By Jack Hoehn
There is a confluence of ideas coming from within and without the Seventh-day Adventist church that suggest directions this church can go to fulfill its theology and mission. Jack wants to talk with you about some of them. This article is #6, and is about recapturing Christian non-violence. The other articles in the series are linked below.
Early Adventist Pacifists
The Biblical pacifism of early Adventists kept them from fighting in the American civil war even as they supported anti-slavery and President Lincoln “to a man.” Adventists taught Biblical pacifism as doctrine that the only suitable way an Adventist could fight in the conscripted armies of World War II was to be a medic and not bear arms. The same largely held for the Korean and Vietnam wars. These actions were in support of Christian pacifism that taught them that use of any form of violence against others was incompatible with Christian faith.
Today in a volunteer army a lot of Adventist young men and women join the military in combat positions, and there are many Adventist pastors electing for military chaplaincy positions, supporting combatants and non-combatants alike. On Veteran’s Day, American churches across the country take time to give honor and respect to those who “served their country,” without any attempt to differentiate how they served, whether as bomber pilots, Navy Seals, or Operation Whitecoat guinea pigs. I have yet to see a service honoring those who ran away to Canada to avoid participation in the senseless carnage of Vietnam in their Biblical pacifism.
“Onward, Christian Soldiers” is still in our hymnal. And praise songs are more often about God’s power and might and victory than about God’s humility and turning the other cheek and ignominious death. “A mighty fortress is our God.” “Lead on, O King Eternal, … henceforth in fields of conquest thy tents shall be our home.” We don’t really have access to helmets, breastplates, shields and swords that Paul told us to “put on,” so we exercise our constitutional rights and have arsenals of guns in our homes, with not a word of censure from the church. The Second Amendment has become more precious to us than the sixth commandment.
Church members even support openly immoral people running on a platform to increase military spending for weapons of mass destruction. Pacifism, if not dead, has been severely wounded in the present American church.
Early Christians Pacifists
This Mighty God as a Warrior King was not a doctrine believed by Christians for the first 300 years after Christ. In fact, the whole story of the early church is one of Christlike pacifism. There was no arming of Christians for defense; there were no Christian militias in the first three centuries of the faith. Christians responded to the armies of Rome with prayers and submission. They turned the other cheek to lions and gladiators, and accepted beatings close to death—as their Christ had done to his persecutors. They wrote things like this:
Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians. —The Apology of Aristides
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.—Hippolytus of Rome
For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another, an ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature. —Arnobius, Adversus Gentes
Early Christians were never wolves; they were lambs led to the slaughter, until the Emperor Constantine decided that this power of love, could give power to his armies. Then for the first time do we find Christian warriors claiming to destroy in the name of God.
Christian militarism had entered into the church. “Thou shalt not kill” became, “unless necessary to defend Rome from others.” Or “Germany from Russia,” or “America from Japan.” So instead of winning battles with pacifism and loving our enemies, a theology of “just war” was concocted to support political leaders and armies. German churches then tended to support Hitler’s armies, Canadian churches tended to support Canadian armies, Italian churches tended to support Mussolini and his armies. And many American Christians hold their nose about Trump’s extravagantly immoral and crude life because he is dedicated to making America “great again” with increased militarism and bigger weapons of mass destruction. What kind of useful lesson do we teach any country by sending a covey of cruise missiles to add more destruction to a country already mostly destroyed? Do we feel we have “done something” without inconveniencing ourselves more than pushing a red button on our desk, my button bigger than yours? To really do something we would send real people with real love, to do the hard and slow and dangerous work of peace negotiation and humanitarian relief. We would oppose chemical warfare, of course, but not with more explosive warfare.
Anabaptists/Mennonites Move Reformation Forward
The Protestant Reformation, while fueled by a return to Biblical standards and teachings, was largely decided by local governments and their rulers. Each ruler, like Emperor Constantine, had armies to control their people and their neighbors. So pacifism did not come into Protestant Christianity from the top on down; it came from people’s actually reading their Bibles in their homes and coming upon Christ’s pacifism there modeled. They also came on the presentation of baptism as for adult converts, never finding any Biblical support for baptizing infants. So in humble homes groups wanting to progress the Reformation learned that baptism of non-decisional infants was not Biblical, and that Christ taught to lay down swords, turn the cheek, and apply love’s freedom and lack of punishments to conflicts.
They were accused of being against baptism (infant) by their opponents, so became known as the Anabaptists(rebaptizers). One of the early pastors was Menno, so they are often known as Mennonites. And these people have been as militantly pacifist as were early Seventh-day Adventists. They were often persecuted or even martyred by other Christians addicted to their weapons and the use of force and destruction in crusades to “make the world safe for Christianity.”
Pacifist Doukhobors from Russia came to Canada, hoping to escape the Orthodox church support of Russian war machines. Mennonites moved to Belize because it had no army to support with their taxes.
Modern Pacifists Line Up Behind Jesus
Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, and John Howard Yoder are Christians teaching and modeling non-violent Christianity. Mahatma Gandhi modeled Hindu non-violence in his victory over British Colonialism.
Is There an Old Testament Warrior God?
Many have found in the Old Testament a Warrior God in many ways similar to other ancient Near East warrior Gods, although with some modifications. Gregory Boyd argues in Crosscurrents or his longer exposition, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, that these misunderstandings of God’s nature by Old Testament prophets are simply inspired men bringing God down to their level. This incarnation of God into the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their children shows how God came down to their level, and then tried to reform them and introduce the divine character of non-violent love into their violent pre-Christian societies.
Jesus Reveals the Father as Pacifist
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matt. 5:38-39).
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Matt. 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-28).
Put your sword back in its place… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matt. 26:52).
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matt. 5:9).
Adventists and Militarism
Seventh-day Adventists have drifted from our roots when we can permit violence a seat at our tables, be it combatant military service, encouraging violent self-defense, or supporting national militarism from whatever nation we live in. While the bravery and self-sacrifice shown in young people’s signing up for military service needs to be respected and admired, we need to show the greater bravery and more powerful and effective service for God by patient suffering without violence as we actively oppose evil at every level. Return to a program of training Adventist youth as first responders, as an alternative to military members, seems to be a practice we should revitalize for our church. Turn the scores of unnecessary conference offices into schools of aggressive pacifism where we teach our youth how to fight oppression using God’s methods.
Adventists and Animal Violence
Vegetarianism is not just a health issue; it is an issue of violence against animals. It is difficult for me so see how creationist Adventists can support the inherent animal cruelty of industrial food production by animal concentration camps that produce most of the eggs, milk, and meat consumed by voracious Americans.
The milk that comes to my fridge comes from organic grass-fed cows who live in green pastures, not factory farms. The eggs that are in my fridge come from free run small farms with organic, free-range practices, and no constricting pens. And my avoidance of eating anything with a face or a mother means that I do not condone the factory farms. To feed American meat consumption millions of cows and pigs exist in concentration camps where, for example, intelligent mother pigs are jailed in small cages, are artificially inseminated and removed from their piglets at an early stage, and live out their whole lives in a metal pen too small to turn around in, absolutely removed from sun, grass, mud puddles, rooting, eating and the joy of feeding and caring for their own litter. He who watches sparrows fall is surely watching how we treat animals. If you need meat for your health, then a Christian would raise happy animals in healthy environments and butcher them kindly and with love. If you are depending on your meat from a plastic package at your supermarket or from a fast food grill, you need to learn what was done to that animal before you place it into your mouth.
Adventists and Guns
Perhaps hunting a free animal who has lived a happy life until it meets your rifle is more humane than factory farms? But hunting for trophies you don’t wish to eat seems antithetical to a God who doesn’t like to see sparrows fall. How can a follower of him who said to “put your sword back in its place” ever support an organization like the NRA that promotes guns of every kind, everyplace, for everyone with no limits (even at the expense of the massacres and 96 gun deaths/day that are destroying human lives and loves and families in the U.S, day after day after day)?
I realize that my sisters and brothers in Adventism do not have unity of belief on pacifism and non-violence, and I welcome into fellowship those who see sanctified violence to have a moral place in their lives. As long as the sanctification leads to kind, loving, patient, long-suffering, and self-sacrificing expressions of any necessary violence as the action of very last resort and never as a tool of intimidation or manipulation of others or harm to the creation with its sentient creatures.
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 in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa.
The Adventism Tomorrow series