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The Immorality of Silence: Adventist Leadership in Times of Conflict


In an address to the British House of Commons in 1948, Winston Churchill famously contended that “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” This was the tweaking of a George Santayana conclusion which begins: “Those who cannot remember the past.” While Santayana emphasized the lack of remembrance, Churchill pointed to the failure to learn as the cause of repeating past mistakes. In both instances the immediate contexts lament fallout from unlearned lessons of human conflicts. In Santayana, the idea reinforces his aphoristic antiwar position that “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” while Churchill’s is informed by the horrors of World War II. In either phrasing, the message is clear: we ignore the lessons of history, especially in the context of conflict, to the peril of repetition.

World War II is arguably the worst human conflict in history, as judged by its casualties. At least 85 million people, about 3% of the world’s 2.5 billion inhabitants at the time, perished as a direct result of the war. But human lives were not the only things of value lost in that war. Also lost were such intangibles as honor, integrity, innocence and even God – priceless ingredients that separate humans from our animal neighbors and help us make sense of a world that often seems senseless.

The scientific/intellectual revolutions that preceded WWII had already set in motion European questioning of its religious underpinnings. But it was the war, whose epicenters were in Christian Europe, that would later accelerate the unapologetic secularism on the continent. After the human carnage and suffering from the war, there would be no satisfying Christian explanations for a war that pitted European Christian nations against one another and the world.

One unfortunate, or rather unfathomable, consequence of the war was how the Adventist church became entangled with Hitler’s Nazi regime. Between 1933 and 1945 not only did our leaders in Austria and Germany (and for that matter, Washington) fail to speak out against Nazism and its Aryan Supremacy agenda, we allowed our church publications to be subsumed and became adjuncts of Hitler’s propaganda machinery. And in this sad sense we also became a casualty of the war.

In a calculated effort to ingratiate itself with the Nazi regime, leaders of the official church in Germany, with “tacit” approval from the General Conference (GC) in Washington, would betray fellow Adventists to Hitler’s henchmen. The ostensible reason for this betrayal was to prevent the regime from banning the church as they had done to many small denominations at the time. And having started on this cooperating arrangement with Hitler, it was only a matter of time before the church would accommodate him further, by making official publications align with the government.

In keeping with Nazi doctrine, the chief focus for ostracism in Adventist publications were Jews. In one publication [Gegenwarts-Fragen, no. 7/8 (1943), pp. 35-6], which was by no means an outlier, the author maintained the stereotypes of Jews as “bloodhounds”, “vermin”, “alien”, “intruder[s] who with unparalleled ruthlessness and characteristic slyness began to undermine the German soul.” In short order Adventist publications would endorse Hitler’s eugenics program, under which alcoholics, blind, crippled, drug addicts, epileptics, schizophrenics and the mentally challenged, would be sterilized.

The deep collaboration with the state ultimately led to nightmarish consequences. The official German church would inform Nazis of the existence of the Seventh-day Adventist Reformed Movement (SDARM), German Seventh-day Adventists who had separated themselves from the main church due to ideological differences such as noncombatancy. Alerted, the Nazis swiftly banned the SDARM. But it was the betrayal of Adventists with Jewish heritage that cut deepest.

Having fully bought into the Nazi narrative of Aryan race superiority, some German Adventist churches posted on-premises notices advising Adventists of Jewish ancestry that they no longer had a home within the church. And many, thus excluded, would leave, bereft of lifelong friendships and often the only fellowship they had known. Daniel Heinz, an archivist at Friedensau Adventist University, retells the gut-wrenching story of Max-Israel Monk, an Adventist of Jewish descent who, after being “disfellowshipped”, “was placed in two concentration camps by the Nazis. [But] he survived and returned to his church after the war. He said he did not wish to act toward his congregation in the way he had been treated.” (Mark A. Kellner, Church Leaders Say ‘We’re Sorry’)

This was nearly 80 years ago. But there are other examples. At least on two occasions in more recent memory our church failed to exercise moral and ethical leadership in its dealings with state governments during major conflicts. Both failures happened in Africa. The first was in South Africa during the Apartheid era. Our leaders, both in South Africa and at the world church headquarters in Washington, kept quiet and did not take a disciplined ethical position in any significant way against the regime or its racist ideology.

In the mid-1970s, following the Soweto uprising and the Apartheid government’s brutal crackdown, external opposition to the South African government, led by Western governments, institutions and the Church, became widespread, persistent and even “fashionable”. Businesses and financial institutions were targeted and “forced” to divest from South Africa, resulting in a near total isolation of the country from the community of nations. Many organizations, realizing the sun was setting on Apartheid, did what was expedient and belatedly denounced the system and its whole apparatus.

Our church did not even do that. Our leaders were resolute in their silence and inaction, making us one of the few global churches who took a noncommittal stance against Apartheid even when it was acutely unnecessary to do so. And by playing it safe we effectively endorsed Apartheid to the bitter end. After the regime fell, our leaders continued their silence as though such silence was synonymous with forgetting. But Africans are no different than any other people: they have elephants’ memories and don’t easily forget who were helpful when doing so was costly. This is why Nelson Mandela would not renounce his relationship with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, after Mandela became president. And for the same reason many Africans, knowledgeable of this history, have a dim view of our church’s willingness to speak truth to power.

The second example is the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, which marked its unhappy 25-year anniversary early this year. But Rwanda was a different kind of failing, one that upended long-standing assumptions about the transformative power of Adventism and, by extension, Christianity. This was genocide where Adventists, lay and clergy alike, killed fellow Adventists and non-Adventists equally, indiscriminately, and on a heretofore unimaginable scale. Simply because they were ethnically different. The magnitude of these internecine Adventist killings was no different than killings conducted by non-Adventists, suggesting that Adventist Christianity, in this instance, was indistinguishable from the moral lapses of other groups outside the Adventist subculture. Or at least not distinguishable enough to transcend tribal and ethnic identity, thus calling into question the efficacy of doctrinal religion when devoid of social ethics and consciousness.

Since 1994, Rwanda’s population has more than doubled to over 12 million. In 1994, just before the genocide, roughly 8-10% of the country’s six million inhabitants were Seventh-day Adventists, a significant presence even in this predominantly Catholic country. Pre-genocide Rwanda prided itself as the most Christian country in Africa. Similarly, Adventists in Rwanda proudly considered the country the most Adventist nation in the world. But in just three months after the assassination of the country’s Hutu president, some 800,000 Rwandese, predominantly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, would be dead in what amounted to a government-sponsored ethnic cleansing at the hands of Hutu extremists, and many ordinary citizens who caught the strange fever. The speed and efficiency of the killing was unparalleled in modern times. When it ended the international community could hardly believe or understand the enormity of what had happened.

Perhaps no imagery captures the extent of the “Adventist project” failure than what took place in Mugonero – doomed to become a mini-Auschwitz. The comparison to Auschwitz is not in the total numbers of the dead.  For only a “mere” 3000 fellow Adventists were killed in the surrounding area that Sabbath, April 16, 1994. Machete and spear wilding Hutu power vigilantes, including many Adventists, were credited with killing over 2000 predominantly Tutsi Adventists who had crowded the compound church in search of sanctuary. The comparison, instead, is to the clinical efficiency and painstaking planning that laid the groundwork for the horrific killings.

Yet the three thousand that were massacred that Sabbath in and around the church/hospital compound easily dwarfed any single day killing in any one place during the 100-day genocide. Factor in the crude labor-intensive weaponry used in these gruesome murders and Mugonero could hold its own against many other horrific mass killings.

The face of Mugonero will forever be the Ntakirutimanas: father/Pastor Elizaphan and son/medical doctor Gerard. The elder Ntakirutimana was president of the Adventist Conference in Western Rwanda, and his son the medical doctor of the Adventist hospital complex at Mugonero. The pair would share the ignoble “honor” of being the first to be found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal in Tanzania, set up by the United Nations to prosecute perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. The details of their purported crimes are grim. The clergyman and his physician son were found guilty, for example, of encouraging and shepherding fleeing Tutsi church members into the Mugonero complex that fateful Sabbath and, having ensured that the few Hutus among them were extracted out of harm’s way, set the marauding Hutu soldiers on the church asylum-seekers.

The trial of these two gained international attention because of one piece of evidence produced by the prosecutors – a letter penned by seven Tutsi Adventists who were in the crowded church the day before they were massacred. It was addressed to their Conference president, the elder Ntakirutimana: “Dear pastor. How are you! We wish you strength in all the problems you are facing, and we wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. We therefore ask you to intervene on our behalf with the mayor.” And as they predicted, they and 2000 others were killed. In church. On the Sabbath. The next day. The Conference president would testify at the trial that he had told the ministers that “Nothing could be done,” a statement contradicted by a few survivors who quoted the minister as saying: “A solution has been found for your problem. You must die.”

The underlying reason for all three conflicts I’ve discussed was race/ethnicity – presuming one group superior and privileging them against others. And in all three examples, our Adventist leadership was silent at best.  At worst they assisted oppressive governments against the oppressed. I argue that the current situation in the United States, where minorities like Native Americans, Mexicans, Somalis, Middle Easterners, Haitians and Muslims as a religious group, are constantly targets of “otherization” by governmental leaders and their apparatuses, is no different than the beginnings of what would bloom into Auschwitz, Soweto and Mugonero.  While Muslims as a group are targeted for exclusion from beneficial government policies, our church leaders, with rare exception (Dan Jackson, NAD president), have been silent.

We must distinguish between the activities of individual Adventists and church leaders. There were countless individual Adventists who acted honorably towards their fellow Adventists of Jewish descent during the Third Reich. So too were individual Adventists who voiced opposition to P. W. Botha and his Apartheid system. Twenty-five years ago during the Rwandan massacre, individual Adventists were similarly heroic in their defense of the targeted Tutsi minority.

We cannot confidently make the same assertions about Adventist leadership during these episodes. The question is why? Why have our leaders joined with or looked the other way in their dealings with the powerful? Why do they not speak out against injustice that masquerades as patriotism? Various reasons could be postulated, but it seems some of our center-right church leaders have a fatal attraction to the strongman types who use racial or ethnic differences as their basic philosophy of governance.

Now, second guessing leadership decisions and actions shouldn’t be made glibly because, in the midst of conflict, leaders often choose from bad alternatives. So they make decisions in hopes of achieving the best outcomes for the church. I get that. What I don’t get is leadership silence after the conflict is over, even though ramifications of their decisions or inactions, such as in Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa, still linger on. Or where behavior by leaders lie at the core of the conflict, as happened in Rwanda.

In 2005, 60 years after WWII, when most of the victims had died, the church in Austria/Germany officially apologized on the record. That, I suppose is progress, since no such recognition of sorrow or acknowledgement of wrong has been expressed officially by the church’s higher leadership about South Africa or Rwanda. But is it fair or even Christian to essentially “run out the clock” on those who were directly impacted by these events?

Which begs the question: what should the church do after such events?

One answer: Something similar to the South African example.

When the Apartheid regime collapsed and it became obvious that power would shift to the African National Congress, the greatest fear was indiscriminate reprisal by the black population on white South Africans. But responsible leaders, most of them clergy like Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, stepped in. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up and victims of gross human rights abuses told their stories. And accusers defended themselves, provided contexts or, in the majority of cases, apologized for past wrongs. This quasi-judiciary process, sometimes contentious, other times humbling, is widely credited for providing a troubled nation with a cathartic, non-punitive outlet for washing out encrusted dirt from a soiled national fabric. Post-Apartheid South Africa has had its difficulties, but it avoided a bloodbath by honestly confronting its past. The church should do no less.

While no one can predict future conflicts, as the ongoing situation in Burundi reminds us, it is how we deal with them later that attest to wise leadership. Our leaders should behave in such a way during the conflict as to leave the door open for reconciliation in the future. Sometimes choosing sides is the easy and tempting path for a leader, especially ones far from the scene of conflict. The wise parent is one who, during sibling squabbles, looks beyond the immediate toward ensuring the family comes together again.

An Auschwitz or Mugonero doesn’t happen spontaneously. They are nurtured by a series of incremental, accommodative statements and policies by governmental leaders who “otherize” and set up as alien, groups they despise. Silence, in the face of manifest targeted oppression of vulnerable minorities, is not only unbecoming of a prophetic church, it lends credence to the oppression. History is kinder to the likes of Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, because they spoke truth to power and stared down oppressors. There is no glory for leaders who take solace in silence or aid the powerful when they misbehave or abuse public trust. And the ignominy is worse when the abetting leaders are also clergy.


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at:

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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