Editorial-Priorities



Where we will be when you read these words I cannot quite say. It was not lightly that we chose to banner "war and peace" on the cover of this issue. Of course that bannering relates to the personal moral dilemma faith and patriotism can create in times of state violence. Not since the paranoia of the cold war rivalry between the United States and the Soviets has there been such a sense of imminent danger...of the individual carried away on the shoulders of war. After all, that was a big part of the premise to Tolstoy's "War and Peace"—that forces beyond the individual, even beyond a leader's control, can inflame war or create peace.

In my last editorial I challenged the legitimacy of "just war" thinking that imagines it can cloak military action with Divine right. Abraham Lincoln recognized the danger of this in his second inaugural when he pointed out that both sides in the Civil War prayed to the same God, both believed their cause just; and yet both sides could not be right at the same time. No wonder he argued against malice and for charity to the vanquished.

The still small Seventh-day Adventist Church found in the Civil War a real test of both faith and patriotism. Leaders like Ellen White had long decried the evil of slavery. As war loomed, she saw it as a natural punishment for the inhumanity of the south. But church leaders did not incite members to take up arms and act out the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic in exacting God's vengeance. For Adventism, the emerging dynamic of that war was the development of a position of noncombatancy–not necessarily pacifism, but a Christ-based code of personal conduct that respected life and the distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. That position held during two world wars and up through the Vietnam war.

Many of my Adventist peers with higher draft numbers or lower grades served in the Vietnam era military. Many of them stood resolutely for non-combatancy. I confess to not a little awe of what they stood for.
I was impressed when General Barry McCaffrey, commander of the armored forces in the Gulf War and for a time director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy told me that he owes his life to a Seventh-Day Adventist medical corpsman in Vietnam. And I have been a bit chagrined to reflect on the fact that so many Adventist young men volunteered for the White Coats–a non-combat assignment where they were tested like Guinea pigs to develop, among other things, it turns out, chemical and biological agents like Anthrax.

Surely the world is no less ambiguous today. We should not be making easily invoked constructs of war or indeed any state action as definitively the will of God...man is too finite for such presumption. We should be working toward, as William Bennett seems to argue repeatedly in his books, a sense of personal virtue and morality. A moral citizenry will more naturally result in a state that acts with charity, while reserving faith as an eternal matter between the individual and the Divine.

In a recent public meeting I made a comment dismissive of the just war theory, and was accused of denying the U.S. or any other nation the moral right to wage war. I do not think that conclusion follows. States must, of course, act in ways to protect themselves and their interests. The Apostle Paul in the New testament of the Bible is quite definite that Christians should respect the power and prerogatives of civil government. But he gave it no Divine mandate other than the responsibility to God we all share.

Back in the Old Testament, when Israel demanded a king like other nations, the prophet Samuel upbraided them for rejecting God, and in an extended prediction gave details of how a king would usurp God's claims on them(see I Samuel 8). In fact Saul, the first King, did just that; appropriating the role of the priest and waging war for his own ends. Certainly the narrative gives no traction to the divine right of kings.

I think that rather than inciting any state to military action, Christians and others of faith should work and pray toward creating moral awareness within society that will necessarily influence the way public policy is carried forward. We laugh, at times a little hollowly, at despots like Saddam Hussein when they invoke Jihad or holy war against us. We believe this call improper and unauthorized–as it must always be.

President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld and others have often reminded us that we are in an era of "asymmetric" warfare. There is an element of asymmetry on many fronts. Despot that Saddam is, the country of Iraq has pursued a secular course and allowed a multi-faith community which includes one million Christians. We persist in supporting or enabling regimes that actually invoke the death penalty for citizens converting to Christianity. It might make perfect sense for secular national interest to ally with them, but it exposes the silliness of the just war construct.

And at home we can so easily neglect justice.

It seems that affirmative action policies are on the way out. Replaced by what? The tone of the change is troubling; seeming to signal a new social arrogance that like the love of "Love Story" means never having to say you are sorry. Even a casual visitor to the United States can see that racial division and the legacy of slavery has created a deep thrombosis.

The war on terrorism has already changed the very nature of a free society. The terminology of the national response strikes many as a gauche revisiting of George Orwell's 1984. We now not only presume, but many seem to hope, that big brother is watching.

What next? I was struck by a presentation Senator Kennedy gave to the National Press Club a few weeks back. After covering the questions de jour, he suddenly launched into an impassioned warning that civil liberties would be attacked next. But they have already been, in a variety of ways that most applaud because they seem to aid our efforts to root out the terrorists! What shadow of the future beyond
is rising already to panic the
senator?

Which brings me back to religious liberty as a nonnegotiable. Is it safe in our current national dislocation? The elephant in the room beyond the murmuring about terrorism is surely religion. The terrorism that we are reacting to is one manifestation of a militant faith. It is cruelly intolerant. In another manifestation whole states have been taken over. We must be careful that in countering the first we do not emulate the second aspect of a national faith. Nothing less than a recommitment of the United States to its founding principle of complete freedom of religion for all beliefs will protect us.



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."