Peace

 

I have never been in the military service.  I could make use of the Dutch law that stipulated that those who were studying for a ‘ spiritual profession’ were exempt from this duty. So, it may be a little too easy for me to state that I have always been opposed to participation in any kind of military conflict or even to the bearing of arms. In those days, when I was approaching twenty, in most European countries Adventist young men were expected to avoid military service. Usually they chose to be a ‘non-combattant’ or they opted for a (longer) period of civil service.

In the United States the situation began to change around the 1960s-1970s. It gradually became more ‘normal’ for Adventist young men to enter the military, or, when the Selective Service system no longer existed, to choose a voluntary career in the military. The attitude towards military involvement changed drastically. I remember how shocked I was when, shortly after the first Iraq war, I visited an Adventist church service somewhere in Florida. During the worship service a few young men who had just returned from a term of service in Iraq received a heroes’ welcome!

I realize it is difficult to insist that using force is always, under any circumstances, wrong. Unfortunately, sometimes violence must be met with armed force. And, I realize that some people must be willing to implement that force in a responsible way. I realize further that I personally profit from the fact that we have policemen who arrest criminals and who can stop undue aggression.

But I continue to have a deep abhorrence for everything that is associated with war and violence. I find it utterly impossible to understand that some countries have laws that make it very easy for its citizens to buy fire arms. And I find it even more difficult to understand that some of my fellow-Adventist believers do not agree with me and have long abandoned the traditional Adventist viewpoint of non-combattancy. This sense of abhorrence for war and violence was re-ignited yesterday when I saw the pictures of the rows of victims in Damascus, wrapped in white cloth, of what most likely had been a poison gas attack by the Syrian army. How can people do something like this to other people? The sad reality is that Syria is not the only place on earth where people die because of armed conflicts.

I was, however, pleased yesterday to also see another bit of news. I received an e-mail message to inform me that there is a totally revamped website of what might be referred to as the Adventist peace movement: http://www.adventistpeace.org, sponsored by the Adventist Peace Fellowship. While I travelled yesterday by high speed train (equipped with internet) to Arlanda Airport (near Stockholm), to fly from there back to the Netherlands, I spent a considerable amount of time on this renewed site. I was pleasantly surprised by the great array of activities and initiatives. The interest for peace may actually be greater than I feared. I would like to suggest to all my readers to surf to this site and, may be, receive inspiration to also become more actively involved in the promotion of peace.

I could mention quite a few aspects of early Adventist traditions which I would not like to see return. But I would welcome a rekindling of the early Adventist rejection of everything associated with violence and war. I know that violence and war will continue to be part of our imperfect world. But followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace, have been called to work for peace. Wherever and in whatever way they can!

 

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Heaven

 

I am about half way in the book by Hans Buddingh about the history of Surinam. It has over 500 pages, but as far as I am concerned it could even be thicker. I have visited Surinam only three times and, as I read this book, I am thinking how nice it would be to go there again. But if I should make another trip to Surinam, I would want to go further inland than I did on the earlier occasions, when I stayed mostly in Paramaribo and in the coastal region.

The book, of course, pays a lot of attention to the issue of slavery. On page 125 I found a short statement that I kept thinking about these last few days. The slaves were often treated in a beastly manner and many did not survive the punishments they received. But some reports indicate that the slaves were not afraid of death, for they believed that in the hereafter they would be served by white men!

Surely, they did not want to miss that! If you are a slave and must obey every whim of your white master, it is not so strange that your ultimate desire is that in the future the roles will be reversed. That would indeed be paradise!

At home I have an interesting book entitled The History of Heaven. It gives a lot of examples of how people, throughout the ages, have thought about heaven. These views have been very largely determined by historical and cultural circumstances. (I cannot take the book of the shelf and cite some examples, since I am, since last Monday, once again in Sweden, assisting further with the renovation of my son’s house.)

Muslim warriors are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, believing that they will be recompensed for all their suffering. In the hereafter they will enjoy the company of a good number of beautiful virgins.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah could not think of a better future for his people than that they would enjoy the fruits of the vineyard they had planted and would live in the house they had built for themselves. Heaven for him was the place where one did no longer have to work for the benefit of others.

For many Christians heaven is the place where, immediately after their death, they continue to live as immortal souls, waiting for the resurrection of their body. I have never quite understood why you would want to get a body if your soul is already enjoying eternal bliss and singing its eternal hallelujahs.

If I try to imagine what heaven will be like, I inevitably think of the magnificent beach, some fifteen kilometers from Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast, where my wife and I lived in the nineteen eighties for about four years. On Sundays we usually spent some hours under the palm trees at the beach. But when I think a bit further . . . We could enjoy our carefree time at the beach, but life was not quite as carefree and pleasant for the women who carried their baskets with pine apples on their head, and tried to sell them to the (mostly white) people on the beach in order to earn a small amount of money to buy food for their families. . .

For many Bible readers the last two chapter of the book of Revelation contain exciting information. There we read about the New Jerusalem with its golden streets and its pearly gates. To be honest, it does not mean all that much to me, but I realize that it must have been a picture that appealed to the people some 2,000 years ago: a city with high walls and strong gates that was totally secure. I am frustrated, however, when I read that there will be no more sea. No doubt, for the people of Bible times who tended to be afraid of the sea, this was good news. For the first century readers this new world was unbelievably wonderful, since all things that caused anxiety had been removed.

The problem with all human pictures about heaven is that they are human ideas. It cannot be otherwise. We only have human images for our dreams about eternity. But we must not forget that when dealing with eternity and everything associated with it, we are dealing with categories that belong to the domain of the divine. Our human words and imaginations can never be adequate. For the ex-slaves of Surinam, heaven will even be better than a place where they will be served by white people. And, even though I find it hard to believe that this is possible, eternity will be a lot better than the beach near Abidjan. (And for the time being I will assume that the statement about the absence of  the sea, should be understood symbolically.)

 

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El Negro

 

Several people have told me that a visit to the Polare book store in Maastricht—since 2004 housed in a centuries-old Dominican church—is certainly worth a special trip to Limburg (the southernmost part of the Netherlands). So far, I have not been in this bookstore. But since just over four weeks there is, much closer to where I live, a new bookstore that no doubt rivals the one in Maastricht. The well-known Waanders bookstore in Zwolle has moved to the Broerenkerk (one of the many old churches in this historic city).

In a tourist leaflet I read a description of this church (that, like the one in Maastricht, was built by the Dominicans): The Broerenkerk is a late gothic ‘hall church’. The choir is in the main nave, adjacent to the cloister. The southern transept is more narrow and shorter. The length, measured on the outside, is 65,5 meters, while the church is (also measured on the outside) 19 meters wide. The distance from the floor, with its tombstones, to the highest part of the main nave is 26 meters.’  So, we are talking about a substantial building! The interior has now been adapted to its new function. The magnificent church organ (that will be used for regular concerts), still dominates in its full splendor the wall at the end of the nave. ‘Waanders in de Broeren’ has a first-class ‘grand café’.  But it is what is claims to be: a very good general bookstore with a wide assortment of books.

Last night I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this church-made-bookstore. Of course, I succeeded in finding a few books to my liking. But, unfortunately, the book that I was specially looking for (Ingenieurs van de Ziel by Frank Westerman, a Dutch author) was temporarily out of print. I was reminded of this title, when, earlier this week, I was reading another book by Westerman: El Negro en ik.

If I am not mistaken, Westerman has so far written five books. He writes non-fiction, but one reads his books as if they are novels full of suspense. If you read Dutch and have not read his book De Graanrepubliek, about the atrocious way in which the (very pious) grain barons in Eastern-Groningen (in the North-Eastern part of the Netherlands) treated their laborers in the early part of the last century, you should certainly do so. The book has already gone through about 30 printings.

But El Nego en Ik also is a book that is a must. It describes the search for the identity and background of an African, who came from what once was called Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana). In the early nineteenth century this African was ‘stuffed’—like a taxidermist ‘stuffs’ an animal—and exhibited in a museum in northern Spain. It immediately raises the question how in the world one can explain the utter disrespect of (white) people in colonial times towards the (black) local population.

While reading about El Negro I was reminded of a visit many years ago to the famous National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.  An American colleague gave me a tour through the museum. He had some friends on the staff of the museum, who allowed us to have a look behind the scenes. We came in a large hall, with high cabinets along the walls, with an endless number of drawers. Each of these drawers contained a human skeleton—a skull and a collection of bones that had once been a person of flesh and blood. I did not ask how the museum had been able to acquire this macabre collection.

I was also reminded of a plaque I recently saw in Urk, attached to the fence around the churchyard next to the church that is opposite the monument dedicated to all the Urker fishermen that, in in the course of time never came back from the sea. The plaque states that in this churchyard six skulls have been reburied, after they have been returned to Urk by the university museum in Utrecht. They were returned to where in times past they had, most likely, been stolen, on the pretext that they were needed for scientific purposes.

Often we see a great disrespect for dead people of the past, in particular for those from other cultures. It is easy to forget that the mummies and ‘bog bodies’ that are exhibited in museums at one time were real, living human beings, with real families, who were greatly missed when they died. In his book El Negro en Ik Frank Westerman helps us to realize that it was not even so very long ago that black men and women were treated like animals, and were sometimes exhibited as living objects, or—after their death—as ‘stuffed’ objects. It is impossible to read this fascinating book with a definite sense of shame.

 

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Friedensau

 

[Thursday 1 August] Friedensau University is in the midst of nowhere, in a forest, just over 30 kilometers from Magdeburg. Until some twenty years ago this region was part of the DDR (East-Germany). Some rusty watchtowers and other remnants of the terrible separation between East and West are, as you travel on the highway towards Berlin, a vivid reminder of this period.

Friedensau University was founded by the German Adventists in 1899. Ever since, Friedensau has served as a theological school. In the DDR-era the school received university status, which remained in force also after ‘die Wende’ (the turning point). Since the German unification Friedensau is the theological center for the entire German Adventist church. I visited Friedensau a number of times in the past and had the consistent impression that it is the church institution in Europe that is more ‘academic’ in character than any other.

It is a pleasure to return to the beautiful campus of Friedensau. For the first time I saw the magnificent, new library building, as well as another recent addition: a small café. Since Tuesday I am, together with my wife, a guest for a summer activity, for which a few hundred church members from all over Germany have gathered. They have come for a few very full days of lectures and a spread of 4-5 hour workshops. I am presenting a workshop on the theme of ‘Adventists and Other Christians.’ And I am invited to be the speaker during the festive service on Sabbath, the high point of this event.

The over-all theme of this ‘Friedensauer Sommerakademie’ is: Adventist Sein in 21. Jahrhundert. (Being an Adventist in the 21st Century). Some other congresses and meetings which I have attended in Germany in the past few years have given my the feeling that many Adventists in Germany find it rather challenging to speak about their faith, and to live their faith, in their rapidly changing society. And many are not sure what to think about some trends in the worldwide Adventist Church. These past few days I sensed further confirmation of this.

In his opening speech on Tuesday evening the president of the Adventist Church in Northern Germany (Johannes Naether) told the audience about some of the challenges the German church is facing. He underlined the necessity of a re-evaluation of the term ‘freedom’. The German church wants to be loyal to the world church, yet, he argued, the church in a given region of the world must have a definite freedom to put its own accents. And the church members must have freedom to develop and express their own thinking. I can only agree most strongly.

There is, in visiting such a meeting as this, often the unexpected bonus to meet special people. One of the participants in my workshop is Manfred Böttcher. He does not look his 87 years. I had not heard about him for a long time. For over 14 years Böttcher was the leader of the Adventist church in Germany in the DDR-time. His was the difficult task to steer the church through those difficult years. I was delighted to meet him and to hear him tell of his experiences. Yesterday he gave me a copy of the book he wrote about the relationships between Adventists and other Christians during the Communist period.

Today my wife and I spent a few hours in Magdeburg, the historic city where Martin Luther in 1487 spent some time at the school of the ‘Brethern of the Common Life’ and where later, in 1524, he would preach and kick off the reformation movement in this area. From my elementary school time I remember how Magdeburg was mentioned as the place of the famous Magdeburger Halbkugeln experiment to demonstrate atmospheric pressure. But today we were mostly interested in the magnificent Dom church and in the adjacent Green Citadel—the complex of small shops, restaurants and apartments, that was to be the last project of the famous Austrian/New Zealand architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (2005). With its capricious lines and its range of colors it is truly spectacular and worth a special trip.

However, this stay at Friedensau will also enter my memory as the time and place where, on August 3, my wife celebrated her seventieth birthday!

 

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Heat wave

 

This past week the Netherlands experienced a heat wave. We were informed Ad nauseam by the media that there is no official heat wave unless there are, in the center of the Netherlands, five uninterrupted days of at least 25 C degrees, with at least three days with temperatures exceeding 30 C. Well, it happened. The way in which it was reported, however, gave the impression that it was due to major efforts of the Dutch population that this important feat was finally realized. I must admit that I am quite fed up with the constant overload of weather info on Dutch TV and radio. It already starts when I watch my first news program of the day at 6.45 am. The weather-man or –woman appears for a few seconds to announce that in in due time it will be revealed what weather we may expect! So, stay tuned . . .

Well, whatever. I have not been bothered too much by this heat wave and have not spent the week at the Costa Zeewolde) the beach along the strip of water separating the polder from the main land), complaining and puffing, and constantly wiping the sweat off my forehead. I spent much of my time with my laptop, on the balcony of our apartment. The good thing about my beloved MacBook Air laptop is that the screen is sufficiently sharp to allow me to work even when the sun shines abundantly. I have made good progress with the Dutch translation of a new book by Jean Claude Verrecchia about the biblical sanctuary. Jean-Claude is a Frenchman. Being a professor at Newbold College in the UK, he speaks English fluently, if not without a heavy accent. But most of his writing is in French. And thus I have to enlist up my proficiency in the French languages, which improved significantly during my recent assignment in Belgium.

It is a pleasure to be involved with this project. At times I have been translating something, all the time wishing that the author would have been more concise and longing for the moment the work is finished. But in this case each page makes me curious about the next, and it is exciting to meet new ideas all the time. The Dutch Adventist Church wants to publish this book no later than in September/October. In the fourth quarter of this year the weekly Bible studies will be devoted to the theme of the sanctuary. There is much to be said for providing the members with something that will not merely repeat what has already been said a hundred times.

But in between the intensive translation work, this week brought a few exciting moments that kept me out of the heat. On Sunday my wife and I visited an exposition in a building of the University of Amsterdam, dedicated to the history of slavery, and, in particular, its abolition. The temperature in the exposition rooms was pleasantly cool and there were only few visitors. The exposition proved to be extremely instructive and impressive. It was a pleasure to see how my friend Kenneth Boumann from Gent (Belgium) has made a significant contribution to this exposition. He has made many of his books and artifacts available. Kenneth is a passionate and erudite bibliophile/collector who has concentrated on certain aspect of the history of the Caribbean, in particular Surinam. It has been a joy to get to know him through his wife who, for many years, played an important role in the Belgian Adventist Church.

On Tuesday morning my wife drove me to Almere, where I got on the train for Brussels, via Schiphol. Since the debacle of the high speed Fyra train between the Netherlands and Belgium to travel to Brussels getting to Brussels has not become easier. But after a very pleasant train journey I found myself just after 10 am with a good cup of coffee on the terrace of my regular café on the Place du Sablon. This day I was to make good on a promise to a recently retired Belgian colleague to make our rounds along a number of good second-hand bookstores in Brussels. It proved to be a most pleasant day that also gave us the opportunity to compare notes during our excellent lunch on a shadow-rich terrace.

It may have been rather warm this past week, but the week gave me very little to complain about.

 

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