Monthly Archives: September 2020

Rules and fines

While in many countries governments are taking initiatives to stop the proliferation of regulations and rules for the business world, we are facing in this Corona-era a multitude of new (and ever changing) rules as a result of the current pandemic.

Last Monday I drove from Denmark through Germany back to the Netherlands and had to wear a mask in the German roadside restaurants, and fill in a form with my personal details. During our church visits in Denmark strict Corona rules applied. Shaking hands – let alone more intimate greetings – of friends was not allowed. This will also be the case when I preach tomorrow in the Adventist church in Amersfoort. There will be no hymn-singing by the congregation, while in Denmark this was allowed (even a hymn with no less than ten stanzas!).

So far, I have not received a Corona-fine. But this morning I found an envelope in our mailbox, sent by the Landkreis Ammerland (near Bremen). A four-page letter with complicated bureaucratic language made it clear (?) to me that I have to pay thirty euros because I drove with a speed of 97 km on a stretch of road where the speed limit had just changed from 100 to 80 km. I will pay the fine, although I don’t feel that I have endangered anyone by reckless driving. It feels strange to be fined for failing to immediately reduce your speed to 80 km, in a country where on freeways cars pass you with a speed of over 200 km.

In recent weeks rules and fines have received a lot of attention in the Netherlands, with two cases, in particular, standing out. Six years ago Geert Wilders, the leader of one of the two Dutch populist parties (which, fortunately, still have a minority of less than 25 percent in parliament), made inflammatory and discriminating remarks about Moroccan immigrants during a political rally. He was taken to court for this and very recently the appellate court finally found him guilty of insulting an ethnic group. However, he did not receive any punishment. It seems to me that this was a good outcome of this long-running case. It must be clear that discrimination will not be tolerated. But punishment would make Wilders a martyr and that is undesirable.

Another well-known Dutchman, Ferdinand Grapperhaus (our minister of justice), did not always follow the one-and-a-half-meter distance rule during his recent wedding. A photographer sent pictures to the media to prove this. As predictable, this led to a political scandal. Precisely the man who carries the final responsibility for monitoring compliance with the Corona rules and for fining offenders, allowed a group photo of the wedding guests to be taken while ignoring the required “social distance.” He also made an error of judgment in kissing his brand new mother-in-law. I was pleased that there was sufficient understanding for these failures to stick to the Corona-rules, and that this incident did not lead to a premature end of Grapperhaus’ ministerial career.

These illustrations confirm that it remains difficult to always make the right choice whether or not to impose a punishment. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to punish people. But often mildness can also prevail, and a clear disapproval does not always have to be immediately followed by punishment.

PS. It’s a pity that the Landrat of the Strassenverkehrsambt in the German Ammerland region will most likely not read this blog and will not consider turning my punishment into a warning.

Adventism’s past: a mixed bag

The book had been on my reading list for some time, but other reading—related to a current writing project—took priority. Last week, as I was considering what books to pack for our short holiday in Denmark, I decided that the 733-page biography of J.N. Andrews by Gilbert Valentine would be one of them. I am keenly interested in the history of our denomination and of the American context in which the Advent movement was born. And I admire Valentine as a gifted historian. I found his book on W.W. Prescott very much worth reading, but I enjoyed, in particular, The Prophet and the Presidents and his recently re-published account of the complicated arrangements regarding the literary heritage of Ellen G. White. Valentine is a meticulous researcher who tells a story as it, with the good things and the bad things that he encounters.

As I write this week’s blog I have almost finished the Andrews biography, and my high expectations have certainly been met. It is fascinating reading, and, although I think I am reasonably well-read in Adventist history, every chapter contains information that was totally new to me. The book provides a meticulous description of Andrews’s life—of the kind of person he was, his background, his family relationships, and his career as a preacher, author, scholar and missionary. But its value is hugely increased by a wealth of background information about the beginnings of Adventism and the way in which the key personalities in the church—in particular James and Ellen White, Joseph Bates and Uriah Smith—related to each other.

It remains a fascinating and inspiring story how in a few decades a small disjointed, discouraged group of people grew into an organized denominational entity, with a few hundred congregations spread over the Northeast of the United States and beyond. It is a story that has strengthened the conviction of millions of people around the world that their church is not just any religious organization, but that it constitutes a movement called by God for a special mission at the end of times. Valentine tell this story of faith, commitment, personal sacrifice, and of the steady growth of the church against all odds. But he also tells another story that must also be heard. The “pioneers” were no saints, who always operated in total harmony, and the doctrinal development was not as smooth as has often been suggested. Fanaticism and extremism often raised their ugly heads. Controversies about organizational and other practical matters could turn quite nasty. Interpersonal relationships between the leaders of the fledgling movement were frequently marred by jealousy, misunderstandings and suspicions. The question whether or not the visions of Ellen White were of divine origin remained a hot issue for many Adventist believers in the early decades.

Why is it important that the positive as well as the negative elements of our church’s history are carefully chronicled? The answer to that question is that a balanced view of our history will help us deal with the challenges we face today. A sizable group of Adventists believes that the past of our church must guide us in our dealing with the present. Our present-day doctrinal views and our policy decisions must reflect those of the pioneers. This is what the defenders of “historic” Adventism tell us. They maintain that the only safe way to stay on course is to remain true to what the founders of our movement have modeled for us! This way of thinking is based on a highly romanticized view of the past, as if the church of the first half century of its existence was a period of unmitigated brotherly and sisterly love, when all were united in their search for truth and allowed themselves to be led by the Spirit in all their practical decisions. The reality is that Adventism’s past is a mixed bag of lots of inspiring things, but also of many elements that showed all too clearly the human weaknesses of the leaders and their followers.

The past can inspire us but it also provides us with warnings and case studies of what went wrong. Moreover, the context in which early Adventism developed differs so greatly from our twenty-first century world that the beliefs and actions of our early leaders cannot furnish us with clear-cut answers for all present challenges.”Historic Adventism,” with its one-sided view of the past, cannot be our compass for the present and for the future. Those who believe that it can, should carefully read Valentine’s biography of J.N. Andrews. All others will, however, also benefit greatly from this captivating book.

Digital “cities of refuge”

Numbers chapter 35 informs us about an interesting feature of life in ancient Israel. God instructed Moses, we are told, to arrange for six “cities of refuge,” three on each side of the Jordan River. A killer was in great danger of becoming the victim of revenge. But in these six cities people, who had inadvertently killed someone, could find asylum and be safe until their case would come to trial.

The “city of refuge” institution has inspired other asylum-models. Many countries have a tradition that a house of worship may serve as a “city of refuge,” where law enforcement officers will not enter or, at least, act in a very restrained manner. That is why in recent times undocumented immigrants have sometimes sought and received asylum in a church building. When the refugee crisis was at its height, some Dutch churches organized permanent church services, so that refugees who had found asylum in the church would be relatively safe. The police would hesitate to arrest anyone during a church service!

It occurred to me, as I was thinking about possible consequences of the Corona-crisis for the church—and for the Adventist Church in particular—that we currently are seeing a kind of ‘city of refugee” model developing. I am referring to the growing number of digital sabbath schools, where the program is quite different from that of “traditional” sabbath schools and which are mainly “visited” by church members who consider themselves “progressive.” I am now regularly receiving information of where I might find these “progressive” sabbath schools—in the United States but also in other parts of the western world. I have been invited to attend several of them and have actively participated by giving a number of presentations in three of them, with more being planned for the coming months. In none of these sabbath schools I have seen a traditional lesson quarterly. The leaders of these digital groups, which may have in excess of a hundred participants, decide on the topics that will be discussed and then find people who are willing and able to introduce such a topic by giving an introduction. Before the pandemic erupted many of the participants were members of non-traditional sabbath school classes that have long been a feature of several of our larger churches, especially near major SDA institutions. But in this Corona time these alternative classes see also others joining, who feel at home in an environment where real live issues, and topics that are often avoided, are discussed. Most presenters are of a more liberal ink. In an open atmosphere traditional viewpoints may be queried and existential questions can be probed along unorthodox paths. Since there have lately been few, if any, physical church services, these sabbath schools usually last much longer than the “normal” one hour period. In one of these sabbath schools which I recently participated in, one of the “members”, when asked about a return to “normal” church services, said: “Actually, this has become my church.”

Could it be that, as the Corona-crisis is subsiding, there may be a significant number of people who want these digital sabbath schools to remain, and want to be church members in this digital environment. Could it be that there are quite a few persons who have come to experience these digital sabbath schools as ‘cities of refuge.” They have often not felt “safe” in the traditional churches where they hold membership, and where they experienced that their questions were not welcome. They have often concluded that the things that are discussed in the traditional sabbath schools in their local church, and what they heard in many of the sermons, has very little, if anything, to do with their everyday life. The Corona-crisis has made it possible to escape from a narrow kind of Adventism, and they have found a safe haven in one of these “progressive” sabbath schools. Could it be that this is a phenomenon that will spread? And should, perhaps, even the church administrators be happy that there are places where members, who might otherwise sever all links with Adventism, can be together with like-minded people and have their church? (For well over a decade in the Netherlands two “cities of refuge” have been in operation, where Adventists gather, who are often at the “margin” of the church, and now consider this their church. They operate with full support of the Dutch church leaders.)

Is this a good development? It certainly is not the ideal situation. The fundamental idea of being church is that we can all meet together and worship together, regardless of where we come from and who we are. The church must in its very nature be totally inclusive. It should be a place where people can find spiritual nurture and grow in different ways and at their own speed. It must be a place of love, and true love includes patience, respect and tolerance when ideas and customs differ.

That is the ideal. But, unfortunately, our time is characterized by a polarization as we have never seen before. This is what we see in society, and perhaps never as bad as in these pre-election days in US politics. The differences between adherents of different parties are so sharp and cause so much hatred and violence that constructive discussion has become virtually impossible. We must fear that something similar is happening in too many places in the Adventist Church. There is an ever-deepening divide between various segments of the church. One the one hand we see a determination to stay with the past. Popular (and populist) speakers inundate the church with their conspiracy rhetoric and their sensational dvd’s. Many feel that this is the good “old-time religion” we should protect. But, on the other hand, we see those who want to find new ways for living and expressing their Adventist faith, and who want to connect their Adventist heritage with the world of the 21st century in which they live. The tragic reality is that communication has broken down between those two “parties” in the church. With the result that in many places the “progressives” (for want of a better word) have been leaving the church in droves. It may be a very good thing in our present circumstances that there are and, for the time being, remain some digital or physical cities of refuge, where those people, who feel that the traditional local church, where they used to attend, does not provide then with enough breathing space, can find spiritual safety, until the polarization subsides, and we can become the kind of inclusive church as Christ intended.