Editorial - For Such a Time as This

Since 9/11 2001 we have each been caught up in the sense of crisis, a world in jeopardy, and the forces of history turning once again. Here in North America we live in the knowledge that our towers of invulnerability have fallen...they were always vulnerable, but the two way mirrors we put on the exterior were often around the wrong way for us to see out, and we smiled at our reflection of security.

And now it seems that the very concept of freedom itself is up for debate. The question of how much freedom, and how much security, has become a seesaw syllogism pivoting upon the urgency of rooting out the enemy within. Not a good climate for ensuring the continued application of religious liberty: after all religion, we now remember, is perhaps the most dynamic factor in human activity.

In writing this editorial I am led to reflect on just how integral religious conviction was to the establishing of Liberty magazine itself. This issue identifies itself as the last for volume 97–and we are rushing upon 100 years since the very first issue in 1906.

Back then the world was so much simpler and the threats easier to identify–right! Well, yes and no. I am struck by how similar the situation was in many respects and how always relevant the message of this magazine.

Any student of history can easily point to an underlying political and social instability in those early years of the last century and show how it presaged the butchery of the Great War and the cataclysm of the Second World War. And as I look back to religious liberty issues just after the century began I see similar agitation to what we see today. As today, there was an attempt to legislate religious uniformity as a bulwark against external threat. For example, the International Reform Bureau, led by a Reverend W.F. Crafts, sought a constitutional amendment declaring the United States officially a "Christian" nation. There was also a powerful lobby urging passage of Sunday legislation.

Which brings me to the raison d'etre of Liberty magazine. In such a situation Seventh- day Adventists could not keep silent. And they did not. Pastors, leaders and individual members spoke up and challenged the tendency to a state mandated faith. They testified before congress and they argued their position forcefully through the pages of Liberty. Yes, the church had published a religious liberty journal some years earlier; but a lull in the pace of external events, coupled with a contentious debate within Adventism over the nature of religious liberty activism, had muted its voice. Now in 1906 events demanded the church be engaged. Events that went to the very heart of what Adventism is all about.

Liberty magazine takes great pains to defend the rights of conscience and religious exercise of all faiths. That is a stance we intend to continue. It is a constitutional right here in the United States. More importantly, it is a solid Biblical principle. God allowed Adam and Eve the freedom to disobey. The New Testament reveals a God so committed to persuasion that He sends His own son to reveal the Way to salvation. Even when unbelievers acted violently toward Him the message remained one of persuasion via love and logic. Nothing in my Bible justifies an Inquisition, legislated morality, and other actions against unbelievers.

But this does not fully explain why in 1906 Seventh-Day Adventists began to publish Liberty. That explanation is found in our sense of the Apocalyptic as it relates to what all Christians hold as the Gospel Commission–Jesus' command to go out and spread the message of His coming kingdom.

I have a great series of lectures put out by a well known secular company that specializes in recording top level university lectures. It's titled "Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Modern World." In the course, the lecturer shows what many know to be true but have not thought of what it means: a sense of Apocalyptic has imbued the American experiment from the beginning. Many early settlers believed this nation had a destiny to usher in the end of the age; some even intending it to establish a temporal millennium (hence the plethora of utopian communities here in the new world). Actually read the words to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and you get of sense of all implied in the shared apocalyptic. It lives to this day in such cues as President Reagan's "evil empire" and "Armageddon" comments and the firestorm reaction to the court ruling on the Pledge of Allegiance.

Seventh-Day Adventists share much of this sense of the apocalyptic with other Christians. After all, we arose out of various fundamentalist groups in New England, and a revival of apocalyptic interest there in the mid 1800s. Today much of that broad base of apocalypticism has been gathered toward the views best expressed in the "Left Behind" series by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. Under the rubric of a once obscure and barely biblical concept known as the Rapture these and similar books posit a world racing toward a final battle with evil.

Perhaps reflecting longstanding U.S. insularity, they tend to find the evil antichrist in either a United Nations gone bad or a vaguely Balkan type of world strongman.

It has become all too easy for many well intentioned Christians in the United States to accept this cardboard cutout form of the apocalyptic delivered in the Bible's Book of Revelation.

Just how easily this could create a blindside to the allure of a Godly state holding back evil by civil power was on display at a recent Washington gathering to honor the Reverend Moon and the paper he founded. His speech deviated far from any orthodox Christian view and was upheld as endorsed by the spirit world. Then he lauded the United States as "a city set on a hill," "the second Israel," and God's instrument to bring righteousness and peace to the world. How neatly he hijacked the fine aspirations and goals of a country often used by God as it acted correctly, but never the theocracy the image implies!

Seventh-Day Adventist have studied the Bible diligently; taking the understanding of earlier expositors and fitting the sense of apocalyptic into the jigsaw of fulfilled prophecy and current events. We do see America as a great and grand experiment in the protection of liberty of conscience. But we know that no nation, even ancient Israel, is intrinsically moral and it is dangerous to conflate Godliness with any state system.

Nowhere in the Revelation of John is the situation more relevant to us today in America than chapter 13. There the reader is introduced to a "lamblike" power–a new state that appears "out of the earth." Then that power changes its very nature and becomes one that compels all to worship a false god. This was the prophetic indication that so alarmed early Seventh-Day Adventists as they saw evidence that the United states might be ready to compel a certain type of worship. But they were not and are not fatalists. Prophecy is predictive but not independent of human response. It is our obligation to work to maintain "free exercise" of religion and faith in this still new world. It is our obligation to delay all efforts at compelling compliance to any particular faith view. It is our obligation to give a moral cast to the whole religious liberty question, and not let it drift into a legally relativistic tone that might sacrifice religious liberty for state security as easily as we have already given up certain rights of privacy and association.

Around 2500 years ago Esther (or more properly Hadassah), daughter of a people exiled to Persia found herself chosen as the queen to King Ahasuerus. The kingdom was at peace and she and her people seemed secure in their adopted freedom. But plans were afoot. A noble named Haman intended to massacre all of them...no doubt citing they and their religion as a danger. The Queen's cousin heard of the plot and urged her to risk all by going to the king and begging his aid.

His words surely are relevant today. "If you keep silent" he said, "relief and deliverance will rise...from another quarter." We cannot afford to presume that God's purposes will be thwarted and religious freedom irreparably harmed if we do nothing. It's bigger than that. Esther's cousin then put the question that demanded an action response: "Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" Esther 4:14, R.S.V. Adventists felt they had in 1906. As we look into 2003 and the challenges to continued religious liberty, I cannot but be convinced that Liberty and the American apocalyptic have come to a certain moment of Truth.

Bible texts creditied to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."