrives on indifference, on apoliticality, and on politics that never leave the pages of the books they are written in.” (p.147) And after all that, Rashid also helps readers navigate the very real difficulty of voting. Rashid acknowledges that often in a democracy like ours, voting comes down to the ‘lesser of two evils.’ In the past, I would have pointed to this as reason to abstain. But Rashid offers a helpful reframe: voting is practical, not moral. Our calling is not to maintain our purity at the expense of the most vulnerable in society. That’s the hypocrisy Jesus condemned! No, our calling is to seek the shalom even of Babylon. (Chapter 9) There is much more that I could say about Jesus Takes a Side, but I’d rather you read it for yourself. More than likely, you will feel challenged and maybe even offended by something in this book. Read it anyway! Had I read this book before 2015, my review would have been scathing. But reading now has bolstered my allegiance to Jesus and encouraged me to love my neighbor as Jesus has loved me. My prayer for you is that you press through any potential discomfort, sit with Jesus and those emotions, and say RIP to Bothsidesing much sooner than I did.