Conspiracy thinking

Last week two young Dutch ‘you-tubers’ were arrested in the United States after having entered the terrain of the ultra-secret US Airforce base Area 51. They were subsequently condemned to pay a fine of 4560 dollars. Ties Granzier and Govert Sweep were planning to take pictures of the base. When they were arrested they were in the possession of camera’s, a laptop and a drone. They will most likely have to leave the USA without these goodies.

Area 51 has lately received a lot of publicity A Facebook campaign was launched (and later aborted), asking people to ‘storm’ this secret Airforce base, north of Las Vegas, on September 20. The idea behind this was to investigate the persistent stories about aliens who are supposedly being kept prisoner in this facility, after their UFO or other spacecraft crashed in the vicinity. All kinds of conspiracy theories have developed around the activities of these aliens. According to a 2017 report, almost twenty percent of all Americans claim to have seen a UFO, and almost half of them believe that aliens regularly visit our earth. To my surprise I read a few days ago in a Dutch newspaper that 5.4 percent of all Dutch people are also convinced that the US government is hiding aliens somewhere in the Nevada desert.

Conspiracy theories are as ubiquitous as they are dangerous. Many of them suggest that dangerous forces are secretly at work at all levels of our society. They pose an enormous threat and must, therefore, be exposed by whatever means that may require. These conspiracy theories can be a real threat to our democratic societies. But such theories take on a very special form when they are given a religious content. And we must accept the unfortunate fact that religious conspiracy theories seem to thrive in many religious groups. Sad to say, a lot of Seventh-day Adventists are also attracted to them. Some right-wing speakers travel the world with their sensational messages and in many places find eager audiences. These ‘brethren’, many affirm, dare to speak the truth, whereas most pastors no longer want to talk about the signs of the times! Their dvd’s find their way across the globe and, more often than not, their content is uncritically absorbed and accepted as full truth. The Catholics—more specifically the Pope and the Jesuits—and various secret societies are usually the most prominent culprits.

The approach of the conspiracy theorists in many respects resembles that of best-selling author Dan Brown. The recipe seems to be: You take a few undisputed facts; you then add a large number of unknown facts that are extracted from obscure sources that are difficult to check, and which are at most only partly true; and you mix all this until you have a powerful concoction for the sensation-hungry consumer. It seems to enhance the attractiveness of the resulting product when the speaker assures his audience that the official church, with its ecumenical tendencies, neglects to proclaim these precious truths. And no wonder, for the church has been infiltrated by the very same forces of darkness that the speaker has come to expose!

The recipe is as successful as it is dangerous. It results in fear. It polarizes churches. It cultivates suspicion of church leadership. It fuels that prejudice in the mind of many around us that Adventism is, after all, a sub-Christian sect. But, most serious of all: it eclipses the good news of the message of the gospel by irresponsible innuendos and unbridled speculation, and by an unhealthy sensationalism. A fascination with conspiracies and wild stories about what is happening behind the scenes and is aimed at destroying the Adventist Church, can easily become so overwhelming that one’s faith is no longer a trust relationship with God, but rather a proud sense of satisfaction with knowing things that are hidden to most people around them.

Does the Adventist Church need a new abortion statement?

Euthanasia remains a hotly disputed topic in the Netherlands. Sadly, elsewhere in the world the Dutch policy and practice is often not correctly understood. In particular in the United States, it is often suggested that ending up in a Dutch hospital may be rather risky. If you are over sixty and must have surgery, chances are that the doctors feel you have lived long enough! In actual fact, the rules for euthanasia are quite restrictive—as anyone in the Netherlands, who has been close to a case of euthanasia, will know. It is true that there are some in Dutch society (as in other countries), who would like to relax some of these rules. However, there is currently a court case in which a doctor was tried for murder because she had assisted an elderly demented lady to die. This person had earlier signed a statement indicating her wish to die, if she were to suffer of serious dementia. In spite of the fact that other medical specialists were involved and the family confirmed the death wish of the lady in question, the doctor had to face a murder charge. The argument was that she should not have gone ahead with the euthanasia, since the Dutch law requires that, immediately prior to the intervention, the doctor must ask the person whether it is still his/her wish to die. This was no longer possible in this particular case and, therefore it was decided that the doctor should face the courts, so that more clarity would be achieved of how the law must be interpreted. Today, the court decided that the charge should be dropped, because it found that the doctor had in fact carefully abided by all existing rules.

Abortion is today much less of an issue in the Netherlands than euthanasia. Of course, there are those who find the rules for abortion far too liberal, but it is far less of a burning issue among Dutch Christians than it is in the United States. In America we see an enormous divide between ‘pro-lifers’ and those who want to allow abortion under certain circumstances. In the polarized atmosphere in the US, groups on both sides often describe the standpoint of their opponents in grossly unfair terms. And, unfortunately, the abortion issue has become highly politicized. For a major segment of American evangelicals Donald Trump’s ‘pro-life’ stance is a solid reason to support him, in spite of all his ethically highly dubious words and actions.

In this polarized context the Seventh-day Adventist Church has decided that the time has come to prepare a new official statement about abortion. There is a rather balanced document that was voted by the Autumn Council in 1992, which was published as a ‘guideline’ rather than as official statement. It has served the church well. It made clear that life is precious and that it is God’s gift for which we are responsible. But it also recognized situations in which aborting this incipient life may be a defensible option and that, ultimately, it must be an individual decision. The church may provide guidelines, but should not prescribe what an individual should do. It is clear that there are some (many?) in the church who feel this document is not enough ‘pro-life’. It supposedly leaves too much space for individuals, but also for Adventist hospitals. In addition, there are voices from outside the church that wonder why Adventists are not more outspoken as ‘pro-lifers.’

In my view we should, at least for the time being, be content with the document that we have. Chances are that a new statement will restrict the freedom of the individual and make it more difficult for Adventist hospitals to provide assistance to women in need, for whom abortion is a defensible option. What worries me also is that the plan to publish a statement on abortion seems to a large extent driven by the American political situation. It once again shows how ‘American’ our church continues to be in so many ways. For a church that proudly calls itself a ‘world church’, this is highly unfortunate.

Am I truly happy?

From time to time I ask myself the question: ‘Am I truly happy?’ For a Dutchman this should be an easy question. According to the World Happiness Report of 2019 (published by a department of the United Nations), which provides a ranking of 156 countries, the Netherlands takes fifth place among the happiest countries in the world (after Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland). In this report happiness is measured by looking at such factors as material well-being, social cohesion, life expectancy and freedom of choice.

So, I should count myself lucky to have been born in the Netherlands. Our prime-minister consistently emphasizes that we live in a marvelous country and that we should take good care of it. That may be the case, but, as I wrote in my previous blog, this marvelous country has some 38,000 homeless people. That is as many people as the number of inhabitants of a fair-sized provincial town. According to recent data the number of people that receive a monthly social security check is still just over 800,000 (almost 4,5% of the population). In a major speech our minister of finances stated last week that even many middle-income families are only one defect washing machine away from major financial disarray. [I sometimes wonder how I should interpret such data, when I see an explosive increase on the number of restaurants, and notice how more and more fellow-Dutchmen can afford two or three vacations per year.]

But, let’s go back to the question with which I began this blog. Am I a happy person? The answer depends one how I define happiness. In any case, I am not ‘perfectly’ happy in the sense that I do not have any problems; that I can fulfil all my material desires; that all my social relationships function optimally; that I am just as energetic as I was twenty years ago; that all my projects are one hundred percent successful and that there is never a day when, for some reason or another, I feel rather depressed.

However, I must admit that the world in which I live is not really a happy place. During the past few weeks I have been confronted several times with the finality of life and with the fact that there is an awful lot of sickness all around me. Moreover, there is major political unrest in the world. Examples abound. Just to mention a few the United Kingdom, Hongkong, Jemen and the Middle East (even though we tend to forget about that part of the world, since there has seldom been a time without serious trouble). Hurricane Dorian has left of wide swath of devastation on the Bahamas and (as I write these lines), continues to threaten parts of the coast of the Southeastern United States. No, seen from this perspective, our world does not appear to be very happy.

Nonetheless, when asked whether I am a happy person, I can respond positively. I have now been ‘happily’ married for almost 55 years. We have two good children and have been blessed with two nice grandkids. I still enjoy reasonably good health. I can look back on an interesting career with much variation. I continue to be involved with various meaningful projects. And my Christian faith provides me with a solid basis of meaning.

As we seek to define ‘happiness’, we should perhaps first of all let us be inspired by the beatitudes which Christ spoke as part of his ‘sermon on the Mount’. This helps us to discover that true ‘happiness’ is directly linked to contentment, gratitude, acceptance, having our focus on what is good and true. Happiness is found in trusting that we have our place on God’s world. Happiness, therefore, is first and foremost a hopeful confidence that, even when at times life is tough and brings us a lot of unhappiness, we are in the care of a loving power that lifts us beyond ourselves and the things that may trouble us. Those who do not believe this will have to be content with a very superficial kind of happiness—a bubble that can burst at any time.

Homeless in Holland

Last week the Dutch media reported that, according to the national bureau for statistics (CBS) the number of homeless people in the Netherlands has doubled in the past ten years. At present 39,000 people (mostly men) live on the streets. The categories of men between the ages of 18 and 30 , and of men with a non-western migration background are, In particular, overrepresented. Many organizations found these numbers extremely shocking, and the responsible government official promptly promised to give the matter his immediate attention. Yet, a week later, the news has already receded into the background. But it kept coming back in my mind. How can it be that in one of the richest countries on earth we do no succeed in giving everyone a roof over his/her head? I know that there are shelters where the homeless can stay for a limited period of time, but these are overfull and do not provide a lasting solution. The Salvation Army is active in this area, but I do not see many other Christian organizations that have made care for homeless people a top priority.

For me this is something I cannot easily set aside. Likewise, it is difficult for me to pass a beggar without some feeling of embarrassment and guilt. A few days ago I once again spent some time in Brussels and I am always struck by the relatively large number of beggars on the streets of that city. I usually give them one or two euros. It also happens occasionally that I do not give, but then return to leave a few coins. I know all the arguments why one should not give—but I realize that there are always among these beggars some persons who have very few options if they want to stay alive: it is either a matter of stealing or begging.

As I write this blog I remember an experience in Greece. It was during a tour of senior church members from the Netherlands, with me as the tour leader. During our time in Greece we went to church in Athens. I had been invited to take the sermon that morning. I preached in English and was translated into Greek. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the Adventist church building. I decided to explore things on Friday evening and walked to the church. In front of the main entrance I found six homeless men who were clearly addicts. When I made some enquiries, I learned that this was their habitual sleeping place. However, every Saturday morning they were forced to leave and the needles and other evidences of their presence were cleared away. I wondered why these people were not given a place in the church building, where there seemed to be ample room. Of course, I understood the arguments of the elder of the church, when I asked him about this. He told me that giving shelter to these people was not a good idea. Some members would no longer come to church, and parents with children would not want to have their children confronted with drug use, etc.

Had I been responsible for the use of the church facilities in Athens I would probably have come to the same conclusion. But as I write this paragraph the question emerges once again: What is our Christian responsibility towards people who, whether or not through their own faults, find themselves at the margins of our society.

I admit (albeit with a degree of uneasiness and guilt) that it is not a realistic option to invite a homeless person to come and stay with us in our home, and also that there are lots of practical problems in making some parts of a church building available for sheltering some homeless people. However, there must be something that we can do as a faith community. Could we not start a shelter for homeless people somewhere in the country? No doubt, there are some subsidies available that would make such a project financially viable. When in 1933 (at a time when our denomination in Holland was much smaller) the church leaders saw a need for a home for orphans and other children that needed a roof over their head, Children Home’ Zonheuvel’ was started. If such a project was feasible in 1933, why would starting a home for the homeless not be feasible in 2019?

And, maybe, there is still another way to make a modest contribution towards solving the Dutch problem of the homeless. It would seem to me that helping the homeless would be a very relevant project for ADRA-Netherlands, possibly in support of other organizations with a similar goal. I am sure this would appeal to many Dutch ADRA donors!

Why a meeting 1919 was so important

Dr. Michael Campbell has done the Seventh-day Adventist Church a great service with his newest book: 1919—The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism (Pacific Press Publ. Ass., 2019). Campbell, who recently returned from mission service in the Phlippines and joined the theology faculty at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas (USA), has filled an important gap in our knowledge of the love affair of the Adventist Church with Fundamentalism. The book describes how this love relationship did not always retain the same fervor, and telss the story of why and how many Adventist scholars, church leaders and members in the pew, continued to feel attracted to the main tenets of the fundamentalist movement.

One of the most important events in Adventist history, that has had a major impact on the Adventist view of inspiration, was a Bible Conference in 1919. Important though this meeting was, it was soon largely forgotten and the transcripts of the meetings strangely disappeared—either by accident or on purpose—and remaioned lost until they were re-discovered in the General Conference archives in 1974. Knowledge about the content of these transcripts became public when Dr. Molleurus Couperus published parts of them in the May 1979 issue of Spectrum. (I met dr. Couperus several times when he visited his elderly mother, who was a member of a small church in the Northern part of the Netherlands. I was pastoring there at the very beginning of my career in the church. Dr. Couperus was of Dutch descent. I remember playing an occasional game of chess with his mother, a delightful, spirited old lady.)

The segments of the transcripts of the 1919 Conference that Spectrum published focused on the inspiration of Ellen White. She had died just a few years earlier and the denominational leaders and college professors had to define the nature of the prophet’s inspiration, and to come to a consensus about the continuing authority of her writings. I vividly remember how, when I first read this Spectrum article in 1979, I was struck by the ‘modern’ questions the participants at the 1919 Bible conference were asking. While some maintained that the ‘fundamentalists’ were correct in defending verbal inspiration, with its characteristics of inerrancy and infallibility, others (some of the key-leaders among them) rejected this conservative view of inspiration. When speaking about the work of Ellen White they maintained that Ellen White herself had never claimed that her work was correct in every historical and theological detail, and that she quite openly used a multitude of other sources in her writings.

It was recognized by those who wanted to portray a more realistic view of Ellen White and her work that many of the church members tended to be very ‘fundamentalist’ in their opinion of Ellen White and would be shocked when they heard ‘the truth’. Although some—as for instance the General Conference president, A.G. Daniels—emphasized the need of educating the church members, this did not happen in any serious way through official church channels. It is noteworthy that in 1979 it was an independent Adventist journal that published parts of the newly discovered transcripts of the 1919 Conference.

In recent years the church has been more open than in the past in recognizing some of the ‘hot’ issues regarding the person and work of Ellen G. White.  I do not think that today Ronald Numbers would have been fired by the church for publishing his Prophetess of Health, in which he showed how much Ellen White was indebted to the ideas of other health reformers of her time. Nonetheless, most of the new information about the life and work of Ellen White still comes through non-denominational media. More even than in the 1919-era there is a need of informing the church at large about the things that have been uncovered. This will not deny the contribution Ellen White has made to Seventh-day Adventism. But it will dispel myths that have been passed on for too long. These have strengthened many in a mistaken belief in the infallibility of Ellen White and, just as unfortunately, have also led many to lose confidence in her work and to turn away from her. Only total openness will ensure that church members will continue to read and interpret her writings in such a way that it will build their faith and that they will continue to appreciate her role in past and present Adventism.