by Admiral Ncube | 5 May 2022 |
Recently I saw on the General Conference Youth Ministries Facebook page an announcement that on Sunday, May 1, 2022, our denomination would commemorate the global Ramadan prayer day, the keynote speaker being General Conference President Ted Wilson.
This initiative was championed by the Global Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations, aimed at connecting and reaching out to Muslims across the world. Adventists see this as an essential part of the church’s mission, given that Islam has a following of over 1.8 billion people globally.
While the good intentions propelling this effort are appreciated, behind this gesture are contradictions that cannot go unnoticed. There’s a duplicity here that exposes how warped apocalypticism continues to contaminate how we relate with the society around us, and especially with other religious groups.
We Adventists relate with and interpret the world around us through eschatological lenses. The concept of the remnant is existential to us, strongly tied with our eschatological focus. Because our understanding of end-time Bible prophecy presents us as a minority that will be hated by the whole world, we are wary of any connections with those we deem as part of Babylon. This explains why we are so suspicious of ecumenism (even when we don’t understand it), or any efforts to work with other religious groups.
Yet our prophetic narrative inevitably creates an irreconcilable dichotomy between us and other religious groups. How can the remnant work with or learn from those it labels as Babylon? Babylon is, in our teachings, the same groups identified by our pioneers as enemies after they rejected the first angel’s message in the 1840s.
Some beliefs and practices keep us in tension with society. For example, we observe a Saturday Sabbath in a society that is out of sync with that schedule. We have a strong focus on the imminent return of Jesus and the end of the world, in a world that appears to be continuing on regardless of our beliefs. We traditionally have held to uncommon lifestyle practices: diet restrictions (vegetarianism, no coffee, tea, or alcohol, etc.), social prohibitions (no dancing, gambling, card playing, smoking, marriage to non-Adventists, or reading of fiction), and “dress reform” (abstinence from jewellery and cosmetics). Some at times have even eschewed commemorating Easter and Christmas.
That we were misunderstood by the world did not bother us. It is part of being God’s remnant people, the only true church bearing God’s final message in the last days. It gave us the boldness to call other religious groups “apostate” and brazenly challenge them in our evangelistic meetings.
Inevitably, this abrasive approach created barriers which led us to coalesce with our own people, trusting ourselves to hang out with no one except ourselves.
And whatever scorn we attracted was seen as validation of our special status!
Ramadan and Easter
The Global Ramadan day of prayer is a new precedent.
It came hardly two weeks after the Easter holidays, when the attention of the Christian world was focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus. As usual, Adventists were conspicuous by our silence at Easter—premised on what we believe are the pagan origins and Roman Catholic influences surrounding this day, as well as a lack of scriptural instruction on Easter celebrations. Even with over 2.8 billion Christians in the world celebrating Easter, we would rather ignore it, in spite of our strong missional focus.
Why do we feel comfortable commemorating the end of Ramadan in solidarity with our Muslim neighbours, while perpetuating our reputation of being anti-Easter?
(Interestingly, regarding Christmas, Ellen White was pragmatic in her counsel. Despite its pagan origins or lack of biblical injunction, she encouraged Adventists to celebrate it—see Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, Dec. 17, 1888.)
Using the 1st of May to mark a day of prayer in solidarity with Muslims is not only creative, but commendable for building bridges. But to demonstrate the opposite when it comes to another popular (and biblically and historically defensible) day on the Christian calendar exposes a duplicity that is a legacy from Adventist fundamentalism, where in keeping the world out of the church, we succeed in keeping the church out of the world.
If the same principle is applied, there’s no reason for Adventists to ignore Easter. Pagan origins or “lack of a biblical precedent” are not sufficient reasons to remain aloof, especially in a world where traditional methods for mission are losing their efficacy.
To act as though relationships with other Christian groups are more harmful to us than those with other religions is not only shocking, but hypocritical.
Warped apocalyptic exclusivism
This is a problem inherent in our 19th century apocalypticism, which sees Catholics and other Protestants as our irredeemable enemies.
Yet attitudes regarding religion are changing worldwide. Religious exclusivism is increasingly less tolerated, and people find it repulsive for a religious organisation to try to build itself by criticizing others.
In the West, Christianity is slowly dying. In the global South, where Christianity is still growing, doctrinal correctness is fading as an incentive to join a church. People everywhere are caring more about how a church treats them than what it teaches them.
So this creative Ramadan event opens a huge question: why would Adventists be more willing to connect with Muslims than our fellow Christians in other religious groups?
The answer, of course, lies in our long-held theology that regards other Christians as Babylon, as our eschatological enemies at some future point.
It is such attitudes that perpetuate antagonism between us and the world we want to reach. Warped apocalypticism has not only seen us narrowly define Babylon doctrinally and predict that others (often without evidence) are our potential enemies, but it has made us ignore the good in others.
Because we see ourselves as the sum of what God is doing on earth, it’s difficult to appreciate how God is also working through our fellow Christians—sometimes, to be honest, more effectively than God is working through us.
Again, it is wonderful that we are trying to connect with Muslims. But consider this: if other Christian groups, especially Roman Catholics, were to do something similar, we would be quick to read sinister motives into their overtures.
For example, in October 2021 leaders of the main groups representing Sunni and Shiite Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc., met at the Vatican to sign a joint appeal requesting governments to commit to ambitious targets at the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, November 1-12, 2021. This event saw religious leaders promising to do their part in leading their faithful into environmental responsibility.
Even though the Adventist Church has issued various official statements on climate change, the environment, and stewardship of the earth, we refused to have any part in this initiative. Not a few Adventist leaders publicly criticized it as a sneaky step towards enforcing Sunday laws by the Vatican under the guise of environmental sustainability.
New understandings of ourselves
Adventism needs to unshackle itself from these narrow definitions of Babylon borrowed from the 19th century. Our world is different than it was a century ago. Our mission is not to perpetuate the strong anti-Catholic sentiments of 19th-century America, but reduce the levels of tension between Christians and society. For us to continue shunning other Christian groups based on doctrinal differences is more harmful than helpful.
For example, there are ways with which we can share the truth about the Sabbath without tying it to end-time persecution. Stewardship of the environment and social justice are embedded in the doctrines of the Sabbath.
Why not reconfigure our Sabbath message to speak to these issues rather than borrow quotations from the 1880s and apply them in our day, when conditions have changed so dramatically? We need not use end-time events as the only motive for keeping the Sabbath. Looking at the Sabbath and its connection with the environment, for example, would move us away from how we keep the Sabbath to how the Sabbath keeps us.
And enough of this obsession with digging up evidence to confirm how other groups are on the wrong side! This approach uses prophecy to accentuate our corporate ego rather than to connect with people in a way that leads them to Christ. Prophecy has among us become a tool to exclude—indeed, to fuel indifference or even enmity toward the world around us. Our prophecy focuses on identifying enemies, painting us as victims, and building suspicion rather than bridges.
It is time for us to grow up beyond this. If what our church did to reach out to Muslims is not opportunistic or manipulative, there’s no reason why it can’t be replicated with other religious groups—especially with our Christian brothers and sisters with whom we have so much more in common.
If we cannot do this, we show that our apocalypticism has become more divisive than helpful to the spread of the gospel.
Admiral Ncube (PhD) is from Zimbabwe. He is a development analyst based in Botswana. He is a father of three and husband to Margret.