Sadly, almost 100 years later, we still live in a violent, war-ravaged, and divided world. Violent conflict is a significant cause of injustice, poverty, and suffering. Included in the costs of war are the direct victims and shattered lives, the attention and resources devoted to military machinery that would be better diverted to alleviating other human needs, and the continuing suffering of war survivors and veterans, even among the “victors.
More Than a Horse Show
by Nathan Brown
My wife is a horsewoman. Not some mythical centaur creature but one of those—usually, it seems, female—people who are passionate about horses. She rides horses, trains horses, teaches riding lessons, and is involved in many horse-focused groups. Between us, we pick up a lot of horse manure.
Occasionally, I accompany her to horse industry events. For example, Equitana is described as the largest horse event in the Southern Hemisphere, and it happens every second year in my hometown of Melbourne. Held at the Melbourne Showgrounds, it is four days of everything equine. There are demonstrations, performances, workshops, presentations, competitions, exhibitor booths, horse merchandising, even food. It’s camp meeting for horse people. And like camp meeting, it features different groups of passionate followers. One celebrity horse trainer after another competes for disciples, insisting on their method of horse training and, of course, their books, DVDs, and other merchandise. There are sometimes heated arguments between some of the trainers, but more often between their respective followers. Interestingly, while most of the followers are women, almost all the celebrity trainers are men. Some trainers urge their way as the only way, while others are more gracious, acknowledging that while they teach the best they know, there is more to learn, even from other trainers. Some celebrity trainers make a lot of money from selling their methods and branded products. Some of these are genuine; some are little more than snake-oil salesmen or equine televangelists. Usually less organized, others do it for the love of it, because they share a passion for horses, and want people to enjoy riding and do it safely.
Some disciples are adamant about following a single trainer. Others listen to a variety of voices, seeking to glean useful insights from different practices. Some seem to buy everything available from one trainer after another, ignoring the deep inconsistency between the some of the different methods, just happy to meet another celebrity of their horse community and add to their collection of horse stuff.
Some people become better horse riders and trainers in their own right as a result of these demonstrations, resources, and interactions. Others become increasingly confused, even discouraged. Some people go home, try these techniques, and are badly hurt. Other devoted fans have not ridden a horse in years.
Living Like the World
It’s a lot like camp meeting, and many of our other church interactions and conversations. It’s a human tendency that Paul was talking about when he wrote to some believers in the Greek city of Corinth: “You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world? When one of you says, ‘I am a follower of Paul,’ and another says, ‘I follow Apollos,’ aren’t you acting just like people of the world” (1 Cor. 3:3, 4, NLT).
Over the 11 years I have worked for the church, I have seen the polarization Paul described increasing in our church. These Paul/Apollos-type divides are sometimes prompted by these leaders, probably more often because of the way we as people react to and follow them. As evidenced by Paul’s observations, it isn’t new; but certain dynamics are creating an environment for this unhealthy and growing divide.
First, it is something we see in our society as a whole. We are “acting just like people of the world,” as Paul put it. It’s in the horse community, and so many other communities. But for most of us, we see it pre-eminently in the media. We are being trained to consume, communicate, think, and react in these kinds of ways. Without conscious resistance to it and commitment to alternatives, it is inevitable that our community of faith will adopt similar ways of communication, consumption, and response.
Second, the way we interact as local faith communities is increasingly influenced by outside voices. The differences I have observed over the past decade are linked to significantly greater consumption of competing Adventist TV channels, Web sites, and live-streaming preachers and events.
For example, in some Adventist churches, it is now difficult to have a Sabbath school lesson discussion apart from the influence of the TV preachers who have “studied” the lesson on our behalf in the previous week. Of course, most of us tend to choose those speakers and blogs that confirm our beliefs, views, prejudices, and fears, which only entrenches our polarizations.
Because of the multiplicity of these voices, some of us tend to be more likely to argue about the big issues of the church in the language and perspective of others, rather than engaging with each other and the more relevant issues of our local communities.
Third, some leaders and speakers foster this polarizing way of interacting, increasingly in the language of extremes. It is hard to find an audience for careful, thoughtful discussion of a belief or issue. Controversy, sensationalism, and extremism get people’s attention, increase donations, and sell products. Some of the most strident independent voices around the church today are part of large money-making enterprises, and operate with little accountability to the church and its priorities, even if they speak that language.
We need to question where voices are coming from, what they are selling, and what accountability they have in place. And we have to resist the voices from the extremes that seem to dominate so much of our church’s collective thinking.
Fourth, having been closely involved with a couple projects that have been the focus of bitter and vicious attacks, I can assure you that much of what has been alleged, preached, and published against them is simply untrue. Prompted by some “celebrity” voices, we are far too quick to see a conspiracy or apostasy in what might be a mere mistake or overstatement, or even a genuine desire for a different and more faithful church. As Isaiah put it, “The Lord has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does. He said, ‘Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do, and don’t live in dread of what frightens them’” (Isa. 8:11, 12).
As we would expect, Paul didn’t leave us with only a diagnosis. He continued to talk about the work he had done with the Corinthian church, but pointed them to the real basis for our faith and our community: “Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:10, 11).
This is where camp meeting—and, more importantly, the church—must be different from Equitana: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7, ESV). Jesus is the foundation of who we are and how we believe together. This changes our tendency toward polarization. It changes how we treat and trust each other. It changes how we argue and invites us to worship together, even when we disagree.
Our foundation in Jesus means we listen first, “respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters” (1 Peter 2:17). It means that we seek to include as many people as possible in the community, mission, and ministry of the church and affirm the good work we see others doing. It means we can give our best energy to working together to love others and share the hope we have, rather than trying to set each other right. It means out first attitude is to serve one another and our world, together.
“Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple,” Paul concluded in this part his letter to the Corinthians. “So don’t boast about following a particular human leader. For everything belongs to you—whether Paul or Apollos or Peter, or the world, or life and death, or the present and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor. 3:16, 21–23).
Church is not just another community group with a common interest. Camp meeting must not be merely Equitana for Jesus fans. And, though we need discernment (see 1 Thess. 5:19–22), we cannot afford to continue to divide ourselves into market segments for the fan-base, viewership, or profits of others, whatever they might be selling. When Jesus is the center of our lives, our faith, and our church, we will be drawn together in ways that are surprising to us, and to those around us. As Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). Often this is not easy, which is probably why Jesus stated it as a commandment (see John 13:34), demanding our attention, effort, and practice.
And this is why we need to ever renew our focus on and rebuild our foundation in Jesus, the One who changes hearts, gives us new eyes and ears, and new ways of experiencing and growing His kingdom of grace and goodness, truth and justice and beauty. Which should transform us, inspire us, and unite us.
Nathan Brown is a book editor for Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.
Working in a church publishing house, I have the privilege of being able to access many of the church’s publications either as they are printed or newly arrived from our sister publishing houses around the world. As someone who appreciates books and magazine, there is something about picking up a finished product and leafing through it for the first time.
But it isn’t just the items themselves, it’s also about their ideas and themes; and one theme I have been following over the past few years in church publishing has been that of revival. I am intrigued how the repeated call to revival is being defined and lived out in the life of the church and its members.
Earlier this year I grabbed a copy of the current Sabbath school quarterly from the end of our production line and flicked through it with some anticipation. I was looking for a Bible passage that I had felt missing from earlier publications, and it seemed a more comprehensive Bible study of the topic might lead us there. As I have been in reviewing much of the revival-focused material, I was disappointed. I have been back to check more thoroughly.
I was looking for Isaiah 58. It seems a chapter ripe for consideration on this topic. In Isaiah 58, these good religious people—the people of God, no less—are seeking God with fervor. They worship Him daily and “delight” to know His ways (verse 2). They are described as fasting and repenting. But somehow God seems unmoved and unresponsive, even silent.
Then, speaking through Isaiah, God responded in a way that confronted them, and must confront us. The kind of revival I want from you, said God, is to serve those who need your help. Release people from the things that hold them back. Help the oppressed find freedom. Feed the hungry. Provide shelter to those who are homeless and those who need it. Share clothes with those who don’t have enough (see verses 6, 7). Even if we have only a little, God calls on us to be generous to those around us with whatever resources we have—and, as God explained it, that’s the revival He’s calling for.
Such revival is not inward focused—either personally or as a church—but something that brings blessing to all those around the worshippers of God. It is remarkable that the spirit of Jesus and the heart of faithfulness to God are so other-focused that even our spiritual renewal is not about us, reaching out instead to the poor, the oppressed, the hurting, and the hungry: “The true purpose of religion is to release men from their burdens of sin, to eliminate intolerance and oppression, and to promote justice, liberty and peace” (Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 306).
In Isaiah 58:8–12 God promised blessings in response to this kind of revival. In effect, God said that if the people were less focused on themselves they would find God working with them and through them to bring healing and restoration. This was the revival the people were seeking, a renewal of their hope and purpose as found in God with a real sense of His presence in their lives and community.
We don’t know much about how those first hearers of Isaiah’s call to this truer revival responded. As demonstrated by the fact that Jesus confronted these same issues (see Matt. 23), perhaps there are always those who are content with mere religion, while others hear the call to revival in a way that truly changes us and those around us. Perhaps that is why Isaiah’s voice still echoes and challenges us today.
Ellen White urged that the principles and action described in Isaiah 58 were important for the church she cared about, and for revival: “Read this chapter carefully and understand the kind of ministry that will bring life into the churches. The work of the gospel is to be carried by our liberality as well as by our labours. When you meet suffering souls who need help, give it to them.
When you find those who are hungry, feed them. In doing this you will be working in lines of Christ’s ministry. The Master’s holy work was a benevolent work. Let our people everywhere be encouraged to have a part in it” (Welfare Ministry, p. 29). If we are serious about revival, we will be serious about serving others. If we are following Jesus, we will minister in practical ways as He did. If we are transformed people of God, our communities and world will also be changed.
_____________ Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company, based near Melbourne Australia.
Making my unhurried way along the pedestrian mall in the afternoon sunshine—a newly purchased book under my arm—I was stopped by an environmental campaigner, seeking to sign me up to her organization’s campaign to “Save the Reef.” She fitted the image of a young environmental activist, complete with dreadlocks, piercings, an exotic accent and earnestness. I was interested in what she had to share, and we fell easily into an extended conversation.
Being from another part of the country and less familiar with the political issues in that state, I was interested in the details of their campaign. And as someone who has a long appreciation of the Great Barrier Reef as one of Australia’s world-renowned natural wonders but also simply as a vast region of natural beauty, I was ready to be sympathetic to her cause.
I expressed my strong support for her arguments. I have flown over the large coal ports that threaten the Queensland coastline and off-shore environment, and felt a chill on trying to count the massive freighters waiting their turn to take another load of coal to the dirty factories and power stations of the developing world. With increased maritime traffic, required dredging, coal dust pollution, and resultant changing climate, the wonder and beauty of the Greater Barrier Reef is at serious risk. But the woman made it difficult for me to act on what she was sharing. In her pitch, it was sign up to monthly donations—or not. I challenged her on this. What else could I do to support this important cause? Could I write to the state government? Could I tell the story or highlight the issue in some other way?
As she persisted, I changed tack, letting her know that I already support a number of worthy causes through regular donations and that, while I appreciated and encouraged what she was doing in raising awareness of these issues, I was not in a position to commit to a further monthly amount. She responded by questioning my priorities, and whether any of my other giving was more important than what she was urging. As we circled back to my repeated assurance that I supported her work, just not in a financial way, our conversational impasse was all the more frustrating for the agreement that we had on most of the significant issues we were discussing. Then I remembered something I had read about environmental activists, and thought I would test the theory.
As our conversation faltered amid the afternoon pedestrian traffic, I asked her directly, “Can I ask you why you are here on the street doing this? What is your motivation for working for this cause, this organization in this way?” She paused and her animation was stilled, no longer in the role or script of a street campaigner, but talking personally and seriously. “I am afraid,” she said. “I am afraid of what might happen to our world if we don’t treat it better; in my lifetime or in the lifetime of our children. We have already done so much damage to our planet. And I am afraid of what we are doing.” Quietly, I thanked her for her honesty and for her passion. Reflecting on her answer, my further response was that while we agreed on much related to the issues concerned, my motivation is hope. We parted amicably and I have reflected on that conversation a number of times since.
Yes, I believe taking action to conserve and protect our natural world is important. We should be using our voice, influence, choices, and actions to protect natural habitats, change our economies and practices in response to global warming, seek to prevent and reverse pollution, reduce waste, and so much more. But this is more motivated by theology than ecology.
From “God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good” (Gen. 1:31 ), to “Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all the springs of water” (Rev. 14:7), and many places in between, the Bible is filled with God’s justifiable pride in the world He created, and His concern that we should honor Him by working with Him to care for it. Creationism is not so much about scientific argument as a call to celebrate and serve God’s good creation.
This commission and His promises of re-creation (see Rev. 21:5) give us hope to be His stewards of our world today, as agents of its Creator. As Christian environmentalist Peter Harris explained, “It’s not a Christian attempt to ‘save the planet.’ It’s a response to who God is.” This might well find us working alongside people with different motivations and worldviews. But when we follow the One who “is supreme over all creation” and “holds all creation together” (Col. 1:15, 17), our environmental activism and personal acts of creation stewardship are ways of enacting and sharing the hope we have.
www.savethereef.org.au. Andy Crouch, “The Joyful Environmentalists,” Christianity Today, June, 2011, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/june/joyfulenvironment.html. In this interview, Peter Harris references research indicating that environmental activists tend to be people with anxious personalities. Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation. “The Joyful Environmentalist.”
It’s how all good stories end; and, at least in a general sense, it’s how the big story of our world ends. The good guys are victorious; the bad guys defeated; wrongs are made right; the world is renewed and restored; “and they all lived happily ever after.”
But the closing lines of Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy don’t use this classic formulation. Instead, it goes like this: “From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love” (p. 678).
There is obviously something bigger going on here than just the characters in the story having all their adventures completed, trials overcome, and problems solved. We are reminded that the real Hero of the story is a God who loves. It also awakens echoes of where the story began. The Great Controversy is the fifth and last in the “Conflict of the Ages” series that began millennia and 3,500 pages earlier with the opening lines of Patriarchs and Prophets: “‘God is love.’ His nature, His law, is love. It ever has been; it ever will be” (p. 33).
The big story of the “Conflict of the Ages” and the great controversy is the love of God. Ellen White gave away the ending in the first page of the first book of the series. And the epic story in between—particularly focused on Jesus, “the Desire of the ages”—is the story of that love being worked out amid the history, tragedy, and brokenness of our world. We might be tempted to assume this is more a story of a higher plane and another place. The workings of God’s love and its final victory can sometimes feel like the business of a distant heaven that we might get to experience for ourselves at some time in the future, if we can sustain that much hope. But in Ellen White’s progressing understanding and urging, this love is as much about transforming the present as it is about final re-creation.
For a variety of reasons, I have been reading quite a lot of Ellen White’s writings over the past couple years, and I have been struck repeatedly by the significance she recognized in life here and now. One of her major themes is that this life matters. The choices, priorities, attitudes, actions, and lifestyle we adopt today make a difference for today and forever, for us and for others—and this emphasis continues to be seen particularly in the Adventist church’s expansive health, education, and welfare work around the world.
A few years ago, I was fascinated to discover the record of Ellen White’s funeral held on Sabbath, July 24, 1915, at Battle Creek, Michigan (recorded in Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, pp. 462–480), particularly the address by then-General Conference president A. G. Daniells. Daniells had worked with her for most of the last 25 years of her life, first in Australia in the 1890s and on their return to the United States at about the same time, with Daniells becoming General Conference president in 1901 and continuing in that role until after her death. He knew Ellen White well and offered an inspiring summary of her life’s work.
In his eulogy, Daniells recognized the God-given inspiration that sparked Ellen White’s ministry and emphasized her focus on the Bible and Christ as the central foundations of all that she did, spoke about, and wrote. He recognized in White’s writings the role of the Holy Spirit “to make real in the heart and lives of men all that [Jesus] had made possible by His death on the cross” (p. 472), and the role the church should also play.
Daniells also pointed to the broader focus of Ellen White’s ministry and writings; the implication of her understanding of the nature of God and His mission that life matters now in so many ways: “Through the light and counsel given her, Mrs White held and advocated broad, progressive views regarding vital questions that affect the betterment and uplift of the human family, from the moral, intellectual, physical, and social standpoint as well as the spiritual” (p. 473).
Daniells used remarkably strong language to summarize her call for action in the world in response to the issues of her day: “Slavery, the caste system, unjust racial prejudices, the oppression of the poor, the neglect of the unfortunate,—these all are set forth as unchristian and a serious menace to the well-being of the human race, and as evils which the church of Christ is appointed by her Lord to overthrow” (p. 473).
When we rediscover the life and work of Ellen White, we find a strong belief in both the love of God and that our responses to that love matter. In the stories of her life, we also find a life that mattered, a remarkable pioneering woman who lived her life for the God whose love she came to understand more and more, and risked herself to contribute to the mission of the church and care for those in need. Trusting the final joyous ending, we are called and inspired to work toward it now in those same kinds of ways.
For many years, I have been one of those “boring” supporters of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). As a young person, I collected door-to-door for the ADRA “Appeal for Missions”—as it used to be called. Since I began working, I have been a monthly donor, a small amount paid on my credit card month-by-month that I have barely noticed. And these days, my local church collects coins at a nearby set of traffic lights for the ADRA Appeal each year.
However, in the past few years ADRA has occupied an increasing part of my thinking and how I engage with the larger world. As our income has increased over the years, my wife and I have increased our regular donations to support the work of ADRA to the point that ADRA receives a significant portion of the “second tithe” we try to give to help the poor and other justice causes in the world (see Deut. 14:22–29).
Donations to ADRA are also a way I respond to tragedies and disasters in the world. Watching news reports of earthquakes, floods, famines, and wars can leave us feeling helpless and overwhelmed by the suffering and sorrow that impact so many people’s lives. But we cannot afford to become hardened or apathetic in our responses, particularly when we can respond to the real needs of our “neighbors” (see Luke 10:29–37) by supporting the work of those who are there on the ground and able to respond practically in these situations.
I have also had the opportunity in the past few years to work with ADRA on a few writing projects and at church events, and have increasingly come to appreciate the purpose, passion, and people of ADRA. But on the whole, I remain one of those “boring” supporters, who simply give their donations and trust ADRA to do what they can in development work and emergency relief, meeting opportunities and needs as they are able, and as they are supported by so many other people like us.
Yes, it’s boring. A monthly “ADRA” charge to my credit card doesn’t feel adventurous, romantic, or world-changing. But it is a legitimate form of faithfulness, and probably one of my most useful opportunities to serve these people and respond to these important issues.
But my appreciation of ADRA grew significantly in June when I had the privilege of being part of ADRA’s Annual Council in Bangkok, Thailand. I was invited to share something of a research and writing project I have worked on with ADRA Australia, which I was pleased to do. But my greater excitement as an ordinary ADRA supporter was having the opportunity to meet and hear the stories of some 140 ADRA leaders and personnel from across the world.
I was in awe of this incredible collection of people drawn from every region of the world, many of them serving in countries other than their homelands. As I talked with them and heard their stories, I discovered problems, issues, and tragedies in the world that I didn’t know existed. But in stark contrast to most news reports, I did so in the context of hearing it from people who are working to alleviate suffering, to work against injustice, and to offer hope and better choices in peoples lives. I was humbled, daunted, and inspired.
ADRA has had, and continues to have, its challenges. What it tries to do is difficult. ADRA offices work with a variety of governments, other organizations and agencies, negotiating their countless regulations and requirements. They seek to raise and distribute money from many different sources with a range of accountabilities, while at the same time as trying to do as much as possible with the resources it has. ADRA field workers often work on complicated issues with sometimes desperate people in remote, dangerous, and tragic circumstances.
That’s why we need ADRA. Together, they—and we as their supporters—do so much more than any of us could do alone. There will always be missteps, failures, and frustrations. But for a small agency, ADRA seems to over-achieve. ADRA does many good things to respond to a world of injustice and tragedy; and in so doing, enacts the kingdom of God as described by Jesus (see Luke 4:18, 19; Matt. 10:7, 8; 25:34–36). Its partnership with the church offers both current strength and still greater opportunities.
As an ordinary ADRA supporter, I am grateful for a unique glimpse of the people and work of ADRA. My support of ADRA continues to be “boring,” but I have a renewed sense of its importance. Sometimes boring is a kind of faithfulness (see 1 Thess. 4:11, 12). But this giving isn’t so boring now that I have met the people who use our donations to make a difference. The results in the lives of many people around the world are far from boring.
Of all the descriptions of Jesus found in the gospels and beyond, my favorite—out of so many profound, beautiful, and challenging descriptions—is probably one of the least quoted, most skipped over of the Jesus pictures. It’s found in Matthew 12:17–21: “This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah concerning him: ‘Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen. He is my Beloved, who pleases me. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not fight or shout or raise his voice in public. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. Finally he will cause justice to be victorious. And his name will be the hope of all the world’” (NLT*).
[Feel free to pause and read it again, slowly and meditatively. Let the words echo in your heart and mind. Have you spent much time with this description in the past? How does this description fit with the Jesus you know? Does it change any of your imaginings of Jesus and His ministry?]
If you checked it out in your Bible, you would likely have noticed the cross-reference to Isaiah 42:1–4 that Matthew quoted to try to explain Jesus’ healing miracles—and the variations between these two quotes.
These verses are a significant point in the prophecies of Isaiah. We are more familiar with Isaiah’s description of the “suffering Servant” in chapter 53, for example: “He was despised and rejected . . .” (verse 3), and “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (verse 7), and readily identify them as prophecies of the coming Messiah and His death for our salvation. But these few verses in Isaiah 42 are the first description of this “Servant,” and explain the mission of this Savior in much broader terms than in the following chapters.
These verses are also significant in Matthew’s gospel narrative. They accompany Matthew’s first reference to the plotted death of Jesus (see Matt. 12:14), linking these words to the culmination of Jesus’ ministry in His death and resurrection. This is an important turning point. A sense of foreboding begins to grow at the same time we are reminded of Jesus’ ministry for justice and hope for all.
Yet, as important as the narrative placement of these verses is to their respective stories, it is the description itself that touches my heart and catches my imagination. In a world with so much injustice—both in Jesus’ world and in ours—to find this proclamation at the core of Jesus’ mission reminds us of the present and ultimate purposes of the kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.
But this kingdom impulse for justice comes in unexpected ways. It comes with a gentle compassion that we can be tempted to think of as weakness. The mission of Jesus has a particular regard for the weakest and most vulnerable, gently tending the bruised reed and those who can only just maintain a smoulder. It is a kingdom of the “least of these,” bringing good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, food for the hungry, and healing for the broken (compare Luke 4:18, 19, also quoting from Isaiah).
Somehow, counter-intuitively, this preference for the least and the weakest has the power to change the world, to make justice victorious to all the nations; something, we are told, Jesus would not stop until this mission is complete. These words might sound sentimental, pretentious, or even fanciful, until we remember this is about Jesus. The resurrected Jesus. “This same Jesus . . .” (see Acts 1:11).
So this isn’t only a poetic and beautiful description of Jesus. We are called to live with the transformative weakness of Jesus, with the gentleness of the Servant, with the compassion and justice of the One whose “name will be the hope of all the world.” And in doing so, we play a part in the ongoing mission prophesied and identified by Isaiah and Matthew, lifting up His name as that ultimate hope. Working for justice, seeking justice, doing justice, is a practical proclamation of Jesus, His mission, and the hope we claim.
*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
I grew up with the story of Desmond Doss, the World War II conscientious objector whose story was told in The Unlikeliest Hero, among other books. A few years ago I reconnected with his story in the form of The Conscientious Objector and, earlier this year, I was privileged to again see the film with Terry Benedict, producer and director of this award-winning documentary.*
Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who took the sixth commandment—“Thou shalt not kill”—both seriously and literally, at the same time as serving his country in the midst of World War II. Both in military training and in combat, he would not carry a gun and refused to take life, even in the heat of battle. Under heavy fire on the Pacific island of Okinawa, medic Doss rescued 75 injured men, treating their injuries, and lowering them to safety at great risk to his own life, for which he became the first conscientious objector to receive the United States’ Medal of Honor.
Desmond Doss was a true Adventist hero and—as evidenced by the success of Benedict’s excellent documentary—his story is one that can connect with people beyond our church. But the real value of such stories is not only to offer us a hero or role model, or even a reflection of what our faith can look like at its best, they should also prompt and guide us toward living with similar courage, principles, and faithfulness in our time and place.
One year on from the Sandy Hook school shooting that shocked the world, it is a puzzle to many outside the United States—and to many within—how such an horrific outrage has not prompted more than arguments about restrictions on the production, sale, and possession of automatic assault weapons. This is not only an American issue, gun crimes play out in so many places that they have to be particularly shocking or uncomfortably close to home to claim some media coverage and get our attention.
Yet we should never take such violence for granted. Apart from the political, constitutional, and cultural debates, perhaps these looping headlines and ensuing discussions about the place of violence in our societies should call us as a church to live out the kingdom of God in ways we might not have previously imagined, even when we are prompted toward this by the best of our history and heroes.
Imagine if, amid the ongoing debates and tragedies, we remembered that historically we are conscientious objectors. Imagine if we as a church stood up and spoke out, calling on our church members, and all other people of good will, to live as conscientious objectors today. And imagine if we were not only talking militarily, that in the face of ongoing social and cultural violence we chose to be civilian conscientious objectors, disarming ourselves, our homes, and our churches.
Imagine the attention and impact this kind of moral leadership could have in societies that seem unable to make progress toward curbing violence and its tragic results. Imagine if Adventists again became known as members of a “peace church,” creatively and conscientiously objecting to and resisting the culture of violence and fear that threatens to infect even our own attitudes and responses.
In saying this, I quite understand that I write from a relatively secure society, one in which I am rarely overtly threatened physically or otherwise. But I am reminded in the story of Desmond Doss of how we Adventists act at our best, resisting terrible pressures toward conformity and self-preservation, at the same time seeking to help and heal those who are most hurt by the evils around us. If Doss could live this out on the Pacific battlefields of World War II, surely it is applicable to even the worst of circumstances today.
Even in many Christian discussions, peacemaking is too often painted as some kind of flower-loving, daydreaming, disconnected approach to life. But Desmond Doss-type conscientious objection might well be regarded as the most courageous and counter-intuitive way of living, especially when done so in such difficult and dangerous situations.
Courageous and counter-intuitive except when we consider the alternative: that we lose our souls in the tragic spiral of violence and fear. As Jesus warned, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). How much more so, the automatic assault rifle or concealed handgun, possession of which implies their use is somehow justifiable?
Of course, Jesus also said this in a much more positive way: Those who work for peace will live as children of God (see Matt. 5:9). Courageous and counterintuitive as it might be, this is the way of faithfulness and true security. And in a dark and tragically violent world, what better way to shine a light of courageous hope and transforming love?
Let’s say it again: We are conscientious objectors.