August 3, 2016

People Who Care

The first generations of Adventists were engaged with the culture around them to a degree that makes many modern believers uncomfortable.

Bill Knott

Fifteen years and several thousand committee meetings ago, I spent a spirited hour with a group of colleagues debating the tense of a single verb in a proposed mission statement.

At issue was the question of whether the organization—dedicated to telling the stories of the first generation of Adventist founders and members—would use the past or present tense in a crucial verb of its carefully honed statement.

Were we telling the stories of those who “lived” to communicate the good news of the soon coming of Jesus, or were we telling the stories of those who “live” to communicate that news? The issue was far more than semantic: one choice would cast the organization in a primarily historical perspective, capturing a bygone era often imaged by horse-drawn buggies, hoop skirts, and uncomfortable wool suits. The other would underscore the spiritual continuity of today’s Adventists with the vital mission that had first called the church into being.

It’s a discussion—and sometimes a debate—that arises each time we look at the history of this movement, particularly as found in its largest and most enduring archive—the pages of this magazine. For 167 years the Adventist Review has been the place where Seventh-day Adventists work out their understandings of Bible truth, salvation through the righteousness of Christ, the significance of Scriptural teaching about health and lifestyle, and our responsibility to care for the suffering world around us.

There can be no doubt that the first generations of Adventists were engaged with the culture around them to a degree that makes many modern believers uncomfortable and even irritated. The pages of this magazine rang with denunciations of the U.S. government for its toleration of slavery in the 1850s and 1860s, with repeated insistence on government intervention to stop the lynching terror directed toward Southern Blacks in the 1890s, and with an unrelenting multi-decade crusade for prohibition of alcohol. Adventist faith was interwoven with the events and causes of that era, and there was wide agreement that this integration was holy, just, and good.

Far from being the fictional white-robed Millerite saints slandered by their 1840s critics for supposedly gathering on mountaintops to await the coming of the Lord, nineteenth-century Adventists were passionately engaged in establishing schools, planting hospitals, developing inner-city ministries, and missionizing around the globe.

In a word, they “cared” about the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of the wounded men and women among whom they lived and worked and raised children and nurtured faith. Adventist faith in the soon coming of Jesus had consequences for how they invested in caring for the “least of these.”

The question for us as their spiritual (and literal) descendants is whether we will similarly invest in ministering to the millions—no, the billions—of fellow humans whose ability to hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus is impaired by the exploitation they experience, the inadequate food and shelter available to them, the unhealthy habits that cloud their spiritual awareness, and the traumas of war and terror that make simple survival seem more urgent than their eternal destiny.

In the well-known words of Abraham Lincoln, spoken at Gettysburg in 1863—the year this church was founded—“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Lincoln spoke of a physical war that mercifully ended 18 months after his brief address, albeit at the cost of 600,000 American lives.

We speak of an ongoing, unrelenting struggle that claims far more victims around the globe each year, and that will not cease until the moment we see Jesus breaking through the clouds in the eastern sky.

This is the moment to prove—decisively—that we “care.”