Ask me what story from the Adventist past seems most relevant today, and I’ll point you to a memoir that emerged from war.
It appeared in a letter published in this magazine on June 29, 1944. Adventist medic Corporal Howard Martin was temporarily stationed near Tunis in North Africa, just after General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps was driven from the city by Allied forces.
“I hitchhiked to church there one Sabbath and was more than repaid for the effort,” Martin wrote, “though the service was closing when I found the place. A Swiss family, who had left their country at the outbreak of the war, invited me and four other Adventist soldiers who were there to go home for dinner. . . .
“During the Axis domination here, our host told us, there were three German brethren and one Italian, all soldiers, who attended church regularly. One had been with them so long and was considered so helpful that they elected him pastor, which work he did till the British occupation. Like us Adventists in the American Army, they were in the Medical Corps and did not carry arms.”
And then in words that hinted at a reality greater than perhaps even he knew, Martin added, “It was interesting to learn that on one Sabbath our hosts were out walking with those four brethren, and the next week four American Seventh-day Adventist soldiers went for a Sabbath walk over the same route.”
I’ve been replaying Corporal Martin’s words often as conflicts dominate the news with tales and images of numbing cruelty and pain. His lines remind us of a time when to be a Seventh-day Adventist was a greater honor than to serve in the armed forces of your country.
There was a time when a Swiss Adventist family could go walking with German and Italian soldiers one Sabbath afternoon and with American soldiers the next, and only lament that a world war intervened.
There was a time when conversations—even disagreements— could be measured in stories and miles, and not in nanoseconds or hit-and-run postings on a website.
There was a time—and still could be a time—when the faith of Jesus called us back to the two most basic metaphors of the Christian life—the journey and the dialogue—walking and talking together as we travel to the Celestial City.
And that time could be now.
While we are loath to admit it, Adventism as lived for much of the past 160 years has frequently acquired the warlike vocabulary of its era. Surrounded by a world consumed with conflict, the church too easily becomes a distant echo of a culture that has little use for a Prince of Peace. We speak of “enemies” and “opponents,” not noticing His enduring command to love those who disagree with us. We see no irony in attacking fellow believers who follow Jesus differently, as if we might enlarge His kingdom by obliterating part of it. We gather by our watchfires and in our camps, imagining a day when our ideals will chase all others from the field.
Where are those who speak for peace, both in the culture and the church?
Where is the once-distinctive Adventist witness to nonviolence, in word as much as deed? Will He who prayed for unity among us return to validate our warlike rhetoric and actions?
A movement that seeks to call the world to Jesus must ask if it is living out the faith of Jesus— His love, His kindness, His peacemaking—with clarity and resolve. Can we commit ourselves to dialogue with Adventists whose views offend us, and covenant to walk some miles with them? The language of address—so often used to objectify and vilify—must yet become first person plural: “we,” “us,” and “ours” must yet replace the dangerous rhetoric of “they” and “them.”
An old Black gospel lyric still sings the vow that we must make: “Ain’t gonna study war no more.”