Sidelines and Sessions

2008/09/18

A Prophetic, Peacekeeping Witness

Filed under: UCLA University Religious Conference articles — spsukaton @ 9:35 am

While the URC is home to a number of faith communities, and this blog will be pulling perspectives from every religious tradition, I thought it’d be fun to begin with my own–the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Most people associate Adventism with vegetarian living, health care, and going to church on Saturday (rather than Sunday, like most other Christian denominations). However, in recent years, Adventists have been rediscovering pacifism in their history and theology–something usually associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, and Anabaptists.

The Adventist’s church’s original stance on violence came in the midst of the Civil War. When the Church was founded in 1863, its members were torn over what to do–joining the Union Army would betray their understanding of the Gospel as a message preaching the refusal of violence as a tool for government, life, law, or conversion. However, becoming conscientious objectors would put them under suspicion as “Copperheads”–Northerners who backed the Confederacy and slavery. Adventists were uniformly anti-slavery and anti-rebellion, but equally anti-violence.

Some heated Unionists proposed that Adventists form brigades to support the Union, while hardline pacifists were willing to be branded as traitors and imprisoned for their faith. In the end, the Church evaded the question in a number of ways–in Iowa, Adventist petitioned for recognition as a “peace church”, while the national church raised money to pay to release Adventists from the draft, or encouraged laypersons to work as medics, helping freed blacks, or providing other services.

This same aversion to violence brought Adventists to attack William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Adventist writers damned other churches for supporting imperialism, bullying of a worn-out Spain and tired colonists, and what they saw as dangerous expansionism.

In the early 20th century, the Adventist Church published pamphlets to guide young men through the draft, and even made field medic courses a graduation requirement at Adventist colleges. As a result, an entire generation of Adventists–pastors and parishoners alike–recall military medical training.

The most visible example of Adventist pacifism is Desmond Doss (1919-2006), the field medic who saved dozens of lives–crawling under Japanese grenades to administer plasma and treat wounds–when serving on Okinawa in World War II. Doss, an Adventist from Virginia, was the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor.

However, by the time of the Vietnam War, many Adventists submitted to the draft as combatants, not medics. On the other side of the issue, many Adventists sided with the peace movement that mobilized the churches, choosing to side with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloane Coffin in demanding an end to the war. The division continued, and the church’s leadership currently allows each parishoner to make up his or her own mind–while peace is encouraged, joining the military is not grounds for disfellowship. In fact, the Chaplain of the Senate, Rear Admiral Barry Black, is an Adventist.

Douglas Morgan, an Adventist historian, began discussing Adventism’s nonviolent heritage with other Adventists. Those discussions grew into the Adventist Peace Fellowship, which seeks to present the historical and theological underpinnings for nonviolence in Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine. This work has led to Adventist Peace Fellowship joining the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (more on that in a forthcoming post!), and staging protests in Washington and Los Angeles concerning the Iraq War.

While people continue to accuse religion of separating people, fostering violence, and promoting human misery, Adventist Peace Fellowship and other organizations like it in other faith traditions prove that religions promote peace, goodwill, and friendship–and this isn’t an innovation, but something integral.

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