A Conversation with Reinder Bruinsma
By Janine Colburn, 3 October 2019
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education and church administration on three continents, his last post before retiring as president of the Netherlands Union. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching and writing. His latest books are Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers “on the Margins” and In All Humility: Saying “No” to Last Generation Theology.
Janine Colburn is a nurse, editor, and writer residing in Loma Linda, California. She is author of The C. S. Lewis Index, published by La Sierra Univ. Press and Crossway Books.
Reinder Bruinsma writes, in his recent Adventist Today article, “Can a Pastor Call Evil by Name—Even If It’s Political?,” as follows:
A few days ago a professor I know who has an educational background in law and theology started a discussion on a Facebook group for pastors that I follow regularly, about the question of how pastors in their preaching might address some of the moral dilemmas that are currently hotly debated at all levels in the United States. How might they do this in a way that respects the separation between church and state?
Janine Colburn responds: It all hinges, I suppose, on one’s definition of separation of church and state. More on this below…
RB: Whenever, in the United States, one speaks about the glaring inequality between rich and poor, the increasing influence of Islam, racial hatred or the refugee problem (and not to mention gun control, the LGBTI-issue and the controversy concerning climate change), one inevitably enters areas where Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided. A pastor who speaks about such topics from his/her pulpit will have people in the pews who belong to either party. Some are great admirers of Donald Trump, while others believe this president is not just a danger for the future of America but a great threat for the entire world.
JC: Another way of phrasing this might be: “Some believe creeping secularism and ever-enlarging government (i.e., Leftism) is not just a danger for America but a great threat for the entire world, and that Donald Trump, flawed as he may be, is doing a great deal—perhaps the most of any president in modern times—to stave off that threat. Others believe Donald Trump and evangelical Christianity pose the same degree of threat, and Leftism is the only hope for staving off those threats.”
Do you see how subtly biased each of these phrasings—yours and mine—comes across when read by the other side?
Of course, you will find many members who are either in the middle (an increasingly isolated place to be), or do not bother much with politics. These people may tune you out entirely if you salt your sermons with even subtle political references.
I just returned from the well-attended memorial service of a beloved black member in a delightfully mixed congregation. All went well until one of the pastors, at the very end, joked, “[Our departed friend] used to say to me, ‘Jesus decided to ride a donkey [the symbol of Democrats]. He didn’t ride no elephant [the symbol of Republicans]!’ The pastor paused for effect. “He’s right, you know. He’s right.”
There was an audible reaction from the audience, not all of it laudatory. Suddenly, after so much comity and togetherness-in-Christ, we were divided again. Just something that didn’t need to be said!
RB: It is no secret that Adventists in the United States are just as heavily polarized on all these terrains as is the population in general. I have learned from experience during visit to the United States (and mixing with many American Adventists) that I must be rather guarded in my criticisms, since many do not appreciate any negative words.
JC: It is possible that those you are meeting are Americans who increasingly find themselves on the defensive. And people on the defensive—surprise!—become defensive. Defensive people tend to react, and sometimes poorly react, to criticism.
In the “olden days,” say mid-last-century, the folks on the defensive were the socialists, communists, abortion pro-choicers, gays, blacks, and other minority groups. To this day, you will find such people likewise—and understandably—do not react well to any “negative words” about them. These days, however, the tables are turned, and the Americans arguably most on the defensive now include right-wing Christians, men or at least those who still identify as men, whites, people who believe gender is largely assignable at birth, people who are proud of America generally, and people who believe that nation-states are important, while strictly defended borders are critical to national security and identity.
Such people understand that their beliefs will frequently get them lumped them in with truly evil people to the extreme right of them, but it should also be understood that this widespread lumping is largely unjust, perhaps even “evil.”
RB: I have been utterly amazed to find, for example, even among well-informed Adventist friends whom I highly respect, a lot of resistance against a type of universal health care coverage that, for a considerable time, has proven to function quite well in a number of European countries (among those, my own country). When this approach is labeled “socialist” it surely betrays a definition of socialism that differs significantly from that of most people in western Europe.
JC: Whether universal health coverage, where it exists, functions on the whole better than the medical system of the U. S., or whether it would function as well here, is a highly debatable question. There are many facts and figures on both sides, and, as Donald Trump might say, there are good (and rational) people on both sides. This needs to be acknowledged as a first principle.
If you will allow me an aside here: Living outside the U. S. as you do, I wonder whether you heard and believed that President Trump, when talking about “good people on both sides,” was speaking of a) Antifa activists and Neo-Nazis, or b) people who wanted historical statues of Confederate figures to remain for history’s sake, or be taken down for reasons of modern sensibilities. The latter is, of course, the two groups he was speaking of. But if you’d been living here, you could have been forgiven for feeling confused, as there was much deception abroad in the land about it.
As for the “socialist” moniker, one wonders what you might call the vast increase of government involvement in every area of life, including health care, from what it used to be. It has proven difficult to come up with a term everyone can feel comfortable with!
In America, even those on the left have taken to calling publicly funded health care schemes “socialism” or “democratic socialism.”
RB: Many people will refer to the need for absolute separation between church and state as soon as dilemmas are brought to the table that have political dimensions. It should be pointed out that there are many different ways in which the relationship between church and state can be arranged. The important thing is that church and state must each be able to function well in their own sphere, and that all faith communities share in the same rights and duties.
JC: I really like this definition, and could claim it as my own. It is carefully constructed, and wisely delimited. Others will have varying definitions, with accordingly varied scopes of desired effect, and this, too, bears acknowledgment. You give a great example of this problem next, as when one person might say that having a US flag on the podium violates the spirit of separation of church and state, while another might say it is just fine, since having the flag there merely affirms that the church owes a certain amount of allegiance and obeyance to the state in which it exists, just as Jesus said.
RB: Americans will often claim that their country has realized a full separation between church and state, but looking at this as a European I am not so sure. Whenever I visit a church across the big pond, I see, to my amazement, a national flag on the podium. And I wonder why there is no protest when the president ends his speeches with the words: “God bless America!” And how is it that American leaders will host “prayer breakfasts” and that the Senate has a “chaplain”? I could mention many more things that make me wonder. And, certainly, the close contact between the president and some evangelical leaders does not seem to fit into a model of total separation between church and state. Or do I miss something?
JC: With respect, I think you may be missing something, that is, the historical context in which America arose. (I am using “America,” as you and others widely do, to mean the U. S., though in truth this is a misnomer, since there exist three “Americas,” none of which is composed solely of the United States. But, since this is such a common usage, I’ll continue with it.)
While the U. S. does attempt a degree of separation of church and state that is still unknown in much of the world, the nation has been, since its inception, a highly religious body politic. Out of this civic, non-state religion which was comprised, if one is honest, of largely Judeo-Christian values, grew many public institutions reflective of that fact. “Prayer Breakfasts,” chaplains in the Senate, and Christmas as a national holiday are vestiges of it.
If America continues to devolve (and many of us do believe it is a devolution) into a majority-secular state, then these vestiges will increasingly come under attack, as indeed we see already. Those on the left of the political divide generally see this increasingly rapid transformation as a positive development, while those on the right generally see it as an alarming and unfortunate development.
Again, you will likely find both species in your typical American Adventist congregation, which can make speaking on this and other such topics hazardous, at risk of sounding not only politically biased, but also either ignorant of one side’s legitimate views, or unwilling to consider them.
RB: But this may be as it is. My interest here is the prophetic role of the pastor in the pulpit. The studies of our Sabbath School quarterly of the current quarter remind us of the prophetic role of all Christ’s followers—and, thus, most certainly also of church leaders, at every level and most specifically at the level of the local church. Injustice and evil must be addressed in the light of the gospel. A Christian is called to protest against all evil in society and to do all he/she can to help eliminate this evil.
JC: There are three distinct minefields here. Once again, for starters, definitions and specificities come into play. Which injustice, and which evils of the day, will be spoken of? A pastor would certainly show his hand—and alienate a lot of congregants—if he or she spoke only of the injustices and evils the Left is currently calling out, without allocating time to speak against the injustices and evils that preoccupy the other side. (Do you see how we may, in fact, need both sides, excepting the extremes?)
A further minefield is in the realm of solutions. If one is going to speak of such things from the pulpit, I’d say a good place to start is to acknowledge that both sides likely care equally about such things as the woes of the poor and disadvantaged. This appears to be a very difficult admission for those on the left, who, if one may say so, seem to relish—almost to require—seeing themselves as morally superior.
The differences are in the solutions posited. Almost by definition, the Left tends to see the better solutions in the direction of bigger government involvement, while the Right tends to see the better solutions in the direction of individual and private-collective entities, with a more constrained—though not absent—role for government. (As is readily apparent to anyone watching, even the American Right’s acceptance of an ever-enlarging government has grown in recent decades; few, for example, would countenance doing away with Social Security, now that we have a system and a populace reliant upon it.)
A final minefield for the church pastor today is vocabulary. So many terms have been co-opted by one side or the other that using them without elaboration is again fraught with risk of being understood as partisan. “Social justice,” for instance, is so heavily laden with one-sided political meaning, with solutions involving Big Government, that it is essentially unusable without finding oneself on the defensive against accusations of bias.
“Pro-Life” is another term that flatters itself in a way the other side reasonably finds offensive. Even the term “Progressive” could sound self-congratulatory and offensive in the ears of a neutral listener when one thinks of what the alternative would then logically be called. It’s like calling one’s own side the “Decents.” (Maybe the opposing group would then be called something like the “Deplorables.” Oh, wait, they were!)
It is perhaps a measure of how successful the Left has been in arrogating language that even conservatives increasingly use the term “progressive” to refer to left-wing policies and partisans.
Conservatives hardly see all left-mediated change as “progress,” and wish the left would think a great deal more carefully before rushing in to change long-standing traditions, such as the definition of marriage away from male-female, or the breaking down of gender distinctions.
RB: Of course, my concern does not just apply to the United States. I admit that also in the Netherlands, the country where I live, we find racist tendencies, and there are right-wing radical groups that flaunt their islamophobia and/or homophobia (sometimes in addition to their antisemitism).
JC: Do you ever speak of “left-wing radical groups”? What about their particular hatreds and phobias? Why are these not part of your expressed concern about injustices and evils? Fair questions, I believe—questions a pastor might want to spend some time contemplating before he or she begins preaching on politically charged topics.
RB: In the Netherlands also, the material prosperity is very unequally distributed (not as badly as in the USA, but nonetheless… ). Regrettably, we also find far too many church-going Christians who do not want to accept genuine refugees into their community, and would gladly see all assistance to developing countries halted tomorrow.
JC: I’ve often wished to ask those who advocate for more porous borders whether they have a fence around their home property, or a lock on their door. If so, why? Why is it perfectly okay for even a Christian homeowner to vet and limit those coming into his or her home, yet it’s not okay for a country to do so? One might even want to go further and ask such a person, respectfully, how many refugees have you taken into your home to live with you lately? And have you invited their extended families to come, also? Is it only for lack of space that you have not done so? Or is your house in reality one of those proverbial glass houses from which you may not want to throw stones? These would just be questions intended to invite thought.
As for halting or severely pulling back on public aid to developing countries, a very good case could be made… Are you even aware of it? One wonders. Certainly you do not write as if you are aware of the better arguments made by your political opponents on a wide range of topics.
It is not enough to simply dismiss people who disagree with you as bad, “evil,” or beyond the pale. I’m not saying you do. It almost seems as if you are not even aware of the existence of decent people who may see things differently than you do! But I find this a lot, including in journals such as Adventist Today. By my lights, that’s unfortunate.
RB: So where does that leave me as a minister of the gospel?
JC: Well, for one thing, the list you just gave indicates where that leaves you—which side’s list of evils most concern you—as you mentioned not a single concern from the other side’s list, which would include the widespread destruction of unborn human life; mendacity, intolerance, and bias in the media and academia; ineffectual, often devastating, unexpected-consequences-producing Big Government solutions to social ills such as poverty and crime; and encroaching statism.
Your genuine caring and kindness come through in your refreshingly irenic piece, Dr. Bruinsma. But your one-sided prose and apparently slim understanding of your political counterparts, in the view of many, might already bring into question the wisdom of your taking to preaching on politically fraught topics. You may not have even realized that your counterparts have some valid alternate views of the problems that beset us which, while often more complex and thoughtful than the left seems to believe, bear respectful examination.
RB: I have to try to translate the gospel into the concrete situation of the society in which I live. I must have the courage to call evil by its name, even if this means that I fiercely disagree with some political parties and some popular opinion leaders. I realize that, in so doing, I will offend some (many?) church members, whether or not I will mention particular political movements or persons by name.
JC: You are correct; those church members will likely be smarter than some think, and will know whereof you speak. Why offend when no offense is required? Avoiding offense involves asking and understanding the points of view of others, and according those views and the people who hold them respect in all instances they may deserve it, even if right now you cannot see how they could possibly deserve it. Look again! Find and read their writings, the better-written, more scholarly unpackings of the non-extremist right-of-center views. You may learn something unexpected.
You are certain you know evil when you see it, and well you may. One wonders where your passion for calling it out was, though, when it was evident in earlier administrations and opposite-party opinion leaders.
We all need to recall that virtue signaling—the attempt, growing in popularity, to show one is above the general fray of humanity by elevated-sounding verbiage and condemnation of others—is not the same thing as true virtue, which is both personally sacrificial and intellectually generous.
RB: In extreme cases this may mean that some members decide to leave the church, or will stay home when I am scheduled as the preacher. Yet, this may not stop us from proclaiming the values of God’s kingdom loudly and clearly.
JC: As long as one proclaims the values of God’s kingdom in more general, carefully chosen terms, consciously avoiding politically charged terminology, I believe one will be on safe ground. But this is now more difficult than ever, given the number of words that carry an inordinate amount of political freight.
It is not, however, impossible. My church has a wonderful senior pastor who carries it off regularly. In fact, I know of not one member who feels sure of his political leaning. At the same time, no one could say they don’t know where this pastor stands on evil.
RB: In an ever more polarized environment this presents an enormous challenge. It may cause some to accuse us of violating the separation between church and state. So be it. To remain silent when hatred is being promoted, when large ethnic or racial groups are seriously discriminated against, when the rich become ever richer and the poor ever poorer, and when large groups of people in the margins of our society are overlooked, is no option.
It truly is no option when we decide to take God’s Word seriously with regard to love for our neighbors, equality for all, justice and tolerance.
JC: Again, be aware of how politically fraught most of these terms have become. A person once identified as of the Left who uses these terms will be understood by both sides to be advocating Big Government solutions, which are not necessarily biblical. At the very least, it is arguable as to whether they are. And what does “equality” even mean? Be sure you are clear on that one, too. For example, there is sound disagreement as to whether the Bible advocates for economic or material equality at all, let alone through such avenues as government “tax-and-spend” schemes.
Your other terms are loaded, as well. “Tolerance” in American newsrooms and academia increasingly means tolerance only for views left of center. People who seek a color-blind society rather than a color-conscious one are increasingly (if perversely) called “racist.” As alluded to earlier, “social justice” now refers to something quite different and more elaborate than a merely just society, which would include not favoring the rich or the poor (Lev. 19:15). While on its face the term sounds nice and agreeable, it generally advocates for policy prescriptions of the left, not the right, and is well understood as doing so.
American news network CNN lost half its viewers during election year 2012, and its viewer numbers continue to crater as its political bias has become clear to people. A church (or a magazine) that goes political may well find itself in the same boat.
RB: I wish my colleagues, everywhere—and especially in the United States—a lot of courage and wisdom from on high!
JC: And I would like to thank you, Pastor Bruinsma, for writing such an amicable piece that aims to illuminate a dilemma, rather than to merely provoke. Your further response(s) would be most welcome.