Historical reviews, an in-depth textual study of the Bible, lively panel discussions, sobering reflections, and even some tears.
All of these were present as more than 100 Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries directors and church leaders met for The Seventh-day Adventist Church and Military-Related Service Conference on April 10 and 11, 2019.
The event, held at the Adventist Church world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, sought to create awareness of the denomination’s official position on military-related service, and explore how to apply it in an increasingly complex and nuanced international landscape.
Church’s Clear Official Position
The historical Adventist position on military service is clear, Adventist Church president Ted N. C. Wilson reminded attendees in his opening remarks. “The church’s position is one of non-combatancy,” Wilson said as he briefly reviewed the origins of the church’s stance during the United States’ Civil War in the early 1860s.
It is a position, Wilson said, that is rooted in Seventh-day Adventists’ supreme allegiance and relationship to God. Quoting from the church’s official statements on the topic, he read, “[Our] partnership with God through Jesus Christ who came into this world not to destroy men’s lives but to save them causes Seventh-day Adventists to advocate a non-combatant position, following their divine Master in not taking human life, but rendering all possible service to save it.”
Adventist Church Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director Ganoune Diop agreed. “Jesus chose non-violence, and Seventh-day Adventists must live up to this ideal of Jesus’ message and mission,” he emphasized. “The Prince of Peace agenda is still to be taken seriously by those who claim Him as Lord and Savior.”
Seventh-day Adventists, Diop added, have a historical reason to do so. “The Reformation did not lead to the absolute rejection of violence as Jesus did,” he reminded participants, “but as heirs of the Reformation, Seventh-day Adventists must emphasize Jesus’ ideals until His Second Coming and the restoration of all things.”
David Trim, director of the Adventist Church’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, shared some documents showing that an understanding of the historical Adventist position has not always been so clear-cut. “Even when the church advocated for a non-combatancy position, there is some evidence that some members understood it as a prohibition to bear arms while for others it meant not even entering the military as cooperators [as nurses and cooks, for example].”
Trim also referred to the position of Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White, which he defined as “pragmatic.” He pointed out that she wrote against active participation in warfare, even though she readily supported, encouraged, and prayed with young men drafted to military service.
A Careful Balance
Church leaders expressed that the Adventist Church’s emphasis on non-combatancy does not mean that people choosing to serve in the military will be ignored. “Regardless of the individual choice, it is imperative that no one be made to feel denigrated because of their decision to serve,” one of the goals of the conference stated. “Respect for the conscientious decision of the individual church member is crucial.”
Wilson agreed. Noting that in some countries military service is mandatory, he said the church should not abandon those who enlist. “We must be ready to minister to the best of our abilities to those who, for one reason or other, have decided to serve in the military,” he said.
It is something, world church ACM director Mario Ceballos believes, that is backed up by the actions of the world church, including the vote taken at the Autumn Council of the General Conference Committee in Mexico City in 1972. That vote reiterates the Adventist Church official position on non-combatency but then adds, “This statement is not a rigid position binding church members but gives guidance leaving the individual member free to assess the situation for himself.”
“Without that component we may give the wrong impression on the position of the church,” Ceballos said.
Ethical and Practical Considerations
Following Wilson’s statements in the morning, afternoon panels discussed some of the intersections between God’s ideal, the Adventist Church’s position, and some realities “on the ground.”
North American Division Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM) director Paul Anderson said he believes supporting non-combatancy does not imply ignoring some of the complex realities around the world. “There is a time and a place for good people to stand for good,” he said.
At the same time, church leaders in panel exchanges repeatedly brought to the forefront the notion of “moral injury.” “We are not programmed to kill another human being,” emphasized Ceballos in defining the term. “There’s a moral price to pay,” he added, referring to veterans’ high suicide rates and, in some cases, a feeling of a rush to keep killing.
In this context, what is the role of the chaplain? “The chaplain should always be a voice of reason, pointing to God’s ideal of peace,” Anderson said. “At the same time, we should not drive people to believe our reality is the only reality.”
Noting the complexity of some real-life situations, Anderson also called for a compassionate approach when ministering to veterans and trauma survivors. “We must walk with [veterans and survivors] because moral injury does not heal,” he said. “It is our job as chaplains to help people seek and hopefully discover a sense for their life.”
Adventist Church Health Ministries director Peter Landless agreed. Decades ago, Landless, who served as a military physician, survived an explosion that sent him 30 feet in the air and took the life of his partner. “[As survivors,] we need to have a purpose, a calling,” he said with his voice overcome by emotion. “In my life, it has lent urgency to my ministry.”
What to Consider Before Enlisting
At the same time, in light of the challenges involved in ministering to veterans, Landless emphasized, young people considering enlisting in the military should be aware of what it entails. “We must help people know what they are getting into, because moral injury seldom ever leaves [combatants],” he said.
For Anderson, non-combatancy must become part of the fabric of the home in a child’s early years. “If we want our children to embrace non-combatancy, we cannot start teaching them about it when they are 18,” Anderson said. “It’s too late.” On the contrary, he recommended “to start when they are young.”
Decrying the proliferation of violent video games, Anderson called on attendees to help young people guard the avenues of their soul. “We must teach our children not to learn to feed on violence,” he said.