May 13, 2009

A Good Word About Politics

It’s one of the most familiar axioms of our experience, a line repeated in hundreds of foyer conversations each year and in several dozen letters to this editor. Thousands of loyal church members take a special comfort in the belief that even their periodic journeys to the polls to elect new representatives in Congress or Parliament don’t invalidate their claim to rising above the muck and mire of politics.
But let a church leader recommend a sensible and Christian concern for the environment; let this magazine urge readers to support anti-tobacco legislation pending in the U.S. Congress; let a local pastor invite believers to pray for the victims of war in Iraq or Afghanistan, and a chorus of voices will insist that “Adventists shouldn’t get involved in politics.”
Yet a line doesn’t become more true because it is repeated often, even by believers. A saying may be both axiomatic and wrong, as this one is.
2009 1513 page6Even the briefest survey of Adventist history reveals that individual Adventists and the wider church have frequently become involved in public issues that our society considers “political.”
This movement and this magazine were birthed during a titanic national struggle over the issue of slavery, and Sabbathkeeping Adventists unflinchingly assailed their government for tolerating the “peculiar institution” that denied more than 3 million African-Americans the freedoms promised in the Declaration of Independence. Their position, founded on the biblical declaration of the equality of all persons in the sight of God, was a profoundly political one in that era, just as support for the civil rights movement proved to be exactly a century later. You have never read—nor will likely ever read—such denunciatory language about a government as routinely appeared in these columns 150 years ago.
Thirty years later, during the height of the lynching campaign in the American South that sought to intimidate freed African-Americans, this magazine courageously highlighted the wickedness and brutality of those crimes, even though that position was universally regarded as “political.” One editorial note even suggested that foreign warships ought to be anchored in Southern ports to enforce the basic norms of civilized society!
From the 1890s to 1933 the Seventh-day Adventist Church, encouraged by its cofounder and prophetic messenger, Ellen White, championed the cause of alcoholic Prohibition. The columns of this magazine regularly announced which states were “wet” or “dry,” where action was needed, which legislators needed backbone. Convinced that the scourge of easy alcohol was drowning the nation they loved in a sea of criminality and domestic tragedy, Adventists braved the scorn of pro-alcohol forces to rally support for the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And when it was repealed 13 years later, they made no secret of their sorrow.
In December 1921 the inside cover of this journal displayed an open letter to U.S. President Warren G. Harding. Besides asserting the church’s historic position of noncombatancy, the Annual Council document declared: “As Seventh-day Adventists, in common with other religious bodies, we strongly favor a limitation of armaments, and if it were possible in the present state of society, we would favor the abolition of all war among the nations of men.” This admirable statement was then—and is now—a political document, for it advanced a philosophy about how human beings in a society ought to relate to one another—the very definition of “politics.”
What Adventists then meant to avoid, and what thoughtful Adventists today also intend to avoid, is the agitation of partisan politics, in which loyalty to one party’s platform or control of the government overrides a citizen’s commitment to biblical values and God-given freedoms. We have justly scorned the paraphernalia of placards and endorsements in this magazine and in our churches, knowing just how weak and sinful any personality or political party can turn out to be.
But we have also never flinched from identifying the moral struggles in society that demand the church’s attention and sometimes require her intervention. In order for the church to fulfill her mission, civil liberties must be preserved; hungry souls must be fed with real bread, as well as the Bread of Life; justice must be guaranteed to those without power or influence; the divinely ordained institutions of home and marriage must be preserved.
So don’t expect this journal or this movement to avoid all things “political,” for doing that would make them morally irrelevant, a waste of time and trust. Expect instead biblically informed thinking, a limited engagement with selected vital issues—and the willingness to speak up when the cause requires it.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.