This is the sixth post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from the chapters of To Change the World by James Hunter. You can find the reading schedule here.
One of the pleasures of working at Andrews University is that, sooner or later, one can expect to see anyone in Adventism sitting in the cafeteria. Last week, I had such a sighting, as I spotted a classmate from Newbold College that I had last seen nearly 30 years ago. Re-introducing myself, we spent a pleasant period catching up on family and career histories.
After a successful, even lucrative, career as a businessman and consultant in the corporate world, my friend had been approached by one of our colleges to give a “life tithe,” by devoting five years of career time to teaching. He had agreed to this. But such was the satisfaction of teaching and supporting the school’s mission that five years had now turned into ten.
We talked about a number of mutual friends who had similar experiences, pursuing successful, even stellar careers in business or law, and then returned to work for a church institution. In reflecting on this, my friend commented on the power of the influence of Adventist education. Indeed, he shared, that he himself had become a convert through Adventist education.
With a Catholic mother, and a Baptist father, his parents had been at loggerheads over where to educate him—until their new baby’s doctor recommended the local Adventist school as a compromise. Well, if it was good enough for their physician’s children, it must be good enough for their son. He spent many years attending an Adventist school, though living a very different lifestyle at home.
But as a senior in academy, the persistent message and influence of his education led him to accept Christ in the context of the Adventist message. The following year, he went to Newbold, where his faith was affirmed and deepened. Twenty years later he was back, with significant business and leadership skills, to contribute to the heritage from which he benefitted.
My friend’s story of the long-term influence of Adventist education contributing to both spiritual commitment and career success is not unusual in Adventist circles. It is also not that surprising, given the resources and emphasis we have placed on our system of Christian education. For all its imperfections, shortcomings, and ongoing existential angst, the Adventist system of education remains a remarkable achievement and influence—the largest Protestant educational system in the world built by a small Protestant movement growing out of rural America.
It is my friend’s story, and the larger story of Adventist education, that makes me think that James Hunter is not quite right when he says that “in the end, the Christian Right and Left and the neo-Anabaptists operate with an understanding of the good society through the prism of politics” (169). I think that this statement may be partially true for the Christian Right in recent years and for the Christian Left for somewhat longer. But I think this claim is largely untrue for the neo-Anabaptists, which, of the three, the Adventist church is, I think, most closely identified with.
But before I explore the significance of this difference with Hunter, let me summarize those points in where Hunter has been helpful, and even profound. These are:
- Christians have a mandate from both creation and redemption to make the world a better place, even though the improvement may be incomplete, transitory, and provisional this side of the Kingdom of glory. Somehow our pioneers, though focused on the apocalyptic and the coming Advent, understood this point, and played active roles in social justice issues of their day, including temperance reform, prohibition, and the abolition of slavery.
- Christians have to understand that the world is not directly changed through abstract ideas, or through material things, but through the formation of social, cultural and religious institutions that represent the distillation of values in systems of order that endure for many generations. Again, our pioneers seemed to grasp this point, and created educational, medical, and church institutions, many of which have endured for a century or more.
- Christians must understand that ideas and values that shape institutions must have influence or resonance with certain elites within communities for that shaping to take place. This is an idea that some of our reviewers struggled with, and indeed it can be overstated to argue for an elitist view of history and the world. We must remember that the founder of our religion was a simple carpenter. And yet, the life of Christ seemed to intersect at important times with cultural elites, whether with the wise men at his birth, Nicodemus at night during his ministry, and the rulers Herod and Pilate in his final days. While the twelve disciples seemed to be commoners, nearly two-thirds of the New Testament was authored by Paul, an elite by training and education. Interestingly, Ellen White often called for our outreach to target the higher classes and thought leaders, who often remain untouched by popular evangelism.
- It is a mistake for Christians to think that the primary or most important way of affecting these changes is through politics, though Hunter would agree that some political involvement is acceptable and even important. But he argues, and I think rightly, that both the Religious Right, consisting of the politicized evangelicals and fundamentalist starting in the mid 1970s, and the Religious Left, the mainline Protestant denominations starting earlier in the 20th century, have made the mistake of making their primary mode of societal engagement and impact that of politics.
The above are powerful and helpful points. But it is in Hunter’s view and description of the neo-Anabaptists that I think he gets off the rails a bit. He lumps them in with the religious right and left in focusing too much on political activism. His analysis suffers, in my view, from a basic error of misidentification. He seems correct in his basic tri-part breakdown of a conservative religious right, a liberal religious left, and a neo-Anabaptist camp.
I think, however, he is confused as to who the neo-Anabaptists actually consist of, and he places some of them in with the religious left. The two most notable examples are Ronald Sider, who is a Mennonite scholar, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who has a background in the Plymouth Brethren. The neo-Anabaptists in my view are characterized by a conservative approach to scripture, but a moderate, and at times liberal approach to politics. They are much more open to the social justice critique of the Hebrew prophets to issues of poverty and inequity.
The neo-Anabaptist also are in favor of a meaningful separation between church and state, with the government avoiding involvement, endorsement or financial support of spiritual beliefs and teachings. But they tend to maintain social moral and sexual standards in ways that the religious left does not. Both Sider and Wallis have taken positions opposing both same-sex marriage and abortion on demand, though they do not view these issues as necessarily central or primary to their political concerns.
This distinction is important, in my view, as it puts Sider and Wallis with the communities they belong, the Mennonites, Friends, Amish, and the Adventists in being religiously and culturally conservative, but also anti-Constantinian, and thus generally quite suspicious of politics. Indeed, one could argue that these groups have often been too suspicious of politics, especially after being leavened by the isolationism and quietism of early 20th century fundamentalism, as was Adventism.
These groups have made significant impacts on society in non-political ways. Most of us are familiar with the Adventist educational and medical networks, though not all may realize that they are the largest such networks in the Protestant world. The story of my Newbold friend is just one example of the countless leaders in the business, social, and political world that have been shaped by Adventist education. This influence is even more profound overseas, where the power of Adventist education has influenced and produced senior government officials, rulers and Supreme Court Justices in a number of countries. This reach is remarkable, considering we are dwarfed in total numbers by quite a few Protestant denominations.
The Mennonites are considerably smaller than the Adventists, only about 1.5 million worldwide, yet they also have widespread schools, an active disaster relief organizations similar to ADRA, and they are engaged in international peace-keeping and reconciliation work that is truly extraordinary given their small size. In the peacemaking field, the Mennonite Church truly is the mouse that roared.
I think that Hunter overlooks these significant institutional building, society impacting contributions of the neo-Anabaptists, and attributes to them greater political involvement and energy than they actually posses. In some ways, Sider and Wallis are uniquely political in trying to mobilize their communities into what would be a more appropriate level of political involvement. Even Hunter acknowledges that Christians and churches need to play some role in politics, carrying out the basic duties of any involved citizen.
Ultimately, the neo-Anabaptists, and especially the Adventists, are probably not political enough, in the right kind of way. We have social and cultural capital far beyond our numbers, but are not, on the whole, willing to leverage that capital in the political arena for causes that would be appropriate and would have meaningful impact. Why is this? I think part of the answer is the influence of a distorted, southern-fundamentalist inspired understanding of the separation of church and state as somehow equaling the separation of morality and the state.
I think we missed the boat in not being more involved in the movement for civil rights in the 50’s and 60’s, in not seeking reductions on abortions and pornography in the 70’s and 80's, and now not doing what we can to defend marriage and the family, as well as opposing torture, in the 21st century. We should be involved in these civil movements, however, not because they are the only, best, or primary way of impacting society. I think Hunter is right on this point. Our best impact is through the institutions of education, health care, community service, and worship that we build.
These other efforts in the civil realm should flow from, and build upon, these institutions of “faithful presence.” Faithfulness extends beyond the immediate tasks of our institutions, and the role we may play in them. We are only truly “faithful” as we also carry out our role, identity, and presence as citizens, charged with having a voice in promoting justice, fairness, and virtue in the government and laws of our land.
____ Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an associate professor of church history at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, where he is also director of the International Religious Liberty Institute. His book The Religious Roots of the First Amendment was published by Oxford University Press this summer.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4617