The revolution we all need
The world is in a revolutionary phase. Why not us?
Periodically, our world is flushed with revolution. Times when the old order is shaken and a new model emerges. History shows that such moments not only reshape their times but radically shape the future.
The China of 1963 was drifting toward stagnation. No workers’ paradise had emerged from the post-World War II civil war. An erstwhile ally, Russia, had taken to treating the Chinese as irrelevant. And the United States had begun massing troops in nearby Vietnam, partly in order to check Chinese power.
In 1963, Chinese leader Mao Zedong penned a poem. The old revolutionary reached deep to recapture the imagery of another time. “So many deeds cry out to be done,” he wrote. “And always urgently: The world rolls on. Time presses. Ten thousand years are too long. Seize the day, seize the hour! The four seas are rising, clouds and water raging. The five continents are rocking, wind and thunder roaring. Our force is irresistible, away with all pests.”
Within a short time China was convulsed by the Cultural Revolution. But the result was not what Mao expected. The result was Nixon in China, openness to the West, and the ultimate emergence of China as a new economic superpower.
Today we are witnessing that same radical testing of norms in the Arab world. First Tunisia, then Egypt has been convulsed by popular revolutions that toppled their regimes. Hardly a country in the area has escaped urgent popular calls for change. Even the usually solid Kingdom of Saudi Arabia looks soft in the face of demands for change. In Syria, the regime has sent tanks into the streets to sweep away the ever-growing dissent. In Libya the civil war rages on.
Revolution to where?
Where is this moment of revolutionary fervor taking us?
As World War I was imminent, Ellen G. White wrote that “rulers and statesmen, men who occupy positions of trust and authority, thinking men and women of all classes, have their attention fixed on the events taking place around us. They are watching the relations that exist among the nations. They observe the intensity that is taking possession of every earthly element and they recognize that something great and decisive is about to take place — that the world is on the verge of a stupendous crisis.” That description applies with much more force today. This is a revolutionary moment hardly without precedent.
As is so often the case, religion is a central dynamic. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Internet access may have functioned as enabling tools for change in the Middle East, but it was the clash of religious outlooks which fed it. First it was the war on terrorism, and now the desire for change. Freedom is in the air. But freedom from what, and freedom to believe and practice what? The story is ongoing.
Jesus began His ministry with a revolutionary moment at the synagogue in Nazareth. He was a young, untested man by the standards of His day. But the rabbi was open-minded enough to honor the return of the hometown boy with His few followers by allowing Him to read from the Torah. Given the book of Isaiah, Jesus read from chapter 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19, NKJV). Powerful words, indeed. This was followed by Jesus’ telling those present, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Downtrodden vassals of Imperial Rome could not help but be thrilled by those words.
A little over three years later, Judas would betray his Master over a misunderstanding of those words. And a few years after that, Rome would utterly crush the Jews and destroy Jerusalem after a revolt fueled by the same misunderstanding of the revolutionary concept.
Jesus presented religious freedom as the central point of His mission. Man was enslaved to sin. He must be freed. He could be free. This revolution in thinking was possible. This is the gospel story.
Adventists and religious freedom
Seventh-day Adventists are people of prophecy. Our church is the inheritor of the deep Bible study by mostly young people who became convinced from Scripture that Christ was about to return to bring in His eternal kingdom. They came to understand that the call to prepare is a call to religious freedom. They came to understand how important it is for us to freely choose to serve the Lord. They saw in the prophecies for the last days an outline of how Satan will prevent many from preparing for Christ’s return. He will move upon church and civil leaders to compel others to false worship. Religious freedom is thus a necessary outcome to enable a response to the final call.
There is probably no more contentious moment for Seventh-day Adventists than the General Conference Session of 1888. At the center of the debate was Alonzo T. Jones, editor of the religious liberty journal The Sentinel. And the debate had everything to do with religious liberty.
That year a coalition of mostly Protestant groups, with a certain Senator Blair at their head, put forward a bill that went way beyond any “blue law” still on most state statute books and proposed a national law of Sunday sacredness. A.T. Jones was in the thick of the debate and filled the pages of The Sentinel with arguments against it from history and prophecy.
Jones drew a parallel between the process by which pagan Rome embraced Christianity and then used its power to compel all to obey religious edicts, and the devolution of the American Republic from its secular role toward a similar compulsion to worship and a very denial of its Constitution. In short, he saw prophecy being fulfilled. He saw the U.S. moving into the model of the third angel’s concern in Revelation 14. This was the time for a remnant people to object to the final act of denial of God and His freedom. This was the time for revival. This was the last revolutionary moment of history. Evil was about to fully reveal itself; therefore God would honor His prepared faithful with a special power to witness.
When he spoke at the General Conference Session in 1888, Jones, together with his associate editor E.J. Waggoner, urged revival, a return to the centrality of Christ for our witness. Curiously, the response was quite muted. There was more debate than decision. The revolutionary call was in large measure ignored, even as Ellen White endorsed it.
At the next General Conference Session in 1893, Jones was again a featured speaker. Again he urged action and more than the time before, he explained it in the context of religious liberty. Today, in our day of global revolutionary fervor, of the old isms passing, the old identities blurred, his words must surely call us to attention.
Jones put the case to his hearers in the starkest terms: “When he [God] calls upon you and me to take a position in allegiance to His law, which will forfeit our lives, that will put our lives in jeopardy so that some earthly power would deprive us of it, What then? Well, He simply says, Let that life go. It will vanish away in a little while anyway; here is one that will last through all eternity…. Therefore the man or woman who has only this life to start with, need not start with the third angel’s message, because when the test comes that this life is at stake, he will stick to it. That’s the danger. A man can’t go through what the third angel’s message is to go through, with only this life that he has. He can’t do it. Because it is all he has, and he will stick to it, when it is brought into jeopardy. But he who will let this life go, count it worth nothing, and take that life that measures with the life of God, that life which is the life of God, will have a life that can never get into jeopardy. That man is safe. He can go wherever the message calls him.”2
This is the revolutionary logic that Mao was stumbling toward: “our force is irresistible.” This is the great truth that Jesus was proclaiming in Nazareth: the revolutionary freeing of the soul for spiritual action!
Calls for action do not always have an immediate response, but there is a certain inevitability to truth. The Sunday law proposal in A.T. Jones’ day faded, as did the call for an appropriate response. But today we face a similar dynamic, and religious liberty must again be argued from its true, spiritual basis. And in a time of revolutionary fervor, we are called upon to embrace a transforming message to a most unfree world. After all, with God, our force is irresistible.
The newly-liberated Middle East is embarking on a political and social journey that must navigate between the pull of fundamentalist violence and the likely dictatorship of public will. But it needs to hear the true message of liberation – of true religious liberty.
The so-called Christian West is searching for security from external threats. It too is vulnerable to distinctly coercive solutions to the social and religious fix it is in. The recently-designated Sunday family rest day in Europe is probably just the beginning. They need to hear of true religious freedom.
The United States is more fixated than ever before on the war on terror. It is more concerned than ever with defining its identity to protect itself from the enemy within – some form of state religion is bound to emerge. The United States needs to discover true religious liberty – something that exists beyond the hitherto reasonable protection of a first amendment. The revolution is coming, and what ideas will replace the present ones? We need to work to ensure that biblically-based models of religious freedom are placed before the wondering public.
When I think of revolutionary change, I think of young people. It is a fact of history and physiology that the young are often stirred to action and are then more energetic to see the moment through. Certainly the faces in Egypt, in Iran, in Libya are young. The faces that Jesus saw as He looked around the table at the Last Supper were young. The faces of those who came together to form and proclaim an Adventist identity were young.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church today is again speaking of revival. I am convinced that it must come soon. The world is in a revolutionary phase. Why not us? After all, the true religious liberty which is so sorely needed is a revolutionary concept.
Lincoln Steed is editor of Liberty magazine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1914), p. 537.
- A.T. Jones, in General Conference Daily Bulletin, (Battle Creek, Michigan) 5 (February 2-4, 1893) 4:128.