Bonhoeffer, AR-15s, and Adventist Ethics—Part II


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In Part I of this series, I proposed the Christian ethic of gun ownership that I want to outline. This ethic juxtaposes the historical Adventist ethic of conscientious objection with the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In this section, I will argue for the usefulness of this approach.

A Short History of Non-Violence [i]

Like us, early Adventists, from the Civil War to WWI, lived in an era of violence. In this context Adventists formulated and acted out an ethic of conscientious objection to bearing arms.

During the American Civil War, Adventists refused to bear arms. For example, in an 1864 letter to the governor of Michigan, the first General Conference president, John Byington, requested that Adventists be exempted from military service. Byington wrote that “Seventh-day Adventists, taking the Bible as their rule of faith and practice, are unanimousin their views that its teachings are contrary to the spirit and practice of war; hence, they have ever been conscientiously opposed to bearing arms.”[ii] Similarly, in an article published in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald in September 1864, J.N. Andrews wrote that Adventists are “a noncombatant people.”[iii] On the same note, Ellen White, writing of the Civil War, said: “I was shown that God's people, who are His peculiar treasure, cannot engage in this perplexing war, for it is opposed to every principle of their faith…There would be a continual violation of conscience [for Adventists who participate].”[iv]

Likewise, during the Spanish-American war, Adventists spoke against the imperialist violence of American military operations. A. T. Jones wrote, “War is the loss of all human sense; under its influence men become animals entirely.”[v] “ Jones drew a total divide between Christians and warriors: “Christianity is one thing; war is another, and far different thing.”[vi] Adventist resistance to American violence can also be seen in Percy Magan’s The Peril of the Republic, a work published in 1899, condemned the Spanish-American War as “national apostasy.”[vii] The official position of the Adventist church remained one of total opposition to violence, especially the violence of imperialist war.

From the early 1860s until Ellen White’s death on the eve of World War I, the Adventist church maintained an unambiguous position of conscientious objection, which mandated total abstinence of church members from participating in armed combat.

An Even Shorter History of Conscientious Objection

After Ellen White’s death, according to Ronald Osborn, “the ethos of the early [Adventist] church rapidly eroded…with regard to the military and bearing of arms.”[viii] Though Adventists continued to publish statements which outlined a position of conscientious objection, the church position grew continually more ambivalent on the participation of church members in military service. For example, a 1934 statement approved by the General Conference stated that Adventist youth “should be patriotic, ready to serve their country’s welfare at personal sacrifice.”[ix] As Osborn points out, “maintaining good relations with government authorities now took precedence over prophetic and politically dangerous brands of dissent.”[x]

By 1972, when a statement of the Autumn Council “made clear that those who accepted 1-O or 1-A (combatant) classification would not be denounced or excluded,”[xi] the Adventist position had changed so fully that “the noncombatant principle the church had repeatedly advocated…had officially been rendered non-normative.”[xii] Currently, many Adventists serve as full combatants in militaries around the world.

Adventist practice has moved quite drastically away from the early pacifist radicalism. Currently, Adventists take a variety of positions on a matter which they once all agreed on. The historical Adventist ethic of conscientious objection, once seemingly clear-cut, has become confused and contradictory. What should we make of this history?

Bonhoeffer's Bright Steel

Let us turn to the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer outlined his ethics in the context of Nazi Germany. In this context, in some ways similar to our own, Bonhoeffer felt “the pressure of reality filled with concrete, ethical problems such as we have never had before in the history of the West.”[xiii]

In response to the ethical problems of his age, Bonhoeffer rejected the paradigms of traditional ethics. “Reason, ethical fanaticism, conscience, duty, free responsibility, and quiet virtue are goods and convictions of a noble humanity,”[xiv] wrote Bonhoeffer, acknowledging the goods of traditional ethical paradigms. Yet Bonhoeffer found these paradigms inadequate for the overwhelming ethical problems of the day: “nevertheless we must replace rusty weapons with bright steel.”[xv]

For Bonhoeffer, this bright steel is the knowledge that “reality is not built on principles, but rests on the living, creating God…[the knowledge] that reality can be helped neither by the purest principles nor with the best will, but only by the living God.”[xvi] Reality is “real only in God.”[xvii] This understanding is possible “only because there is one place where God and the reality of the world are reconciled with each other…Jesus Christ the reconciler of the world.”[xviii]

The person who wields this bright steel is “liberated from the problems and conflicts of ethical decision, and is no longer beset by them. This person belongs to God and to God’s will alone.”[xix] This person is called to live responsibly in response to the Word of God in Christ.[xx] How?

For Bonhoeffer, “the attention of responsible people is directed to concrete neighbors in concrete reality. Their behavior is not fixed in advance once and for all by a principle, but develops together with the given situation.”[xxi] Acting with free responsibility may entail taking on guilt, which the person acting freely takes upon herself. “Those who in acting responsibly take on guilt…place this guilt on themselves, not someone else; they stand up for it and take responsibility for it…Those who act out of free responsibility are justified before others by dire necessity; before themselves they are acquitted by their conscience, but before God they hope only for grace.”[xxii]

Divine Command Ethics

Before putting Bonhoeffer’s ethics into full dialogue with the Adventist ethic of conscientious objection, I want to quickly mention “divine-command ethics.”

This ethics, embraced by elements of the Adventist tradition and the Radical Reformation tradition from which it stems, proposes that Christians can draw unambiguous ethical imperatives from the Bible. Many early Adventists assumed divine-command ethics, and contemporary Adventists continue to assume one. In Seventh-day Adventists Believe, ethics are framed as a matter of “principles.” For example, in the words of belief nineteen, “the great principles of God’s law are embodied in the Ten Commandments and exemplified in the life of Christ.”[xxiii]

Divine-command ethics stems from the idea that God’s commands are ‘eternal,’ in the sense of a-temporal. Since God’s commands are a-temporal, they are written down (especially in the Bible) and can constantly be referenced in the face of ethical problems. This ethics ignores the historicity of the biblical record of God’s words for His people. For example, it ignores the preamble to the Ten Commandments, which frames the ethics of the Commandments as historically unique to Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”[xxiv]

Divine-command ethics as an ethics of principles is one of the ethics that Bonhoeffer objected to. But divine-command ethics has been proven inadequate in Adventist history, particularly, as outlined above in the Adventist approach to military service.

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and the Adventist Ethic in Dialogue

Bonhoeffer’s ethics render the current Adventist ethic of conscientious objection (based on divine command ethics) unintelligible. Moreover, the contradictory answers that contemporary Adventists give to the once clear-cut question of military service points to the need for Adventists to consider a new ethical framework.

An ethics for today can be formulated based on the ethics of Bonhoeffer. This ethics would be an ethics which acknowledges the concrete realities of historical circumstances. While retaining (and indeed amplifying) the centrality of Christ which figures prominently in Adventist thought already, this ethics would also allow us to deal with the ethical challenges of today—including the challenge of gun ownership.

Elements of Adventist ethical tradition have already begun to reformulate ethics in the terms similar to Bonhoeffer’s ethics. For example, the General Conference statement of ethical foundations for its proceedings and employees (the pastors and leaders of Adventist churches) states: “We are responsible first to God, our Creator…We are responsible to the communities in which we work and live and also to the world community.”[xxv] In this ethical statement, responsibility based on acknowledgement of historical situations figures much more strongly than the ethical imperatives characteristic of divine-command ethics.

In Part III, I will apply Bonhoeffer’s ethics of the responsible life based on a knowledge of historical reality—urgently called for by ethical impasses like the contradictory ethic of Adventists in the military—to the question of gun ownership.

[i]Much content of this section and the following section was published in the February 7, 2013, issue of Walla Walla University's The Collegian, in an article titled “Seventh-day Adventists and the Military.”

[ii]Quoted in Francis McLellan Wilcox, Seventh-day Adventists in Time of War (Takoma Park: Review and Herald, 1936), 58.

[iv]Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Volume I, (Nampa: Pacific Press, 2002), 361.

[v]Quoted in “War—The True and the False Estimate,” Adventist Peace Fellowship, last modified unknown, http://www.adventistpeace.org/clientimages/39491/apw_jonesa_war_rh_27june1899.pdf

[vi]Quoted in Ronald Osborn, “A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists in Times of War.” Adventist Peace Fellowship, last modified unknown, http://www.adventistpeace.org/templates/System/details.asp?id=39491&PID=465404

[vii]Quoted in Doug Morgan, “The Peril of the Republic (1899) by Percy T. Magan.” Adventist Peace Fellowship, last modified unknown, http://www.adventistpeace.org/templates/System/details.asp?id=39491&PID=465437

[viii]Osborn, “A Brief History.”

[ix]Quoted in Wilcox, Adventists in Time of War, 384.

[x]Osborn, “A Brief History.”

[xiii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Works, vol. 6, (Fortress Press, 2005), 76.

[xxiii]Seventh-day Adventists Believe (Silver Spring: Ministerial Association, 2005), 263.

[xxv] http://adventist.org/beliefs/other-documents/other-doc11.html

—Daniel Peverini, from Loma Linda, California, is currently studying theology at Walla Walla University.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5092