By Jack Hoehn | 20 February 2018 |
There is a confluence of ideas coming from within and without the Seventh-day Adventist church that suggest places this church can go with its theology and mission. Jack wants to talk with you about some of them. This article is the fourth in a series, available on the Adventist Today website; others will follow.
“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” is the beginning of the most important Christian story that firmly places the gospel into the world of politics. The enfleshment of the spiritual into the physical, the identification of the Creator with the creature, the submission of Michael to live under the dominion of earth-prince Lucifer as Jesus of Nazareth, who must then somehow himself become King, is the biggest political story ever told.
The Politics of Christmas
The fullness of time, when Jesus was to be born in Palestine, was in a Greco-Roman world where how to run the polis had been earth’s main agenda for centuries. Tiny independent communities scattered from Spain to today’s Turkey were little city-states they called a polis. Neo-Polis (new city) was a new colony of Greek city culture we call Naples. Sparta was a polis; Athens was a polis; Troy was a polis–little city states. How to run the temple, market place, the surrounding houses, mountains, fields, woods, shrines up to each little state’s frontiers was poli-tics, “city-ticks,” how shall we govern ourselves or how shall we be governed? How shall we move from the barbarism of roaming tribes to the civilization of living well as members of an actual, physical city, a state? The citizens who met to decide these city-state government questions called themselves the assembly, or ekklesia. These ancient city-states were initially ruled by groups of noblemen, but these elites faced challenges from those who felt themselves misgoverned, much as Lucifer felt himself misgoverned by heaven’s nobility. And the debates, controversy of the inhabitants, of these city-states over their government were poli-tics.
The Athenians tried democracy. Corinth elected a citizen, called a tyrannos, given power to decide city questions but sadly their elected tyrannos seized power and resisted attempts to remove him by becoming a tyrant. And the democracy of Athens gave no role to the other gender than male, also excluded all males under 30, and, of course, none of the large slave population in the polis necessary to maintain elite life styles in comfort had any useful opinion.
The somewhat impoverished city-state of Rome lacked access to the sea of commerce, and had limited natural resources beyond timber and people good at battle. So as Strabo, the Greek historian and geographer who died just before Jesus’ time is said to have said, the Romans realized their only assets were their energies in war and their determination to survive. So Roman legions marched across the Mediterranean world and by wars conquered polis after polis to grow Rome into the Roman Empire.
Rome’s genius was not just in winning battles, for one side always wins in wars, but in how they treated those they conquered. Romans invited the conquered into the Roman government. Greek language and philosophy and religion were accepted so that most Romans spoke and wrote in Greek, not Latin. And Saul, a half-Jew from Tarshish in Asia, was able to be fully enfranchised in that government as a Roman citizen, while still deeply religious as a Jew and later as a fantastic adherent of an eccentric little Jewish sect. He still could appeal to Caesar and be protected as a Roman citizen from local powers threatening him.
Even slaves could leap from being non-persons to citizens by a formal ceremony before a Roman-approved magistrate, or by provision in their owner’s will. A minor Roman officer, Octavian, had won a naval victory against Mark Antony, and in a series of unscrupulous maneuvers was able to bring back peace to the Roman world as Imperator, or commander-in-chief. He had been adopted as heir by assassinated general and dictator Julius Caesar, and named himself Augustus (an honorary title for a religious figure who could foretell the future from the flight of birds) that became the title of all subsequent Roman emperors and their wives. As St. Luke informs us, Jesus was born in Bethlehem due to command of the honored Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar, into a world again civilized by his Roman armies and the policies of Roman law. This government for all its brutality did bring a world of relative Pax or peace, the Pax Romana, Roman peace. As Tacitus wrote of Caesar’s supporters, Jesus entry into the poli-tics of his creation was prepared for in a world where “citizens were protected by the law. Provincials were decently treated. Rome itself had been lavishly beautified (“I found Rome a city of bricks, I left it a city of marble”). Force had been sparingly used—merely to preserve peace (pax) for the majority.”
The Pax Romana lasted for centuries, permitting travel largely free of pirates across the Roman world, and allowing Christian evangelists to write the gospels in the one language understood by all the schooled, common or koine Greek. Just as John the Baptist was a spiritual forerunner of the Christ, so Augustus Caesar was a governmental forerunner for Christianity, making possible a world where the message of Christ could be spread and understood.
Politics of Jesus
Jesus wasn’t born to become an Imperator, or commander-in-chief of armies. He taught his followers to lay down weapons and turn the other cheek to attackers. He assured Pontius Pilate that he was no military risk to his government. But Jesus was very political and did challenge all authority, all armies, all governments by politicking. He campaigned for a new government, one based on love and mercy, and suggested that the Kingdom of Rome and the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Herod were all to be replaced by the new Kingdom of Heaven.
He spoke at rallies attended by thousands, and had behind-the-scenes meetings with vulnerable leaders of opposite parties such as Nicodemus. He trained a core of campaigners with instructions on how they were to progress from Jerusalem, expanding to Judea, crossing racial barriers to Samaria, and then not only to known nations, but “to the ends of the earth.” It was a plan of political reform, resistance to existing governments, and replacement of the rules for how society should run according to the principles outlined in his government policy announcement we call the Sermon on the Mount.
What is the Great Controversy, if not politics? Somehow Seventh-day Adventists have slipped into a fantastic myth that their religion is “not political.” But Jesus and Satan are all about politics. Adam and Eve in their safe little polling place, were voting. And where Jesus was to be born, and how his rebellion against the prince of this world and the machinations of his underlings would play out, are nothing if not ultimately politics. Who shall rule, and under what kind of government the creation shall live is politics.
Everything every Seventh-day Adventist does everywhere he or she lives is political. Being an Adventist is a vote against being a Catholic or an agnostic. Who their parents are was a vote that this woman will be my wife, and not that woman. That you were born in Sydney, and not Canberra was a vote by your ancestors. That you went to Pacific Union College and not Union College was a competition you decided.
That Ted Wilson is our “Adventist archbishop” was voted by a nominating committee of delegates at a thinly disguised political convention. Only the absence of placards and banners and the release of 10,000 red and blue balloons make it different from any other political gathering of sentient beings deciding on the rules of how they shall live and under what kind of government. That the General Conference and all such churchy votes on governing policies is different because the Holy Spirit is frequently invited to be present does not change the fact that free moral agents by Heaven’s decree are permitted and in fact required to make choices.
Alex and Ian
In the Seventh-day Adventist academy my own sons attended, I know of two boys, classmates, who at early ages looked at things from opposite sides. They graduated and attended the same Adventist university.
Alex became active as a student in local town politics, running and winning a position on the local town council. He then studied law and interned as a lawyer with the state government in the state capitol. He joined the Democratic party and worked to elect Democratic candidates. He remains active in human rights law.
Ian studied history, and while a university student became locally active in the Republican party. After being a campaign volunteer he became a local campaign manager, and later ran in his own campaign for a state office that he lost, but because of his competence was asked to move to Washington, DC, where he was chief of staff for a six-term leading Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives who is chair of the Republican House Conference.
Both boys come from the Adventist educational system, strong dedicated Adventist families, and both live moral committed lives. Both are trying to improve the management of our American poli, our cities and our states by better policies, better laws, better governments. When they come home both sit in the same church and sing the same hymns and worship the same Creator.
Each is an active politician, with different ideas. But they both have the same aim, to make things better for as many as possible through improvements in their governments. To me they are icons of how Seventh-day Adventists must become more political. Not by joining either of their parties, but by becoming involved in some way allowing their voices to be heard, by becoming part of the debate.
I hope that Ian will remind his party that care of strangers and aliens is a priority of the politics of the Kingdom of Heaven. I hope that Alex will remind his party that the protection of religious freedom of conscience is a fundamental God-given right. And that both will unite on some form of violence control through rational and effective ways to remove assault weapons from American life.
Historical Adventists on Politics
In 1865 Adventists met for church politics to elect the newly organized church leaders. Along with their actions they voted to express their sorrow at the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. James White had written in 1862 that Seventh-day Adventists had almost all voted for Lincoln. “Those of our people who voted at all at the last Presidential election, to a man voted for Abraham Lincoln. We know of not one man among Seventh-day Adventists who has the least sympathy for secession.” James and Ellen White were present when this following statement was voted by the young church.
“Resolved, that in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at sometimes highly proper; but that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife.”
Ellen White herself supported this position for the rest of her life. In 1914, towards the end of her life, she again wrote,
“Every individual exerts an influence in society. In our favored land, every voter has some voice in determining what laws shall control the nation. Should not that influence and that vote be cast on the side of temperance and virtue?”
Aggressively Political, Aggressively Non-partisan
Adventists who were historically strongly antislavery, pro-human rights, promoters of prohibition, and supportive of women’s rights and animal rights were advised to not play party politics. But on moral and community health issues, they were urged to agitate and vote even if votes were taken on Sabbath. And what is not moral about how we treat the poor, how we care for the sick, how we protect the innocent from guns, drugs, toxins, and exploitation? More than just by voting we need to agitate, write, attend meet-and-greet sessions, and take principled stands on pending legislation, based not on party but on morality. We need to be willing to consider solutions different from our own, and encourage compromises that may give half-solutions better than no solutions. We need to open our churches, schools, and homes to debates on non-partisan political issues. We need to be known not as party partisans, but as solution seekers, compromise makers, uniters and supporters of both sides for their positive positions.
We should be known as people who listen, who come down on the side of compassion, who disagree with respect when we have to. We will be actively political for the party of Jesus, for the incorporation into Republican and Democratic and Independent governments of those principles that align with the coming Kingdom of Heaven.
More than that we need to become active in our church’s politics. “Just let God do it, and stay home and pray” is not a defensible position for serious Adventists. We need to attend our local church business meetings, our conference sessions, our institutional boards. We need to be willing to serve as lay members of committees at all levels, and with that service speak up to protect the integrity and mission God has for this church. We need to demand fairness in racial and gender discrimination issues, and to require financial propriety at all levels. When a leader becomes tyrannical, it is the community’s job to remove that leader from his position.
Here is to strong Adventist of Tomorrow political participation in church, town, state, nation, and world for both non-partisan temperance and non-partisan virtue.
Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA/Religion major from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the SDA church for 13 years when serving as a missionary doctor in Africa.