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Zoom Sabbath Schools

Tomorrow evening (Dutch time), which is tomorrow morning in California, I start a five-week series in the Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School, which is one of a dozen or so options for members of the Loma Linda University Church. This Sabbath School is usually visited by some fifty or more people. It is named after Roy Branson, a charismatic ethics professor and peace activist. He was one of founders of the Spectrum journal. Roy’s teaching career included professorships at several Adventist Universities and ended with his position as associate dean at the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. I had come to know Roy quite well and greatly admired him. Apparently, he also appreciated some of the things I was involved in, for he was instrumental in the invitation that I received to spent three months in 2014 as a visiting professor at Loma Linda University. Aafje and I greatly enjoyed this extended stay in Loma Linda. At the time, Roy led one of the many special sabbath schools on the university campus, which we attended. Earlier, when he taught at Washington Adventist University he had invited me several times (when I was in the USA for church meetings) to give a presentation to his class of the Sligo Church in Washington DC. During my 3-month of teaching at LLU Roy also asked me to do a five-week series in his class.

After Roy suddenly died in July 2015 the sabbath school class continued. It was renamed as the Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School (RBLSS), and is since coordinated by Dr. David Larson, another respected ethicist at the Loma Linda School of Religion, and a long-time close friend of Roy. David and his wife Bronwen have become good friends of Aafje and me. Since about a year the RBLSS meets via ZOOM. Earlier this year I did a series of presentations about aspects of the doctrine of the resurrection. My recent book (I have a future: Christ’s resurrection and mine) provided much of the content of these presentations, which were followed by intense discussions. The new series that begins tomorrow is based on a book that has yet to appear. The publisher (Stanborough Press in the UK) is in the final editing phase of the manuscript of a book about the Second Coming of Christ, which I wrote last year. The book will not just analyze the traditional Adventist views about this theme but will also deal with some issues that for me (and many others) have become quite problematic. The working title of the soon coming book is: He Comes: Why, when and how Jesus will return.

The phenomenon of on-line Sabbath Schools opens a new chapter in Adventist church life. The Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School is just one of an increasing number of special sabbath schools which choose topics that are deemed to be relevant for those who regularly attend, rather than following the “regular” GC-endorsed curriculum. But a new development, due to the use of ZOOM, is that attendants of these Zoom-Sabbath schools no longer exclusively come from one region, but also from far-away places, even from outside of the United States. Each week I now receive in my in-box an annotated and updated list of some fifteen “progressive” Zoom-Sabbath Schools, which help me (and all others who receive this weekly update) to choose where I will go digitally, dependent on whether I am interested in the topic and appreciate the presenter.

Closer to home I notice in my own country (the Netherlands) two things. First, it appears that those local churches which offer an on-line Sabbath School, do what they can to ensure that it has a good quality. Due to the nature of on-line events preparations tend to be more detailed and the treatment of the topic is in many cases more systematic and the discussion more to the point than one would see in most “normal” sabbath school classes. But is also appears that most church members, who on Sabbath tune in to an on-line service, do some shopping before deciding which one of the available options they will choose, and do not include a sabbath school in their viewing strategy. Will this period of digital worship lead to a further erosion of the Sabbath School, which probably will not be reversed when things go back to “normal”? Or will we perhaps also see new initiatives with ZOOM sabbath schools, even when we can meet again physically, targeting those who want a different kind of Bible study and are looking for discussions about topics that directly touch their daily lives, with the advantage of not being restricted by geography or traditions of format and time. I believe this could be a good thing, as long as it complements, and does not replace, the physical community at worship time.

Elections

On March 17, the Netherlands will go to the polls, unless it is decided to postpone the elections because of the Corona crisis. But so far, the Dutch government doesn’t want to go that route, and numerous measures are being taken to ensure the elections will be safe. A category of senior voters (to which my wife and I also belong) will have the opportunity to vote by mail. That has never before happened in the Netherlands. I think, however, that I will go to the nearby polling station and use the red pencil to color one spot on the gigantic ballot paper. It is a kind of ritual that I cherish.

It will indeed be a very large ballot paper, because no fewer than 37 parties are participating in these parliamentary elections. There are many newcomers and most of them will most likely not reach the electoral threshold. The votes cast for these unsuccessful parties are distributed, using a complicated calculation method, among the parties that do get seats in parliament. So, you run the risk that your vote may unintentionally help a party, with which you thoroughly disagree, to gain an extra seat.

There are a few other aspects of our election system that I think should be reconsidered. Having this large number of parties that can participate in the elections and will possibly only get one or two seats leads to a fragmentation that has many disadvantages. But I am glad that we do not have a two-party system, where your choice is sometimes mainly determined by a strong dislike for one party, and you then vote for the other party, even though you are not really happy with their ideas either. Fortunately, in our system there is a range of alternatives to choose from. All kinds of sites on the internet offer help in discovering which party programme best suits your ideas.

For Christians, voting is perhaps an even heavier responsibility than for the non-believing voters. How can we use this responsibility it in such a way that Christian standards and values will determine the course of our country to a greater degree than is currently often the case? For me, a number of questions are therefore decisive for how I make my choice. As a Christian, I want to live in a country that wants to realize a sustainable society, and that cares for our planet and our environment. It is important in this regard that we meet the climate targets that have been agreed upon in Paris and are committed to innovation in the field of energy supply and mobility. That is what real stewardship looks like. It is very essential to me that the country in which I live shall welcome the stranger, who needs asylum, because that is and remains a crucial biblical principle. It is also a very important consideration when casting my vote that the gap between rich and poor, in my own country, but also in the wider world, is narrowed and prosperity is more fairly distributed. And there are a few others points that also weigh heavily for me, such as good rules regarding the beginning and end of life, and other immaterial matters that directly touch on a Christian philosophy of life.

Is there among the 37 parties one party with which I agree in all respects? Unfortunately not, but by asking myself the above questions I have narrowed down the choice to three or four parties with which I, as a Christian, feel reasonably comfortable. At that point, the main question is whether I feel at ease with the women and the men who represent the party. Am I convinced of their qualities? Will they be able to get things done? Do they exude conviction and integrity? Because the campaigns have to be conducted online, it is this time perhaps a little more difficult to make a sound judgement on that element. But the television broadcasts for political parties and the upcoming debates of the party leaders can help us with this.

In the coming weeks I will continue to critically follow the media, but by now I have actually made up my mind and there is not much chance that I will change it before March 17!

The importance of relativizing

I must confess that the current Corona crisis is having a great impact on me. And, that I’m gradually getting fed up with the many restrictions that are still in place in the Netherlands, especially since it looks like we won’t be getting rid of them for some time yet. If there will be any easing of the measures in the coming weeks, it will be very gradually. And so, for some time to come, daily conversations, the news and TV talk shows will continue to be dominated by Corona issues.

By now it is clear that the pandemic will not only cause many deaths and ICU hospitalizations, and bring significant physical discomfort to large numbers of people, but that it will also have serious social and mental consequences. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the rioters of a few weeks ago, but I do understand that there is a broad sense of deep unease. It is inevitable when you can’t just go visit your parents, your children and grandchildren and your friends. For many working from home is not easy. Cafes and restaurants are closed. Shopping is only possible to a very limited extent. Secondary schools still remain closed. The loss of your job or the demise of your business-it’s all very intense. But, when I sometimes feel a little despondent and complain that life right now is in many ways incredibly boring, I try to pull myself together, realizing that my personal situation is not nearly as difficult as that of millions of my fellow countrymen.

It is important to be able to put things in perspective. What we go through may be unpleasant, but it doesn’t compare to what many others have to endure. We also learn this lesson, that putting things in perspective is important, when we look at history. I am currently reading David van Reybrouck’s masterful book on the history of Indonesia’s struggle for independence, and how the Netherlands dealt with this. Van Reybrouck is a Belgian investigative journalist who previously wrote a book, as stunning as it is sad, about the Belgian colonization of the Congo and the chaotic end thereof. His new book on the Dutch role in what was once the Dutch East Indies paints a disconcerting picture (Revolusi: Indonesia and the Emergence of the Modern World). By now I had become reasonably well-informed about the so-called “police campaigns” after the end of the Second World War, when the Netherlands tried to continue its colonial rule. That in the process many atrocities were committed had for a long time not dawned on the majority of the Dutch population, but gradually the realization has grown that something had gone very radically wrong. But especially the part of the book about the Japanese occupation during the Second World War made a big impression on me. Not only were tens of thousands of Dutch citizens (and Germans who worked or happened to be in Indonesia) interned, and did they terribly suffer in the hell of the Japanese prison camps, but also at least four million of the local population perished because of the harsh conditions and an increasing lack of food. Reading about this, one realizes that a Corona pandemic is very nasty, but that in the past societies have sometimes gone through a period that was infinitely worse than what we are currently experiencing. Yes, being able to put things in perspective and to relativize is very important!

What kept the people in Indonesia going amidst their crisis? The hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel. The enemy would be defeated. The evangelical writer Max Lucado, also popular in the Netherlands, wrote about the American admiral James Stockdale in his book Fearless. He was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War and was held in deplorable conditions in a camp for prisoners of war during eight long years. When he was finally freed, he was asked how he had managed to endure all that time. This was his answer, “I never lost my faith in the end of the story. I remained convinced that one day I would be released and that ultimately this experience would be a defining episode in my life, which, in retrospect, I would not have wanted to miss.” I don’t know if, when the pandemic is over, I will be able to look back on my Corona “captivity” in the same way. But this admiral’s attitude is very valuable. Continuing to believe that the story will eventually end well keeps us going—even as our lives are scarred by Covid-19.

The vaccin–who gets it first?

We, Dutch people, are good at building dikes and at water management. And we are undoubtedly good at a few other things as well. But when it comes to managing the Corona crisis, we are not doing too well. Plans keep continually changing. At first it was not considered necessary to close elementary school, but later it was deemed essential. While in many countries the wearing of masks was considered an important measure to reduce the spreading of the virus, it took months before in our country this decision was reached–at first along the lines of “even if it doesn’t help, it doesn’t hurt”, but at long last as an obligation in all public places.

Initially the testing did not run as smoothly as in many other countries, and there was a lot of wrangling over which groups of the population should be tested first. Now that we have embarked on the vaccination program, the government’s strategy once again often remains rather foggy. Admittedly, the government should not get all the blame, as circumstances have changed from time to time. For example, deliveries of the vaccines-in particular of AstraZeneca-are not following the original schedule.

Predictably, there is now a lot of discussion about the order in which the various target groups should be vaccinated. I must confess that I fervently hope that the category to which I belong — people aged 75 and over, with some underlying medical issues — will be vaccinated very soon. This will be a group that is to be vaccinated by GPs and I hope that, in the opinion of my GP, there are sufficient medical reasons for me to be included in the cohort of the vulnerable over-75s. (After that, I prefer to forgo that qualification again.)

It is, of course, a good thing that people who work in hospitals are first in line. And no one will deny that elderly people in nursing homes are so vulnerable to the virus that they should also be high on the priority list. And that general practitioners themselves should be given priority is certainly also defensible. But doesn’t the same apply to people in education? However, a clear strategy has so far been hard to detect. I sometimes feel sorry for Mr. Hugo de Jonge, the cabinet minister who is responsible for the difficult Corona portfolio. After all, there are a great many organizations that must be consulted, and that want to have their say, and it seems that there are now close to 17 million experts in immunology living in the Netherlands.

There are unpleasant aspects to the manner in which various groups (and sometimes individuals within those groups) argue that the category to which they belong should definitely be given priority. But it is probably unavoidable that there will be strong competition when the demand for a product greatly outstrips its supply. However, this aspect has additional nasty consequences when it comes to the international distribution of the available vaccines that are now approved or in the process of testing and certification. Unfortunately, it appears that the rich countries have made sure that they are the first to be served. This means that many countries outside the affluent West will for the time being receive only very limited supplies of vaccines. Fortunately, some funding is being made available to help these countries in footing the bill, and some pharmaceutical companies have decided to sell to these countries at cost.

As I look at these issues, I am increasingly convinced that some crucial processes in society should be in the hands of the government. I am thinking particularly of the pharmaceutical industry. The development and distribution of medicines should, in my opinion, not be left to the “free” market. And if that sounds to many ears too “socialist”, then I would, at the very least, plead for an international agreement that demands that in real emergency situations the pharmaceutical companies must release their recipe for a vital product (with reasonable compensation), so that such a medicine can be manufactured cheaply on a large scale, anywhere in the world where it can save lives.

Unfortunately, it seems that we, in the West, are still disinclined to see human lives in the developing world as equally valuable as our own. And this, of course, also raises the urgent question of why the Christian Church is not constantly bringing this issue to the attention of government leaders. After all, it is a manifestation of the love for our neighbor–nearby and far-way–that belongs to the very core of Christ’s teaching.

Pardon

When in 1973 Queen Juliana (reigned in the Netherlands from 1948 to 1980) celebrated the 25th of her rule, she proposed to the then prime minister Dries van Agt that this should be marked by a large-scale pardon of prisoners. The latter, as a legal expert and a former Minister of Justice, was abhorred by the idea, but found it difficult to contradict Her Majesty. According to his biographer, he therefore sent his deputy prime minister Hans Wiegel to the weekly meeting with Juliana. Wiegel suggested to the monarch that she send a cake to all inmates in Dutch prisons with the words: “Many happy returns!”

The Dutch legal system knows the phenomenon of pardon, but this is restricted by very clear rules. Th king/queen may grant a pardon, but only upon advice of the cabinet minister of justice, based on further advice by the courts. In other words: What happens at the end of a presidential term in the United States, when the president decides to grant pardon or to commute the sentences of a number of persons, is unthinkable in the Dutch legal system. And this is even more true when pardons are granted to criminals who show no sign of remorse, or to friends of politicians who have ended up behind bars because of fraud or other serious crimes.

In most languages, the concept of “pardon” is related to the the concept of “grace.” However, handing out pardons–as practiced by former President Donald Trump–has nothing to do with grace, but rather with opportunism. It is a favoritism that at some time must be repaid in some form or another. It has nothing to do with restoring damaged relationships and giving those involved a chance to make a fresh start and to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

God is the Ultimate Pardoner. When we come to Him and ask for forgiveness we can be sure to receive His pardon. Thereby, not only is our sentence fully annulled, but we can start all over, with a clean slate. The relationship between us and God is restored. With a biblical term, this is called “reconciliation.” The good news about the gospel is that, if we are willing to ask God for forgiveness, we can be sure to receive it. And in the process, we also receive the inner strength to forgive those who have mistreated us through their actions or words, and to accept forgiveness from other people when we ask for it because we have mistreated them. Not with an underlying idea of “let’s just forget about it” or “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” but from a desire for a relationship characterized by reconciliation and wholeness.

People who misbehave should, as a rule, be punished. Sometimes a warning or a symbolic punishment suffices, but often it is not enough. When people storm a government building, threaten politicians and leave a trail of destruction, as happened in the United States on January 6, they cannot remain unpunished. And if, as happened in the Netherlands earlier this week, demonstrations against Corona-measures are used as a cover for violence and widespread vandalism, punishments must be handed out. However, after that has been done, we cannot go on thinking that this settles the matter, because the culprits have received the treatment they deserved. What society needs now above all is a restoration of mutual trust, respect for each other and for the property of others. What is also needed, above all, is that we learn to listen to each other, instead of shouting at each other. It’s about doing everything possible–individually and collectively–to turn polarization and conflict into true reconciliation and wholeness. That may seem like an impossible task. But if we want to live in a land of peace and security, it is the only way.