by Admiral Ncube | 6 August 2023 |
The defense of religious liberty within our church goes back to the late 1880s, when Adventists played a pivotal role opposing Sunday laws in the United States. Their argument was that allowing the government to impose a day of rest is a violation of religious freedom and a betrayal of the United States Constitution.
Since then the church has continued to believe and advocate for religious freedom, saying that a person’s conscience and not the government should dictate his or her choices with regard to religion. Through the department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL), the church’s advocacy efforts have included fighting against laws that would restrict an individual’s religious freedoms, working to obtain the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons, and supporting the rights of individuals fired from their jobs for following their conscience, as well as students forced to attend classes on Sabbath.
Historians have documented that our approach to religious liberty issues was shaped by 19th-century American anti-Catholic sentiment. So while we are sincere about religious liberty, it is also true that we’ve been most vocal about ensuring that our right to practice our religion is not violated.
Our approach to religious liberty is deeply rooted in eschatology: Revelation 13, we say, predicts a time when we will be persecuted for observing the seventh-day Sabbath through a corrupt union of church and state. Hence, we are always watching for indications of the coming together of church and state, especially in the United States. We have developed an inherent suspicion of other religious groups, Roman Catholicism in particular. Many of our efforts are about protecting Adventists from laws that might stop us from worshiping on Sabbath.
Furthermore, we have accused those whose beliefs differ from ours of planning to persecute us, labeling them “Babylon.” By defining others in relation to our eschatological beliefs, we set ourselves up for a sort of religious fatalism.
Yet the 19th-century world that created these beliefs no longer exists. Many things have changed. For example,
- American hegemony in world affairs is dying. There’s the rise of China, Russia, and other emerging and increasingly powerful nations in the global South, and open resistance to American influence,
- Multilateralism is decreasing as nations openly declare and protect their national interests at the expense of the global order.
- Christianity in Europe, North America, and much of the global North is declining. As these areas secularize, Christianity remains strong in Africa and Latin America. Therefore Christian populations in the north are dominated by immigrants.
- Catholicism and mainline Protestantism are no longer the major religious groups. There’s an increasing acceptance of charismatic movements, new-age religions, non-denominational “spirituality,” and non-Christian religions.
- Sunday has become a day of business. Those who worship on Sunday are not doing it for biblical or theological reasons, but out of convenience and tradition.
- Adventists aren’t getting much attention for our uniqueness anymore. Even those we designated our enemies seem unbothered by our existence. No one cares that we worship on Saturday, and in many places we enjoy special government accommodations to ensure we are not excluded for our day of worship. Interestingly, Catholic and some evangelical churches have added Saturday afternoon or evening services!
- Religious exclusivism is now repulsive to many. People are sensitive to having their beliefs attacked, and pressuring someone to join your church is looked upon as rude.
Perhaps we need to broaden our traditional understanding of liberty of conscience.
A broader definition
Our audacity in labeling as enemies those who interpret the Bible differently than we do has curtailed evangelistic success. There is a perception that though Adventists talk strongly about religious liberty, we stand up most decisively for our own victimization. Our remnant motif makes it difficult to be inclusive. Religious liberty is centered on us as victims, and everyone else in the world is a potential violator.
An identity focused only in apocalyptic texts has proven limiting. Changes in our world require a more nuanced understanding of liberty of conscience, one that takes us beyond an inward-looking eschatology.
Perhaps our reading of prophecy has lost an awareness of social consciousness—indeed, of anything except our own potential victimization. Our Adventist pioneers were socially conscious in some matters: they fought against racism and oppression through their faith and actions. What would happen if we modern Adventists would broaden our engagement in public affairs and religious liberty to challenge constructs of oppression wherever they exist?
Could our Sabbath message become a platform to protest commodification, white supremacy, sexism, racism, the exploitation of the earth, and discrimination of all kinds? In extending rest to others, could we become champions of protecting their freedom not to keep the sabbath? The same liberty we enjoy will be extended to others who may not share our convictions.
In fact, one of the most interesting questions raised by our increasingly secular world is whether liberty of conscience should mean we defend the right of some not to believe as we do—or not to believe at all! Would we Adventists defend the right of people to be unbelievers—atheists, even? To reject our biblical views of morality?
This question is especially pregnant in light of the desire of right-wing Christians to enforce Christian beliefs by means of laws—as is becoming evident in “red state” America and in places like Uganda.
A worldwide context
Millions around the world live in deplorable conditions, contending with poor health care and limited access to education. In some of these places, the Adventist church is thriving, enjoying increased membership.
But some of us observing at close range notice that not infrequently Adventists, who started out in these places serving the poor and downtrodden, have become apathetic to the conditions faced by them. We boast of our correct theology and our moral influence, but we are reluctant to engage in matters of human rights, corruption, discrimination, violence against minorities, women, and children.
What if our work in public affairs and religious liberty were less self-centered, less apocalyptic, and more contextual? What if, rather than speaking first to perceived threats against our religious freedoms, we engaged in the lived realities of others? Could we navigate political sensitivities from the position of a neutral broker?
Sadly, in many places, we watch our “enemies” fight for the things that ultimately benefit us! What kind of remnant are we if we are of no earthly good?
While our history as an American religion set the template for how we approach religious liberty, we need to be more contextual when using these principles. Right now our impact is limited, cowardly, or ineffective because it is using a template borrowed from a context whose conditions are both foreign and from a different century.
Church and state may be a big issue in some countries—but not all. There are bigger issues we can focus on. Lobbying for increased access to clean water could be as important as fighting for Adventist workers’ right to be excused on Saturdays.
This is not a call to activism for the sake of it, but for using our theology and identity to mitigate suffering in the present. Our pioneers challenged slavery and racism; can we not do the same with current human needs?
Let us use as an example the treatment of the LGBTQ community. Christians have long tried to paint themselves as a persecuted minority. Yet we have seen Christians lobbying against LGBTQ persons, not just to be denied services, but treated with violence under anti-homosexuality laws.
Through all this we Adventists have not just watched, but at the highest levels of the church have supported efforts to legislate our interpretation of the Bible! The persecution which we claim governments will do to us, we Adventists—while claiming to support liberty of conscience—are either advocating for or remaining silent about!
The question here is not whether homosexuality is a sin; the question is whether Adventists, who profess to be champions of liberty of conscience, should be indifferent to—or in some cases celebrate—inhumane treatment and criminalization of the LGBTQ community.
Should not our advocacy of liberty of conscience lead us to fight discrimination, even for those who don’t subscribe to our values? We preach that in the future the “apostate” churches will use the power of the state to advance their agenda. But are we not guilty of the same when we allow governments to legislate discrimination towards sexual minorities? Shall not the principles of freedom of conscience mean that we protect people’s right to go against what we value?
Our silence in the name of political caution towards laws criminalizing what we oppose, in countries with secular constitutions, militates our claims to be advocates of liberty of conscience. We need not join public demonstrations for or against homosexuality, but the least we can do is to protect the right to choose or reject our religious values! The sight of people being incarcerated for being homosexual should concern us as advocates of freedom of conscience.
If we cannot protect people we disagree with—and their right to disagree with us—then we are just like the persecutors we claim are coming for us. The resources and energies we exert trying to argue the sinfulness of homosexuality merely fuels further intolerance.
Worshiping our insecurities
It is easy for one’s attitude towards an abomination to become more abominable than the abomination they condemn. One’s actions against those whom they regard as sinners can become more sinful than the sin they hate. Nothing could dishonor God more than justifying bigotry and hate in God’s name—to legislate our convictions while at the same time persecuting those with whom we disagree!
The signs of the end may not be the sins we see in others, but our love for sinners waxing cold as we worship our insecurities and disgust for others. Any laws passed that favor Adventists or our pet views need to be rejected: we cannot replicate the very things we oppose.
Our disdain should not be toward those who differ with our faith convictions, but toward those religious groups that crawl into bed with political power or tie our religious identity to authoritarian leaders and their ideologies. Religious leaders seeking political power and political leaders seeking a mandate from God present the most immediate challenge before us.
Clearly, Adventism’s approach to liberty of conscience, religious liberty, and public affairs is due for an overhaul. The questions and issues people are contending with require a church that listens and responds. We need to be refreshingly agile, ruthlessly relevant, and robustly responsive to the anxieties that people have.
Our work in public affairs and religious liberty has made notable impact in the past, but more can be done if we are honest enough to engage in some self-reflection.
Admiral Ncube (PhD) is from Zimbabwe. He is a development analyst based in Botswana. He is a father of three and husband to Margret.