The Muddle of the Road

There was a time when left was right, and the right was left.

I’m talking about the early days when people first decided which side of the road to drive on. But strangely enough, that debate was linked with the design of early castles. Confused?

As Colorado preacher Patrick Mead has rightly pointed out, when opponents attacked a medieval castle, the lord took refuge in his tower, which was accessible only by a narrow, circular staircase specially designed to make it hard for attackers to use their swords. The tight fit meant a soldier’s shield got in the way and he had no room to maneuver, making it hard for him to wield his sharper weapon. Even the angles of the walls were sloped in on the attacker and the height of the stairway’s steps were varied so anyone rushing up would stumble and fall.

In much the same way, people used to travel on the left side of the road, not just in Britain but everywhere. That was because a soldier usually carried his shield in the left hand and wore his sword on the left hip so the weapon could be grabbed easily by the right hand and swung at an attacker. Staying to the left gave a fighter more room to move.

If you met someone non-threatening, you would wave your hand to show it was empty, which is why we wave to friends today. If two people in an encounter were unsure of each other, they would grab each other’s right hand and hold on until it was safe to let go. That’s where the handshake came from.

When carts and wagons came into use, they stayed to the left because that’s the side of the road that had always been used. So why do most nations now drive on the right, except for the United Kingdom, Japan and some Commonwealth countries like Australia? You can blame the French.

After one of their many spats with England, they switched to driving on the right, to set themselves apart from the despised Anglos. America needed the French as allies and were no fans of the British themselves, so they followed suit to show solidarity. It took 150 years, but all of Continental Europe changed sides, too. Not surprisingly, when the auto arrived, controls were in the middle where the driver of a horse drawn carriage would sit. Gradually, most countries followed the U.S. and put the controls on the left.

There are parallels here to the realm of faith. In a world filled with damaging stereotypes and misunderstandings about Christianity, it’s vital we storm the bastions of error or unfairness. But to wage that fight, we need to effectively use the scriptures, “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). But that will never happen as long as the dark lord of pride and religious bigotry keeps us going in circles, trapped in a narrow mindset fraught with obstacles that make us stumble and fall.

Whenever we arrogantly assume we, or our church, have a monopoly on truth and righteousness with nothing to learn from anyone else, we’re hemmed in by our own lack of humility and the sloping walls of intolerance. We play right into the hands of those who delight in the petty division that gives so many a tidy excuse to ridicule and reject our faith.

That’s not to say truth isn’t knowable or important. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” That’s the height of arrogance if Jesus was Just Another Guy. But if He truly was God’s Son and He came back from the dead, that pretty much settles it: He not only knows the truth, He is the truth. The Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth,” He told his earliest followers (John 16:13). But He sometimes does that by having us learn from each other, so we must approach the process with gentleness, openness and respectful acknowledgment of other viewpoints.

Too often we’re quick to draw our Sword against each other. Sometimes we react to other believers with fear and suspicion, holding on to each other at arm’s length to the point where God can’t place a blessing in our hands. Even on the political spectrum, we divide along the left and the right and argue over the controls of power. And all the while, our real enemies go unchallenged. Things like poverty, injustice, hatred and oppression.

Forget about being on the left or right side. Let’s focus on being on the same side.