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Do We Need an Enemy to Seal Our Identity?


In the late 1940s to the late 1950s the United States of America experienced a period of extreme anti-Communism. It was the time of the Cold War. The nuclear arms race that had developed between East and West could easily have led to the total annihilation of mankind. It was in this context that the U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was able to instigate the witch hunt for secret Communist agents. Tens of thousands of innocent Americans became suspect. Many suffered loss of employment; careers were ruined, and some were even imprisoned. When America finally came to its senses some of the laws that had been used were declared unconstitutional and some of the injustices were redressed. But how could it have happened? McCarthyism, as this surge of extreme anti-Communist activity is usually referred to, can only be understood if we recognize how gradually an image of Communism as the omnipresent global enemy, with its tentacles in every section of society, had been created and reinforced. As a result, anti-Communism could become a movement characterized by what resembled religious fanaticism.

Creating and cultivating an enemy is an effective tactic to unite a group of people or a nation around a common objective and towards united action. Much can be achieved if you succeed in making people focus all their hostile feelings on a real or perceived enemy. People must be led to believe that there is an immense danger and that, not just protest, but strong action, and possibly even violence, is needed to deal with this threat. Time and again we see this phenomenon repeated, in the political arena but also in other areas of life.

Look at a more contemporary example. No one will deny that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is incredibly complicated, and the majority of well-informed men and women will feel some sympathy for both sides. But it is not difficult to see how the continuous reinforcement, on both sides, of the idea that the other party is the enemy, who is bent on the total destruction of its rival, will keep peace far away. There is no real solution as long as the Israelis can only see the Palestinians as potential terrorists, and as long as the Palestinians will regard all Israelis as ruthless Zionist enemies.

It is not hard to find other examples of situations in which the creation of an enemy has had far-reaching consequences. The constant referral to a few countries as “rogue nations” or as belonging to the “axis of evil,” as happened in the final years of the last century, reinforced the idea that they represented an enemy that ultimately might have to be dealt with militarily. Guerilla movements soon run out of steam if the image of a dangerous enemy can no longer be sustained. The same principle applies to other areas of life. Workers will not persevere in a long labor conflict, unless the employer remains the absolute enemy. People cannot be recruited to travel to the country where the G7 leaders are meeting, to engage in protest demonstrations, if globalism is only seen as undesirable and not as the ultimate danger that will bring ruin to our planet.

Religious enemies

The same processes that play out in the world of politics frequently occur in the world of religion. Without a burning conviction that Islam was the enemy which, if it remained unchecked, would eventually exterminate Christianity, there would have been no Crusades. Without these same kind of hostile sentiments on the part of both Catholic and Protestant leaders in post-Reformation times, Europe would not have experienced the bloody Wars of Religion, and more recently we would not have seen the drama of Northern Ireland, where only now the people are gradually recognizing that this picture of the other party as the enemy was to a large extent based on prejudice and tradition.

Even today in many parts of the world the relationship between Protestants and Catholics is wrought with all kinds of difficulties, because the old enemy-perceptions have not fully disappeared. Just a generation or so ago in many European countries, on both sides of the religious divide, members of the clergy would publicly denounce each other from their pulpits. I grew up in a village some 35 kilometers north of Amsterdam where about one half of the population was Protestant and the other half was Roman Catholic. Protestant children were not supposed to play with Catholic children and Catholic people would only buy their bread from the Catholic baker! I vividly remember the anti-Catholicism in the history lessons at the Protestant elementary school I attended. Later I realized how biased a picture of our national history I had imbibed.

There are countries where tensions between Catholics and Protestants still govern much of daily life. And even in places where open hostilities are something of the past and adherents of the different religions seem to cohabit peacefully, many continue to believe that the other group cannot be regarded as genuinely Christian! 

In Europe, the past feelings of hostility between Protestants and Catholics seem, to a large extent, to have been replaced by a widespread suspicion of Islam or a fierce animosity between Christians and Muslims. We can hardly deny that the recent spread of Islam in Europe causes some significant challenges. But, unfortunately, neither can we deny that some politicians and activists have their own opportunist agendas and utilize these challenges in the creation of an image of Islam as the ultimate threat to Western civilization. Fighting Islam as Enemy Number One provides them with a political platform they hope will further their own political interests.

Within the Adventist Church

Some churches, the Adventist Church included, often create their own specific enemies. The degree of intensity of these enemy-sentiments largely depends on regional and historical situations. It seems to me that within the Adventist Church three particular enemies are singled out by a considerable part of the membership. I am thinking of: 1) Roman Catholicism, 2) ecumenism and 3) “liberal” or “progressive” Adventism.

One only needs to have some rudimentary knowledge of the history of Adventism and of the context in which Adventism arose, to understand the strong anti-Catholic sentiment. Protestant America of the second half of the nineteenth century was very anti-Catholic. Yet, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, in many respects early Adventist leaders and church members tended to be more moderate in their anti-Catholic feelings and publications than many contemporary Baptists, Methodists, etc. Even the language used by Ellen G. White in her magnum opus The Great Controversy was less harsh than many of the remarks of other Protestant leaders in her days. It is remarkable to note that the tone of her criticism regarding the Catholic Church became more friendly as time went by, as we see, for instance, in the 1911 edition of The Great Controversy, when compared with the earlier 1888 edition. This 1911 edition was made with input from Ellen White, and the changes were made with her express approval. It is likewise remarkable to see how Ellen White repeatedly appealed to “the brethren” to be careful not to create the image of an enemy. Towards the end of her life she wrote: “We should not go out of our way to make hard thrusts at the Catholics. Among the Catholics there are many who are most conscientious Christians, and who walk in all the light that shines upon them, and God will work in their behalf” (Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 243). A similar statement is found in Counsels to Writers and Editors p. 61: “Let not those who write for our papers make unkind thrusts and allusions that will certainly do harm, and that will hedge up the way and hinder us from doing the work that we should do in order to reach all classes, the Catholics included.”

Ellen White was certainly not in favor of constantly nurturing the image of Catholics as the ultimate enemy of Seventh-day Adventists. But many in past and present Adventism have not followed her example and even today continue to paint the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic believers as the present and the eschatological enemy of God’s people. They see a Jesuit lurking behind every tree. They delight in describing the misdeeds of medieval Catholicism and emphasize that Catholicism has not changed in any way, and that we must be aware of dangerous conspiracies that threaten the very existence of every Adventist Christian. Their anti-Catholic stance creates divisions within the Adventist Church. Some feel it is high time that we choose a different approach. Others, however, feel that we should not soften our warnings about the Catholic enemy. This is, they believe, why we exist: to warn the world about the spiritual realities that are only visible to those who truly understand the prophetic word. To them, it is essential for our Adventist identity and for maintaining our sense of mission urgency that we retain this perception of Roman Catholicism as the adulterous Babylon of end-time apostasy.

A similar situation exists with regard to the ecumenical movement. Some Adventists welcome the possibility of entering into dialogue with other Christians in a structured way and are delighted when they see that other Christians are ready to welcome us to the ecumenical table. Others do all they can to paint the ecumenical movement as Enemy Number Two, closely linked to Enemy Number One. Any Adventist involvement with ecumenical encounters and discussions, they are sure, will inevitably lead to compromise. Any ecumenical contact sets us off on the slippery slope towards religious confusion and rejection of the truth. We are the true remnant, God’s small elite, that must confront all others who have rejected the biblical truth. However, from what we know of Mrs. White, she never endorsed this point of view. She was quite open to contacts with other Christians and did not support strict isolationism. Let me just quote one well-known statement to illustrate this: “Our ministers should seek to come near to the ministers of other denominations. Pray for and with these men, for whom Christ is interceding. A solemn responsibility is theirs. As Christ's messengers we should manifest a deep, earnest interest in these shepherds of the flock” (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 78).

Why we should not create enemies

The images that we create of others as our enemies are usually extremely biased and one-sided. And the danger exists that everything we hear or read that seems to support the picture we want to paint is eagerly embraced, and those things that do not seem to be in accord with the image that we want to create is interpreted in as negative a way as possible, or is simply ignored. But Christians must always be honest and gracious in the way they look at others. Others are potential co-heirs of the kingdom, who must be loved, and not enemies who should be treated with disdain or even with hatred. If we want to reach others with the saving grace of the gospel and want to persuade others that we have something to say, that is worth listening to, any approach that will hinder open dialogue and real contact is counterproductive. More importantly: it is unchristian.

Let us, however, not be in any doubt that Protestant Christians must be firm in their defense of the principles of the Reformation. And also, that Adventist Christians must remain clear and determined in their rejection of teachings and practices that are unbiblical. And let us be clear that they can never take part in activities, alone or together with other Christians, that compromise their convictions in any way. Many Catholic teaching are as much in error today as they were before Vatican II. But to remain critical, and to keep on explaining why certain points of view are biblically indefensible, in an atmosphere of friendship and Christian courtesy, differs crucially from constantly launching vicious attacks on a church or an organization, or waging a permanent war in the belief that such warfare will make “true” Adventists, who still stand courageously for the “old truths,” stronger in their faith.

In January 2006 I had the privilege to attend a conference in Miami that was organized by the Inter-American Division. One of the most important presentations was delivered by pastor Israel Leito, at that time the president of this fast-growing division. He made a passionate appeal to the evangelists in his division to let go of their traditional anti-Catholic strategies. And he explained why he felt this appeal was long overdue. He stated that the attitude of endless criticism and attack did indeed “win” many people. But often, he said, the newly baptized take this fundamentally negative attitude — of fighting the enemy — with them into the church. Operating in an atmosphere of attack on the enemy does not, he stressed, breathe the spirit of Christ and has a negative impact on the church as a whole.

Internal enemies

Of course, in the Caribbean region and in Inter- and South America, where most new church members who are “won” have a Catholic background, this discussion about how the Catholic population may best be reached is highly relevant. In Europe, in North America, and in Australia we may have to worry more about other tensions that clearly exist. Some Adventists see themselves as “progressive” or “liberal,” while others pride themselves at being “conservative” or “orthodox.” More often people stick such labels on fellow believers. For some “orthodox” Adventists, “liberal Adventism” is the dangerous enemy, that must be fought tooth and nail. On the other hand, at times “liberal” Adventists regard those who are defending “historical” Adventism as a deadly threat to the future wellbeing of the church.

Painting others in this manner as the enemy has some serious aspects. Firstly, it is usually an extremely superficial way of judging people. What do we actually mean when we use such terms as “liberal” or “conservative”? Few Adventists are, in fact, “liberal” or “conservative” in all respects. They may talk “liberally,” while at the same time acting “conservatively,” or vice versa. I am not for a moment suggesting that it does not make any difference what we think about the key issues of the Christian faith and about the core Adventist lifestyle convictions. Not everything should go unchallenged. Certainly, not everything that is said and heard in the church is okay. But we do have a serious problem if we persist in painting others, who differ from us in what they think, as the enemies, who must be attacked until they are defeated or, at the very least, are ready to capitulate.

Secondly, painting each other as the enemy has fatal consequences. We must never forget that the path towards spiritual growth, towards rapprochement on matters that divide us, and towards a better mutual understanding — and, at times, towards correction — is one of Christian dialogue that is conducted in an atmosphere of love. Also, it is very easy to forget, when we only emphasize our differences, that there is in fact much more that unites us than what divides us. When we can only view each other as enemies who are in opposing camps we find it ever more difficult to cherish the bond that will hold us together. Moreover, it means that the energy that should be invested in the execution of our missionary task is largely absorbed in a fruitless tribal war.


Our identity as Seventh-day Adventist Christian does not depend on the supposedly good feeling that we stand together in the fight against a common enemy. Waging war against something or someone never has the wholesome result that some expect. Surely, we must reject unbiblical teachings (2 Peter 2:1). But let us make sure that there is space within the church to have open discussions about whether something is indeed unscriptural, or whether I happen to think that it is unscriptural. Too often we hold our own opinion as infallible!

Our identity is anchored in the privilege of being witnesses of the Advent message. The core of that message is not a constant flood of criticisms of others. This usually will only harden the points of view that we disagree with. Our identity is all about proclaiming Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul came to the conclusion that he would do well to concentrate on this absolute kernel of the faith (1 Corinthians 2:2). Christ — his first and his second Advent, his work as our Mediator on the cross and in the heavenly sanctuary, the One who has provided a guarantee of our salvation, who calls us to discipleship and stewardship, and to obedience to his commandments, who gave us the gospel commission that encompasses all people, far and near — is the only genuine foundation for our identity!


Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from Newbold College and a Master’s degree from Andrews University, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. He recently interrupted his retirement to serve as the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxemburg. He has authored more than twenty books, in Dutch and English, and a large number of articles. He has also translated various theological books from Dutch into English.

Photo by Katerina Kerdi on Unsplash


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