Monthly Archives: July 2020

150 years of papal infallibility

It was exactly 150 years ago last week that the pope was declared infallible. This happened during the First Vatican Council, when Pius IX was pope. On Monday, July 18, 1870, the council fathers voted on this new dogma and supported the proposal to further strengthen the authority of the Holy Father with 433 votes for and two against. During the promulgation of the dogma an unprecedented thunderstorm broke out over the Vatican. Some historians saw it as a sign of divine indignation, but others compared it to the phenomena that accompanied God’s revelation on Sinai.

The declaration of infallibility was not a sudden whim of the church leaders who were gathered in Rome. It was the result of a fierce battle that had raged for a long time between those who wanted to give “Rome” more power and those who wanted to reduce Rome’s influence. In 1870 the so-called ultramontanists (literally: “over the mountains”) were victorious. The fact that the pope was declared infallible did not mean that henceforth people believed that the pope is right in everything he does and says. The infallibility only applies to official papal statements about ecclesiastical doctrine and morality. In fact, the pope has very rarely made use of it in the past 150 years.

Now, after 150 years, the discussion within the Roman Catholic Church about the authority of the Pope is still continuing. There are still groups in the church who feel that the role of the pope should receive greater emphasis, while many others oppose this idea and consider the concept of infallibility an ancient relic. The popes of recent decades have tempered pontifical triumphalism in various ways. In the Nederlands Dagblad of July 18 Hendro Munsterman summed it up succinctly: “Pope Paul VI abolished the papal tiara in 1964 and sold it to give the proceeds to the poor. John Paul II was the first pope in 1978 who was not ‘crowned’ and who was no longer carried on the sedia gestatoria into the St. Peter. Pope Benedict XVI had the tiara removed from the papal coat of arms and replaced it with a simple mitre. The pontificate of St. Francis continues along this same path.

Seventh-day Adventists have always been very critical of Catholicism, and especially of the role of the pope. There was, and often is, little attention for the fact that a lot has changed in the course of time and that today’s Catholicism-even though, as a Protestant, I still object to many things—does not equal the medieval church. Moreover, it must be taken into account that the Catholic Church does not have the same face all over the world. And who knows what developments will take place in the future? I think it is wrong to assume that future developments must be negative, as many of my fellow believers think.

But let’s not just point accusingly in the direction of other faith communities. There is no infallibility dogma in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Adventist Church. But in practice, the voice of a world congress has been given such a stamp. The discussion about women’s ordination has clearly shown this. And for many, the statements of Ellen G. White are infallible, or approach that status. It can also not be denied that the Church has gradually become more hierarchical in many ways, and that the “president” of the Church has steadily become more influential, and in some ways is even more influential than the pope is in his Church. This is a tendency, which has been noted by many, and especially by George Knight, a voluminous author and historian, who has emphasized this (and substantiated with facts) in a number of his publications in recent years. Hopefully, there will be a turning point in this regrettable development in the Adventist Church, because the basic idea of the church in which all believers share in the “priesthood” and have the same status before Christ, has been seriously compromised. And that is a deplorable situation.

Should the church accept money from the government?

The rules for the relationship between church and state vary considerably from country to country. In some countries the government still has a considerable influence in the church, and vice versa, while other countries have a very clear separation between religious and secular authority. In the Netherlands the Dutch Reformed Church once had a privileged position, but today all religions are equal before the law, and there is a strict separation between religion and government. In the United States the situation is a bit more complicated. Although many Americans pride themselves on the fact that there is an absolute separation between church and state, I have often wondered about many things one comes across when one gets to know the U.S. a little bit. When I first visited an American church, I wondered why there was a national flag on the podium. I also found it strange that the Senate has a “chaplain” (even though he happens to be a Seventh-day Adventist), and that the president invariably ends an important speech with “God bless America”. From time to time, the president and other important leaders even organize a “prayer breakfast”. And it is well known that the current president has a more than healthy relationship with some conservative evangelical leaders.

Seventh-day Adventists have always stressed the importance of a strict separation between church and state. Initially, in some countries this even meant that people were told not to participate in elections, and being active in politics was totally taboo. That position has since been abandoned almost everywhere in the world, and nowadays church members are urged to participate in elections. Being active in politics now brings praise rather than criticism. Today several countries in the South have Adventist government leaders, ministers or high-ranking civil servants. In the U.S Ben Carson, an Adventist, made a bid for the presidency during the 2017 presidential elections. He is now a minister in Trump’s cabinet. Until recently, a political party in the Netherlands was headed by a member of the Adventist Church.

But taking money from the government remained a tricky business. In Europe the Adventist Church, in general, was less hesitant in that regard than in the US. If other faith communities were given certain facilities, European Adventists thought, they should also be able to make use of these. This was especially true concerning the financing of educational institutions. But in the United States it remained a different matter. The international ADRA office in the U.S. had no problem applying for public development funds, but accepting money for schools was always much more sensitive, and the Church certainly did not want public money for direct church activities. This position was not entirely consistent, by the way, because the Church does not object to the advantage of tax exemption and is happy to make use of a provision that gives ordained ministers a considerable tax advantage for their “parsonage”. (This is a point that plays a role in the background of the battle for the ordination of female pastors).

The Corona crisis has changed a lot of things. In a number of countries the government has allocated a large amount of money to ensure that, in this time of crisis, as many companies and small businesses as possible will survive, and that social organizations – including churches – can continue to pay their personnel. In some countries the Adventist Church has decided to make use of this provision. The British Union, for example, has sent part of its pastors on “furlough” for a number of months. During this period the British state provides a substantial subsidy for the salary payments. Newbold College also made use of this government support. And in Belgium, the Church utilizes a similar scheme.

The American government came up with a large financial support package to help companies and organizations survive. This support was also available for churches and religious institutions. The question now was whether the Adventist Church in the US would apply for this aid. The leadership of the church in the United States and Canada (the North American Division) decided to advise all Adventist church organizations not to apply and to remain with the traditional position that accepting money from the government would be a serious violation of the principle of separation of church and state. But what happened? Church revenues decreased significantly in the past months. Cuts had to be made in many instances. In several places the workforce had to be reduced. The help offered by the government was now very attractive. And so, many conferences and church institutions in the US decided to apply for the government subsidy, in spite of the advice from the higher organization. From reports in the independent Adventist press (Spectrum and Adventist Today), we now know that at least 55 Adventist organizations have applied for, and have received, financial support and that this could amount to as much as 120 million dollars. To date, the General Conference has refrained from commenting.

I have no problem at all with the Church accepting this assistance, at this exceptional time. But it does surprise me how easily a principle can be abandoned, when the need arises. I cannot help but wonder whether it is easier to abandon a principle when money is at stake than when it concerns other matters that might also need to be reviewed! Well, maybe we should regard it in a positive light: change is, after all, a possibility!

Are we entering a new era?

Looking back we see how history has gone through different periods. Antiquity gave way to the Middle Ages. Then came the age of modernity, and from the 1960’s onwards we gradually slid into the era of postmodernity. There are no neat dividing lines between those periods. While we usually say that the Middle Ages ended in 1500, it would be nonsense to say that the medieval period ended on December 31, 1499 and that the world became “modern” when the sun rose on January 1, 1500. It is just as difficult to indicate a point when most people in the western world became postmodern. Actually, most people of my generation of 70-plus are still partly modern and partly postmodern.

The big question is: What comes next. Some say that postmodernity is already something of the past. They say we have entered the age of post-postmodernism, or they use some other term to underline that postmodernity is gone. To me it seems that such statements are, at best, premature. Undoubtedly, the world continues to change. Our culture continues to change. As human beings we are impacted by what happens around us and by the ideas that circulate, and thus we change—often almost imperceptibly but yet very real. Postmodernism may indeed be changing, but I believe that the main characteristics of postmodernism are still very much with us. To name just a few: The rejection of “the grand narratives”, the disappearance of belief in constant progress, the replacement of Absolute Truth with our individual truths and the large-scale suspicion of organized religion.

So, if I am right, we are still in the time of postmodernism. But what comes next? Increasingly, people seem to feel that we are on the threshold of something new, something different, something scary. But could it be that postmodernism is really so short-lived? The medieval period lasted a thousand years and modernity reigned supreme for a number of centuries. Well, it seems many things in our world are speeding up. And I am not just talking of Moore’s Law, based on an observation of Gordon Law in 1965, that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years. I could also refer to the fact that nowadays generations follow each other ever more quickly. After the baby boomers came Gen-X, but they were soon followed by Gen-Y and now by Gen-Z. (So, what will the next generation be called?).

Is it perhaps the current Covid-19 crisis that intensifies the sense of large numbers of people that we are in a transition to a new time period? It seems that we have stepped into a period of unparalleled uncertainty in which the lives of hundreds of millions of people can be turned upside-down almost overnight. Wherever we turn we are faced with a stifling polarization—in our own country, internationally, in the church. It was never as easy as it is today to communicate, but much of the communication we receive has become suspect as fake-news. How is it to be explained that, where our world has become a global village and our cities have become an ethnic mix as never before, racism, ethnocentrism and culture wars, continue to plague our societies without any sign of improving? What kind of period are we entering? Will the Covid-19 pandemic have a lasting influence on how we work, travel, arrange our social life and worship? In the past, every era has had its thinkers who provided underlying philosophies. They provided a foundation on which people could build. But today, where are those intellectual guides who can give us direction?

I am asking these questions as a Christian. Has Christianity, as we know it, large failed in keeping our world on the track of decency, solidarity and hope? When persons like Donald Trump can pose as “born again Christians” then certainly something is terribly wrong. Yet, if it was ever needed that the message of Jesus Christ penetrates our world, as a leaven of grace, it is now. Let’s hope and pray that the church will be energized by the Spirit to be a power for good as we enter a new era, but above anything else that, as individual Christians, we will truly practice the kind of life that Jesus Christ modeled for us. Many may see this as a rather naive suggestion, but I see no other option.

Should the Netherlands apologize for slavery?

This week King Philippe of Belgium wrote a letter to the Congolese President Tshisekedi in which he expressed his “deepest regret” for the enormous abuses during the Belgian colonial period. Especially his ancestor Leopold II, who considered Congo his personal property, was guilty of a true reign of terror with untold atrocities. But even after this period, Belgium was not exactly a good coloniser – as far as there have ever been good colonisers! This week was the sixtieth anniversary of Congo’s independence. If you want to read a fascinating, but at the same time utterly tragic book, about the state of the country when, sixty years ago now, it had to stand on its own two feet, and how that situation almost inevitably led to decades of internal struggle and chaos, I recommend the masterpiece by the Belgian journalist David Reybrouck: Congo: Een Geschiedenis (De Bezige Bij, 2010), for which Reybrouck received the prestigious Libris History Prize in the Netherlands. The book appeared in a number of languages, including English (Congo: The Epic History of a People; 2015). The Belgian king’s expression of regret will not be without consequences, because undoubtedly the call for financial compensation will now become ever stronger.

In the same week, the Netherlands was also squarely confronted with its past. The emphasis was on an aspect of the Dutch colonial period that left a lasting stain on our history: the Dutch share in the slave trade and the institution of slavery in the former Dutch colonies, especially in Surinam. Every year on July 1st the KetiKoti festival is held at the Monument to Slavery in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam. KetiKoti is a Surinamese holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery on July 1st 1863. But, in fact, the approximately 34,000 slaves in Surinam were not really free until ten years later, because during that period the former slaves still had to work for their old masters under deplorable circumstances.

An important debate on systemic racism took place in the Dutch parliament on 1 July. The death of George Floyd and the subsequent wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations was the immediate cause. But it was not by chance that July 1st, the day of KetiKoti, was chosen to debate the “pandemic” of racism. During the debate the history of slavery in the Netherlands was extensively discussed. The general trend was that the Dutch share in the transatlantic slave trade, and in the slavery in the Dutch colonies, should not be forgotten and that new generations of Dutch people should also hear the truth about this. Some political parties suggested that 2023—one hundred and fifty years after the actual end of slavery in Surinam—be a year when attention is given, in all sorts of ways, to the Dutch history of slavery. There was also a proposal to finally offer official apologies to Surinam, because of the injustice that was done to so many Surinamese people—an injustice that is still intensely felt by a large number of the descendants of these slaves.

The Prime Minister indicated that he thought it is unwise to officially apologize. He gave a number of sensible arguments. On behalf of whom could he make such an apology? After all, we’re talking about a distant past, and how far back in history do you have to go in apologizing? What’s more, at the time there was a completely different political structure and what happened then can hardly be blamed on the Dutch government of today. In the background, there is undoubtedly also the consideration that offering an apology could have a very heavy price tag.

When honestly facing up to what was wrong in our national history, the long-term existence of the institution of alavery in Surinam, and the substantial share of the Netherlands in the international slave trade, are important points. We must not simply tear these black pages from our history books. But at the same time we must also realize that the shame of slavery in Surinam, and of the Dutch slave trade, cannot be attributed entirely to the Dutch. The African henchmen who recruited men and women from the inlands and brought them to the ports, from where the slaves were shipped, should not go shot-free either. And when I recently read a book about the transport of slaves to the New World, it became clear to me that the sailors were sometimes even worse off than the slaves during the ocean crossing. A sailor who did not survive the voyage did not have to be paid his wages, and that meant profit. But a slave who succumbed during the trip could not be sold and that would be a financial loss! And it must also be said that the general historical context should not be forgotten and that, fortunately, there were also many slave owners who treated their slaves humanely. This in no way condones slavery or slave trade, but, as is almost always the case, historical events and past processes cannot be reduced to one single factor.

Should the Netherlands apologize for what our forefathers did more than a century and a half ago? I am not convinced we should. But we should continue to remember what happened and not polish away the stains on our history. The countries that have benefited for a long time from their colonies (including the Netherlands) certainly have a moral duty to continue to generously support these lands wherever possible. Attention to the past, however, must above all inspire us to treat our fellow human beings – far away and close by – in the present, as we should. The fight against endemic racism in our own society is now a top priority. For me, KetiKoti may become a national holiday (as is advocated by some), as long as we do not forget the challenges of the present when contemplating the past.