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Does Adventism Need Political Thought?


In spite of itself, the Adventist Church is a political institution. It aspires, for both its members and all societies, to have a certain type of presence in the world. Adventism promotes a specific vision of history and announces a particular destiny of strong political-cultural power, which will become hegemonic in the world. However, a legitimate aspiration must also be to justify itself, not only at the level of one's identity but also in what it tries to objectively say about the world. Historically, Adventism has articulated an a priori view of world history, which it tries to enunciate with firmness and conviction, in a typically top-down strategy. The church actually makes constant use of this top-down model, not only when it speaks of the world, politics, or history, but also when it speaks of ethics, anthropology, and internal institutional policy. A top-down model is legitimate, but that's not where the anomaly lies. When the parallel and necessary bottom-up gaze occurs, which must balance and sometimes improve the top-down view, such a perspective is not taken into consideration or is subordinated.

Over time, this theological-methodological unilateralism has, unfortunately, been accentuated within the church. So, we prefer to give more weight to ideals and models rather than the concrete life of believers and communities. But the ecclesiological problem becomes a political problem when that same top-down schema also instinctively applies in describing the world and history. Meanwhile, any relevance of the unfamiliar bottom-up model simply escapes us. While this may be tolerated within the church, it certainly is not acceptable outside of it. Thus, Adventist politics, albeit more implicit than explicit, is present in our pronouncements on history, society, and the world. But it is simply negligible and consequently unsubstantial.

Max Weber, in his famous lecture "Politics as Vocation,"[1] recalled some essential ingredients of doing politics. Every political gaze must be accompanied by passion, responsibility, and foresight. The Adventist political gaze certainly includes passion, which we often understand as militancy in what we think about the world. But responsibility and especially foresight, understood as responsibility and foresight for the world, is completely alien. The result is a defective political vision.

At present, we are in a moment of crisis in international politics, focused on the war between Russia and Ukraine and the irreconcilable reading that the two fronts give of events. At this juncture, Adventism seems to be absent or distracted with its own internal affairs. The church cannot only intervene politically when its members’ freedom and safety are at stake, surrendering thereby to a unilateral and sometimes paranoid reading of some biblical prophecies. We need a new generation of Adventists who, while remaining faithful to religious and spiritual convictions, are also able to enlarge the church’s vision to see the world’s political and social affairs as their purview. Nowadays, within Adventism, we don’t have any political, social, or cultural observatory that seriously analyzes and interprets contemporary historical trends to build up a particular vision and hermeneutics. If done, this could help reduce the naïve, schematic, and even superstitious explanations that often circulate among members, with the compliance and even encouragement of some leaders and institutions. On the other hand, it could allow us also to better frame the various and generous philanthropic initiatives we have cultivated in our noble Adventist heritage.

But to build up a contemporary political thought is not easy for anybody because politics itself has gone into a deep dysfunctionality. This is visible in the crisis of agency that modern politics finds itself: the Nation-State. I’ll briefly identify three paradoxes of today’s politics related to this issue:

1) Within various contemporary societies, the state has grown (to use a medical analogy) hypertrophic. This heaviness and slowness no longer allow the state to become a facilitator for renewal and change, but rather the opposite. The phrase “too big to change,” applied to our current states, dramatically sums up this difficulty. And, beyond Robert Nozick’s advocacy for the “minimal state” as a kind of formal and magical solution, this general trend to increase institutional apparatus doesn’t involve only the big and important world governments but also de facto touches even the near-anonymous and little ones. What is still worse in this deforming process is that the unbounded growth of the state is generally done to the detriment of the creative and generous forces of civil society.

2) This bulimic desire of the state to exhaustively organize and control people, events, and groups paradoxically cohabits with the parallel abdication of its leadership in a larger context. The phrase “too small to change” describes this weakness and incapacity of current states to put limits on the greed and voracity found in today’s global society. In this context, the financial initiatives of some powerful transnational organizations seem to act without any true restriction, instead mimicking the survival of the fittest.

3) The essence of this crisis is the incapacity to motivate people, which in today’s politics has already been happening for some time. Our contemporary political world has too frequently chosen to put aside ethical and religious considerations as not relevant in the political debate. Then, after having chosen a procedural profile in the management of societal affairs, it now faces political pushback on issues that once belonged only to the private sphere. A prime example is the bioethical debate concerning abortion. In this unexpected new situation, politics doesn’t know anymore if it’s better to remain faithful to its initial ideological neutrality or to correct and balance society’s excessive materialism and utilitarianism by promoting the birth of an “ethical state.” Whether it goes one way or the other, politics urgently needs to recover the capacity of motivating people and giving them historical perspective by becoming re-engaged without becoming ideological.

Adding to the above paradoxes are the specific biases implicit in Adventist political orientation. Consider three of them:

1) Adventist de facto political orientation tends to be opportunistic, pragmatic, and self-referential. This means that when we enter into political debate, or participate in a political initiative, we usually do so for themes that typically only concern our own interests. Seldom do we really care about situations and motives that belong to the general “common good” and that don’t directly bring us any benefit. This selective interest in politics pushes Adventism to miss the complexity of sociopolitical debate and reinforces our “utilitarian pragmatism,” transforming it into “ideological pragmatism.” This can become an iron cage we hardly can escape from.

2) The Adventist political mindset is almost exclusively apocalyptic and other-worldly. It nurtures a constant suspicion toward any sociopolitical initiative, improperly assuming that all that is not complete or definitive is necessarily false. But such a massive and unnuanced look at historical events ends up criticizing only the more explicit and visible events. This paradoxically leaves less visible, and thus, less evident events uncriticized. Often these are actually the more determinantal in any political process.

3) Adventist political involvement privileges an individualistic and atomizing participation. The “coherence criterion,” at the center of our ethical thought, reinforces that individualism by privileging the internal relationship between believing and behaving. Yet it overlooks the equally important “correspondence criterion” that instead underlines the necessity of correlating the individual’s actions and beliefs with the external political world. But the reductionist orientation of Adventist ethics is not present only in this sociological individualism. It also emerges politically when we unilaterally defend the typical modern obsession with the division of powers in the structure of modern states. We should also be able to see its limits and critically foster an interaction between all these sociopolitical dimensions. Our boasted holism can’t remain only anthropological. It should also become cultural, political, and cosmological.

Being aware of this double difficulty, of Adventism and of politics itself, is also to read and face today’s main sociohistorical challenges. Adventism could be tempted to assume and to pick up some classical political tools of analysis and intervention. But that would be a mistake, because the main problem of Adventism, despite the necessity of Adventist political involvement, isn’t just to get involved in the political debate—that is, if we start doing it within the classic political paradigm. The true challenge is to dare to think about politics differently, in light of criticism that has perceived the limits and contradictions of the classical paradigm. So finally, consider some recent political contributions that could inspire and enrich the urgent need to give birth to an Adventist sociopolitical observatory.

Martha Nussbaum offers, in her book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice,[2] a new perspective for thinking politically about current events. Her examination of emotions in political thought is not new. In Upheavals of Thought, she had already called attention to some parallel human dimensions of rationality in which thought and action are irreversibly rooted. Emotions not only accompany political action—in that they expand the impact on society—but they are somehow present since the very beginning, making action possible. This is why politics must not become a cold, impersonal, and procedural strategy. The Italian political philosopher Elena Pulcini, in her book Care of the World: Fear, Responsibility and Justice in the Global Age,[3] goes in the same direction. When Professor Pulcini presented her book at our Italian Adventist Theological Seminary in Florence, she noted two important things to consider in political and cultural analysis. First, analysis of the history and development in Western society is mainly done by privileging rationality and action, the registers in which the West sings and boasts its own virtues and achievements. In her books, she has followed the opposite strategy. Her goal is to study contemporary societies, starting from the dimensions these societies overlook, forget, or displace. Her research highlights the anomalies, paradoxes, ambivalence, and pathologies of today’s feelings and emotions, in context with sociopolitical events. From this perspective, the history of Western societies looks quite different, certainly less heroic. Second, the “care” category has had a biased application in today’s societies by being restricted to the family and private spheres. Christian communities, through their pastors and priests (“pastoral care”), have ended up the same way by reinforcing the same anomaly. The time has come to also start using “care” as a political category in the public sphere. This then can balance the excessive unilateral procedural approach of today’s politics and also come nearer to civil society’s real concerns and expectations. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Judith Butler’s book, Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging,[4] on the crisis of the nation-state, reminds us that it will be difficult to try and build a new politics if we remain bound to the classical political paradigm of an autonomous, sovereign, and self-referential state—one that is the extension and mirror of the Cartesian anthropological model of an autonomous and self-referential individual. Consequently, before initiating a constructivist political project, we must necessarily first go through a de-constructivist, critical reading of the old political certainties.

But an Adventist political thought is necessary today not only for these exposed external reasons. There also exist strong internal and theological reasons that compel us to go in that direction.


Notes and References:

[1] Max Weber, Politics as Vocation (London: Macat, 2017), 70–85.

[2] Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 1–24.

[3] Elena Pulcini, Care of the World: Fear, Responsibility and Justice in the Global Age (London: Springer, 2009), 4–16.

[4] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Judith Butler, Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belongings (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2011), 14–25.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Photo Credit: Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, MDCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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