How God became Jesus

How God became Jesus

The heading of this blog post is taken from the title of a new book defending the doctrine of the incarnation against the arguments of the American writer Bart Ehrman (for details see http://www.zondervan.com/how-god-became-jesus.html). When I saw the title of this book my mind turned to thinking about the virginal conception of Christ since this was the moment that the incarnation took place, the point in space and time when ‘God became Jesus.’

I have quite deliberately written ‘the virginal conception of Christ’ rather than using the more traditional formula ‘the virgin birth of Christ.’ This is because the miracle recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (Matthew 1:18-25) and Luke (Luke 1:26-37 and 2:1-7) has to do with how Jesus was conceived and not with how he was born. As far as we know the birth of Jesus was non-miraculous. As part of God entering fully into the human condition it was just as painful and messy as any other human birth since the fall.

The miracle described in the Gospels is summarised in the words of the Nicene Creed which declares that God the Son ‘was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.’ The miracle has two aspects. Positively, it says that the incarnation, the coming into existence of Jesus Christ as one person with two natures, one divine and one human, was a miraculous act of God through the Holy Spirit. Negatively, it says that Jesus that Mary was a virgin and that therefore Jesus had no human father.

For a long time now those who have difficulties with the supernatural aspects of Christianity have had problems with the idea that Jesus had a miraculous conception. The reason that a reference to the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary was included in the Creeds and in Article II of the Thirty Nine Articles was to make clear that Jesus was truly human since he took human nature from the humanity of his mother. Ironically, however, the virginal conception has since become a stumbling block to those who hold that such a thing would be impossible or would mean that Jesus was not truly human.

In response to these objections we need to note, firstly, that nothing is impossible with God. Whatever he creates is truly created. We can see this if we consider the gospel stories of the conversion of water into wine (John 2:1-11) and the multiplication of loaves and fishes (John 6:1-14). In both cases what came into being came into being miraculously rather than naturally. Nevertheless, we are told that what resulted was wine, bread and fish. What God creates is truly created. This means that if God chooses to create human nature from the Virgin Mary then what He takes is truly human nature even though it came into existence through the miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit rather than as a result of sexual intercourse.

Secondly, as C S Lewis notes in his book Miracles, what we see in the case of the virginal conception is simply a telescoped version of what takes place in all human births. Lewis points out that in all conceptions ‘the human father is simply an instrument,’ he is but the latest of a long line of carriers through which God has passed on life from one generation to the next. However, ‘once, and for a special purpose’ God ‘dispensed with that long line which is His instrument: once His life-giving finger touched a woman without passing through the ages of interlocked events. Once the great glove of Nature was taken off His hand. His naked hand touched her.’

What we see in the birth of Christ is what is fundamentally true of all births, namely, that they are the result of the creative activity of God bringing new life into being in the body of a woman. It follows that what happened in the case of the birth of Christ cannot call His true humanity into question. If the action of God means that Christ was not truly human then the truth that Lewis highlights means that no other baby is truly human either (a position which no one has yet sought to defend).

Thirdly, we cannot decided in advance what God did or did not do. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was miraculously conceived and that Jesus partook of the ‘same nature’ (Hebrews 2:14) as all other human beings. We therefore have to accept both truths rather than trying to second guess God (never a good idea).

If we accept that God acted in this miraculous fashion we are still left with the question of the significance of the miracles. All biblical miracles have meanings. In the language of John’s Gospel they are ‘signs’ pointing us to some aspect of the relation between God and man. Thus the raising of Lazarus points us to Jesus being ‘the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25) and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes points us to Jesus being the ‘bread of life’ (John 6:35).

If we ask what the virginal conception signifies, the answer is twofold.

First, the conception of Jesus by the action of the Holy Spirit point us to the truth that it is the work of the Holy Spirit (‘the Lord and giver of life’ to quote the Creed) that makes possible the union of human beings and God that takes place in Christ. To quote the great Swiss theologian Karl Bath:

‘Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God. Through the Spirit, flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God. Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such ‘the firstborn among many brethren’ (Rom 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him. As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Cor 3:17 is Himself the Lord.’

Secondly, the virginal nature of the conception points us to the fact that it is only the action of God the Holy Spirit and not anything that we can do as human beings that makes union with God possible. If we look at the biblical account of the birth of Christ and consider the place of Mary’s virginity within it what we find is that her virginity has no positive significance of its own. It is, purely and simply, the human not working that as such highlights the working of God. Like the biblical accounts of births from barren mothers such as those of Isaac (Genesis 18:9-15, 21:1-7), Samson (Judges 13:1-20) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-2:11) there is a contrast between human inability and divine ability that mirrors the bigger biblical picture of the way in which God relates to humankind.

Once again this point is picked up by Barth who notes that from the biblical perspective the absence of human sexual activity in connection with the birth of Christ is not because heterosexual sexual activity is considered sinful per se (as some accounts of the virginal conception have sometimes suggested), but because it is a sign of the fact that all human striving and achieving comes under the judgement of God and is set aside in favour of the work of God.

He writes that human virginity too comes under God’s judgement, in the sense that it is not Mary’s virginity but the work of the Spirit that brings about the birth of Christ, but that by grace her virginity becomes a sign of the divine activity:

 ‘Human virginity, far from being able to construct for itself a point of connexion for divine grace, lies under its judgement. Yet it becomes,not   by its nature, not of itself, but by divine grace, the sign of the judgement passed upon man, and to that extent the sign of divine grace. For if it is only the virgo who can be the mother of the Lord, if God’s grace considers her alone and is prepared to use her for His work upon man, that means that as such willing, achieving, creative sovereign man is not considered, and is not to be used for this work. Of course, man is involved, but not as God’s fellow-worker, not in his independence, not with control over what is to happen, but only –and even that because God has presented him with Himself – in his readiness for God. So thoroughly does God judge sin in the flesh by being gracious to man. So much does God insist that He alone is Lord by espousing the cause of man. This is the mystery of grace to which the natus ex virgine points. The sinful life of sex is excluded as the source of the human existence of Jesus Christ, not because of the nature of sexual life nor because of its sinfulness, but because every natural generation is the work of willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man. No event of natural generation will be a sign of the mystery indicated here.’

As Barth says, these two points about the significance of the virginal conception do not mean that human beings have no role to play in their own salvation; that God does everything and that we do nothing. The accounts of Mary and Joseph in the gospels tell us that we do have a role to play, but that our role is to assent to what God is doing in gratitude and obedience, even when what God is doing is totally unexpected, does not at first seem to make any kind of rational sense and exposes us to ridicule or even danger. Like Mary, we have to learn to say even in such circumstances ‘let it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:37).

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We shall overcome

We shall overcome

The song ‘We shall overcome’ has become the chosen anthem of protest movements around the world. In the 1940s and 50s the song began to be sung in American trades union circles and in the 1960s it was picked up and widely used by the American Civil Rights movement. From then on it became a universal protest song, being adopted, for example, by anti-apartheid protestors in South Africa, by the Catholic Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland, by those involved in Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 and by those protesting against the communist government in Czechoslovakia in 1989. In 2010 a new version was issued as a protest against the Israeli blockade of Gaza and in 2012 Bruce Springsteen performed the song at the memorial concert In Oslo for the victims of the terror attacks by Anders Breivik the previous year.

Although this song has been adopted by those of all faiths and none, it is a song that is Christian in origin. There is a continuing debate about who was the original author of the song, with the two possible candidates being the Black American Methodist minister Charles Tindley and the Black American Baptist choir director Louise Shropshire. At the moment Shropshire seems the more likely candidate, but either way the song was originally written by a Christian and it is only when the song is understood in Christian terms that the affirmations contained in its lyrics fully make sense.

The basic affirmation made in the lyrics is, of course, the affirmation that ‘we shall overcome.’ Alongside this basic affirmation there are four others, ‘we’ll walk hand in hand,’ ‘we shall live in peace,’ ‘we shall all be free’ and ‘we are not afraid.’ The way that the song works is that the affirmations ‘we’ll walk hand in hand,’ ‘we shall live in peace’ and ‘we shall all be free’ give content to the affirmation ‘we shall overcome’ and the belief that these affirmations are true explains why ‘we are not afraid.’

What the song proclaims, then, is a belief in the coming of brotherhood, peace and freedom. These are things which many, if not all, people are looking for and that is why the song has become so popular. It affirms what millions of people would like to believe, that a better world is possible.

However, if we set aside a Christian perspective for a moment and just look at the evidence of history, the indications that the better world envisaged in the song is possible are strictly limited. It is true that changes for the better do take place. The American Civil Rights movement and the campaign against apartheid led to the removal of racist laws in the United States and South Africa. The institutional bias against Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland has been corrected. Bangladesh achieved its freedom from Pakistan and the communist government of Czechoslovakia was overthrown.

On the other hand, none of these changes, or any other parallel changes, such as the overthrow of oppressive Arab governments in the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ have been unequivocally successful in bringing about brotherhood, peace and freedom. In spite of the successes of the Civil Rights movement there are still large amounts of racial division and inequality in the United States. Post-apartheid South Africa is still a racially and economically divided society and it also has an extremely high rate of violent crime. Sectarian divisions continue to exist in Northern Ireland. Bangladesh remains an extremely poor country with significant political problems and major economic, political and social problems persist in Eastern Europe twenty five years after the collapse of the old communist bloc.

Furthermore, it is not simply the  case that the trajectory of history fails to move us towards brotherhood, peace and freedom as fast, or as comprehensively, as we might like. As the example of places such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and now Syria show, the way history develops can and does move entire countries away from brotherhood, peace and freedom.

If we now bring in a Christian perspective we find that none of this is surprising. God has created all human beings with an inherent sense of right and wrong and this, together with the influence, whether direct or indirect, of the Christian belief in the importance of brotherhood, peace and freedom and the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts explains why movements towards beneficial change continue to take place.
What the Christian faith also tells us is why things continually go wrong. The biblical narrative tells us that the very first human beings chose to disobey God (Genesis 3). The results of this original transgression have then been passed on down the generations with the result that every human being is a sinner who not only has a broken relationship with God, but also a broken relationship with all other human beings and with the rest of creation.

As a result of what Article IX of the Thirty Nine Articles calls this ‘fault and corruption of the nature of every man that is naturally engendered of the offspring of Adam’ human beings constantly lack the wisdom to know the right thing do, or the desire to do it, or both, and the result of this multiplied down the generations explains why human beings face such intractable problems and why movements to make things better always only have limited effect. Christians are not surprised (or at least should not be) when things go wrong. It is what their faith tells them will happen.

Given that this is the case, why is it possible for a Christian to write a song that declares ‘we shall overcome’ and why is it possible for Christians to go on singing it? The answer is because Christians also believe that sin will not have the last word in the human story. The Bible tells us that God promised to bring about universal blessing through the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 12:3) and that God further promised that the result of this blessing would be a situation of universal peace, happiness and freedom:

‘It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.’ (Micah 4:1-4)

These promises were made good when God took human nature upon himself in the person of Jesus Christ and through his life, death and resurrection undid the results of the fall of the first human beings (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). The effects of this are already being felt in history as Christians living in renewed obedience to God act to make things better and they will be finally and definitively revealed when Christ returns in glory to establish the new Jerusalem spoken of in Micah and to bring about a universal reign of brotherhood, peace and freedom that will endure for ever (Revelation 21:1-22:5).

It is because Christians believe this that they can go on singing ‘we shall overcome.’ It is because Christians believe this that they can affirm ‘we’ll walk hand in hand’, ‘we shall live in peace’ and ‘we shall all be free’. It is because Christians believe this that they can look at all the bad things that happen in their own lives and in the life of the world and still declare ‘we are not afraid.’ As St. Paul put it in Romans 8:31-39:

‘If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome, some day.

The Thirty Nine Articles in Thirty Nine Tweets

The Thirty Nine Articles in Thirty Nine Tweets

The Thirty Nine Articles, which were completed in 1571, are the Church of England’s confessional statement. They were designed to set out the orthodox Christian faith as contained in the Bible and the Fathers over against the errors of Rome on the one hand and the radical Protestant sects on the other. Alongside the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal they are one of the three ‘historic formularies’ that help to determine the official doctrine of the Church of England.

What follows is my attempt to summarise the Articles in thirty nine tweets that were originally posted on my twitter feed, @MartinBDavie .

Art 1. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is eternal, incorporeal and all powerful, wise and good. He created and sustains everything.

Art 2. Jesus is both God and Man. He was born of a virgin, and was crucified, died and buried to sort out all that is wrong with us.

Art 3. After Jesus died for us and was buried he went to the place of the dead as a disembodied soul.

Art 4. Jesus rose from death with a normal human body with which he ascended into heaven where he sits at God’s right hand until he comes as judge.

Art 5. The Holy Spirit has his being (proceeds) from the Father and the Son and is as fully and eternally God as they are.

Art 6. Bible = 39 books in Old Testament and 27 in New. It tells you all you need to know to be saved. Apocrypha is good for morals.

Art 7. In both the OT and the NT eternal life is offered through Christ. The moral commandments in the OT are still binding for Christians today.

Art 8. The Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds should be received and believed because what they say can be proved from Scripture.

Art 9. Original sin is not imitating Adam, but is the corruption of our nature inclining us to evil and making us liable to God’s wrath.

Art 10. Only the grace of God in Jesus Christ can give us the ability to do those good works that are pleasant and acceptable to God.

Art 11. We are right with God because of Christ and not because of what we do or deserve. For more details see the Homily on Justification.

Art 12. Good works cannot save us, but they are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ and are the sign and fruit of a living faith.

Art 13. The good works we do before we are justified do not make us deserve God’s grace because they are a form of sin.

Art 14. We can never claim credit with God for doing more than he requires of us.

Art 15. Christ is like us in all things except sin. The rest of us are still sinners even if we have been baptised and born again.

Art 16. Even serious and deliberate sins commited after baptism can be forgiven if we truly repent. Sin is a reality so is forgiveness.

Art 17. Predestination is true. Worrying about it is dangerous. We must receive God’s promises and follow his will as set out in the Bible.

Art 18. We cannot be saved by our religion or philosophy or living by natural law, but only by Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).

Art 19. Faithful people + the pure Word preached + the sacraments = the visible Church. Like other ancient churches, Rome has erred.

Art 20. The Church may make decisions about worship and doctrine, but its authority to do this is limited by what is taught in Scripture.

Art 21. General Councils need Princely sanction. They can err so what they say about salvation needs to be checked out against Scripture.

Art 22. The teaching of the Church of Rome about pardons, relics and the cult of the saints is a human invention contrary to Scripture.

Art 23. Only those who are lawfully called and sent by those with authority to do so should preach the word and celebrate the sacraments.

Art 24. The Bible and the Early Church say don’t hold services in a language that people cannot understand.

Art 25. Jesus instituted 2 sacraments, Baptism + Lord’s Supper. They are effective means of grace to be used in the way Jesus intended.

Art 26. Evil ministers should be removed, but their wickedness does not prevent the grace of God being given to us via word and sacrament.

Art 27. Baptism is not only a sign of Christian belonging but an effective sign of our new birth. Child baptism is theologically ok.

Art 28. At the Lord’s Supper believers receive the body and blood of Christ in a ‘heavenly and spiritual manner’ and through faith.

Art 29. The wicked do not receive Christ at the Lord’s Supper, but simply eat bread and drink wine to their own condemnation.

Art 30. All Christians should receive both bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper because Jesus said so.

Art 31. Christ’s death on the cross is the only solution for all sin. This means it is wrong to offer the Mass as a sacrifice for sin.

Art 32. The Bible doesn’t say that clergy should either marry or not marry. They are therefore free to decide what God wants them to do.

Art 33. Excommunicated people ought to be excluded from the Church community until they publicly repent and are officially restored.

Art 34. All churches don’t have to be the same and can change what they do. Churches to be obeyed except if they act against the Bible.

Art 35. The First and Second Books of Homilies contain sound and useful material and so should be read out in a way people can understand.

Art 36. The 1552 Ordinal contains everything necessary to consecrate and ordain people and nothing that is superstitious or ungodly.

Art 37. The monarch has God given authority in this country but the Pope does not. Capital punishment and military service are both OK.

Art 38. Christians do not have to hold all their possessions in common, but those who can should give generously to those who are in need.

Art 39. Vain and rash swearing ‘no.’ Swearing responsibly in a legal context in order to uphold truth and justice ‘yes.’

Is there life on Mars?

Is there life on Mars?

The question of whether there is life on Mars or elsewhere in the universe, and what this life may be like, is one that continues to fascinate people. It is a question that has been addressed in numerous works of science fiction and it is also the subject of serious scientific enquiry. For example, NASA is currently conducting a series of missions to address the issue of whether life has ever existed on Mars and the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) projects have employed a number of scientific methods to look for signs of intelligent life outside this planet (such as monitoring electromagnetic radiation for signs of transmissions from advanced civilizations on other worlds).

In this blog I want to consider the Christian approach to the issue of whether there is life elsewhere in the universe.

The first and most obvious point to make in this connection is that Christians know that they are not alone in the universe. They know that there is a God who created all things (Genesis 1:1) and who is present everywhere and at all times. As the Psalmist notes in Psalm 139:7-12, there is literally nowhere that we can go to get away from God:

‘Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee,
the night is bright as the day;
for darkness is as light with thee.’

This universal presence of God means, for instance, that whatever other forms of life there may be, or may have been, on Mars the life of God is most certainly there.

Christians also know that alongside God and the created beings that exist on our planet, the universe also contains a whole host of created spiritual beings who come in two classes, angels and demons.

According to Scripture there are innumerable multitudes of angels (Revelation 5:11 talks about ‘myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands’) and what they all have in common is that they are spirits who are servants and messengers of God. In Psalm 103:20-21 we read:

Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
hearkening to the voice of his word!
Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will!

In similar fashion Hebrews 1:14 describes angels as ‘ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation.’

In Scripture we are also told in more specific terms that angels offer God unceasing prayer and worship (Isaiah 6:1-3) and that they convey God’s messages (Luke 1:26-37) and serve and protect God’s people (Psalm 34:7). On occasion they also act in a military capacity, waging war on the enemies of God and on the demons (Joshua 5:13-15, Revelation 12:7-9).

The demons are described collectively in the Bible as ‘the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41). The devil (also called ‘Satan’) is their leader and the demons are his followers. They are ‘anti-angels’, angelic spirits who have rebelled against God. In the biblical narrative the devil is responsible for the first humans turning away from God (Genesis 3) and throughout the rest of the biblical story the devil and his angels continue to have a malign influence on human history, making accusations against human beings before God (Job 1:6-2:9), tempting them to sin (Matthew 4:1-11) and instigating the persecution of God’s people (1 Peter 5:8-9). The demons have been decisively defeated by Christ (1 John 3:8) and will be condemned to eternal punishment at the end of time, but at the moment they are still active and still spiritually dangerous.

The biblical account of angels and demons makes it clear that just as human history cannot be reduced to the activity of human beings, so also it cannot simply be reduced to the story of human beings and God. The reality is that human history is the result of a complex interaction between the providence of God and the activities and decisions of angels, demons and human beings in the context of a cosmic struggle between spiritual good and evil, a struggle in which the good is triumphant, but evil is still active. A good fictional depiction of this truth can be found in C S Lewis’ science fiction trilogy Out of the silent planet, Voyage to Venus and That hideous strength.

In this trilogy Lewis imagines that as well as creating angels and demons and the material life on this planet God has also created other material beings on other planets. From a Christian perspective we need to be open to the existence of such beings, but whether or not they exist is a matter for further discovery.

Unlike God who necessarily exists, all created beings are contingent. That is to say, they do not have to exist and the only reason they do exist is by God’s will. As the heavenly elders sing in Revelation 4:11: ‘Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.’ Whether God has willed to create material life elsewhere in the universe is something that at the moment we simply do not know.

Reason tells us that God has created a universe which is fine tuned to allow the existence of material life. This is why the universe is as old as it is and as large as it is. The physical processes which make life possible require this to be the case.

Reason can therefore say that material life elsewhere in the universe is possible. What it cannot tell is whether such life is probable or actual. That is because, as I have said, the existence of such life is dependent on whether or not God wills it and we do not know whether he does or not.

The two sources of possible information about the matter are Scripture and experience. In the case of angels and demons Scripture tells us that they exist and what Scripture says is supplemented by experience of numerous human beings down the centuries who have encountered them. In the case of material life on other planets both Scripture and experience are silent.

The silence of Scripture does not rule out the existence of material life elsewhere in the universe. All it tells us is that God has not thought it necessary to tell us about such life, if it exists, for the sake of our spiritual wellbeing. Scripture has a practical focus on fitting us for God’s kingdom and the answer to the question ‘is there life on Mars?’ (or elsewhere) is not relevant to this.

What the silence of Scripture means, however, is that we are dependent on what experience tells us and it has not told us anything yet. However, it may do so in the future. By the time you read this the Vulcans may have made first contact and told us to ‘live long and prosper.’

All this is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that if there is material life elsewhere in the universe it was created by God the Father through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6), has been redeemed by Christ (Colossians 1:20) and will one day be united in Christ in God’s eternal kingdom (Ephesians 1:10). What all this might mean in detail is something that we don’t currently need to know about. What we do know is that, as they say, ‘there’s a war on.’ What we have been informed about is the cosmic conflict between God and the angels on one side and the devil and his demons on the other, and we have to decide which side we want to be on. It is this decision that matters for us today.