JONNY RASHID. Jesus Takes a Side: Embracing the Political Demands of the Gospel. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald, 2022. Pp. 175. $17.99 US,
This is a desperately needed book. But don’t read it unless you are willing to rethink some of your views about political engagement, partisanship, and the “virtue” of political neutrality. In Jesus Takes a Side, Pastor Jonny Rashid does not allow us to look away from the political dimension of faithful Christian discipleship. Rashid lays out his bold thesis in the introduction, arguing that Christians must be politically engaged and must take a side when Jesus does. The next twelve chapters develop and support this central idea.
Rashid, who is Arab-American, begins by telling a moving story of how he was personally impacted by Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” (chapter 1). He emphasizes that minorities understand “how their bodies have been politicized because of their lived experience” (27). In chapters two and three, which are central to the book, Rashid makes the case that Jesus/God is on the side of the oppressed just as we should be. Rashid develops this argument by conversing with influential theologians (e.g., James Cone and Stanley Hauerwas) and exploring key biblical texts (e.g., the Exodus narrative and the opening chapters of Luke).
Rashid vigorously challenges the notion that there is great virtue in being nonpartisan or apolitical (chapter 4) and contends that our fixation on appearances, being polite (56-57), and trying not to offend anyone (62-63) results in political inactivity to the detriment of the oppressed. Christians should strive to be faithful to the gospel (chapter 5), and this means political engagement on behalf of those on the margins, particularly communities of color and other underrepresented populations. Rashid recognizes this will inevitably be “disruptive and divisive” (72), but it is necessary for Christian faithfulness.
Chapter six, “The Lie of the Third Way,” is one of the most important chapters in the book, in my opinion. Rashid humbly acknowledges a past failure with regard to how he and his church responded to LGBTQIA people, and now realizes that when people’s dignity and lives are at stake, there is no “third way” (82). In such cases, “any compromise is fundamentally dehumanizing to them” (82). This would imply that anything short of full inclusion of LGBTQIA individuals in all aspects of church life is an act of discrimination and oppression. To deny these individuals church membership, or to restrict what roles they can fill, is contrary to the liberating and life-giving way of Jesus.
Rashid believes the church should be very clear about its views as it relates to human sexuality, race, and other matters that concern people who are routinely marginalized. Jesus made “plain political commitments” (93), and Rashid urges us to do likewise for the sake of the oppressed (chapter 7).
In chapters 8-12, Rashid takes up a number of issues related to our current context and political situation. He challenges the value of bipartisanship (chapter 8), urges Christians to vote (chapter 9), and critiques how “neoliberalism, Whiteness, and violence” constrain our imagination and limit our ability to envision a different way of being in the world (chapter 10). In chapter 11, Rashid offers some helpful and very practical suggestions for getting involved in the political process (148-149), and in the final chapter he urges us to identify with God’s anger at oppression in order to move us to action for the sake of the oppressed.
I found Jesus Takes a Side to be engaging, thought-provoking, and insightful. I appreciated the way Rashid holds our feet to the fire and fixes our gaze upon those most affected by our political action (or lack thereof): the oppressed, the marginalized, the dispossessed. Though Rashid forcefully argues for Christians to be politically engaged, his book is much more than a call to political action. It is a call to follow more fully the way of Jesus whose care for the oppressed is palpable throughout the Gospels. Rashid explodes our assumptions about the value of political neutrality and exposes our inactivity for what it is: tacit support for oppressors. This is challenging and convicting to hear; but it is spot on.
I also resonated with Rashid’s critique of certain efforts to find a “third way.” It is a concept I have been troubled by for some time. While it can sound pious (“We are above all that partisan bickering!”), I worry it discourages people from advocating for things that really matter and keeps them from engaging the political process. This, in turn, harms those who most need our help. As Rashid observes, “When it comes to the dignity of people’s lives, I have yet to witness a third way approach that doesn’t further oppression” (92).
One concern I have relates to Rashid’s language of Jesus/God being “on the side of” the oppressed. While I am absolutely convinced God is for justice and against oppression, I’m not sure that means God is for the oppressed and against the oppressor. God loves people indiscriminately—both oppressed and oppressor alike. While God certainly wants oppression to end, to speak of God being against oppressors may lead people to conclude God doesn’t care about them and is out to destroy them. Nothing could be further from the truth. To avoid this potential misunderstanding, perhaps it is better to talk about Jesus/God taking a stand against oppression (which Rashid does sometimes) rather than talking about Jesus/God being on the side of the oppressed.
I also have some quibbles with the way Rashid handles certain biblical passages, and some deeper concerns with his discussion of “God’s wrath” (154-156) which seems to accept the notion that God behaves violently at times. For example, Rashid uses the story of Hagar to emphasize God sides with the oppressed (38-39) without reflecting on “God’s” problematic behavior in sending Hagar back to an oppressive situation. Likewise, Rashid uses the Exodus narrative to emphasize how God is on the side of the oppressed without wrestling with the enormous harm God does to the Egyptians in the process (killing every first-born Egyptian, drowning the Egyptian army, etc.). While these texts can certainly be used to highlight God’s care for oppressed Hebrews, they have a shadow side that should be addressed.
These concerns aside, I believe Rashid has issued a clarion call we must heed. He pushes us to consider how we can get more politically engaged on behalf of those who are oppressed, and he reminds us that this is consistent with God’s work in the world. If Christians take this message to heart—and I hope they will—it will make an enormous difference in the lives of people around the world. For this reason, Jesus Takes a Side is a book to be read, discussed, and acted upon.