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War, Virtue and the Quest for a New Adventism


The last day of the conference at Friedensau Adventist University,The Impact of World War I on Seventh-day Adventists,” was a half-day, with questions enough for a lifetime.  The questions were big — when you thought about it, staggering.  Shunting them aside would cast new doubt, it seemed, on the authenticity of Adventism.  It was the end of the conference and many participants, perhaps all of them, were wondering whether this church, with its tendency to doctrinal self-satisfaction, could muster courage enough to meet the challenge. 

Thursday morning, May 15, began with devotional remarks by Roland Fischer, a teacher of practical theology at Friedensau.  Anticipating an afternoon excursion to nearby Wittenberg, he reminded listeners that by reading “the whole Bible differently,” Martin Luther, the Reformation giant, had changed the world.

The 100-plus conference participants had come to deeply felt agreement that a disaster in Adventism took place in Germany during World War I.  Key leaders there had insisted that German Adventists align — to the point of killing others, even on Sabbath — with the nation’s war effort.  Objecting members had been disfellowshipped summarily.  Adventism had been fractured and the fracture had persisted for a hundred years.  What is more, the moral drift signaled by all of this had, to this day, not gone away.  Was Adventism a peacemaking community, or had it lapsed into complicity with violence?

Presenters had said or implied that it was time now to change Adventism, time now to read the Bible in a new way.  What might this mean?  The question had percolated through the entire conference, sometimes explicitly, sometime under the surface as historians were offering their narrative detail.  On Thursday morning it became the focus. 

Michael Pearson, a philosopher and ethicist from Newbold College, began with remarks on virtue and war.  Hopeful that the conference would somehow enlarge our “sympathies,” he wondered whether, as World War I was getting underway, anyone was thinking through — really considering — the pain that it would cause.  And who among us today, he went on, would have withstood the “government propaganda” and “pressure of public expectation”?

The temptation to do violence was, and remains, a test of human character.  Although moral reflection most often takes the form of asking what duty demands, or what course of action might yield the best results, Pearson argued that by attending to “the character of the agent,” an approach he called “virtue ethics,” the church could address desires and habits that determine character and affect how humans behave, especially when they are “under duress.” A person’s moral growth and moral action occur, according to virtue ethics, in the context of a nourishing community; the stories told there, the lessons learned there, shape the habits of the heart.  So virtue ethics inquires after the community’s character, as well as the individual’s.  

With this in mind, Pearson noted that young British Adventists faced conscription during World War I, and when they elected to be “conscientious objectors,” or sought to keep the Sabbath, they had to deal with the disdain, bullying and even torture.  But their church community supported them.  When an American who was serving as a conference president in the United Kingdom began to advocate combatant service, he was asked to resign.  In Germany, by contrast, church leaders asked members “not to alienate German imperial power.”  It was a moral failure acknowledged in “an apology of sorts” offered by world church leaders in 1923.  As for the Reform Adventists in Germany, they remained virtuous in the face of temptation by “acting in concert with their most important reference group, the community of heaven.”

In all of this “the real failure of virtue was systemic” — the church’s focus on “corporate self-interest,” the eschatological preoccupations that left Adventists “unprepared” for issues of “pressing social concern.”  Are we, Pearson asked at the end, “crippled by our story”?  Don’t we “have to periodically re-examine the stories which have so sustained and comforted us”?

The conference’s final paper addressed next steps and came from Reinder Bruinsma, the widely experienced and long-serving pastor and administrator from the Netherlands.  The three key issues raised by the conference, he said, are the co-existence of moral drift and self-assured prophetic prediction, the matter of faithful response to war and peace, and the threat of fragmentation in church life.

Bruinsma began with the last of these.  The split between mainline and Reform Adventism is the church’s “most important schism” to date, but “polarization,” he said, is a very present danger today, as evidenced by differences over such matters as Adventist identity claims and the questions of homosexuality and of women in ministry.  The underlying issue concerns hermeneutics, or the theory of biblical interpretation; he faulted in particular “uncritical” use of the “historicist approach” to apocalyptic writings (they predict end-scenarios precisely), which leads, he went on, to risky and divisive speculation.  

Bruinsma said that a still greater threat to church unity is what he called “the dichotomy between modern and postmodern Adventism.”  Underlying controversy today is the existence of “two distinct subcultures” in society, with younger Adventists increasingly drawn toward the postmodern one, with its restlessness over intolerance and hierarchy and its embrace of flexibility and freedom.

Members and leaders must address these challenges, Bruinsma said, by minimizing ego and the thirst for power.  There must be more allowance for “variety of opinion” and more honesty regarding problems with conventional approaches to Scripture, especially problems associated with predictive readings of the Bible’s apocalyptic material.  In light of the war-and-peace question, the need for a “practical,” or life-focused, understanding of doctrine is at once crucial and undeniable.  Like “unproductive speculation,” fixation on “rational” or “propositional” understandings of faith is both irrelevant and dangerous.  The key to the “new relevancy” the church must seek is Christian care for creation and for human relationships — not least, Bruinsma added, by way of “the radical option for peace and reconciliation.”  

Discussion followed, the morning ending all too soon at 11:30am.  But the post-conference visit to Luther’s Wittenberg would underscore the importance of fresh readings of Scripture, and many participants would, in the evening, see the venerable Adventist maestro, 86-year-old Herbert Blomstedt, lead a stirring performance by the Gewandhausorchester of Leipzig.  The Leipzig audience’s unabashed enthusiasm for the orchestra and the conductor — he was called out for applause six time as the concert ended — was exhilarating.  It felt as though this brother in the faith, with his well-known excellence in thought and health as well as music, could be an inspiration to excellence in faithfulness. 

At worship each morning in Friedensau, the service ended with singing of the Laudate, a Latin rendering of the first line of Psalm 117: “Sing praises, all you peoples, sing praises to the Lord.”  For confession at the conference of Adventist failure, for re-awakening of Adventist aspiration, for new friendships and new reconciliation, praise to God seemed altogether fitting as participants now separated for their journeys homeward.  

Read Charles Scriven’s earlier first, second and third reports. Read Helen Pearson’s reports here and here.

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