Unlocking Revelation and U.S. History

In church this past Sabbath, I listened to a sermon about the United States in biblical prophecy. The sermon was part of a prophecy series (Unlock/Unlocking Revelation) that is being preached across the Lake Union Conference, not just in our single congregation (Media: WNEM5MLive). I was told there are over 170 locations running the series simultaneously.

I like our local pastor. I respect him. My frustration with the sermon is not about him (I don’t believe he wrote the sermon). My frustration is about a very white-centric view of U.S. history. For context, the pastor is white, I’m white, and the majority of the small congregation is white (more so now than when we began attending three years ago).

After writing an initial draft of this blog post, I shared it with him so he could comment before I posted it. I’ve made a few revisions based on that hour-long conversation.

The basic theme of the sermon—and this is an overly simplified summary—was that the U.S. started as a good Christian nation, but now our laws are becoming bad, which is clear since we are losing our Christian freedoms. The breakdown of the family and laws that allow this were the key example of the current problems. Presumably this related to same-sex marriage, but this wasn’t stated outright. This degradation was paralleled with the second beast of Revelation 13, the one that has horns like a lamb but speaks like a dragon.

So what the sermon was really saying by describing a fall from good to bad was that slavery did not discredit the early great Christian version of America. The U.S. was still godly. But today U.S. laws don’t support a certain version of Christian ideals relating to the family, so now we’re falling. However, this disregards the generations of families in slavery who were ripped apart as they were bought and sold (more than 10 million ^arrived^ in the New World, plus those born here; besides all those who died or were killed while crossing the Atlantic). How’s that for “Christian family values”? The abuse of those families didn’t invalidate the great Christian start to this country, but gay marriage does?

If our biblical interpretation demands that we disregard the violent injustice experienced by millions of people, then based on the centrality of justice to God’s Word, I propose that we reconsider our interpretation, or at least add a bit of nuance.

If one accepts the overall Adventist understanding of Revelation 13, then I propose a simple alteration of the sermon’s message: understand both features (lamb-like horns and dragon-like speech) throughout its history instead of saying one was earlier and the other was later. That is, at its start the U.S. had an appearance of godliness (lamb-like appearance), but it spoke like a dragon (slaves not treated as humans, at best counted only as three-fifths human). Injustice in word and action despite a religious appearance have continued in different forms ever since, and these require a persistent critique. To this end, I shared a small book with the pastor—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

This approach is in line with early Adventist views (not that early is necessarily right or best, but merely demonstrates that my proposed interpretation is hardly novel). Adventist historian Doug Morgan writes about those Adventists:

Challenging the prevalent postmillennialist conception of the United States as an instrument of progress toward the millennium, they asserted that apocalyptic Scripture cast the Republic as a persecuting beast. They pointed to slavery and the Protestant establishment’s intolerant treatment of dissenters as evidence of the fulfillment of prophecy. (Adventism and the American Republic, 2001, p. 11).

After our conversation, the pastor decided his interpretation could have been kept in place while being supplemented with the admission that the ideals expressed in the nation’s founding documents are the key point while also admitting we have not done a good job of living up to those ideals.

This racial issue was my main disagreement with the way U.S history and God’s values were portrayed, but there were three other points that were less central to the sermon’s main arguments. First, and I don’t remember the exact wording, the violent entrance of Columbus and the conquistadors was greatly minimized (something like: they joined the people already here).

Second, yes the Bible says there will be persecution, but I’m frustrated when American Adventists accept the view that American Christians are being greatly persecuted today. Allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry is not persecuting Christians; Christians are still free to worship however we like. There is a difference between being persecuted and simply not being able to force one’s values or morals on others. We want our civil and religious freedoms, so let’s extend that concern to all others as well.

Third, the quick rise of U.S. power was described as a blessing from God. I cringe a bit when I hear this argument because I believe slavery was a key factor in our economic development. Later military dominance became another unjust tool for economic expansion. For starters, consider Smedley Butler,*John Perkins, or the case of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala (WikiGWU). To say that growth of the U.S. economy and our subsequent place of power in the world is simply because of God’s blessing is to sweep too much history under the rug.

In conclusion, if the Adventist interpretation of prophecy is correct, then surely it can be presented in balanced and meaningful ways that don’t (a) ignore gross injustices such as slavery and imperialism and (b) accept popular definitions of Christian victimization in the U.S. that ring hollow compared with true persecution seen in other times and also in other places today.

– – –

*My favorite Smedley quote: “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

ANN: Religious Liberty Experts Examine Peacemaking Power of Faith

Adventist News Network: August 19, 2015 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Bettina Krause and Barry Bussey

A group of scholars, lawyers and religious freedom advocates met last week to challenge a widespread belief that religion is primarily a divisive force in society, fuelling tension and violence. The 17th annual “Meeting of Experts,” organized by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), brought together some 20 academics at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California, to consider the role of religion in current global conflicts, and to focus on ways that faith can, instead, be a powerful force for peacemaking and conflict resolution.

“We need to use faith anchored in forgiveness and reconciliation,” said Ambassador Robert A. Seiple, a former United States Ambassador at large for Religious Freedom, and current IRLA president. “We need to know our own faith, and likewise, we need to understand our neighbour’s faith and respect it.”

Ambassador Seiple, who gave the first of ten major presentations, focused on his firsthand experience with the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide. He described visiting the country in the aftermath of the violence and standing on a bridge over a river clogged with hundreds of decaying bodies. According to Ambassador Seiple, one of the most troubling aspects of the Rwandan genocide is that it took place within a “Christianized” country—some 85 percent of the total population identified themselves as Christian. But in spite of this colossal failure on the part of churches in 1994, religious values have since played a vital role in rebuilding social stability. As Rwandans have reclaimed their country, they have shown the world the power of forgiveness, said Ambassador Seiple. He noted that many perpetrators of the genocide are today living side-by-side with their victims.

According to Dr. Ganoune Diop, Secretary General of the IRLA, each presentation during the four-day event was shaped in some way by two key questions: “How can we live with our deepest differences?” And, “How can the best of religions overcome the abysmal record of religious wars, religious ethnic cleansing, and genocides fuelled by religious discrimination?”

Although the Meeting of Experts examines these questions from a scholarly perspective, the issues that drive the work of these scholars are far from abstract. “Too many people suffer discrimination, persecution, or even martyrdom or genocide because of their religious differences,” says Dr. Diop. According to a Pew Forum study released earlier this year, some 5.5 billion people—or 77 percent of the world’s population—live in countries with “a high or very high overall level of restrictions on religion.”[1]

The meeting brought together a diverse panel of scholars who represented universities and organizations from seven countries. Presenters included Dr. David Little, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School; Reverend Canon Brian Cox, Senior Vice President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy; Professor Cole Durham, President of the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies based in Milan, Italy; Professor T. Jeremy Gunn, professor of International Relations at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco; and, Dr. Amal Idrissi, law professor at the University of Moulay Ismael in Meknes, Morocco.

Over the past two decades, the Meeting of Experts has aimed to bring together some of the world's foremost scholars and practitioners in the field of religious freedom to track legal and sociological trends. Papers presented at the annual meetings are published, and have produced a significant body of academic and practical resources. The papers from this year’s Meeting of Experts will be published in the 2015 edition of Fides et Libetas, which will be available later this year from the IRLA, which can be contacted through its website at www.irla.org or its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/IRLA.HQ.

The IRLA was established by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1893 and is the world's oldest religious freedom advocacy organization. It promotes freedom of belief for all people, regardless of faith, and has non-governmental organization status at the United Nations. Along with the annual Meeting of Experts, the IRLA sponsors regional religious freedom festivals and forums, and every five years organizes a world congress, which attracts an international mix of scholars, legal practitioners, government officials and human rights advocates.


[1] For the full study, visit the Pew Forum website at www.pewforum.org/2015/02/26/religious-hostilities/

ANN: Celebrating Religious Freedom in Zimbabwe

csm_zim-web_2ffcdb29b1 "More than 4,000 Seventh-day Adventist youth marched from Harare city center to join over 30,000 Adventists at Glamis stadium to celebrate religious liberty in Zimbabwe on June 21," reports the Adventist News Network (ANN, 23 July 2014, link). "The Zimbabwe prisons band played for the Pathfinders who carried banners reading 'Celebrating Religious Liberty in Zimbabwe.'”

Excerpts:

The Guest of Honor, Minister of State in The President’s office Harare Province, Cde Miriam Chikukwa, spoke on government’s commitment to protect the constitution that guarantees religious liberty.

Paul Charles, Communication director for the denomination’s Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division, told the gathering that the purpose of the function was for the Seventh-day Adventists to express their profound appreciation to the government of Zimbabwe for the religious freedom the church was enjoying. He urged the Adventists to respect those from other religions and denominations.

“The reason why we love each other, even though we do not know each other is that in you I see the image of God and in me you see the image of God,” Charles said.

View the entire article here.

International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty Convenes in Geneva

csm_eud-web_2199c9c8d9 The Adventist News Network (ANN) reports that on June 10, the International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty (AIDLR) "co-sponsored a panel discussion on the sidelines of the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council."

ANN story excerpts:

The Adventist-affiliated group AIDLR got a welcomed boost in visibility this month by organizing its first event at the United Nations office in Geneva, organizers said.

Panelists at the June 10 event, titled “Worldwide Human Rights, Religious Liberty and Religious Minorities,” cautioned that religious freedoms risked being curbed if efforts weren’t made to better coordinate the work of the UN, European Union and other entities that have various approaches to human rights. (Complete article, 24 June 2014).

In addition to the panel discussion, AIDLR released a book during the gathering. The Religion and Law Consortium shares:

The special edition of AIDLR's "Conscience and Liberty" entitled "Worldwide Human Rights and Religious Liberty. A New Equilibrium or New Challenges Volume I" was launched with some of the authors presenting their contributions. The book contains articles, statements and reflection of four UN Secretaries-General, UN High Commissioners of Human Rights, ambassadors, scholars, religious leaders as well as testimonies or letters of former presidents of the Honorary  Committee of AIDLR including Eleanor Roosevelt, Rene Cassin, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Mary Robinson. (UN Side Event, 10 June 2014)