What Would Jesus Do with Corona?

No, leprosy was not a global pandemic.

The world is shutting down. Across many countries, including my native Denmark, schools, bars and churches are closing. We are told to essentially avoid other people, if possible, while ensuring that vital societal functions remain open. All to halt the spread of the virus, limit the strain on the healthcare system and protect the weakest of our fellow citizens – and ensure that the economy can recover afterwards.

This is unprecedented, and to some degree unnerving, but also quite reasonable and in a stable society like ours fairly manageable.

But last night I came to think about Jesus, two thousand years ago. He was a man of the people, isolation definitely not his thing. He notably mingled with and touched lepers – the outcasts of the day. They were untouchable for a good reason, to avoid the spread of a deadly and incurable disease.

We usually hail Jesus’ compassion for the lepers as good thing, a quality of his unequivocal love for other people. I don’t contest that. On the other hand, leprosy in 1st century Palestine was an isolated phenomenon, not a global pandemic.

Which once again renders the question “What Would Jesus Do?” irrelevant, despite any good intentions.

If you do want to follow Jesus, don’t copy him, but learn from his advice. Remember his parable of the sheep and the goats:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matt 25:37-40, NIV)

Today, we might paraphrase this into: “When did we stand next to you and cover our mouth when coughing? When did we wash our hands thoroughly before touching you? When did we stay at home so we did didn’t infect your old mother with a heart condition?”

So why isn’t God stopping the virus? In a sense, he is – through the hands of the countless people making sacrifices to contain the spread and protect the weak.

Let us remember to thank all the healthcare workers, police officers, shopkeepers, ambulance drivers, politicians, journalists, and more, who are doing their best to get us all safely through the crisis.

Jesus taught us compassion; in this case let us show compassion to others by doing what we can to prevent the spread of the virus. For ourselves and our families, and for our neighbours as ourselves.

Why I’m a seventh-day adventist. Lowercase.

Towards a more thorough understanding of identity.

Recent events in the Seventh-day Adventist Church have left me and many others question their relationship with the organization.

But my faith is about more than just the organization, which led me to think about a way to explain the different aspects involved, and how the sum of these dimensions makes up our identity.

For this purpose, I will split religious identity into four dimensions:

  • Theological: The faith, the credo, what you believe.
  • Liturgical: The practices and traditions involved in corporate worship.
  • Ecclesiastical: The church structure and organization.
  • Socio-cultural: The habits, traditions, and common memories which define a subculture.

There may be ways to measure these in a scientific manner. For now, however, I will stick to a gut feeling. And this chart illustrates where I currently stand on each of these, on a five-point scale:

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A higher number denotes a higher level of fidelity to official or mainstream Adventism. Let me explain my reasons for each.

Theological

I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and I share the Apostolic Creed with my fellow Christians in every other church.

Furthermore, I identify strongly with the two themes implied in the name “seventh-day adventist”: the blessing of a weekly day of rest on Saturday, and a belief in the physical return of Jesus to earth to restore humanity to a glorious future.

I also share the traditional Adventist core of the four S’s: the Sabbath, the Second coming, the Sanctuary, and the State of the dead. So far so good.

As for the 28 fundamental beliefs, I may have issues with a few, hence the score 4 and not 5. But my faith is strongly rooted in the traditions of Adventist theology, and will continue to be so.

Liturgical

My upbringing and my heritage has been shaped by the worship traditions of Adventist churches in Denmark and the US. This worship style is well-known to me, and for the most part I like going to church.

But worship style is also in upheaval. I have seen – and helped – the spread of praise worship, which is different from my childhood experiences. On the other hand, I have come to appreciate the liturgy in the Danish Lutheran Church through many years of playing and singing.

So I am not fixated on one style, hence a 3.

Ecclesiastical

This is really the pain point right now. And as I’ve stated previously, the actions of the current General Conference leadership go against their protestant roots and traditional Adventist theology on the role of the church.

If the church as an institution has a special, sacred, prophetic place, then that church is Rome. But Reformation thinking rejects that claim. There is indeed a sacred place for church – but church as in people meeting together, with every person a minister.

One strain of thought in Adventism holds that the Adventist Church has a unique position as a “remnant” of the few righteous. I do not share this thinking, and strongly reject that salvation is unique to one particular version of Christianity.

This also means that I feel no obligation to the Seventh-day Adventist Church as an institution: it is no more sacred than its actions. In the current climate, this is a 1.

Socio-economic

I know people who cling to the subculture of Adventism and eagerly support many of its activities, but only half-heartedly participate in actual worship activities, and never profess their faith publicly.

I’m probably more the opposite.

I have a lot of memories and shared experiences with people in the church subculture. But my life has moved on. I don’t talk about Vejlefjord (academy) all the time. I don’t particularly love church properties, except for their function and occasional slight nostalgia. And my close friends are not necessarily centered around the church, as they might have been previously.

I do celebrate and appreciate the Sabbath, but to me that’s not subcultural but theological, and an essential part of my faith.

So as the subculture has come to mean less for me, this is a 2.

Conclusion

This explains why, as stated in the title, I identify as a seventh-day adventist (lowercase), but not so much as a Seventh-day Adventist (uppercase).

The adventist faith and theology is important to me. But the things around it, all the man-made structures, are less important, and in times like these they are dispensable.

Where do you stand on the four dimensions?

Vive la résistance

There is intelligent life in the White House, after all. What about Silver Spring?

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Yesterday’s op-ed in the New York Times was one of the most interesting, and heart-warming pieces of news recently. Yes, you heard me right.

nytimes_opedInteresting, sure. An anonymous senior White House official points the gun at President Trump, essentially saying: we know he’s amoral and erratic, but we are working behind the scenes to contain the damage and counter some of his worst tendencies. Trump has responded in his usual manner, shouting and threatening on Twitter. The circus continues.

But what makes this heart-warming is the fact that even Trump’s supporters are aware of the reality. Even if you blinded yourself to believing in the man, this op-ed shows us that there are still people in power who want to work for what’s best for the country.

Things may not change overnight, but this gives me hope.

Church politics gone sour

I have previously mentioned the ongoing political theatre in the Adventist Church, which I am a member of. And I have compared General Conference President Ted Wilson to Donald Trump – not for his morals, but for his ignorance of the limits of power, and lack of respect for democratic institutions.

Next month, the church’s world leadership will meet for their Annual Council, and following last year’s failed attempt at forcing unity, an inquisition-like setup of oversight committees is once again on the agenda.

Where is the op-ed from within the General Conference office?

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We probably won’t see that, but I have to believe that not everyone is happy with the president’s warmongering. It would not surprise me if – like in the White House – a large group of church officials are silently playing along, but doing their best behind the scenes to mend some of the wounds which the president’s actions are creating.

Silent majority

The president can be a Democrat or a Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, I don’t care. But a president should not be authoritarian and despotic, whether he is president of a country or a church.

Yes, Trump got elected. But I still believe in the American people. I choose to have faith that a silent majority of Americans cannot abide this man’s values and actions.

Similarly, I choose, for now, to have faith in the Adventist Church. I have to believe that a silent majority cannot abide by the divisive, un-democratic behavior of its highest elected official, but have hopes and intentions that transcend political games.

Peace on Earth

In the spirit of Christmas, Jerusalem is once again the battle ground for world politics, while decisions made the past few weeks in Washington, New York, and Pyongyang threaten the existence of us all. What else is new?

Ironically, Jerusalem can be said to mean “The City of Peace”, bearing the same root as the word shalom (Hebrew) or salaam (Arabic). That has certainly not been the experience of the actual city.

When the angels sang over a field outside Bethlem some 2,000 years ago, they could be forgiven for hoping that things would now change for the better.

Only 70 years later Jerusalem was burned to the ground, however. And through two millennia its fate has been more hotly contested than most cities on earth.

When I was younger I had an idea that a well-placed nuke over Jerusalem would take away the root cause of many of this world’s conflicts, never mind the collateral damage. It’s probably not that simple, but the battle continues.

“Peace on earth, good will to men.” What did we miss? Why are we still celebrating the occasion, singing that same tune?

What happened to the promise of peace?

There is no peace on earth. The American poet H.W. Longfellow put it as starkly when during the Civil War he penned the tragic poem Christmas Bells:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end all that? The prophets predicting his arrival sure hoped so, calling the Messiah the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), or saying, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)

Even Jesus himself expressed a desire for a better way when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

But the quote above is also one of resignation. An earthly restoration of peace was not possible, even if that was what his followers initially hoped for. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” said a disillusioned disciple a few days after his death (Luke 24:21).

Killing all the children

What then remains as the legacy of the Messiah? Good teachings of how to live your life? Love thy neighbour, and all that? If that was it, was it really worth it?

Consider the massacre of Bethlehem, a detail of the Christmas story we try not to focus on too much. King Herod, in fear of a supposed usurper, orders the killing of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem.

Just picture that for a moment. Not even Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones could muster a cruelty of that magnitude.

It would be quite understandable if this tragedy spawned a certain resentment towards the one baby who survived the massacre from the families who suffered such a terrible loss.

Shalom incarnated

In earthly terms, it makes no sense. There is no peace on earth. But what the angels meant was something different.

First of all, peace is much too narrow a term to appreciate the full meaning of shalom. Secondly, it has a person as a focal point: God’s shalom has been incarnated, sowing a seed of love in the midst of a war zone.

But the mission was not to oust the Romans. It was not a restoration of Israel’s glory. It was not even a limited peace to the city of Jerusalem. The mission of the Messiah was grander: it was a restoration of all of humanity.

In a 16th century Christmas carol, Robert Southwell writes:

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Rome is not the enemy, neither is Palestine, or North Korea for that matter. The enemy is evil itself. Concepts such as God’s Own Country, Holy City, Holy Land, and the like become obsolete with the Christmas message of the Messiah extending God’s peace to all the world.

We have not yet seen the end of this. The joy of Christmas is not peace here and now. Obviously. But what we do celebrate is the coming of hope: The First Advent gives us tangible proof, through the Son of God incarnate, that the Second Advent is more than just a fantasy. And one day there will be peace, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The Legacy of Luther and Adventist Authority

Calling out power abuse is just as relevant today as 500 years ago.

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Anniversaries always come short of the actual event. How do you do justice to the magnitude of the Reformation, which began 500 years on this day? Answer: you don’t. Not in a single blog post, at least. Others have celebrated and commented throughout the year, for the legacy of the event is pervasive and has many threads.

The impact of the Reformation on Western thinking is indisputable, and not just in the field of religion. Max Weber’s thesis on the spirit of capitalism, while disputed, remains seminal in understanding the world we live in, for instance.

Dealing with Adventist dissent

In this post, however, I will comment more specifically on the issue of religious power. It is ironic and sad that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am a member of, this issue should become one of full-blown conflict this year.

Adventists proudly see their movement as a continuation of Protestant ideals, continuing to question the status quo and search for ideas and theologies truer to the original Biblical intent and free of centuries of human degeneration.

Ellen G. White, the thought leader of the movement in the 19th century, described Luther’s adversaries with descriptions like this: “Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their work of sanctioning crime, and seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold their pretensions.” And on his banishment from the Church, she penned: “Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be seen in the whole document.” (GC, pp. 130, 134)

JanPaulsenThis is not far from the words of former church president Jan Paulsen, who recently stated: “I do not see the hand of God in this.”

His words came during a recent debate on how the world church deals with ‘dissent’. The apparent issue is the ordination of women, but that issue has become almost secondary to how the global leadership chooses to approach the discussion.

Matthew Quartey summarized it bluntly in the independent magazine Spectrum: “Our president’s seven-year leadership has been a continuous tugging at the seams of our togetherness.  He has prioritized his antipathy toward women in ministry over the church’s higher goal of mission. He has spent more time and resources engaged in this private campaign than focusing the church on what truly binds us.”

Open or closed leadership?

While women’s ordination is the battle ground, the overarching point here is authority. Any organization needs leadership, sure. But you can choose to lead like a dictator or like an apostle.

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The sitting president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is an American, brought up in the system, and his actions convey an overarching goal of not rocking the boat. He pursues unity at any cost, ignoring the paradox that forcing unity destroys openness, which in turn damages commitment and encourages more dissent.

Even more alarming is the apparent ignorance of any limitations to his power. You will find this tendency anywhere, but perhaps it is especially American: If you are given any position of power, you believe you have the right and mandate to do and decide anything.

Donald Trump also acts like this, neither understanding nor accepting the democratic ideal of checks and balances. If you claim to listen to the people, then you need to do it properly; otherwise call a spade a spade and eliminate the illusion of democracy altogether.

The Adventist Church has prided itself in its ‘democratic’ institutions, but there are many limits to how much the people actually decide. And these years even those institutions are under attack from a leadership who wants to centralize, dictate, and enforce.

The Lutheran Church in Denmark, for all its shortcomings, may have chosen a better path. It has a collective of bishops, but no central leadership. Its political leader has no say in matters of theology. While the church is defined as keeping to the Apostolic Creed and Luther’s writings, nobody is able to speak on behalf of the church.

I can see the Biblical and Reformation merit in this approach. Power to the people – a priesthood of all believers – nobody is exalted above others.

Pope or no pope?

George Knight, a well-known figure in the church and arguably a ‘prophet’ for our times, has given a thorough analysis of the situation in a recent paper. He describes the predicament of the church president thus:

“Obviously, what is needed is a new policy that allows the General Conference president to initiate actions against anybody deemed deserving of such attention. Such a policy, of course, would be a major step toward papalism and unrestricted kingly power. […] The October 2017 meetings may help the worldwide Adventist Church decide whether it wants to move more toward an Adventist Ecclesiology or toward a more Roman Catholic variety.”

I am no expert on the theology of the Papacy, but seen from the outside, it makes sense as a coherent system. Putting the authority of the Church over, or alongside, that of the Bible is a valid belief, and if you hold that belief you also accept that authority.

Protestants, however, have no such luxury: putting the Bible unequivocally as the highest authority does not allow for an authoritarian system. Rome claims a legitimate authority over all believers. Protestant denominations may very well represent the body of Christ, but with sola scriptura any attempts towards papal authority in these institutions are theologically void, and must be called out as human power-grabs.

I don’t really want a pope. But if I had to pick one, I would choose the one in Rome, not the one in Silver Spring, MD.

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