On the weekends of July 4 and Memorial Day, the flag takes center stage in churches all across America. Not in all of them, but in many. Some are Adventist churches where the Bible, including its apocalypticism, is supposed to make a difference.
This is, quite simply, a horrendous betrayal of the Gospel.
As I say, it doesn’t happen everywhere. On the Fourth of July just past, at the Grand Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Oakland, California, Jonathan Henderson presided over a service in which the calendar of American patriotic holidays played no part. My wife and two of her sons were present, and the sermon was a call to countercultural faith. The pastor did not address politics as such, but he did contrast the Gospel with business as usual in the surrounding world.
That is the biblical—and most certainly the apocalyptic—point of view.
I thought I had heard it all when I learned, a few years ago, that on Memorial Day weekend, before a large Adventist congregation, an American military honor guard, brandishing weapons, marched the flag down to the platform. But just last Sabbath, another large Adventist congregation, gathered for worship on the Fourth of July, stood before the Stars and Stripes, just as you might do at the ball park, and sang the American national anthem. The words—“the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”—were proudly printed in the bulletin.
I grew up loving America, and I love it still. Most Mondays, at Rotary meetings, I pledge allegiance to the flag. But thanks to the apocalyptic vision, I imagine (perhaps self-deceptively) that the pledge’s “under God” puts my loyalties in correct perspective: not God and country, but God above country. Still, I bridle at making any show of patriotism in a Christian worship service.
For one thing, the praise of Christ is, by its nature, international. The risen Christ extends his welcome to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. Thus it is not surprising that many Adventist congregations, if not most, have members who grew up elsewhere, nor is it surprising that some of these members are still citizens of other countries.
What is more, Christian worship requires that we transcend every narrow loyalty. In prayer and song and preaching we say (ideally) what Scripture teaches: there is one God, the Maker of us all, and to that one God we owe our absolute allegiance. No other loyalty—whether to a flag or a bloodline, whether to a job or a passion—measures up to this one. No other loyalty can legitimately compete with it.
George Knight’s The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism makes this very point, and it has, I am glad to say, sold many thousands of copies since its publication in 2008. Knight puts the prophetic verities of our parents and grandparents into fresh perspective. Lowering his shoulder, he cracks open a door to a new and better path.
But is the book hard-hitting enough?
The author does uphold the apocalyptical elements of Scripture, and he does make a case for countercultural faith; God wants us “to be abnormal by this world’s standards.” He does, furthermore, affirm the “radical discontinuity” between what now is and what is to come; though we must in the here and now take responsibility for ourselves and our neighbors, human efforts pale in comparison with the complete renewal that will attend the Second Coming. For the author of this book, Christ alone is able “to save us amply and fully.” Jesus the hope of the world is apocalypticism “in a nutshell.”
Acknowledging that distortions of apocalyptic all too often crowd out deeper understanding, Knight reproves any preoccupation with “bashing other churches,” or with fear (instead of love) as a “motivational force,” or with speculations that leave us lurching “from one period of eschatological excitement to the next.” Watchfulness matters; but no form of watchfulness must get in the way of service and the faithful preaching of the Gospel.
Whether from timidity or prudence, however, Knight pulls his punches now and then. He does hint at a wider relevance for Revelation’s zoo of monsters than the old-time evangelists could see. The “beasts,” he says, are “relevant” today—and here he mentions (courageously, I think) not only Hitler and Stalin and Saddam Hussein, but also the “lamblike beasts” who in their seeming goodness, or even seeming Christianity, still do deeds of evil.
He hints at all this, and briefly calls our attention to the Sermon on the Mount, calling it “a radical departure” from the value systems of the larger world or even of “most churches.” But these themes go undeveloped. Writers like the Mennonite John Howard Yoder and Message Bible author Eugene Peterson, both students of the apocalyptic vision, speak explicitly of the “politics” of Jesus. It is not, of course, the politics of power but the politics of forgiveness and generosity, the politics of witness. But unless the point is made unmistakably, readers may fail to realize that Jesus stands over against all worldly might, even the best of it. And they may continue, Adventist or not, to lapse into forms of worship that betray the Gospel.
But is that betrayal actually “horrendous”?
Consider how German Christians, including Adventists, celebrated the Nazi regime. Consider how Rwandan Christians, including Adventists, put tribal loyalty above basic human decency. Consider how, in America and elsewhere, Christ was once put into the service of slavery.
We may be grateful, as I am, for the good fortune (in general) that Americans enjoy. But Jesus is still Savior and Lord to all humanity. And it is just too risky, too cataclysmically risky, to put any nation or any tribe into competition, or even apparent competition, with the one true object of our worship, the God of Jesus Christ.
During the conflict in Bosnia, in the early 1990’s, a pastor named Milan Suslic explained to an American reporter how he and his Adventist colleagues could oversee an informal postal system that was bringing parcels of food, by truck convoy, into the desperate, Muslim-controlled section of Sarajevo. The trucks had to pass through the city’s Serb-controlled outskirts. The whole operation depended on the cooperation and good will of the warring factions.
How could this be happening? We belong “to the region,” the pastor said, “but not to the conflict.” Not one bullet, not one evidence of worldly might, was allowed on any truck. “We are nobody’s and everybody’s,” he declared.
From the Gospel perspective, anything short of this—and patriotism in Christian worship certainly does fall short of it—really is horrendous. Here no soft words, no easy pleasantries, are suitable.
Charles Scriven is president of Kettering College of the Medical Arts and is chairman of the Adventist Forum.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1732