By Jack Hoehn, September 20, 2016: The Association of Adventist Forums met last weekend (September 16-18) in Takoma Park, Maryland, the old home town of the denomination’s General Conference (GC). The theme of this annual conference was “Non-Violence and the Atonement” and there were about 100 in attendance for the largest association of Adventist academics which publishes the journal Spectrum.
It was likely due to increasing inner city violence, some suggested, that the administrators of the Adventist denomination moved the headquarters out of Takoma Park on the border of the District of Columbia, six miles further into the suburbs in Silver Spring. Speakers at the three day conference suggested that the Adventist faith as a whole and not just the administrative offices needed to move theologically further away from violence in both doctrines and practice.
The practical issues were most strongly emphasized by Dr. Keisha McKenzie, the Adventist young adult who directs McKenzie Consulting Group in Washington and is also a board member for Adventist Today. She said the power religion that took over Christianity after the Roman Emperor Constantine connected the church with the government was not just a historical problem of a papal, patriarchal church using torture and bloody crusades under the banner of Christ, but was still present in all attacks by the powerful and comfortable against those considered “other” or outsiders. Jesus Christ always stood on the side of the wounded and vulnerable. And a truly Christian church would follow him into protection, support, comfort, and participation in the struggles of Native Americans against Oil Pipelines. They would stand for battered and abused women and disrespected female pastors. They would care that Black Lives Matter and that Blue Lives Matter. And that cruelty, exclusion, punishment and disrespect for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people was incompatible with the message of Christ.
Her message was strongly supported by Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, who pointed out that the good news of the gospel was not “Horray, Jesus died for me,” but “Hallelujah, He is risen!” That it is the life of Christ, not his consequential death that is the good news of the gospel. That the Christian message is not to passively suffer in silence, but to live in love, at times confronting our enemies, persecutors, abusers. But with the powerful weapons of love, the promise of peace and reconciliation, and at times the risk of our lives, but always to enhance life, not to glorify death.
Dr. Jean Sheldon, professor of Old Testament at Pacific Union College and an Assyrian scholar, is a slight woman, who exploded with information showing that Babylonian religion was based on the fights, death and blood of Gods who created humans as their slaves. Biblical religion offered a creation by peaceful speaking, with humans created as friends of God and partners delegated to the stewardship of this earth. The infiltration of early Christian belief by the Babylonian doctrines of sacrifice of one God by another has sadly tainted our understanding of why Christ died. And the God as Emperor theme that came into Constatinian Christianity is a Babylonian interloper. The prophetic call to “Come out of Babylon” in the Second Angel’s message of Revelation 14 is a challenge to rescue our doctrine of the atonement from the “Wrathful God punishing Jesus for our Sins” which has captured much of Protestant theology and influenced some Adventists.
The keynote speaker was Pastor Gregory Boyd, a theologian who has published 23 books and a Ph.D. from Princeton University, teaches his St. Paul (Minnesota) megachurch many doctrines that Adventists are comfortable with, including that Christian salvation is not just to cover our sins, but to change our lives. He also has come to accept that the immortality of humans and a never-ending Hellfire for unrepentant sinners is not Biblical. (His 2001 book, Satan and the Problem of Evil, is the clearest Biblical presentation of what Adventists call The Great Controversy that I have every read.)
Boyd began the conference on Friday evening with a careful presentation of why the atonement as punishment of Jesus by God the Father for human sins is not only an inadequate but a harmful view of what happened on Calvary. Sabbath morning he discussed in detail a view of Calvary as the love of God willing to go to any length to re-establish the sin broken community between God and humans, and what it means in practical terms.
At a meeting open to the public held in the huge Sligo Church on the campus of Washington Adventist University Sabbath afternoon, Boyd spoke about “The Cruciform Life” and explained his own conversion to Christ through an ultra-conservative but works based church and his reconversion to a God interested not only in his behavior but in a personal and transforming relationship. He shared his understanding that the atonement is not a blood sacrifice to appease a wrathful God, but God’s move to fellowship and partner with a suffering humanity.
In the audience as well as on the speakers list was a wealth of Adventist thought and experience. Including Adventist Today columnist Dr. Alden Thompson, theologian from Walla Walla University; with emeritus professor Dr. Fritz Guy, theologian from La Sierra University; and Dr. Richard Rice, theologian from Loma Linda University. Bev Hamada, leader of the TEAM organization promoting gender equality in Adventist ministry by sponsoring female theology students all over the world, shared a report. The retired editor of the Adventist Review, Dr. William Johnsson gave a thoughtful response to one of the talks. Innovative writer Ronald Osborn spoke on “Scapegoats or Scapegoaters,”and added a pointed observation that progressive Adventists needed to be careful to not scapegoat conservative Adventists in their discussions on matters of difference.
Denominational officials were also present. I spoke with a lawyer who is general counsel for the GC during the Sabbath meetings. Longtime Sabbath School lesson editor and Adventist Review columnist Clifford Goldstein was a friendly presence in the Sunday meetings. Retired Adventist pastor and administrator Charles Sandefur gave us a Saturday evening bus and walking tour of the monuments in the nation’s capital. Conference participants were also offered a pre-meeting Friday tour of the present GC office complex.
Dr. Charles Scriven, chairman of the board for Adventist Forums and Spectrum editor Bonnie Dwyer were pleased with the $29,000 offering collected for support of their independent Adventist publishing venture. This Adventist Today board member left the Adventist Forum weekend less afraid of a wrathful God and more afraid of my own cowardice in moving into a “cruciform life” of active personal support for the poor, damaged and discriminated against in our world today. Moving away from violence towards active opposition to violence looks like a move harder than just moving our church institutions and offices further outside of the city.
Jack Hoehn is a member of the Adventist Today board, a writer for the Adventist Today print magazine, and a regular columnist for the Web edition. The photo with this article is of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church on the campus of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland, the location of at least some of the meetings.