Enter any colleague’s cubicle or office, and you quickly spot the items that make the space distinctive. Above, around, and on the standard-issue furniture are pieces of the occupant’s past—his travel; her grandchildren; an anniversary photo; a philodendron that miraculously survives with little water and no natural light.
But perched atop the central bookcase of the six that ring my office walls is a rectangular sign that neatly sums up the role each of the 11 Review editors has discovered to be his own: “Voice Crying in the Wilderness Department.”
I’ve watched for a decade as first-time visitors and guests smile ruefully at my plaque. “Are you bragging or complaining?” one dared to ask. I grimaced, but didn’t give an answer, for who can really say? Some roles, including being editor of the oldest journal in Adventism, require an ability to swim against the tide, to speak when others choose the seeming safety of silence, to call God’s pilgrim people on toward better, wiser, higher things. There are, in fact, responsibilities that “come with the job.”
But the anger and divisiveness that now dominate the discourse of this movement underline the loneliness inherent in my bookcase message. Are there still Adventists who believe in civil—or even civilized—conversation? Are there still wise and thoughtful men and women who refuse to hurl the convenient brickbat at their theological or ecclesiastical opponents—who shun the easy swipe from their pulpits and their blogs at those who want different things for the church they love? Are there still souls who ask for quiet dialogues, for point-by-point discussion and debate—and don’t deliver up their notes and anecdotes to the smoldering social media smudgepots that tar all who disagree?
I have watched the politics of attack invade the landscape of this movement.
I am less confident of this than I was 10 years ago, for I have watched the politics of attack invade the landscape of this movement. The sides are drawn; the banners unfurled; the pickets placed, for battle is in the air. Leaders who know better—and should do better—reach for the easy slur or hasty taunt, inciting fear when they ought to be creating understanding, even of ideas they don’t like.
Persuaded by their need for stirring “Amens!” from a crowd, speakers thunder ominously against “the forces that would destroy us from within,” causing many honest souls to wonder if they share the pew with heretics. God’s people are too rarely led by green pastures and still waters: their loyalty is sought; their souls are not restored. Members in a thousand congregations show all the signs of being “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36, NRSV). The complaint of Annie Smith, first poet of Adventism and the earliest female on the editorial staff of this journal, seems painfully, prophetically accurate: “Long upon the mountains, weary, have the scattered flock been torn.”*
This lament is made all the more ironic by the realization that those who most need to hear a call for modest rhetoric and thoughtful dialogue will likely neither read it nor hear it. But still it must be given—for this is truly the “Voice Crying in the Wilderness Department.” Even while we deplore the foolish conflicts that pit believer against believer and Paul against Apollos, we cannot cease to advocate for peace among God’s remnant people. In hope, we plant the sprigs of future orchards, for where will we ever find olive branches to offer to each other if we don’t put roots into the ground, and water them with kindness, sympathy, and prayer?
Paul’s counsel stands the test of time—and this time of testing: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
* Annie R. Smith, “Long Upon the Mountains,” Christ in Song (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1908), no. 736.