BECAUSE We believe that Christians are forbidden by the commandments of God from taking human life directly or indirectly, and that bearing arms is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we believe that Christians should not voluntarily become engaged in military service. If they are involuntarily engaged in military service, we believe they should refuse conscientiously to bear arms and, to the extent possible, refuse to come under military authority.
THUS: We call the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to repent of their current position regarding involvement in war, and return to the original Adventist position of non-involvement. We call for individuals to take a decided stand for Christ and His principles of life. Editors. See SDA’S IN TIME OF WAR–1 through 3; Part 1 article below:
A Brief HISTORY of Seventh-day Adventists IN TIMES OF WAR
By Ronald Osborn
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded by New England pacifists with intellectual and spiritual roots in the Radical or Anabaptist Reformation. In the first 60 years of the movement’s histor, from its organization in 1863 until the death of its prophetess, Ellen White, in 1915, Adventism may thus be seen as part of the same tradition of social and political dissent that gave rise to Quakers, Mennonites, and other religious communities committed to the ethics of nonviolence.
This commitment was both formally stated and rigorously practiced by early Adventists, many of whom believed that even touching a weapon was sinful. On May 23, 1865, the Review and Herald published a General Conference resolution as a truthful representation of the views held by us from the beginning of our existence as a people, relative to bearing arms. The document, composed in the aftermath of a war that had caused many abolitionists to abandon their earlier pacifism, affirmed a legitimate role for the civil government, but declared that Adventists, as a people, are compelled to decline all participation in acts of war and bloodshed as being inconsistent with the duties enjoined upon us by our divine Master toward our enemies and toward all mankind.
During the Spanish-American War of 1898-1899, Adventists thus emerged as outspoken critics of America’s imperial foreign policy. In opposition to other prominent churches that embraced the war as a Christianizing and civilizing campaign, they pointed to the glaring inconsistency of linking the cross with militarism of any sort. “Christian love demands that its possessor shall not make war at all. ‘Put up again they sword into his place,’ is the word of the Author of Christianity, the embodiment of Christian love,” thundered former army sergeant A. T. Jones. “Christianity is one thing; war is another, and far different thing. Christians are one sort of people; warriors are another and different sort of people.”
Percy Magan’s The Peril of the Republic, rushed to print in 1899, similarly denounced American actions in the Philippines as mere colonial greed and rapacious lust. Better, Magan argued, for a few missionaries to lose their lives at the hands of heathen savages than for heathen savages to lose their lives at the hands of those calling themselves Christians.
The Adventist commitment to nonviolence during this period of the church’s history was based not primarily upon concern for personal moral purity, but upon a systematic critique of America’s revered institutions of power. According to the Adventist reading of the books of Daniel and Revelation, the United States could not fail as a nation so long as it remained true to its Republican and Protestant heritage. Yet the fact that America would eventually fail was a foregone conclusion. No nationalistic project could replace the divine plan to redeem humanity once and for all. The creedalism and intolerance of the emerging Protestant empire “intent upon a new union of church and state,” coupled with the social injustice implicit in the economic order, revealed the seeds of corruption eating at the heart of the American experiment. The United States, Ellen White, Joseph Bates, A. T. Jones and other Adventist pioneers declared, was the beast of Revelation 13, a morally contradictory amalgamation of dragon and lamb-like qualities, who “doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth, and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles.” Even the best government in human history, these prophetic agitators insisted, had feet of clay.
From Ellen White’s death in 1915 on, however, the Anabaptist ethos of the early church rapidly eroded. This was true in matters of ecclesiastical authority and biblical hermeneutics, but particularly with regard to the military and bearing arms. Following World War I the Adventist commitment to not taking life remained largely intact, yet church leaders increasingly described Adventists not as conscientious objectors but as “conscientious cooperators”. The consensus of the new generation was that it was no longer the church’s role to question the rightness of US military adventures or foreign policy so long as Adventist soldiers were allowed to continue in their peculiar commitment to Sabbath observance.
It was in this spirit of patriotic cooperation with the government that the Adventist Medical Cadet Corp was created in 1942. The Corp sought to prove that good Adventists were also “good Americans,” eager and willing to serve in the military, albeit in noncombatant roles. The Corp thus helped to instill in a generation of young Adventists a love for the military jack-boot and bivouac, and the belief that it is honorable to serve power for the sake of order. Unfortunately, these lessons could not be confined to one side of the Atlantic. During World War II Adventists proudly answered the call to duty in the United States, but also, and more disconcertingly, in Nazi Germany. While Protestant leaders of other denominations resisted fascism at considerable cost, there was no Adventist “Confessing Church”, and up to the outbreak of the war Adventists even in the United States spoke of Hitler in positive terms as a fellow vegetarian concerned with matters of bodily hygiene.
Whereas Adventist complicity in the Nazi onslaught, as well as the horrors of the Allied bombing campaign, might have sparked a recommitment to the nonviolent principles of the church’s pioneers, Adventists from the 1950s on generally saw World War II as a vindication of violence for a just cause. The idea that loyalty to God and loyalty to the military were fully compatible became powerfully entrenched in the minds of many Adventists, particularly in North America. Pockets of believers in Germany and other European countries retained the older ethics of nonviolence; and Russia’s True and Free Adventists heroically resisted Soviet totalitarianism in defense of freedom and human rights. But these pacifists, whose convictions placed them firmly in the tradition of the church’s founders, were disavowed and marginalized by presiding church officials. With a burgeoning network of health and educational institutions, and ambitious evangelistic campaigns around the world, maintaining good relations with government authorities now took precedence over prophetic and politically dangerous brands of dissent.
With more and more Adventist chaplains rising in military rank, the church was also already too deeply invested in the military as an institution to seriously question the logic of violence, or the rightness of American foreign policies abroad. The title of the Adventist chaplaincy’s newsletter, For God and Country, revealed just how far pietism and patriotism had come to be wedded in the thinking of church leaders, and how far Adventists had come since Magan’s Peril of the Republic.
By the time of the Vietnam War the Adventist position had thus fragmented into incoherency. Some Adventists evaded the draft, others entered as noncombatant medics, and others avoided direct military action by volunteering as human guinea pigs in Project White Coat, a research program with links to the US biological weapons laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland. During the war in Vietnam significant numbers of Adventists, encouraged by church officials to perform their patriotic duty according to “the dictates of their conscience”, also picked up guns and, for the first time, began to kill according to the dictates of government planners.
In view of the vociferous Adventist response to the Spanish-American war, the silence of the church during the war in Indochina, and particularly the silence of those chaplains closest to the unfolding catastrophe, marked a stunning reversal in Adventism’s historic identity, from fearless agitators to acquiescent mandarins of the state. Religious leaders of other faiths, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, decried the war in unequivocal language. But through the carpet-bombing with napalm of hundreds of thousands of defenseless villagers; through the countless acts of brutality and depredation against unarmed civilians; through the dumping of millions of gallons of arsenic-based herbicides on Vietnamese crops and people, through all of this Adventists spoke not a word. In a tragically ironic twist, even as America acted increasingly like the beast Adventists had long proclaimed it to be, the prophetic movement proved an increasingly timid and sycophantic page at the dragon’s side.
In the post-Vietnam era, thousands of Adventists voluntarily joined the US armed forces as full combatants. Adventist chaplains were recruited to minister to these fighters “without passing judgment”, which in turn encouraged more Adventists to enlist. With large numbers of Adventists on active duty, it is therefore not surprising that there was not a murmur of disapproval from the church in the 1970s and 1980s as the US military abetted Latin American juntas in the slaying of tens of thousands of impoverished peasants calling for land reform, many of them Christians who first heard about the Sabbath Jubilee from socially conscious Catholic priests.
During the 1990s and at start of the 21st century, the collapse of the historic Adventist ethic of nonviolence became apparent in other embarrassing ways. Early Adventist apocalyptic had led the movement to reject all acts of violence and bloodshed, but in Waco, Texas in 1993 one-time Adventists played out a new and violent apocalyptic nightmare on a compound bristling with weapons. In 1994 significant numbers of Adventist Hutus in Rwanda participated in the genocide of their Tutsi countrymen, including an estimated ten thousand Seventh-day Adventists. Through the 1990s, as Buddhist Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ang San Suu Kyi, attracted world attention in her nonviolent struggle against Burma’s military dictatorship, hundreds of Karen Adventists, whose great-grandparents had been evangelized by legendary missionary Eric B. Hare, engaged in a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Burmese army with the goal of creating an autonomous Karen nation. And in 2002 rival militias comprised largely of Adventists fought for control of the government of the Solomon Islands.
Yet while Adventists were quick to dismiss these events as tragic aberrations in the faith, they did not pause to consider the church’s romance with more devastating forms of violence sanctified by the state. In 2002 a group of students from Oakwood College were arrested for gun-running between New York and Alabama. But the church saw no reason to disavow the voting records of Adventism’s two most prominent gun-runners: US Congressmen Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland and Bob Stump of Arizona, who through the 1990s collected hefty sums from the National Rifle Association and military manufacturing lobbyists for helping to grease weapons sales at home and abroad.
The September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States saw the final denouement of Adventism as a prophetic movement that could not be co-opted by nationalistic crusades. Amid the many heartfelt and sincere expressions of grief following the tragedy, churches from coast to coast reflexively wrapped themselves in the flag, no different from the rest of evangelical America. Sligo Church in Washington, DC featured a Veteran’s Day service in which a military honor guard marched down the center aisle with bolt-action rifles gripped to their chests. At a camp-meeting in Northern California, a patriotic song service was followed by a 21 gun salute with live ammunition. And near the end of the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan, the General Conference organized a special weekend to honor the US military and send care packages overseas, not care packages to the afflicted Afghanis, but stuffed animals to US bomber crews stationed at Diego Garcia Air Force Base in the Pacific Ocean. Little thought was given by the planners of the event to the history of American policy in the Middle East, or the estimated 3,400 Afghani civilians killed by US bombs, four hundred more innocent people than perished on September 11. Where Adventists once venerated those Protestant martyrs who died rather than betray their religious convictions, they would now honor US soldiers who kill at the bidding of their political masters. As President George W. Bush promised to take his war against America’s enemies to far-flung corners of the globe, one thing was certain: many Adventists would soon be shipping out to exotic lands, not as missionaries, but as warriors, assault rifles in hand.