The fear of terrorism

 

Most of us have never been the victim of a terrorist attack. We have never seen how someone blew himself (of herself) up, or started to shoot in all directions with a machine gun. But we are worried. The images stay with us for a considerable time, after seeing the reports of the events in Belgium and France, some months ago; of the carnage in Nice and of the young Afghan man who attacked his fellow travellers in a German train. And we tend to agree when someone remarks that this might also happen any time in our own country. When big events take place—like this week in the Netherlands with the four-day trek of some 50.000 people over 30, 40 or 50 kilometers—security has the highest priority. The organizers are greatly relieved when everything passes withour major incidents.

I am writing this blog while sitting in the intercity train, on my way to a meeting in Brussels (to have a discussion with the person who is currently translating my newest book into French!). The train is mostly empty, but how do I know that no radicalized Muslim, who may have boarded the train in the Hague or in Rotterdam, will storm into my carriage and start shooting while shouting ‘Allah is great!’ I am not overly worried, but I do realize that there are many rather easy targets for any extremist who wants to execute some deadly plan. Airports and airplanes may be reasonably safe, but what about trains and stations, ferries and cruise ships, or even busses, shopping centers, museums and churches?

The senseless violence of terrorism creates a lot of fear. But people realize that their life must go on. They know they cannot stay home, but when they go out they look around whether they spot any suspect parcel or any suitcase without a nearby owner, or whether some person is behaving suspiciously.

Some Bible readers will think of texts that tell us about a time when this world will be in the grip of fear, and underline that this is a ‘sign of the times’,  an indication that the end of history is near and that Jesus is about to come. However, it is not so easy to answer the question whether this heightened concern, because of the threat of terrorism, is truly a ‘sign of the times’. For let’s be honest: Life was not always so very safe in the past. A traveller in Jesus’ days could easily fall victim to the robbers who operated along the roads  between the population centers. Travel in ancient times or in the Middle Ages was not without significant danger, and it has never been totally safe since. Someone could suddenly immobiliz you with his dagger. Your stagecoach could be attacked. Your ship could be the target of organized piracy.

It would seem to me that a person who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago had as much reason to live in fear as we have today. Does that make all talk about ‘signs of the times’ meaningless? Far from it.  However, we must never forget that from a biblical perspective the ‘time of the end’ began right after Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension. The early church knew it lived in the ‘time of the end’ and looked towards the soon coming of their Lord. The ‘time of the end’ is still in progress. But it will not continue forever. Through the centuries there have been signals (‘signs’) that remind of of the fact that this world is worn-out and must (and will) be replaced by something infinitely better.

For christians this expectation must always reign over their fear. Hope must always have the last word. Also (and especially) in a time when reports of terror so often dominate our daily news.

 

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The Adventist Church—was its past better than its present?

 

Many Seventh-day Adventists think that their church is not doing so well. They have no difficulty in listing a series of things which they feel should change. The solution, they feel, is a return to the past. Rather than opting for a ‘progressive’ Adventism they prefer a form of ‘historic’ Adventism. However, when you enter into a discussion with these people, you find that many of them do not really have a clear picture of what the church of the past looked like. They have a rather romanticized idea of the true state of the church of a century or so ago.

My mother was baptized when she was sixteen. This is now more than eighty years ago. At some point in time her father had accepted the Adventist message. I do not know whether this was also true for her mother. Her father—my grandfather—did not stay with his new faith for very long. From isolated statements from him and from  my mother I concluded that he left the small church of which he was a member after a protracted and ugly controversy among the members.

Years later, when I had already been a minister for some time, my mother sometimes said to me: ‘ If people tell you that in the past the church was better than it is now—don’t believe it. I know better.’ During the past week I received strong confirmation of that statement. I read the fascinating biography of Arthur G. Daniells, written by Benjamin McArthur, an accomplished Adventist historian.[i] Daniells was the president of the General Conference from 1901 until 1922—longer than any president before or after him.

Daniells is portrayed as a man with a strong will and a clear vision, a capable church administrator and a tireless promoter of the mission outreach of the church. He played a key role in the reorganization of the church in 1901 and the ensuing years. His experiences in New Zealand and Australia and his extensive travel had widened his vista. He selected strong people for his leadership team and had close ties with both Ellen White and her influential son Willie.

Much was accomplished during Daniells’s period in office and the church owes him a great deal. So much is abundantly clear from McArthur’s book. However, this biography also provides a wealth of information about the problems and challenges Daniells encountered wherever he turned, and the many negative things that came his way. A prominent example of this is his heated controversy with Dr. Harvey Kellogg.

Reading the story of Arthur Daniells by this capable author—based on meticulous research—does not make for unmitigated happiness. It is not just a tale of church growth and faith, commitment and courage, but also an account of lots of strife and unholy competition, of apostasy and bitterness. It tells us about the opening up of new mission fields and the founding of countless new institutions, but also about frequent financial mismanagement and about unchristian tensions between men (yes, almost only men!) with hugely inflated egos.

I realize that a book like this has its limitation. A basic problem is that history (including the history of a denomination) focuses mainly on leaders and the developments in organizations. This is also true for this biography. We learn preciously little about what happened at the grass roots and about how ‘ordinary’ members experienced their faith. But the over-all picture is clear. There is much in this period of our past that may inspire us, but is does not offer a blueprint for the church of today and does not tell us how to meet the challenges of our times. Even the theological views of this period do not offer a standard by which to judge those of today—as if we did not learn anything in the past one hundred years.

If people tell you that in the past things were much better in the church han they are today, this book about Daniells may help you to revise your opinion.


[i]  Benjamin McArthur, A.G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth-Century Adventism (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2015).

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Soccer lessons

 

I am not a soccer enthusiast. The number of soccer matches that I have ever watched on tv can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I have not closely followed the European soccer championships that are currently held in France and are now almost ended. That fact that my own country did not qualify for this tournament did not worry me at all.

During the first few days of the event my reactions were dominated by irritation. The clashes between British and Russian fans were in my opinion (and this view was widely shared) disgusting. I was afraid that this would become a feature of the entire tournament. But, fortunately, that was not the case.

I did, however, pay some attention to the role of Iceland and of Wales. The teams of those two very small nations were able to reach the quarter finals. The team of Iceland (330.000 inhabitants) lost 2-5 against France, while the team from Wales (3 million inhabitants) had to recognize Portugal as stronger than they were (0-2).

It would have been quite extraordinary if the two teams had won these two matches. No doubt many Icelandic and Welsh supports hoped for that kind of miracle. But when they returned home, they were given the kind of enthusiastic welcome, as if they had won the world cup. The people were ecstatic about the success of their team.

It makes one think. The people were not sad because their team had lost, but thy were excited about what they had accomplished. The loss in the quarter finals felt in fact like a big success. What they had done far exceeded all expectations. Would it not be great of people in general (ourselves included) would be more like the Icelanders and the Welsh and would much less focus on things that did not succeed and would simply be happy and thankful for the things that did turn out well?

This soccer lesson reminded me of a Norwegian soccer team. A few years ago Sigve Tonstad, a Norwegian scholar who teaches at the American Loma Linda University, wrote a chapter for the Festschrift for dr. Jan Paulsen (the president of the Adventist world church in the 1999-2010 period), which I had the honor to edit.  It was entitled: ‘The Nimble Foot.’ In his creative and inspiring contribution Tonstad tells the story of the soccer team of Trondheim—a Norwegian town with only about 170.000 inhabitants.  At the end of the last century the Rosenborg team won the competition in the national league no less than thirteen (!) times and it played against against some of the greatest teams of Europe, as for instance AC Milan.

Tonstad applied the major elements of the strategy of this successful team with the way in which organizations (such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church) should be led. One of the crucial principles of the trainer of the Rosenborg team was that each player should not aim at being the star of the game, but should do everything possible to build on the strengths of the other players and make them excel.

The accomplishments of the Trondheim team has a great lesson for all of us. We can do more of we do not constantly compete with one another, but do everything we can to ensure that the people which whom we work can excel.

Maybe I should pay more attention to the soccer phenomenon. Who knows how many other wise lessons I might encounter.

 

 

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Kinship and the Ellen White Foundation

 

Eleven or twelve years ago the first ‘Open Day’ was organized on the grounds around the office of the Dutch Adventist Church. I have been a regular visitor of this event and hope that this event, that I helped to initiate, will long continue.

Perhaps the time has come, however, for a thorough evaluation to determine whether the present format needs to be adjusted. I leave that to the current church administrators. And, speaking about evaluation, I am not thinking about the abominable weather last Sunday during Open Day 2016. The influence of the Dutch union leaders on the weather is presumably rather limited. However, I have the impression that the annual event has gradually been somewhat hijacked by individuals and persons who (I think) do not really represent middle-of-the-road Adventism. I am thinking, in particular, of the stalls with publications from the right fringe of the church. I would not plead for refusing access to these independent organizations, but I do hope that a better balance can be established  by having more stalls that present and support the activities of the broader church and the union organization.

I applaud the presence of the Stanborough Press. However, it puzzles me why the people of the SP have no clear signs as to where they are hiding and do not make a better effort to also offer the newest Adventist English language publications. Unfortunately, there was (once again) nothing there for me and this was a complaint of quite a few others as well.

When entering the grounds I was asked to contribute two euros as a parking fee. I was told that the upkeep of the estate does cost a lot of money. I must admit this irritated me greatly. Paying two euro is not really a problem for me, but it was strangely at odds with the large ‘welcome’ banner that greeted me. Is it really a good idea to make people who, on the average, perhaps give a thousands euros to their church, pay for parking at such an event?

As in previous years Kinship (a worldwide organization serving Adventist homosexuals) was present with a stall. I hope their presence will also be a continuing tradition. It is important that church members are informed about the ramifications of have a different sexual orientation. But it would seem to me that the Kinship stall could be quite a bit more exciting and attractive!

It is not only funny but also quite meaningful that the stall of the Kinship representatives and that of the Dutch Ellen White Foundation were neighbors and stood side by side. In many countries that might not be possible. It is good to see that at the Dutch ‘Open Day’ this is no real problem. Perhaps this is the most convincing argument for a generous policy for participation in this event. I am very much in favor of welcoming Kinship. But no doubt others feel differently and feel more affinity with the stalls with a conservative flavor. I understand that, allowing Kinship to participate would also suggest that people at the other end of the denominational spectrum should be welcome. Last Sunday I had to remind myself of  as I was moving from stall to stall. When all is said and done: the Dutch ‘Open Day; is a good object lesson in tolerance for diversity.

 

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Brexit and oecumenism

 

It was predicted to be very close. Would the 46 million Brits who were entitled to vote decide that the UK should remain in the EU, or would they turn their backs on Brussels?  Many polls of the last few weeks and days suggested that the Brexit could well become a reality, and, indeed, a small majority of those who cast their votes decided that leaving is better than remaining.

A much heard argument during the campaign that preceded the referendum was that it is high time for the British to regain their national identity. Many are convinced that its national identity is at severe risk when a country has very strong ties with an international organization in which a group of countries together make rules and decide on common economic and political policies. As a result of EU membership a country can no longer make its own sovereign decisions, but is taken hostage by Brussels, it is argued. The British uniqueness will slowly but surely disintegrate even further than it already has.

Of course, cooperation with others requires accepting compromises and giving up certain aspects of one’s independence. That is true for all member states of the EU. But is this a serious threat to the national identity of those states? I doubt it. The British people are unique people, who live in a unique country. That is great. I have lived a number of happy years among them. Yes, I have at times been irritated by some British customs and by the way in which many things are organized. But never for a moment did I get the impression that there is any risk that the British will give up their British ‘identity’ and their British traditions. And that would also not have happened if they had voted to remain in the EU. Admittedly, there is a degree of tension between total sovereignty and close cooperation with others. But so far, I believe, the history of the EU has not shown that members states are in any real danger of losing their own identity!

The discussion concerning Brexit in some ways resembles the issue of Adventism and ecumenism. So far the Adventist Church has never become a member of, for instance, the World Council of Churches. And in most countries the Adventist Church has been reluctant in seeking full membership in national ecumenical councils. At the basis of the negative attitude of many Adventists with regard to ecumenical involvement is the fear that their church might lose its specific identity. Being a member in ecumenical organizations, it is argued by many, will inevitably result in compromises and loss of freedom to make our own decisions and, when necessary, take our own independent stand.

As in the case of Brexit it would seem that (mostly irrational) feelings of unease and emotions play a major role, rather than a solid knowledge of the relevant facts. One might say: The British have so much in common with other Europeans that it is utterly logical to do things together in some form of European unity. One might (I think) also say that Seventh-day Adventists have so much in common with other Christian faith communities that some forms of dialogue and cooperation are logical and must be actively pursued.

However, I am not calling for a referendum in which all Adventist members can vote on ecumenical involvement of their church. I am in principle against this type of plebiscite. In the realm of politics, as well as in the church, I prefer the kind of democracy in which we elect  representatives and leaders, who merit our trust and take decisions on our behalf (and who we replace by others if we are not satisfied). It is not a perfect system, but I believe it is quite a bit safer than organizing referendums.

Would closer contacts with other christians endanger our Adventist identity? A definite answer to that question would presuppose that we can define what this identity exactly is. That in itself is quite a complex issue. However, I am convinced that the ‘Adventist’  element in our christian faith is strong and flexible enough to withstand any possible danger in our cooperation with others. If our ‘Adventist identity’ is not strong enough to maintain itself in dialogue and cooperation, we might well ask ourselves whether this identity has, in fact, enough substance. I am sure it has!

 

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