Has American Adventism become synonymous with Americanism? Has the preservation of the American way of life become more important than the promotion of eternal life? Has safety become a greater goal than freedom? Has the Adventist vision turned into the American dream?
These questions have surfaced in the wake of last week's tragic and heart-rending attacks in both Paris and Beirut—and more significantly, in the trajectory of the rhetoric that has increased within our own community of faith. There is a surprising sentiment among us that has historically been the pitch of politicians but is alien to the historic worldview of Seventh-day Adventism.
Of course, caveats are first in order. Having both lived and traveled extensively outside the United States, I'm always grateful for the life and liberties that have been characteristic of this great nation. I love to travel; I love the rest of the world; but I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
I also believe that the establishment of America was in fulfillment of prophecy, and that the truths that we hold to be "self-evident," explained in the Declaration of Independence and affirmed in the United States Constitution—rights to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," were ordained of God, and thus most closely resemble the government of heaven. These are good and noble and important rights which we can—indeed, must—preserve.
But I would never want to confuse patriotism with this movement’s prophetic calling. We can thus only pledge allegiance to the American agenda insofar as it harmonizes with the Adventist agenda. Indeed, the success of the gospel is not—nor has it ever been—dependent on the vitality of America, notwithstanding how instrumental this nation has been as the launching point for us as a remnant people.
Alarmingly, each time America or one of its allies is victimized by terrorist attacks, the cry for "peace and safety" rings louder. We feel increased threat, and we long for the “days of yore,” when we could do whatever we wanted without fear of harm. We want to snuff out those who would do us wrong, surrendering to a seemingly inevitable "us vs. them" mentality. Some among us are even willing to build big walls along our borders, preferring to preserve our way of life from outside influence instead of extending life and freedom to others.
I understand, of course, that it is possible to bankrupt a nation—morally and fiscally—and that such a depletion can erode those very rights we hold dear. We can learn from 1930s Germany, for example, which was so economically depressed that Adolf Hitler, the horrendous despot, hiding his iron fist behind his back, looked like a savior.
We want to snuff out those who would do us wrong, surrendering to a seemingly inevitable "us vs. them" mentality.
But, honestly, how does an immigrant who never learns English undermine our core values? Yet many of us throw up our hands as though such a thing were an offense to our long-held principles (for the record: America has no "official" language). In reality, fluency in English is just a cultural expectation unrelated to the essence of America. Adventists particularly shouldn’t be bothered by those unable or unwilling to learn English: if we are true to identity, we are a people more interested in speaking in the "language of Canaan," to use Ellen White's words (see Early Writings, p. 19), than any earthly tongue.
Similarly, I can’t see how having a Syrian refugee for a neighbor can somehow erode our most cherished principle of liberty—unless, of course, we choose to allow fear to trump freedom.
The truth is, what makes America great, indeed exceptional, is not that we are always safe but that we are unimaginably free. The idolatry of safety over-against freedom is actually a fairly recent development in the American psyche, brought on by the catastrophes of World War II and the Cold War. In fact, those we term the Founding Fathers willingly forfeited their safety to fight for that freedom.
We as Adventists, the most racially diverse faith in America, who recognize our commission to share the three angels' messages with "every nation, tribe, tongue and people" (Revelation 14:6), should be especially wary of any sentiment that would harden the barriers between nations and peoples. Further, as the great champions of liberty that we've always been, in light of our understanding of God's character and biblical prophecy, it would be incongruent that we would be willing to surrender our liberties to gain a little safety.
We do well to take our cues from the Apostle Paul, among others. Though a Roman citizen (see Acts 22:27-29), he preferred to travel with the passport of a more powerful and compassionate nation. "For our citizenship is in heaven," he wrote to the believers in Philippi, "from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philippians 3:20).
Paul's agenda, emulating his Messiah's, who said His kingdom was "not of this world" (John 18:36), was not to further the interests of Rome or even of Israel. It’s hard to imagine a modern-day Paul putting the security needs of America above the security he found in Christ. He was neither deterred by nor dependent on borders. "For [Christ] Himself is our peace," he declared to the Ephesians, "who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation" (Ephesians 2:14).
Could this be the endtime vision for Adventism? Instead of clinging to nationalism—which can endorse America, France, Syria, or Russia—aren’t we called to be a church without borders?
To be clear, this is not an essay on foreign policy. The politicians can do what they want—so long as they don't encroach upon God-given liberties. But our first commitment is not to a country or a culture, but to the Christ—and to all His children, no matter what border they may be behind.
This is only possible, of course, as we embrace the "peace" of Christ that melted Paul's heart and provided the fuel for his evangelistic fervor.
This identity, I firmly believe, is not only possible but more the fulfillment of our prophetic calling. Mercifully, there will come a day—and soon, I believe—when "the earth" will be "illuminated with [God's] glory" (Revelation 18:1). And Adventists will be leading the charge—not with bullets and bombs, but with the message of the crucified and risen Savior.
Shawn Brace - @shawnbrace - is the pastor of the Bangor and Dexter Adventist churches in eastern Maine, and is a frequent contributor to Adventist Review and other periodicals.