A week ago Jan T. Knopper died in far-away Australia. He lived to be 91 years. Jan Knopper was a Dutchman. He worked his entire working life in the publishing branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as coordinator of literature evangelism. First in the Netherlands, then in Kongo in Africa. After this he served in Northern-Europe and Australia. And in his retirement he spent a significant period in Russia as a volunteer.
I knew him from the time when he worked in the Netherlands. Later I met him from time to time when he furloughed in his home country, together with his wife Reintje. To be honest: I did not like him at that time. He was theologically extremely conservative and was rather harsh in his judgments of other people and of events in the church that he did not like. Nonetheless, I have kept on a intense e-mail correspondence with him during the past four years. They always ended with the words: Your friend Jan.
People who know me and also have known Jan Knopper may be rather amazed when they hear that we were in very regular contact. For we are a somewhat unexpected duo: An arch-conservative man (of another generation) in far-away Australia and someone who is seen by some (probably with some justice) as rather liberal.
In 2011 I was in Australia to give a few lectures during a conference that was organized by Avondale College—the Australian Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning. Jan Knopper lived just a few kilometers away from this place, at some 120 kilometers from Sydney. He sent word to me that he hoped I would pay him a visit. With some reluctance I drove to his retirement home. I hoped I would be able to get away after less than an hour, but it became a five-hour visit.
I visited Jan at a crisis moment in his life. His wife Reintje was to be admitted in a care home the very next day. After a long life together they were now to be separated. The man who once appeared so unapproachable to be, now was very vulnerable and needed someone with whom he could share his devastation. He did almost all of the talking that afternoon. A few days later he sent me an e-mail to thank me that I had come to be with him and his wife. He was very grateful that I had offered a listening ear. It had done him a lot of good at that difficult moment in his life.
After this visit somehow our e-mail correspondence started. He wrote me about lots of things that he disagreed with. At times he had heard (through very conservative channels) about the terrible things that were happening in the Dutch Adventist Church. I responded by asking him to consider whether he had heard the full story, and whether he might have received rather one-sided information. I told him about the many positive things that are happening in the Dutch church. He was a staunch admirer of Ted. N.C. Wilson, the president of the Adventist world church since 2010. I told him I did not share in this adoration and why this was the case. He totally disagreed with my (what he considered) too ecumenical views. He believed I was far too vague in my interpretation of Daniel and the Revelation. For him the pope remained the ‘little horn’ whom we should carefully watch. Of course, Jan Knopper was also a fervent opponent of women’s ordination. And he was totally against any recognition of homosexuality as a legitimate option and any acceptance of such an ‘abomination’ in the church.
I responded to him—at times very carefully, but more often quite clearly. In most cases he continued to disagree. But gradually my respect and sympathy for him grew and I answered his mails at some length. It happened occasionally that he was willing to revise his views a little, but that did not happen very often. However, he continued to correspond with me and gradually, I suppose, he came to see me as someone who wholeheartedly wants to serve the church and wants to live his faith in an authentic way, in spite of the fact that I had (in his eyes) some very terrible liberal ideas. This enabled him to always end his mails to me by wishing me God’s blessings and by signing with: Your friend Jan.
What occurred in the past four years between Jan Knopper and me is a small illustration of how people who deeply disagree, and are unable to convince each other with their arguments, may nonetheless have a ‘brotherly’ and friendly relationship, in which they can keep the dialogue going. If that is possible at the individual level, it should also be possible for groups that differ theologically within the church. Listening with respect is the keyword. I recognize that this may be somewhat more complicated on the collective level than between between individuals. But we can all make a small beginning in the personal contacts we have. That this may work a miracle is demonstrated in the correspondence between myself and my ‘friend Jan’.