oward the end of my brief visit to Manila in mid-November, the major subject of conversation in the media and on the street was the upcoming boxing match between Miguel Cotto of Puerto Rico and native son Manny Pacquiao, scheduled for Saturday night November 14 in Las Vegas (Sunday morning, November 15, in Manila). Even visiting U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton found herself fielding question or two on the subject at a town hall meeting with university students. “Your ride to the airport Sunday morning will be free of Manila’s notorious traffic,” someone told me, “because everyone will be off the road watching the fight.”
Just getting caught up in the excitement, I boarded the flight back to Washington and promptly forgot all about the hype. Why? Because there wasn’t a single squeak about it here—from any source. It’s been 10 days ago as I write this paragraph, and I still don’t know who won; nor have I ever remembered to check. The lesson I drew from the experience is that as Adventists (and readers of Adventist Review) we live in different realities around the world, affected by different issues and events. Thus, any year-in-review effort is limited; and what follows are simply a few of my own reflections on the passing 365—personal and selective.
How It Began
There’s no qualitative difference between December 31 and January 1. Yet with the coming of a new year our imaginations envision a clean slate, a blank page, with the hope that nothing happens to tarnish it. But for 2009 the disillusionment was not long in coming. The very first day of the New Year found Russia and Ukraine locked in a fierce dispute over gas prices, leading Russia to cut off supplies to the rest of Europe in the dead of winter. Fears of a deep chill spread all across the continent, reaching well into the month of February, and demonstrating the region’s vulnerability and its dependence on a single source for a major part of its energy needs.
Then came January 3 when Israel, in response to continuing rocket attacks on the country from Hamas fighters in Gaza, launched an invasion of the Strip. It was a nasty conflict to commence the year, with the United Nations Human Rights Council later charging both sides with war crimes.
If those developments raised a dark cloud, a bright one came on January 15 when, in a story that captured world attention, a U.S. Airways flight ditched safely in New York’s Hudson River, the skillful work by airline captain Chesley Sullenberger and his crew managing to save the lives of all 155 passengers on board. Five days later, on January 20, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, the first African-American to hold the post of chief executive in the 233-year history of the country. Some 1.5 million people crowded the grounds of the National Mall for the swearing-in ceremony.
So that’s how the year began. And from a plethora of other events, I grab a miniscule, couching them under four headings:
1. Issues of Justice
While visiting the United Kingdom in 2003 I remember reading a letter to the editor of a London newspaper, in which the writer, who’d lost a relative in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing (which killed 270 people), complained about the 27-year sentence handed down to Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan security agent convicted of the atrocity. This amounted, he wrote, to just 36 days for every person killed.
For that man, the August 20 release of al-Megrahi by Scotland’s justice minister on “compassionate” grounds, after he’d served only 8½years, must have added insult to injury. Indeed, the action brought dismay on both sides of the Atlantic. Grilled in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, the justice minister was at a loss to supply the name of a single other Scottish murderer release on similar grounds in the history of Scotland. What some saw was compassion, others regarded as evidence of a devaluation of human life in contemporary society.
The Cambodian genocide three decades ago left nearly 2 million Cambodians dead. In November former Khmer Rouge prison commander, Kaing Guek Eav, became the first high-ranking official to stand trial, 30 years after the end of the atrocity. Nearing its close as I write, the trial provided grizzly details of the horrors of the period. One of the prosecutors described the brutal end of many prisoners: “Blindfolded and handcuffed, the prisoners were forced to kneel down in the dark next to their own burial pits. There they waited until the blow of a shovel or car axle broke the back of their heads. And if that did not kill them, their throats were slit before they were kicked into their grave.”1 Through an interpreter, the 67-year-old defendant, after explaining he was only following orders, made this morbid confession: “I still claim that I am solely and individually liable for the loss of at least 12,380 lives”!2
The prosecution is calling for a prison sentence of 40 years—for a 67-year-old! It leads one to ponder again the meaning of justice. How much is a human life worth? Interviewed about his reaction to the case, one Cambodian man—a cell phone repairman—first laughed, then said: “That was a long time ago, and right now I’m too busy to care.”
Only God can ever bring adequate justice to our troubled world.
2. Issues of Religion and Faith
In October the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, became the seventh U.S. Catholic diocese to file or Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since the clergy sex abuse scandal broke in 2002. The protection was needed, said Catholic authorities in the region, given the scope of the problem—more than 140 claimants.
The criminal misconduct by its own clergy notwithstanding, the Catholic Church—also in October—announced it was opening its doors to Anglican members and clergy dissatisfied with their own church for, among other things, its acceptance of openly gay clergy. The irony here is glaring, given the fact that a large percentage of the sexual problems the Catholic Church itself is facing has had to do with same-gender sexual abuse. The invitation represented, nevertheless, an extraordinary development within Christianity, with unpredictable outcomes.
An interesting religious story out of Geneva told how Buddhism managed to capture “The Best Religion in the World Award” for 2009, given by the Geneva-based International Coalition for the Advancement of Religion and Spirituality (ICARUS).3
The special award was voted on by an international roundtable of more than 200 religious leaders from all parts of the spiritual spectrum, many leaders voting for Buddhism above their own faith. Jonna Hult, director of research for ICARUS, said: “We could find literally not one single instance of a war fought in the name of Buddhism, in contrast to every other religion that seems to keep a gun in the closet just in case God makes a mistake.”4
Take it for what it’s worth; but I think there’s something here for Christians to ponder.
In 2009 many Evangelicals in the United States showed signs of disaffection with the past and a desire to carve a new way forward. During a meeting at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts the third week of October, “leading thinkers called fellow believers to repent for a host of sins, from reducing the gospel to a right-wing political agenda to rendering God as a lenient father who merely wants ‘cuddle time with His kids.’”5
One speaker “urged pastors to talk less about fulfilling personal potential and offer more from the likes of Old Testament prophet Joel, who warns God’s people to wail and repent before the Lord scorches the earth.”6
“‘We Evangelicals have moved from a church grounded in solid theology to a church grounded in personal relationships,’ said Neil Gastonguay, pastor of Bath United Methodist Church in Maine. ‘We don’t have a message anymore.’”7
This development has relevance for the wider Christian community, including Seventh-day Adventists. There’s considerable froth creeping into Adventist talk and preaching today. Usually behind the social curve, Adventists are just now coming into what these Evangelicals want out of—as might be seen (to cite one example) in the rave “reviews” something like The Shack (by William Young) has been receiving in some Adventist circles. Adventists will need to learn how we function in a culture that glorifies pluralism and tolerance among its most cherished values. There was a time when Adventists wondered how they might capture the attention of the nations. Now growing number of us in some quarters are wondering whether we need to. The times are perilous and confusing.
3. Issues of the Economy and Human Need
The economic crisis that began in September 2008, pushing people to the tops of high buildings with thought of jumping, both continued and abated in 2009. Perhaps the one common factor underlying the crisis is greed. No longer are people satisfied with what we used to call a “decent profit.” Instead, everyone wants to see excessive gains each year. “Unless somebody can find a way to change human nature,” says former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, “we will have more [economic] crises.”8
Partly in response to that crisis, Pope Benedict XVI came out with his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). The “144 [-page] densely written” document (as a reporter for the Irish Times described it) addresses the issue of the global economy from the context of the sanctity of the individual person, arguing that people should not take second place to the interests of multinational companies that have little concern for either individuals or local communities.9
Concern for the poor and marginalized in society is something that merits the support of all Christians who would follow in the footsteps of “the Man for others.” And a continuing problem that American Adventists face is that of labeling as “politics” important initiatives designed to help the less fortunate and benefit the entire society. The much-debated health insurance proposals in the United States, for example. Without necessarily waving banners in the streets, should not Adventists, who for decades have preached a “health message,” be ready to support such a thing? How many reading these lines have suffered the indignity and embarrassment of appearing at a modern health facility without insurance?
Long ago God said through His messenger: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8, 9).
4. Issues of Security and Peace
After British-born Richard Reid attempted to bomb an American Airlines flight carrying 197 people from Paris in 2001, airport security everywhere began requiring passengers to remove their shoes and other clothing for inspection. I remember jokingly asking at the time what would happen if terrorists were to choose a more delicate part of their person or wardrobe to carry their deadly implements. Last October it happened. A terrorist, claiming an interest in reconciliation, managed to arrange a meeting with an important Saudi government minister before blowing himself up. He’d hidden the bomb in an unmentionable part of his body, thereby avoiding detection. The incident has the potential of creating havoc for travelers worldwide and has exponentially increased the security threat.
In the United States the deadly shooting at Fort Hood in Texas in November brought fears of home-grown terrorism to new levels. Reporting on the incident, Nancy Gibbs noted that “terrorism is now an entrepreneurial arena, with the Internet as its global recruiting station, attracting the lost, the loners, the guy with a coffee cart on Wall Street buying up hair dye and nail-polish remover to blend into bombs . . .” (Time, Nov. 23, 2009, p. 27).
It’s a perilous time.
A year-in-review, prepared well ahead of December 31, cannot capture the closing developments of the passing year, events that can be both spectacular and significant. (The 1989 Christmas Day execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, for example; or the Boxing Day Asian tsunami that killed 250,000 people in 2004.)
But what is clear as 2009 comes to an end is that the world continues to grapple with a series of intractable problems: the settlements issue in Palestine; the status of East Jerusalem; the stalemate in Zimbabwe; tensions involving North Korea, Sudan, Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, and a host of other countries and regions. The prospects for security and peace looked as dim as ever in 2009.
The sudden and unexpected death of Michael Jackson on June 25 triggered a worldwide outpouring of grief and condolence, with speakers even in Adventist circles bemoaning the passing of a legend. That last reaction surprised me and led me to make comparison with the response to the passing of broadcast luminary Walter Cronkite 22 days later. If the popular response to Jackson’s passing rose to an 8 on the emotional Richter scale, the response to Cronkite’s came to about 1.5.
What that says about contemporary society is difficult to assess; but, inadvertently, it probably sent a subtle message that hype and pizzazz supersede the more “mundane” pursuits. Repeatedly in 2009 we saw a blurring of the lines between reality and unreality, fact and fiction, sense and nonsense. The homemade balloon incident in mid-October, in which a Colorado couple tried to trick their way into publicity and fame, stands as an emblem of our crazy times with its twisted drive for celebrity.
But the harsh realities of our existence keep striking back. I began this article with a portrayal of the Philippines giddy over prospects for its boxing champion. He won, I now know. There must have been dancing in the streets, fists clenched in the triumphant “Yes!” But the celebrations were hardly over when word came about a horrible politically motivated massacre in the south of the country—57 dead.
It was a symbol of a thousand other incidents throughout a grueling year that wrung from our souls the desperate cry: Good riddance! Good riddance to a very difficult year! With hope for another clean slate that nothing will tarnish.
Unfortunately, that won’t happen. But a better day is coming. We know the ending of the tragic drama of this wayward planet. Hear it again from the seer of Patmos:
“I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. . . . I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: ‘Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.’ The Enthroned continued, ‘Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.’”10
The end of 2009 brings us one year closer to that splendid moment.
Roy Adams is an associate editor of Adventist Review. This article was printed December 24, 2009.