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A Small Amount of Incense: An Open Letter to the Loma Linda University Church


Dear Pastor Roberts, 

I have been attending the Loma Linda University Church off and on for several months and have appreciated much in your ministry. I was disheartened this past Sabbath, however, to hear about the plans for the church service this coming weekend. Veterans are being encouraged to come to church in their uniforms and they will be honored for fighting in the military. I use the word fighting advisedly since every Adventist soldier who has served in any conflict other than World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War has served voluntarily as a full combatant*—despite the church’s historic and still official position of conscientious objection.

I do not plan to attend church this weekend because I have sat through many programs like this in the past and invariably they turn out to be exercises in reflexive patriotism that ignore dark realities of American militarism and empire in the world today, while promoting historical amnesia about the sacrifices and heroism of those who have fought against injustice using weapons of peace. 

Programs like the one you have planned ignore the staggering human costs of war borne not by soldiers but by civilians, such as the conservatively estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths resulting from the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country (which was enthusiastically supported by many Adventists in your community at the time). These programs also suppress the truth about the pacifist convictions of the Adventist pioneers and earlier generations of Adventists. My grandfather (Robert E. Osborn, who was a missionary in the Middle East and South America before working for many decades as a treasurer in the General Conference) was a World War II veteran.  He was also a conscientious objector who served as a noncombatant medic. Unfortunately, this part of the Adventist story is not celebrated and is rarely even remarked upon in Adventist churches today.

The practical result of events like the one you have planned, which will be enacted in different ways in many other Adventist churches around the country this weekend, is that thousands of Adventist young adults are today fighting and killing at the orders of our politicians in far-flung regions of the globe for the sake of “the national interest.” They received virtually no pastoral guidance from their churches or schools before they enlisted. Through potent signals and symbolism in the sanctuary, however, they learned the intoxicating myth of every nationalism: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.  It is sweet and right to die for your country.

Loma Linda University Church’s failure to wrestle in a truly prophetic way with urgent questions of what Christian witness means in a world of competing allegiances, violence, and war, including the violence of Pax Americana, is starkly illustrated by the fact that every week you preach from a pulpit on which stands the U.S. flag to your right hand as you face the congregation. You may not be aware of why the flag is placed in this position. The reason is because of the U.S. Flag Code passed by Congress in 1923, which stipulates:

“When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.”

The fact that your church has placed the American flag in the position of highest honor, while relegating the Christian flag to a place of secondary allegiance to your left hand, might seem to some like a trivial concession to the American civil religion. It is in fact a remarkable symbolism when we consider that many early Christians chose to die rather than to burn a small amount of incense once a year in front of a statue of Caesar to show their patriotic loyalty as citizens of Pax Romana.

Although I will be conscientiously objecting from church attendance this weekend, I hope that you might at least plan your commemorations in light of the values expressed in the following statement voted by the General Conference Executive Committee in 2002.  The document, entitled “A Seventh-day Adventist Call for Peace,” includes this appeal:

“The education of the church member in the pew, for nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation, needs to be an ongoing process. Pastors are being asked to use their pulpits to proclaim the gospel of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation which dissolves barriers created by race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and religion, and promotes peaceful human relations between individuals, groups, and nations.”

I leave you with a simple question: How will your encouragement of military uniforms in the sanctuary serve to educate “the church member in the pew for nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation”? How will it make clear to your congregation that Christians are still called to a different Way—a Way that transcends all national differences and subverts all tribal loyalties? How will it remind older Adventists and teach younger Adventists that amid all of the tensions, ironies, and ambiguities of life in a violent world, Christ’s in-breaking kingdom has defeated the “principalities and powers” and made possible a new human community in which the barriers between former enemies have already been dissolved?

—Ron Osborn is the author of Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy (Cascade Books, 2010).

*Correction: Rob Mohr, an associate pastor at LLUC and military chaplain, has helpfully pointed out that not all who voluntarily enter the U.S. military are assigned to “combatant” roles as defined by the Geneva Conventions.  Apart from chaplains, however, all who volunteer for the U.S. military when there is no draft are “combat ready” according to the classifications used by the Selective Services System.  Conscientious objectors (1-A-O’s and 1-O’s) are not permitted to join.  In 2010, Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries produced a video entitled “Reality” to raise awareness among church members of these and other facts.  Major Judy Tupolo, a nurse in the U.S. Air Force, is the fourth person to speak in the video.  “They required me to take arms training and that was a total shock to me,” nurse Tupolo says.  “It really hurt me to think that I became involved with this part, that I would have to kill another human being if need be.”

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