The following sermon was preached by Jeff Gang for a worship service at Southern Adventist University’s Homecoming weekend in the Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church on Sabbath, October 29, 2016. The Sermon was originally titled “He Is Our Peace.”
Most of you are probably aware that Mel Gibson’s film Hacksaw Ridge opens in theaters this weekend, based on the true life story of U.S. Army medic, Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist conscientious objector who refused to bear arms during World War II. Doss would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman for saving the lives of over 75 soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945—one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Desmond Doss is a heroic figure for many of us, especially in this community. He lived many years near Lookout Mountain, Georgia. His memorial service took place here in the Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church. And he was laid to rest nearby in Chattanooga’s National Cemetery. My wife, Gina, and her sister Julie still remember Mr. Doss visiting their class at A.W. Spalding Elementary School here in Collegedale. I am sure many of you had the privilege of meeting Mr. Doss over the years as well. Maybe you even knew him personally.
One reviewer of Hacksaw Ridge has described the film as one of the most violent war films he has ever seen. It is rated "R." So whether or not you decide to see it (or you just wait for it to be released on DVD or Netflix), Desmond Doss is a fascinating story of faith, courage, duty, and heroism. I still remember by father reading The Unlikeliest Hero to me as child. I was mesmerized by Doss’ life. and he still inspires me today. The most compelling part of Doss’ story was not only his devotion to God but also his devotion to his his fellow soldiers even when many of them mistreated him.
And while the film is mainly focused on his heroic actions in one of the bloodiest battles of the war, we must not forget that Desmond Doss lived by his convictions for years under extremely difficult circumstances. So one question that comes to my mind as I think about his story, I wonder, are there anymore Desmond Doss’ today in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? And if so, what would that look like in our time and place?
You may recall the story in the Gospels where one day the religious leaders asked Jesus to identify the greatest commandment: "He answers them, saying: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets' " (Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV). The commandments of God are two sided. One side is directed toward our relationship with God. and the other side is directed toward our relationship with others. Jesus said it all comes down to those two actions, loving God and loving people. This is Great Commandment Love.
In Desmond Doss, I see an individual who exemplified that kind of love, love for God in his commitment to keep the fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath day. And love for man, in his commitment to keep the sixth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. While honoring the 4th commandment has always been a part of our heritage as a church, some may forget that honoring the 6th commandment has been part of our heritage as well. What do I mean? As far back as the Civil War, our church encouraged conscientious objection, not only because of the fourth commandment but also the sixth.
During the Civil War, the General Conference Seventh-day Adventist Executive Committee in Battle Creek, Michigan, sent a letter to the Governor of Michigan, appealing that Adventist young men be granted exemption from serving in the Union army. In part they wrote:
“The denomination of Christians calling themselves Seventh-day Adventists, taking the Bible as their rule of faith and practice, are unanimous in their views that its teachings are contrary to the spirit and practice of war; hence, they have ever been conscientiously opposed to bearing arms. If there is any portion of the Bible, which we, as a people, can point to more than another as our creed, it is the law of Ten Commandments, which we regard as the supreme law and each precept of which we take in its most obvious and literal import. The fourth of these commandments requires cessation from labor on the seventh day of the week; the sixth prohibits the taking of life, neither of which, in our view could be observed while doing military duty.”
Ellen White expressed a similar conviction during this time period when she wrote these words: “I was shown that God’s people, who are His peculiar treasure, cannot engage in this perplexing war, for it is opposed to every principle of their faith. In the army they cannot obey the truth and at the same time obey the requirements of their officers. There would be a continual violation of conscience.”
The practice of conscientious objection continued to be the position of the church for many years. However, in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, a crisis occurred in the church. The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Europe encouraged their members not resist their nation’s call to arms and willingly submit to their government’s demands. The decision was pragmatic. Submit to the state in order to prevent persecution, loss of the church’s institutions, and protect their Adventist way of life. This was especially the case in Germany. The crisis occurred when a group of Seventh-day Adventist members in Germany opposed the official church position. In their protest, they were labeled fanatics, and many of them were disfellowshipped, resulting in the formation of the Reformed Seventh-day Adventist Church. Twenty years later during War War II, when most Adventists in Germany embraced Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, the Reformed Seventh-day Adventists resisted, and many of them died in concentration camps.
After Word War I, Adventist leaders in Europe recognized the errors they made and apologized to the world church during an official denominational meeting in Gland, Switzerland, in 1923. However after their apology, church leaders reverted to their earlier position that an Adventist member had “‘absolute liberty to serve his country, at all times and in all places, in accord with the dictates of his personal conscientious conviction.’” The denomination would eventually adopt a similar position. In 1972, the Autumn Council of the General Conference Committee released a statement titled “The Relationship of Seventh-day Adventists to Civil Government and War.” The statement encouraged members to not bear arms and, if necessary, serve as non-combatants in the military, but it stated: “This statement is not a rigid position binding church members but gives guidance leaving the individual member free to assess the situation for himself."
Maybe, in part. this is why Desmond Doss never wished to be referred to as a conscientious objector, rather a conscientious cooperator. He chose not to bear arms yet felt called to serve his country during war. This was based on his conscience. But we should not forget the many Seventh-day Adventists around the world who refused to serve in the military at all! And these men did so based on conscience as well, and many of them suffered for their decisions.
During Word War I, a report from the military prison at Fort Leavenworth reveals that ninety-two conscientious objectors were imprisoned there, almost all for religious convictions. Seventh-day Adventist are among the prisoners on the list. Their reason for refusing to bear arms? Because the Ten Commandments say, “Thou shalt not kill.” One of those young men was Albin Conrad, a young German immigrant who had become a Seventh-day Adventist. When drafted into to Army, Albin refused to bear arms saying, “I’m sorry, but I cannot do as you ask. I must obey God rather than man.” Albin was eventually court-martialed and sentences to ninety years hard labor. It was reported that while in prison Albin was severely mistreated and eventually was moved to Alcatraz, a prison from which he was released after the war.
Earlier we read these words from the Letter to the Ephesians: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” We do not need to look far to see that we live in a world of dividing walls between people. We see it in our country; we see it in our community; we even see it in our church. The hostilities that exist in our lives are palpable. All of us are in desperate need of His peace. But the good news this morning is that according to these words of Scripture, Christ Jesus has already done his work Through his blood, through the Cross, he has made it possible for all people to experience reconciliation. There no longer needs to be dividing walls. There no longer needs to be hostilities. He is our peace not only in the future but in the present, amidst all the darkness of our world. And if we believe these words to be true, what does that mean for us today? What does this mean for Seventh-day Adventists living in the twenty-first century? For me the answer is clear. If Christ Jesus is truly our peace, we, in return, are called to be His people of peace. We are called to be His peacemakers.
Our world is desperate for more courageous followers of Jesus like Desmond Doss. In a world of fear and hatred, in a time great division, not only in the world but in our church, we need Desmond Dosses. We need contentious objectors; we need people who contentiously object to injustice and hatred and evil in all forms. We need followers of Jesus who claim his promise: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." We need people who live out the commands of their Lord who once said,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you."
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.' "
We need people who take seriously the words of the Apostle Paul who once wrote to the church in Rome:
"Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Seventh-day Adventists have thought of themselves as a remnant people. In part, we see ourselves as a community of people who who stay faithful to God. We are a people who keep His commandments, especially in the earth’s darkest days. One of the texts we like to claim is Revelation 14:12: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.” But being a remnant people means far more than just the people who keep the Sabbath. Being a remnant people means we are to be a people of the Great Commandment to love, people who seek to not only love God but love people, all people, friend or foe. We are called to be a peacemaking remnant.
This is not easy to do. We live in a sinful world, and the ethical decisions we are confronted with in life are often difficult. We wish the Bible was more clear at many of the situations we find ourselves in; we wish there were more “thus sayeth the Lords.” But its not always so! Our world is complicated, and we must do our best to do the right thing with God’s guidance and following our consciences. That’s what Desmond Doss did. He choose to serve his country in war and yet sought to be true to his beliefs, to obey His Lord according to his conscience no matter the consequences.
Here is where Seventh-day Adventist community, especially Adventist education, is vital to our church today. People like Desmond Doss do not just happen. Desmond Doss did not wake up and find himself one day on Okinawa with mortar fire raining down on him and machine gun bullets flying past his head and decide he was going to save life rather than take life. It just did not happen by chance. It was fostered by a community of people who were trying to take the commands of Jesus seriously and taught him to do the same. Are we able to say we are to say our Church is capable of shaping another Desmond Doss today? Or an Albin Conrad for that matter?
As we confront the many dividing walls and hostilities in our world in the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in between two unreconcilable options. In the face of injustice, hatred, and evil. We can do nothing. We can remain quiet, a silent church. Or we can be caught up in the ways of the world, using the world's methods and tactics. But Jesus has told us we are to be in the world but not of the world. And so we find ourselves needing to make difficult decisions. But our children will not just figure that out on their own! They need a community of people who show them what that looks like through word and deed. They need to see our peacemaking in action-- in our homes, our schools, our churches, our communities, and our world.
When I observe history, especially the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I see many courageous people like Desmond Doss who have sought to follow Jesus no matter what it meant for their lives. These men and women found themselves in what German theologian Helmut Thielicke called borderline situations (Grenzsituationen). These are situations that are not normal or ordered, where people cannot make easy decisions to follow God and keep His Commandments. In these borderline situations, ethical principles collapse when tested by extreme circumstances. However these borderline situations are helpful to us, especially as we can see how obedient followers of Jesus chose to respond to the ethical challenges of their day.
One who reminds me of this is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While not a Seventh-day Adventist, Bonhoeffer was a committed follower of Jesus Christ during the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor. He was part of of a group of Christians called the Confessing Church, who resisted the Nazis and the German Christians who supported them. He was eventually imprisoned by the Gestapo and executed just days before the end of the war. Bonhoeffer chose to engage in the ethical complexities of his time. He refused to stay quiet while at the same time refusing to be caught up in the evil that surrounded him. Like Desmond Doss, Bonhoeffer was a conscientious objector (but would have refused to be conscripted into the German military). Some believe he was even a pacifist. Earlier in 1934, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had delivered an address In Fano, Denmark, to a group of Christian leaders from various denominations around the world titled "The Church and the Peoples of the World":
“How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the cross. Which of us can say he knows what it might mean for the world if one nation should meet the aggressor, not with weapons in hand, but praying, defenseless, and for that very reason protected by ‘a bulwark never failing’?"
May the memory of Desmond Doss, and so many other like him who have gone before us, serve as a reminder of our invitation to follow Jesus despite the costs. May we, too, take up his call to be peacemakers, throwing safety aside. May we in faith and obedience trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the bulwark never failing. Amen.
Jeff Gang serves as Assistant Professor in Relational Studies in the Loma Linda University School of Religion. He is also a board member of Adventist Peace Fellowship.
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