The drama of intolerance

According to a report by the Dutch-based Open Doors Foundation, the persecution of Christians worldwide is still a problem that deserves great attention. In 2019 more than 3,000 Christians were killed because of their religious beliefs. In addition, large numbers of Christians in dozens of countries suffer from other forms of persecution or from serious obstacles to the practice of their faith. These can include imprisonment, torture, being ostracized from the community, a ban on gathering for church services, open evangelism, as well as economic obstacles and thwarted careers. North-Korea once again ranks first among the wordt offenders. China continues to score very high, while Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Pakistan also remain near the top of the list. (For a ranking of the fifty worst culprits, see https://www.opendoors.nl/ranglijst. Sometimes special incidents reach the world press, such as when the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death, was given permission to leave the country. And we haven’t forgotten how in 2014 some 50,000 (Christian) Yezidi’s tried to save their lives on the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq, fleeing the terror of Isis.

As a Christian I naturally feel very directly concerned when the lives of fellow Christians are in danger, or when they are unfree in the ways they can profess and practice their faith. For Seventh-day Adventists this interest is particularly strong, because Adventists have often been (and sometimes still are) a specific target of deplorable measures in intolerant countries. But it is important to remember that it is not only Christians who are affected by intolerance. Unfortunately, there are still horrible (and sometimes deadly) expressions of anti-Semitism–not only in the Middle East but even in the so-called civilized countries of the Western world.

Muslim minorities are also persecuted in a range of countries. This is the case, for example, in India, but also in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are in such dire need that they felt they had no option but to flee their country on a large scale. The situation is such that a number of nations, led by The Gambia, have even accused Myanmar of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The Chinese measures against the Uighurs also justifiably arouse a great deal of indignation throughout the world. An estimated one million men and women from this ethnic Muslim minority are now locked up in re-education camps. And this does not exhaust the list of examples of large-scale religious terror.

Unfortunately, we also have to conclude that groups within a particular religion can persecute each other, as for example the Islamic Shiites and their Sunni brothers and sisters! But before we, as Christians, judge these groups too harshly, we do well to remind ourselves that for centuries there has been hatred, and often deadly violence, between Catholic and Protestant Christians.

And, going a step further, we must recognize that intolerance goes far beyond physical persecution. Feelings of aversion and intolerance, as for instance towards Islamic immigrants, can poison social relations. It is not so long ago that Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats in Northern Ireland. The relationship between Protestants and Catholics has not yet been normalized everywhere in the world, and various Protestant groups also have great difficulty respecting each other.

Even within church communities there is often still a considerable way to go when it comes to tolerance. Incomprehension is frequently the cause. But whatever the background, we must not forget that intolerance (and even outright persecution) starts with feelings of antipathy and aversion that easily turn into hate and hostile behavior. Freedom of confession and practice of belief is a fundamental human right, which becomes increasingly important as the world further globalizes. However, the exercise of that right does not stop at the contours of a religion or religious community, or even at the walls of a local mosque, synagogue or church!

Does prayer make any difference?

Last week, the President of the Adventist Church sent a message to all members around the world, asking them to pray for the people who are suffering as a result of the forest fires in Australia. He called on the church to ask God to stop the fires that have now reduced large parts of Australia to ashes. A few days ago the President sent a similar call for collective prayer, this time on behalf of those in the Philippines who are threatened by the Taal Volcano in the Bantangas province, which is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Asia. He added that the church’s regional office in Southeast Asia and a university that is operated by the church, at a short distance from the volcano, are also under threat.

It raised a question that I have asked myself many times: Do such prayer initiatives really help? And is there a greater chance of ‘success’ if large numbers participate? This is a complicated issue. Believers usually assume that God is omnipotent, and is therefore able to answer such prayers. They also usually agree that God is the personification of loving goodness. On that basis it is, they feel, to be expected that God will be happy to respond positively to prayers that beg Him to stop terrible situations such as in Australia and in the Philippines.
Moreover, if we are dealing with a loving God who can do anything, shouldn’t we expect him to simply prevent all these kinds of disasters from happening in the first place?

Prayer plays an important role in my faith experience, but not in the way I sometimes see with many fellow believers. I regularly pray to God for protection, but I do not have the habit of always saying a short prayer before I start the car to run an errand. And I don’t expect God to find a parking space for me when I arrive in the center of Amsterdam.
I trust in the words of the apostle James that it is important to pray for seriously ill people, but I do wonder if the apostle could not have been a bit more reluctant with his assurance that: “Prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15). After all, we all know that many prayers for healing remain without the desired result. There is, of course, the escape clause that we must always end our prayers with the statement that not our will, but God’s will must prevail. And yes, very often the divine will turns out to be rather unfathomable (or some might say: capricious).

For many people, this is a reason to abandon their faith. They cannot believe in a God who apparently may help somebody get rid of his cold or to find her keychain, but looks the other way when the holocaust takes place or an atomic bomb falls on Hiroshima. When people talk to me about this and ask me why God allows all sorts of terrible things to happen, and why he apparently answers some prayers but ignores others, I must admit I have no real answer.

Still, the problems surrounding prayer are no reason for me not to pray anymore. One of the books that have helped me to continue praying, despite the many questions, is that of the well-known American writer Philip Yancey: Prayer: Does it Make any Difference? (2006). Yancey emphasizes that God is there for us, whether or not we experience him and feel his presence. In our prayers we acknowledge God’s presence and respond to it. Praying means that we know our place in the grand scheme of things; that we realize our limitations and smallness, and are willing to do what we can but ultimately leave everything to God. Prayer is a time for expressing our gratitude for all the good things that we experience every new day. It also includes thinking about what we did wrong and asking for forgiveness. Whatever else it may do, praying for others helps us to take our responsibility for others more seriously. Prayer is being silent before the God who–even though it often doesn’t seem to be that way–somehow knows what is happening and why it is happening. The apostle Paul wrote to the members of the church in Rome that we often don’t actually know what to say to God in our prayers, but that somehow even our wordless sighs are of value to God (Romans 8:26). That in itself is reason enough to keep praying.

Studying the book of Daniel

During the first quarter of this year, the Seventh-day Adventist Church will once again study the bible book Daniel. In recent years we have had a number of Sabbath School quarterlies about the prophecies, and especially about the so-called apocalyptic parts of the Bible. Each time we were presented with the traditional Adventist interpretations. The explanations invariably followed the historicist approach, i.e. that the fulfilment of the prophecies of Daniel’s and Revelation was found in the course of historical events. An important part of this was the emergence of apostate religious systems which, in the end times, will cause more and more problems for the relatively small group that remains faithful to God and his Word. We also find this approach in the study guide of the quarter that has just begun.

One could ask why it is necessary to focus on these topics again and again for a full quarter. Is it because the originators of the study material for the weekly Bible study are afraid that these topics have gradually ceased to interest many church members? That might indeed be the case. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this.

Unfortunately, the focus on Bible reading and Bible study among Adventists is no longer what it once was. And there also appears to be a certain fatigue, due to the fact that the treatment of the content of Daniel and of Revelation hardly brings any new points of view. But the most important thing, in my opinion, is the fact that many traditional interpretations, also of the book of Daniel, no longer sound so convincing to many of us. Many church members have gradually become aware that other approaches to this book of the Bible are also possible. According to the vast majority of Bible scholars in our time, the book of Daniel was written, or compiled, in the second century BC and not in the sixth century BC. The book reflects the time when Israel was in the power of the Seleucids (one of the powers that arose from the Greek world empire). Scholars are quite generally of the opinion that King Antiochus Epiphanes was the great evildoer (the ‘little horn’). He had caused the Jerusalem temple to be defiled in a gruesome way!

The new quarterly does not address this problem. By the way, other things about which there are serious questions are not mentioned either. I might mention the year-day principle as an example. The quarterly presents it as if it is an established fact that in ‘time prophecies’ a day symbolically represents a year. It is essential to accept this idea if we want to arrive, via Daniel 8 and 9, at the year 1844. But the basis for this theory is quite weak. More and more Adventist theologians, who teach in our colleges and universities, agree. But they don’t get the space to openly admit that we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

When the seven-volume Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Commentary was produced, now some sixty years ago, the writers and editors were struggling with a number of difficult issues, including the question of the day-year principle. Raymond Cottrell, one of the most important persons behind this major project, later admitted that there were a number of issues that could no longer be defended (including the day-year principle), but that had become so much part of the Adventist tradition that pastoral considerations made them decide not to tinker with these!

I don’t have an answer for all the problems that arise from a study of the book Daniel. But I am convinced that concealing these and other very real problems does not serve the Church. It’s time to explain in a responsible, open way where the bottlenecks are. And even if certain sacred cows will have to die, we can still continue to draw a lot of inspiration from the book of Daniel.

Entering a new decade . . .

On the penultimate day of the year 2019 The Christian daily Dagblad Trouw published an article with the following headline: 2019: More burn-out, more atheists and more electric cars. The growing number of electric cars in the Netherlands is a welcome contribution to combat the serious climate change that threatens many facets of our existence. Opinions on the increase in the number of atheists in the Netherlands (by about eight percent in ten years) differ. On the one hand, there are still large groups of believers who view this trend with regret, while on the other hand many think this is a very positive development. For many, religion is a curse rather than a blessing. The increase of the burn-out phenomenon is extremely worrying. What can be done to reduce the workload of a large part of the working population, so that burn-out can be prevented.

Of course, many other things have changed in the second decade of this century, in a positive or negative way. The feeling of security has decreased among the Dutch population, while crime has in fact decreased! The population has increased by about 700,000 people. For a considerable part (over 400,000) this is due to the arrival of migrants. This increase is much less significant than many populist politicians want us to believe, with their claims that the country is flooded with fortune seekers from all over the world. Their alarmist messages that Islam is becoming stronger and stronger are also premature, to say the least. In the past ten years several religious communities have shrunk, but the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands and Islam have remained virtually at the same level. Among others changes in the past ten years are the enormously increased use of smartphones and the use of the social media, and shopping on the internet! And then, of course, there is the exploding concern about climate change.

But at the turn of the year – and this time at the transition from one decade to the next – we are not only looking at what has happened, but also at what the coming years will bring us. We hope for more peace, and less global polarization. Above all, I, for one, hope there will be a change in the upcoming presidential elections in the United States. And in our own lives we hope for health and energy for ourselves and our loved ones, and for joy and satisfaction in our activities.

It goes without saying that I am also thinking about the future of the Church to which I belong and which is dear to me. Will we see the changes that many, with me, are longing for during the world congress in July in Indianapolis? Will we get new leaders who will let go of the stifling approach of the past ten years and who will give the church the breathing space that is needed for a healthy development of our faith community? I am referring to space for the regions of the world to color Adventism within the culture and world view of their part of the world (this alone can offer a solution to the ongoing impasse surrounding the role of women in the church). And I am referring to space for the individual believers, to be allowed to think independently, to ask questions and to find their own answers within the contours of a common tradition.

This is my last blog of this year. I managed to post a new blog every week. Not every piece was equally profound, but it is nice that every day there are still dozens, and often a few hundred, readers. A warm thank-you to all of you, and God’s blessing for the new year!

Enjoying Christmas

It’s Boxing Day—seven thirty in the morning. I am sitting in the living room and just made myself a cup of tea. Everything is quiet. The Christmas tree and other Christmas lights create extra atmosphere in the room. A great background for writing a blog.

We have enjoyed Christmas so far, and expect that this 26th of December will also be a nice day. Unfortunately, in the Netherlands, the “second Christmas Day” (as we call it) is also increasingly assumed the character of ‘boxing day’, on which the religious character of Christmas is pretty much pushed into the background.

We started on the path to Christmas with an interdenominational Sing-In on December 21 in the interconfessional church building in the center of our village. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and were happily surprised that the mayor read the Christmas gospel. On Christmas Eve the Advent congregation in Harderwijk had a beautiful Christmas service, which was entirely organized by the teenagers of the local church. Chapeau! On Christmas Day we enjoyed a beautiful concert of the West German Broadcasting Company (WDR) on TV and, of course. we did not want to miss the message of the Pope and his Urbi et Orbi blessing, as well as the speech of the Dutch king. I was happy to see on Facebook a short Christmas message from Pastor Ted Wilson, the president of the Adventist World Church.

I realize that in our denomination the church leaders often have to maneuver very carefully around Christmas. After all, there are quite a few fellow-believers who are opposed to Christmas celebrations. It is, they say, a pagan feast and Bible-believing Christians should have nothing to do with it. It struck me that the message of Pastor Wilson on Facebook, in addition to many positive reactions, also received a lot of negative comments. Many of these comments went something like this: Shame on the president of our church that he sends such a wrong signal and leads the church down the wrong path.

Is Christmas of dubious origin? Yes, it certainly is. But is that a problem? In and around the Christian church many elements can be traced back to non-Christian traditions and customs. But if those things have been ‘christianized’, and have been given a totally new content, it doesn’t really matter where those customs originated. One could even argue that one of the characteristic aspects of the Adventist church service also has a very dubious origin. The Sabbath School is not an Adventist invention but was copied from the Sunday School, as it developed in various Protestant churches in nineteenth century America. Sunday school was, of course, linked to the Sunday and the celebration of that day was associated with the worship of the sun god. Is this a reason to abolish the sabbath school?

I was alerted to the example of the dubious origin of the Sabbath School in an extremely informative article that I found on the website of Adventist Today. Here is the link: https://atoday.org/paganisms-gift-to-us/

It is curious that many conservative church members object to celebrating Christmas. They generally appreciate Ellen White’s opinion, but when it comes to Christmas, they set her positive statements about celebrating Christmas aside. For her, it was especially important that we celebrate Christmas in a way that echoes, loudly and clearly, the message of the feast, namely that the Savior was born. Yet, for her the social aspects were not taboo either. For example, her son Willy even seems at least once to have dressed up as Santa Claus, with his mother’s approval. (See: http://www.truthorfables.com/EGW_Santa.htm)

I’m sorry so many of my fellow believers don’t enjoy Christmas. Of course, the message of Christmas must be central to everything we do on and around Christmas. And that message should not only be in our minds as we enjoy the Christmas tree, the the candle lights and the beautiful carols. It is the message that we must take with us, into the last week of the year and into 2020.