Book Review: I Pledge Allegiance

Keith Phillips and Karl Tsatalbasidis, I Pledge Allegiance: The Role of Seventh-day Adventists in the Military. N.p., n.p., 2007.

The subtitle of the book tells us clearly what the book is about. Keith Phillips begins by telling us of his experience in the Army, and of his introduction to Seventh-day Adventism (and subsequent conversion) that took place some time after he left the military. He was never an Adventist in the military, nor, apparently, did he know any Adventists. He’s a pastor in the Michigan conference, and has some strong views on the subject now, however, and he’s joined with another pastor, Karl Tsatalbasidis (with no apparent military experience) to issue a warning to Adventists.

Chapter one summarizes the “Church’s Position on Noncombatancy,” as stated by the General Conference Committee on September 16, 1941—before the United States had entered World War 2. The statement is dated, but nonetheless expresses what has been the consistent stand of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—we are not a “pacifist” church, opposed to cooperation with the military in any way; rather, we believe in noncombatancy. We believe that nations have their rights and responsibilities, and that we as citizens have obligations to them—but we remain citizens of the kingdom of God, guided by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. As citizens of an earthly nation, we may have to serve in the military—as citizens of the kingdom of God, we will not kill.

That statement clearly says, “there is no intention of sitting in judgment on Christians who conscientiously take another position” (pp. 25-26). And yet Phillips and Tsatalbasidis believe the Adventist Church took a step backwards when, “in 1969, the statement was adjusted to accommodate pacifism as a choice while encouraging members to serve as noncombatants.” This was done, they acknowledge, because the military would not allow Adventists to claim pacifism because this was contrary to the official denominational position of noncombatant cooperation. The authors, however, charge that “the real motive” for the change was “the rubbish of false doctrine”–“for the sake of peace and security for their property and their lives” (pp. 35-36).  They offer no supporting documentation for their accusation. They cast aspersions upon church leaders without a shred of evidence, branding the appeal to conscience as the devil’s work—despite the fact that the original document also appealed to conscience. This change, they say, is what has now led Adventists in the United States to voluntarily enter the military as combatants. I would argue instead that this rise in combatant service among young Adventists is due to 1)  the fact that, after the end of the draft, the church no longer felt education on noncombatancy to be a priority, and so they don’t know or understand the church’s historic teaching and 2) they, like many other young Americans, had a patriotic response to the attacks on America on September 11, 2001.

Chapter two discusses military chaplains. When the issue of the church endorsing chaplains was first raised (by the Army chief of chaplains) a year before the entry of the United States into World War 2, church leaders balked. The General Conference Committee issued a statement reaffirming “our historical position on this matter, which is to the effect that we cannot as a religious body counsel or encourage our men to apply for or accept military commissions, but must leave such decisions to be made on the basis of individual convictions” (p. 40). Unwittingly, they’ve given further evidence against the claim they made in chapter one—this says an appeal to “individual convictions” has been the church’s position, not a blanket policy. They reproduce a humorous exchange that ensued when the Chief of Chaplains tried to wring a non-endorsement endorsement out of church leadership for Floyd Bresee (p. 41)—the church wanting to affirm his choice, but not wanting to appear as if the church itself had any say in the matter.

Adventists raised some specific questions about the military chaplaincy during World War 2, focusing on fears of state sponsorship of religion and whether the prophetic message would be muzzled (p. 41). The authors continue to ask these questions. Unfortunately, they’ve failed to do their homework. They selectively cite a couple of essays in a book on the chaplaincy published by the University of Notre Dame Press (more about that one in another post). They cite an Army document from 1964, a couple of items from the Army chaplain webpage, Barry Black’s biography, etc. But never do they cite the US Code or the Army, Navy, or Air Force regulations which govern the ministry of chaplains. Nor do they interview Adventist chaplains to see what their experiences have been. Because of this, I just say that they do not know what they are talking about (I will return to this topic soon, when I will summarize some of the key points from AR 165-1 that address their concerns; for now, I would refer the reader to an article I wrote for the Spectrum blog in 2007).

They spend only four pages discussing the role of medics, reproducing much of a Spectrum article by James Coffin–despite the fact that this is an area where Seventh-day Adventists have distinguished themselves (pp. 67ff). They say nothing about Project White Coat.

They conclude with an appeal to young men and women, asking them to consider: “Can I give my allegiance both to God and to the military of the national government in whose jurisdiction I live? In light of the mission and law of God, versus the purpose and mission of any military, we have seen that they are diametrically opposed to one another” (p. 148). But is that true? Is the “purpose and mission of any military” “diametrically opposed” to “the mission and law of God”? Paul certainly didn’t think so—he saw the civil government as tasked by God with the purpose of bearing the sword. That purpose was affirmed by the 1941 statement of the Adventist Church that the authors say we must go back to!

Bottom line: I think the major lacunae in the book–in matters of content, documentation, and logic–make it hard to regard it as a serious contribution to dialogue on this important subject. The authors have strong opinions, but they don’t provide enough real data, in terms of military doctrine or experience of Adventist members or chaplains, to back up those opinions.

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