The current debate about the role of government has deep roots. In the XIX century the spirit of self-sufficiency and individualism of those who opened the frontier all the way to the Pacific promoted a strong anti-government attitude. In this atmosphere, it was natural for prophetic interpretations to adopt this attitude. The first Adventists saw in the American government an important negative protagonist in the final events of world history. When as a child in Uruguay and Argentina I was taught these interpretations of biblical prophesies, I thought it almost to be expected that such should be the case. After all, the Colossus of the North was a world power with ambiguous characteristics. Descriptions of the economic imperialism carried out by a wolf in sheep’s clothing fitted well with a popular viewpoint.
In other countries one also hears people expressing strong anti-government feelings. As a youth I grew up in Argentina listening to my elders carrying on against the government, and little by little coming to understand it as dysfunctional, totally wrapped in corruption, nepotism and incompetence. Government jobs in most cases did not involve actual duties. Many government employees had two or three of these jobs whose only responsibility was to go by the office once a month to sign a book in order to collect the monthly check. Dictators for life suspended elections and legislatures for years on end. When the legislature actually was in session, it would write laws which in most cases nobody took seriously. When in 1975-76 I spent eight months in Rome I finally learned where argentines had learned the art of governing. In both countries, of necessity, the people live their lives without paying attention to what the government does. Government is a different parallel universe where politicians, the most despicable of human beings, carry on their crimes, or so most people think.
In the United States there are also people who live without paying much attention to what the government does. But it seems to me that the reason why people are disinterested or against is different. While in this country there is also corruption in government, the people have not integrated it as an unavoidable part of life. Here the bias against government has an ideological, or theological basis. Actions by the government are viewed by many as part of a conspiracy, and are interpreted within an apocalyptic framework which is not peculiar to Adventists. One of the many contradictions in American politics is that the Religious Right which sees government as an agent of Satan at the same time wishes to use the government as a fountain of resources, milking it for the last penny, or as an agent of its ideology. In this context, it is also noticeable that many with a strong negative attitude toward the government have an even more negative attitude toward the United Nations because its existence diminishes American national sovereignty.
It would appear that Adventism wishes unsuccessfully to avoid this contradiction. On the one hand, the conservative wing continues to preach the negative role to be played by the government of the United States as an agent of Satan in the drama of world history. On the other, many Adventists in the United States are as nationalistic, or more so, as the rest of the population, and view the rest of the world with some disdain. Some time ago, when the anti-government attitude was more prevalent and military service was obligatory, Adventists were known for their refusal to carry arms, and for considering a sin to participate in the government’s Social Security program. Now that military service is optional, Adventist young people join the military willing to carry arms and help to project the military power considered necessary to insure national sovereignty and the well being of the capitalist multinationals around the world. Nothing could be a stronger endorsement of the government.
On Sunday, October 18, MSNBC had a two-hour documentary titled “Witness to Waco.” It reconstructed the tragic history of the followers of David Koresh at their campus on the outskirts of Waco. Guided by their reading of the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White, these members of a marginalized Adventism, whose prophetic interpretation (with the exception of the messianic role Koresh assigned to himself, and some details about Armageddon) is shared by most members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, thought they were witnessing the final events in world history. In fact, they showed themselves to be under a persecution complex that was misinterpreted by the police forces who wished to investigate their presumed possession of illegal arms. The actions of the FBI and of the ATF only convinced the Adventists at Waco that the final battle had come upon them. The FBI agent in charge of negotiating a settlement with Koresh, in this documentary laments that “We became our own worst enemy.” Part of the tragedy is that when experts on the apocalyptic mind frame volunteered to help the FBI to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the crisis, their offers were rejected. This ensured that the agents of the Department of Justice would fail to understand the mind set of those who on the basis of prophetic interpretations of apocalyptic literature harbor anti-government feelings.
The anti-government attitude that has been part of the political life of the United States has been somewhat abated by the popularity enjoyed now by Social Security and Medicare. The disastrous consequences of the policies which trusted the self-regulatory capacity of the markets have convinced many that it is necessary to have a government ensuring that the players in the markets play by the rules. For years many, instead, argued that economic justice was to be achieved under the enlightened leadership of the captains of industry and the philanthropic prodigality of the inventors of “derivatives” on Wall Street. These days even the most ardent defenders of laissez-faire have no choice but to admit that if it had not been because the government (first by the hand of George W. Bush and then by that of Barak Obama) vigorously intervened in the markets with hundred of billions of dollars, today the world economy would be in a deep depression.
In the New Testament there is a noteworthy contradiction between, on the one hand, Paul and the author of Luke-Acts and, on the other, the authors of the Gospel of Mark and of Revelation.. The apocalyptic perspective is markedly anti-government. The governments of the various empires are agents of Satan. They are represented by mythological beasts that rise from the primordial ocean, the chaos that had to be subdued by the Spirit of God before God could command: “Let there be Light.” In Mark, Jesus dies in a roman cross, condemned by a government that considers “The King of the Jews” to be a seditious revolutionary. He is a would-be usurper of established government authority. In Mark the religious judgment of Jesus is clearly distinguished from the political one before Pilate. In Revelation, the city set over seven hills which governs over the kings of the earth is represented by a harlot that fornicates with the kings of the earth. She is transported by a red beast that rises from the primordial abyss and which ends up eating the harlot that had become inebriated with the blood of the saints. This beast is guided by seven heads and ten horns to whom God has given room to do as they please. As a consequence, they have made war against the Lamb. In this way, Rome and the many governments that constitute its empire are the enemies of the saints, called chosen and faithful (Rev. 17). Both the local governments and the imperial government are portrayed as agents of the Evil that conspires against the saints.
In Luke, Jesus is not assigned the political role given him in Mark. At the judgment before agents of the government, both Pilate and Herod Antipas find no fault in him. At the foot of the cross the roman centurion declares that Jesus is an innocent man. In Acts, every time Paul has to appear before a roman official, be him Gallio in Corinth, of Felix, Festus and Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea on the Sea, no fault is found in him. The book ends with Paul enjoying freedom of movement in Rome, while waiting for the result of his appeal to Caesar. That Paul appealed to Nero in order to escape the unfounded accusations of some Jewish-Christians, speaks volumes of his trust in the efficacy of government. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul explicitly affirms that the governments are agents of God, not of Satan. This is especially significant because Paul is, in essence, an apocalyptic thinker. His radical conception of the meaning of the cross of Christ, however, frees him from speculative scenarios of future battles. For him, the decisive battle has already been won. The resurrection of Christ has installed the New Creation. Satan has been defeated.
The option adopted by Paul tells us that it is not necessary to cultivate a conspiracy mentality that sees Satan at work behind every act of the government or of the Pope. The persecution complex fosters nobody’s mental health. I think that as Adventists we should study critically our past and recognize that the history of prophetic interpretation among us has made drastic changes and ideological adjustments as we have become less homogeneous ethnically and politically. Past errors should be admitted and discarded. Like Paul, we can remain a people with an apocalyptic vision of the Gospel, without having to find conspiracies that energize weak minds, or to create phantasmagoric scenarios that are beyond the credibility of anyone with some knowledge of the reality in which we live.