Signs of Contradiction: Adventists and Military Service

This fall, the Adventist church will get a lot of attention, thanks to Mel Gibson. He’s made a movie, “Hacksaw Ridge,” about Desmond Doss, an Adventist Army medic who received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Okinawa in World War 2. Doss refused to carry a weapon, and was subject to rough hazing and harassment from his fellow soldiers. But when they went into battle, Doss demonstrated his courage–not just in the one incident where he lowered over 75 soldiers down a cliff, but day after day in battle after battle. He wouldn’t touch a weapon, but he was willing to serve, and to save lives, and that’s what he did.

In Luke chapter 2, Simeon blessed Mary and her baby. He prophesied that her child would be “a sign of contradiction.” If that was true of our Lord, it should be true of us, too. It was certainly true of Doss. We are to be “signs of contradiction.” We are citizens of this world, but of heaven as well. We have obligations to God and to Caesar. We are called to be separate, but also to be among the hurting, the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned, as he was.

The Adventist church has wrestled with that contradiction since our earliest days. The church was officially organized in 1863, in the middle of a war that tore at the nation’s identity. Would we be a nation of free men and women, or would we be a nation of the rich, the privileged, a landed aristocracy, with others mere chattel to labor and to serve?

The Adventist pioneers believed in the values of liberty and equality. They hated slavery, were active abolitionists, and saw the Civil War as God’s judgment on the nation.

But part of their identity as Seventh-day Adventists came from the conviction that God’s law does not change. All its precepts are binding. Not just the one requiring observance of the Seventh-day Sabbath, but also the one that says, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” And they interpreted that commandment in the light of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. …“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

In 1864 the General Conference leadership wrote to the governors of their states, saying,

“The denomination of Christians calling themselves Seventh-day Adventists, taking the Bible as their rule of faith and practice, are unanimous in their views that its teachings are contrary to the spirit and practice of war; hence, they have ever been conscientiously opposed to bearing arms. If there is any portion of the Bible which we, as a people, can point to more than any other as our creed, it is the law of the ten commandments, which we regard as the supreme law, and each precept of which we take in its most obvious and literal import. The fourth of these commandments requires cessation from labor on the seventh day of the week, the sixth prohibits the taking of life, neither of which, in our view, could be observed while doing military duty. Our practice has uniformly been consistent with these principles.

And the governors heard, and understood. One official, writing to support the Adventist claim, noted, “Adventists … are as truly noncombatants as the Society of Friends, … conscientiously opposed to bearing arms.” That’s how they saw us. As a peace church like the Quakers. And in World War 1, our Canadian leaders made that connection their own: we are, quote, Like the Quakers, unquote. Committed to nonviolence, but willing to serve the nation in noncombatant roles caring for the sick and injured.

In the 153 years since our founding, many Adventists have served as noncombatants, especially as medics, in war after war. Desmond Doss is but the most famous example. Union College, where I gave a version of this sermon this past week, had a role in creating the Medical Cadet Corps to train young people for service as medics. The volunteers of Project White Coat during the Vietnam era submitted willingly to medical experimentation to save lives.

And our teaching remains the same. Here’s the most recent official Adventist statement, from 1972:

Genuine Christianity manifests itself in good citizenship and loyalty to civil government. The breaking out of war among men in no way alters the Christian’s supreme allegiance and responsibility to God or modifies their obligation to practice their beliefs and put God first.

This partnership with God through Jesus Christ who came into this world not to destroy men’s lives but to save them causes Seventh-day Adventists to advocate a noncombatant position, following their divine Master in not taking human life, but rendering all possible service to save it. As they accept the obligation of citizenship as well as its benefits, their loyalty to government requires them willingly to serve the state in any noncombatant capacity, civil or military, in war or peace, in uniform or out of it, which will contribute to saving life, asking only that they may serve in those capacities which do not violate their conscientious conviction.

This statement is not a rigid position binding church members but gives guidance leaving the individual member free to assess the situation for himself.

Sadly, we haven’t always lived up to those ideals. We must speak candidly of those darker days. Of the embrace of militarism by German Adventists in the early 20th century. Of Adventists who accepted the ideals of the German Reich and marched off to war with belt buckles emblazoned with the motto, “Gott mit Uns.” Of Adventist leaders in Rwanda who were charged with war crimes and genocide. Look up those stories. Read those stories. Learn from those stories.

As a chaplain, I’m a noncombatant. I do not carry a weapon. I cannot. But I provide pastoral care for my Soldiers, whoever they are and wherever they are.

I’ve told you many stories about this. I first got the sense that God was calling me to this ministry back in 1977, when I was a Junior at Broadview Academy in Illinois, and heard a chaplain named Dick Stenbakken speak for chapel. There’s a great biography of Dick at the Adventist Book Center: The Man with the Reversible Foot, which tells of his experiences as a pastor, as a chaplain, and then as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries. Little did I know how far I would follow his footsteps. 

I was commissioned in 1986 and served for ten years in the Army Reserve and Vermont National Guard, then had a fifteen year break in service before re-upping in the Texas Army National Guard in 2009. And this period of service has been different than my first ten years.

A couple weeks ago I was asked to speak at a ceremony at University of Houston commemorating the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Today’s freshmen and military recruits were maybe three years old that day, with no personal memory of its terror.

But we who were older had the images seared into our minds. We will not forget.

Looking back on 9-11, we cannot remember it in isolation. We have to reflect on it in light of all that followed. It initiated the longest war in our nation’s history. A war that is not yet over.

Wave after wave of young Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard members have deployed as part of what we came to call the Global War on Terror. And one flag-draped casket after another, and another, and another, has come home. And thousands of service members have come home with injuries — some of which we can’t see.

Some of our Adventist members have volunteered to serve as chaplains in this war, some others in medical roles, but others have volunteered as Infantry, and in other combatant positions. We do not judge them. We do not make military a service a test of fellowship. But we want to be clear that as a church we believe in nonviolence. We believe in noncombatancy. We believe in peacemaking. And peacemaking is vitally necessary today.

I’ve told you of my deployment experiences. How our mission involved building partnerships and understanding in the Middle East.

In 2013 I deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, as chaplain for a Combat Aviation Brigade. Our mission was to run Army aviation operations thoughout the Persian Gulf Region.

We did not fire on an enemy that year. We were not fired upon. Instead, we built partnerships with allied nations in the region.

My team of chaplains did partnership missions with Islamic Affairs Officers of the Kuwait Ministry of Defense. We got to know one another. We shared meals together. I had them talk to my Soldiers and chaplains about the meaning of Ramadan, about what American Soldiers in the Middle East should know about Islam. And I took Soldiers on visits to mosques, museums, and markets in Kuwait and Qatar. And we got a perspective on the world that you cannot obtain from either FOX or CNN.

Those deployment experiences reminded me of the lessons we learned in the days immediately after 9-11. When Americans came together. And we saw then that the way through darkness is through friendship, not through fear. It is through dialogue and openness, not through barricades, physical or mental. It is through affirming our common humanity, and appreciating other cultures, while still loving and honoring our home.

And so, I’d like you to consider how are we to go forward as a nation, in this time of endless war? What do we say to this world, when they watch this movie about Doss, and wonder where we Adventists stand today?

I say this.

We go forward by remembering the sacrifices. Nearly three thousand deaths on 9-11. Almost seven thousand US casualties so far in the Global War on Terror. And 55,000 others who have received the Purple Heart for injuries. Sixteen hundred limbs have been amputated. Over 750,000 service members have suffered traumatic brain injury, Post Traumatic Stress, depression, or a combination of the above.

We go forward by remembering the estimated 210,000 Iraqi, Afghan and other innocent civilians who have died from violent deaths in this war, and countless more who died from hunger, malnutrition, or disease.

We go forward by honoring those who have served. Two and a half million have deployed, and they come home not only with injuries, but with blessings: with a wider view of the world, with experiences in leadership, with gifts that enrich our community, including this campus, with stories we need to hear.

We go forward by keeping our promises to them, and to their families.

We go forward by keeping our hearts focused on what made America great, and what makes America great: The values proposed in the Declaration that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: rights preserved and protected by the Constitution, rights which we dare not relinquish for even a moment in the face of passing fears.

We go forward by keeping our commitment to being a nation that leaves a light on in New York Harbor, and which says to the victims of war and oppression, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

We go forward as Adventists, by recalling our heritage. Our commitment to nonviolence. Our commitment to being peacemakers. This world is not our home, but we have work to do in it, as last week’s Sabbath school lesson reminded us. In Matthew 24, Jesus gives us signs of the end—in Matthew 25 he tells us how to live, by being ready, being vigilant, by investing our talents in the marketplace of the world, and by caring for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the suffering, those in prison, those forgotten.

And in light of recent events within our nation, I must add this. We must go forward as peacemakers in our own communities as well. Rejecting hate. Rejecting violence. Rejecting injustice. Rejecting racism. Rejecting the militarizing of police forces. Promoting understanding. Promoting reconciliation. Promoting unity. Giving witness to love.

We are called to be signs of contradiction. Living in the world and sharing its sorrows, refusing to be trapped in anger and hate, but with heads lifted in hope. Living with an eye on the Ten Commandments, and on Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of them. Living lives as expressed in a prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.