At a “Seeking Peace” conference held in Indianapolis in 2005, Rev. C.T. Vivian pointed out that social movements take as their starting point a basic question. A colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Vivian stated that for the civil rights movement the question was, Are black people human? For the Christian peace movement in the early twenty-first century, Vivian proposed that the critical question is, What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ?
That’s the question at the heart the commentary by Barry Bussey, the denomination’s United Nations liaison, on Adventists and conscientious objection, posted April 15 on Adventist News Network. At first glance, perhaps influenced by the piece’s header on ANN, “The issue of conscientious objection has become more complex,” I wondered if Bussey’s recognition that the issues involved were “complex” and “messy” might be a way of blunting their force. Perhaps it was a guilty conscience – I believe I have at times taken that approach, hoping to dodge the emotional clashes that the issues of war, peace, and conscientious objection often stirs.
On closer reading, it struck me that Bussey, with calm resolve, is pressing us toward the critical question that underlies all the others: Is our loyalty with the Messiah and Lord who told his followers to emulate God by loving their enemies? Or is it with the American nation-state, with its own messianic mission of protecting democracy and capitalism worldwide, by any means necessary at whatever cost necessary?
Given what Bussey aptly describes as “the uncomfortable assortment of feelings” often evoked by this question and the ones about war and military service that flow from it, a productive way of begin may be for those concerned to tell our stories. This is what Bussey does. He describes how the issue came home to him, and set him on a quest that in turn led to a documentary project on Canadian Adventist conscientious objectors in the World War II era, and then to editing the recently-published book Should I Fight? Essays on Conscientious Objection and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The latter grew out of a conference he organized in November 2008, while serving as head of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada.
As Chuck Scriven has shown us in his book The Promise of Peace, the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church expressed the commitment that drew them together as a simple covenant to “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ.” Very soon the Civil War pressed them to make explicit to governmental authorities that they understood the faith of Jesus Christ to mean the teachings of Jesus, and that adherence to those teachings led them respectfully “to decline all participation in acts of war and bloodshed” (as put by a General Conference resolution of 1865, stating in other words what they had already put on record in 1864).
Barry Bussey is posing the question anew, What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus when it comes to matters of war, peace, and national loyalty? He points out that the issue will not go away, and that in today’s “politically unstable and unpredictable world,” it could rapidly transition from the “critical” to “urgent” category. So, will it get a hearing? As we seek “revival and reformation,” where will it rank in our priorities in relation to, say, parsing the distinction between justification and sanctification?