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War and Adventist Pragmatism at the German Conference


For the last 24 hours I have been listening to Seventh-day Adventist scholars telling the story of their church’s attitude to and participation in war.  Between them, they have told an amazingly moving and varied story – a story which, like all good stories, raises profound questions about Seventh-day Adventists, the God they worship and the faith and spirituality they practice.

It’s a story mostly about men – Ellen White of course, is the token woman in the narrative. At this conference, the storytellers are 19 serious men from Australia, Europe (including Russia) and the USA. They are “the presenters.” They sit in a circle of tables in the center of the large auditorium at Friedensau Adventist University. Some of them wear ties, some wear open-necked shirts. A couple are wearing T-shirts. Four of them are under 50. None of them is black. Each of them has a bottle of water on the table in front of him and easy access to a microphone. Around them sit two more concentric rows where are seated about another 60 people – the “guest auditors.”   This afternoon, there were about 60 people in the outer circles – 10 of them were women, about half a dozen were black.

The well-crafted and deeply researched narrative these 19 men have presented so far is a story of the conflict between idealists and pragmatists. In the beginning it’s an American story – a story of small-town American leaders whose pragmatism about what to do in time of war clearly owes a great deal to their history of knowing how to behave in times of challenge and difficulty – they had faced plenty of those.

The early Adventists, like their Puritan forebears, faced with the task of building an organization on the basis of a vision, were practical, no-nonsense people, used to making the best of the materials available and building their lives with what they had  – working things out as best they could in their young country. They worshipped a God whom Ellen White described as “wanting us all to have common sense.” The pioneers’ emphasis on “present truth” allowed them to do and say what seemed useful in the moment to protect the fledgling organization so that its members could “spread the Message.”

That pragmatic philosophy found its way into their own approach to civil war in their homeland but fell short when it became an “official” Adventist approach to war applied to the 1st World War fought between highly developed European nations where entrenched national positions, and complex international power dynamics generated the “war to end all wars.” The early European Adventists were not American frontier people building a nation “e pluribus unum.”  They had come to believe the Adventist message in very different political circumstances. Many of them inhabited emerging nationalistic states with established social contexts – “the seat of western civilization” as one presenter described them. Adventist approaches to conflict and war had seemed like common sense on one side of the Atlantic; but when applied in Europe and later in Vietnam or Korea or Chile or Argentina, these same approaches often looked more like common opportunism and lack of principle.

Various presenters have offered convincing proof that in their official pronouncements, Adventists have frequently and often uncritically abandoned their discipleship of the Prince of Peace and their belief in commandment-keeping in the interests of organizational survival. At all costs, sometimes at very high cost in terms of principle, the church’s ability to “preach the Advent message” must be protected. In many different contexts, a pattern has emerged that shows the official church appearing at best inconsistent and at worst self-serving as the evangelistic “end” is used to justify a variety of “means”: combatancy,  working and fighting on Sabbath, cooperation with militaristic or authoritarian governments.  While individual Adventists, or small groups of Adventists, have in many countries endured ridicule and social marginalization for their pacifist principles, and in others been imprisoned and gone to hard labour and death for their pacifist faith, the church’s formal pronouncements in time of war have done little to support them. As one presenter commented, “We believe that we’re so important and it’s so important that we exist that we must do everything to preserve that existence.”

The questions are begging to be asked and indeed some of them have been asked already in the meetings. There are many serious-minded people here asking very important questions and it is a great comfort to remember that they also are leaders in the church. Keynote presenter George Knight asked, “Why don’t Adventists just stand up like Daniel for what they believe?”

Other questions are emerging in brief encounters during breaks and long discussions around the conference meal tables. What is this Adventist tendency to accommodate all about?  What does it say about the faith we hold and the picture of God and of ourselves that we have developed? Why is it that Adventist teachings identify with radical reformers in history but, officially, are so intent on not offending and so willing to accommodate often socially immoral positions? What matters most – the message we preach or the gospel values we live corporately? What are the spiritual implications of the story we are hearing and the patterns that are emerging? What are we learning here?

As a counselor and psychotherapist, it is not unusual for me to encounter individuals facing the challenge of conflict in their lives and relationships. If the corporate Seventh-day Adventist Church were a client of mine telling this story of the struggles it faces while holding to its core beliefs in the face of conflict, I’d explore themes of identity and self-worth. What are the values and principles which enable mature people to know and be who they are? Where do those values and principles come from? Have those values and principles been developed in isolation or in community? What are the power issues in the inner life? Which internal voices are being heard and which are being ignored? 

Will this conference explore both questions and answers? – and if it does, what will the contributors do with the insights they acquire? All of that remains to be seen.

Helen Pearson is a counselor and psychotherapist based at Newbold College in England, and a longtime elder of Newbold Church. Since 2003, she has been part of the Bridge Builders’ Network, which trains church leaders to understand conflicts in the church and work to resolve them. She trains Adventist pastors and others in conflict resolution.
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