Monthly Archives: November 2015

Rumors of war


In the past few months I have done little reading. It was a very busy time with a series of events in which I participated and which often required a lot of preparation. In addition, there were writing and translation jobs which also took considerable time. Nonetheless, I recently happened to come across two remarkable books that made great reading.

When earlier this months I spent a week in Budapest I forgot to put some ‘light’ reading in my suitcase, so that I would have something relaxing in my hotel room at the end of the day. Fortunately, I discovered a shopping center at less than a mile from my hotel. Besides the shops of the main chains that one sees everywhere, there was, however, also a book store. To my surprise I found a few shelves with English paperbacks. Looking at these books I concluded that Gresham must have many fans in Hungary, for his books were very prominently present. I took my chance (for the description at the back cover did not reveal much about the content) and bought a thick paperback of a (to me) unknown author, Tom Rob Smith, entitled Child 44.

This purchase proved to be a fortunate one: the book is not only full of suspense but also very gripping. It is situated in the Russia of the Staling-era. The world of state sponsored terror, of the almighty secret services and the horror of the Gulag, are so realistically painted that the picture stayed with me for several days. Leo, the main character, is a member of one of the secret service organizations. He participates in the many unjustified arrests and cruel tortures of people who, usually without reason, are suspected of activities against the state. He is successful in his career, until he is demoted when he refuses to ‘solve’ a series of murders of young children in a manner required by his superiors. He becomes a fugitive, but somehow succeeds in solving the murders of 44 children . . .

And then there was another book that I found quite fascinating: a history of the Wadden (a string of small island in the North Sea, just above the coast of the northern part of the Netherlands). The book is written by Mathijs Deen. A review in one of the main Dutch newspapers described it as ‘fascinating and beautifully written’—and the author certainly deserves this praise. It is one of those books that makes you aware of how little you, in fact, know even about parts of your own country. Of course, I know the names of these islands: Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland, Schiermonnikoog, and the uninhabited island of Rottum. But until a few days ago I hardly knew anything about the origin of these islands and how they developed into what they are today. To my amazement I discovered that once upon a time the island of Terschelling had even been an independent ‘nation’. And I found many other things that were totally new for me.

These islands, which are now so popular with large numbers of tourists were not always as peaceful as they are today. In 1231 two Frisian coastal villages—Eenrum and Uithuizen—started a ‘war’, since both places claimed possession of one of the nearby islands. The conflict escalated  when at a given moment the people from the area of Drenthe allied themselved with Uithuizen, while people from Groningen decided to help Eenrum. When, after a few years a settlement was reached, the death toll of the conflict had risen to several hundred persons!

Reading the first book I could not avoid thinking of the war against the IS terror. The kind of merciless violence that is committed by IS is, unfortunately, not unique. The Holocaust, the reign of Stalin  and the brutal murders of the Red Kmer, are some recent examples of large-scale terrorism that are still vivid in our collective memories. We must face the sad reality that destroying IS is no guarantee that similar atrocities will never happen again.

The second book, with its description of the war between Uithuizen and Eenrum, made me think of the many ‘forgotten’ wars that no longer worry us. At present our national and international attention is so focused on IS that we ae inclined to ‘forget’ the many smaller wars and conflicts that are still being fought in many places on our planet. That is regrettable, since it allows much senseless violence to continue unchecked, without any outside intervention.

In the coming weeks I expect to have a somewhat lighter program. It is high time to tackle a serious theological book, or to choose something that is truly relaxing—something that does not make me constantly think of these ‘rumors of war’. Yet, have we not been told in the Bible that the rumors of war will not disappear as long as this world continus to exist?





The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte joined a number of other political leaders in Europe and elsewhere in declaring that his country is now at war with IS. There may not have but a formal, legal declaration of war, but his statement expressed his conviction that IS is acting in a way that demands an international response, in which the Netherlands will have to play a more substantial role than providing a few F-16’s.

Recent events—in particular in the last week in France—raise many difficult questions. How can IS be dealt with? Should the solution be primarily a military one, with all the risks of unforeseen escalations? What does IS plan to do in the near future? Could the Netherlands also become a target? Is there a chance that IS might resort to the use of chemical weapons?

The secret services work overtime to discover what attacks are being planned, and by whom. However, we all know that absolute security cannot be guaranteed. It is impossible to protect all public meetings, each bus and train, and all ferries and cruise ships. As long as there are people who are willing to blow themselves up for their ideal, ‘incidents’ will happen.

We are faced with the urgent question whether recent events will greatly impact on the policies regarding asylum seekers. Do these events put the Muslims in such a negative light that, as a result of public pressure, western countries will reduce the number of people they are willing to admit? Will all this be extra ammunition for populist politicians who detest Islam? How will this influence future political relationships in Europe? Etcetera, etcetera.

There are also questions of  a different kind—questions a Christian should ask. Or, more specifically: questions that I must ask myself as an Seventh-day Adventist Christian. I am not a one hundred percent pacifist, but am very reluctant to agree with any military interventions. There are plenty of examples where violence has only provoked more violence rather than bringing peace. But I understand that something must be done when people are taken hostage and are subsequently beheaded and when people try to kill people in restaurants and concert halls at random

In addition, there are theological questions, in particular in the area of eschatology. Should Adventists consider the possibly that their traditional end-time scenario must be revised? Is Catholicism—assisted by ‘apostate’ Protestantism–the real enemy of the future, or might Islam be a greater danger? Or would it be better to keep all options open and refrain from too many predictions?

Should we perhaps concentrate all efforts on cultivating good relationships with Muslims in our environment? Must we more intently show that we are the ‘neigbors’ of all people—also of the people who live in our asylum seeker centers? Should we not do more to support projects that aim it increasing tolerance for people with other ethnicities and beliefs, and to prevent the distribution of stereotypical perceptions?  Might organizations like ADRA not pay special attention to improving the social and economic conditions in a number of Islamic countries, so that radical Islamic ideas become less attractive for the local population? Would it not be good if local Christian (including Adventist) faith communities would get more involved with social and educational projects for those who have recently migrated to Europe?

The developments in the world are complex, confusing and unpredictable. But, in any case, they demand a truly Christian reaction—individually and collectively. However, when all questions have been asked and everything that we can say has been said, we should continue to underline our conviction that somehow God is still in charge in this world.


Hungarian courage


In those countries where the churches had to survive under a communist regime, many problems emerged. Sometimes the state demanded things that were contrary to what christians in those countries believed and practiced. At times things had to remain secret. At other times church leaders decided that, in the interest of their church, they had to make some compromises. This also was the case in some instances for the Adventist Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

In  Hungary a group of members accused the official Adventist Church that it had gone too far in some of these compromises. Forty years ago this led to an exodus of a substantial number of members, led by Oscar Egervari, one of the prominent pastors. As time went by this group organized itself as an independent faith community and called itself the Christian Adventist Community (KERAK). The new denomination hired pastors, bought some church buildings and established its own theological seminary.

In the forty years that have passed there has been a great amount of hope, prayer and talk about a possible healing of this dramatic split that has held two groups of Adventists divided and that also caused deep wounds in local churches and families. In the past small groups of ‘Egervari-members’ have returned or transferred (those who never were members of the official church), among whom a few pastors. Recently this process has greatly accelerated. Some seven hundred persons have now decided to join the Adventist Church. In this group are sixteen pastors.

With a few of their new colleagues these former ‘Egervari-pastors’ sat in front of me this past week in a meeting room in the center of the Hungarian Adventist Church in Pecel, just outside the city limits of Budapest. A process has been started to integrate these KERAK pastors into the Hungarian Union of Seventh-day Adventists. The seminary of the church in Hungary has been asked to provide the new colleagues with some special training to facilitate their ‘transfer’. I was asked to present a seminar about Adventist ecclesiology, i.e. the Biblical view of the church and the many related theological and practical issues.

Now, at the end of the week I feel tired but also satisfied. To be on your feet a number of long days and to talk for so many hours without any major breaks demands its physical toll. But it gives a lot of satisfaction to have been able to contribute to the integration of this group of pastors. But perhaps above all I feel a sense of admiration for the courage of these people to take this drastic, life changing step, and the courage of the Hungarian church leaders to provide for a place for these colleagues in the church’s structure.

The Adventist Church in Hungary is not big. A sudden influx of about 700 members and of a relatively sizable group of pastors is an adventure that demands courage. These people are Adventists, but they have lived and worshipped in a different kind of church culture, with particular ideas and prejudices, and a lot of criticism for the ‘regular’ Adventist Church. Undoubtedly there are different theological emphases. It is hard to predict what this will bring in the short term and in the longer term. But that there will be tensions from time to time seems quite probable.

The pastors who move from the KERAK to the Adventist Church must also have a substantial amount of courage. They leave   colleagues and friends behind. No doubt, some of the members of the churches they used to pastor are disappointed with their decision to leave. And their transfer has major consequences for their social life. And I assume they must feel some uncertainty about their future. What will be their role in the church in which they will now live and work?

I admire the courage of the Hungarian Adventist Church to accept these challenges and the courage of the people involved—in particular the pastors—to move to another spiritual home.

[PS: I hope someone in Hungary will—at some time in the future—chronicle the current process (maybe this could even be the basis for a dissertation for a Doctor of Minisry degree?). It may well serve as a source of inspiration in other places where there ia a more or less massive influx of new members who bring another culture with them. But, for now the Hungarian Adventist Church needs our prayers more than ever before. May God richly reward the courage that is being shown.


Church and world


It has been a while since I translated the dissertation of Dr. Edward ‘t Slot (at the time pastor of a Protestant church in Zwolle) into English. It has now very recently been published by the renowned academic publisher Mohr Siebeck in Tübingen, with the title: ‘Negativism of Revelation’. The book deals with a rather complex debate between Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With the rather heavy price tag of about 70 euro, I do not have high hopes for this book to become a real bestseller. Fortunately, I do expect to find a free copy in my letter box one of these days.

This past week I had the privilege of once again meeting Dr. ‘t Slot–this time in a different setting. He has now become a professor at the Theological University of Amsterdam and since this past week also (for one day a week) at the University of Groningen. Last Tuesday he held his inaugural speech as the formal start of his position as theology professor in Groningen. I should add that his academic chair is sponsored by the Confessionele Vereniging in de Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (a society of rather conservative Protestants in the Netherlands, who pay for the expenses of his professorate). ‘t Slot’s assignment is: Theology and Church in the Twenty-first Century.

I always enjoy the academic traditions: the prestigious, historical aula of the university, the procession of the professors in their academic gowns, who accompany their new learned colleague, and the somewhat unearthly atmosphere as the audience listens to the laudatio (a few friendly words to introduce the speaker) and the oratio (the lecture of the new professor). I should add that it appeared to me that only a minority of the audience (clearly, mainly from the rather conservative segment of Dutch Protestantism) understood what the speech of Dr. ‘t Slot was all about. (The somewhat mysterious title was: The seventh ‘however’—the philosophical discourse between academy and church.)

I arrived quite early at the ‘academy building’ of the university and decided to pay a brief visit to the new Starbucks restaurant at the ground level of the university library. This building is immediately opposite the historic building where professor ‘t Slot was to deliver his oratio. It was a rather full house–groups of students in lively discussions, mainly young people with a book or their laptop and their favorite drink.

A more profound difference was hardly thinkable than between the open, totally secular atmosphere of Starbucks and (hardly 200 meters from there) the almost sacred sphere of the university aula with its stained glass windows. If I were looking for an illustration to picture the distance between church and world, here it was. Within seconds I could step from one world in a totally different one. Immediately this raised the question in my mind: How can these two, so different, worlds ever engage in a meaningful dialogue?

The new professor is supposed to focus on the subject of church and theology in the twenty-first century. I have no idea how he is going to tackle this. His background as a pastor in an ‘ordinary’ congregation may help him. I will be on the lookout for publications from him. I am curious. Will he be able to substantially contribute in making theology and church a living reality in the time in which we now live? Will he manage to escape often enough from his new academic world in the faculty of divinity to discover what the ‘real’ world is all about? In any case, I believe, he would be well advised to spend a little time at Starbucks, whenver he comes to Groningen, and to take some of that atmosphere with him into his room or lecture hall.

The few hours last Tuesday in Groningen also reminded me personally how often I am locked into my own small ecclesiastical world, without much contact with the ‘real’ world around me. As a follower of Christ I also run the risk of mainly talking to myself and to people who have very similar ideas to those I have, while the Lord has also given me the assignment to meet with people who do not yet know him and think very differently from how I think myself. It would be an understatement to say that it remains an enormous challenge.