Just returning home after church service, I heard a knock at the door. Like any hospitable follower of Jesus, I rushed to the door to open it for the guest. Unfortunately, this was a group of unwanted guests. A dozen rebels stood there, looking for the university vehicle. They wanted to “borrow” the vehicle as part of their fight against the government army. This was no longer just “a rumor of war.” It was war, and I was facing it head on. I have not been the only one facing war, either. From Africa to Europe, the Americas to Asia, war dominates. And, as Adventists, we have not been spared of it either. Adventists need, therefore, practical guidance as to how to live spiritually in
I have not been the only one facing war, either.
From Africa to Europe, the Americas to Asia, war dominates. And, as Adventists, we have not been spared of it either. Adventists need, therefore, practical guidance as to how to live spiritually in time of war. And though this article will look at how war has impacted the church in Central Africa, it can help all Adventists who face the unique challenges that war brings, regardless of where they live.
Genocide in Rwanda
The most shocking event in Africa in recent history was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. All the demons were unleashed on that beautiful nation. People brutally killed their neighbors. Children were murdered. Christians killed other Christians. It was total chaos that no one can ever understand.
My wife was a missionary at our Adventist university in Rwanda when the genocide began. She saw people killed in her backyard. She recalled the challenge that foreign missionaries, her colleagues, faced whenever people came to hide in their houses. There were no guidelines on whether or not one should allow innocent people to hide, an action that could also endanger the lives of those missionaries. Though easy to reason that it is good to do the right thing, the reality may be difficult when it could cost you and your family their lives. The stories of Corrie ten Boom and others who faced the same dilemma during World War II lead one to understand that this issue is quite complex.1 That is not a new dilemma, and there are no easy answers. The war that started in Rwanda has had some disastrous ramifications with other armed conflicts in Central Africa. The challenges discussed in this article come from interviews with church pastors, district leaders, active and former conference presidents, and university administrators. From these interviews, it became clear that there are issues tied to
The war that started in Rwanda has had some disastrous ramifications with other armed conflicts in Central Africa. The challenges discussed in this article come from interviews with church pastors, district leaders, active and former conference presidents, and university administrators. From these interviews, it became clear that there are issues tied to war in Central Africa that need immediate attention, not just in Africa, but anywhere our people face the challenges that accompany war.
One pastor told of his experience when, on the way to church, rebels killed his mother and some of his children right in front of him. Some of the rebels were actually attending his church! At the time of the interview, several years after the incident, he had not received any appropriate counseling or other assistance to help him and his family deal with the issue. Many cases around the world today are similar. Church members and pastors do not know how to react to such situations.
A district pastor recounted the heinous strategies that rebels use to terrorize citizens in Central Africa. They rape women in public. Raped women are ostracized in their respective communities. Some men are forced to commit incest to preserve their own lives. And such victims are marginalized. Different pastors and church leaders struggle with whether or not rape and incest victims should be disfellowshiped. Some think that both are victims only and should not be disciplined. Others believe that the man should be excommunicated because he should have chosen death over incest. Still others believe that both should be removed from church books. The church does not have a clear standard on what to do in situations like this. Additionally, in most cases, the church does not have services available to help people who have been traumatized like this. Socioeconomic challenges Because of the unceasing conflicts, many people live in extreme poverty. They end up in refugee or
Because of the unceasing conflicts, many people live in extreme poverty. They end up in refugee or internally displaced camps for anywhere from weeks to years. Lack of sustained economic activities leads to famine, health problems, and security risks as people try to survive.
Pastors run for their lives together with their church members. Yet pastors depend heavily on members’ tithes and offerings. During war, tithes and offerings are rare because everyone lives in a survival mode. Knowing the struggle of the church members, the church pastor is unable to encourage more tithes and offerings from the members, who are so unimaginably impoverished.
Due to the extreme poverty, many people are malnourished. Basic sanitation measures are unavailable. This easily causes communicable diseases to spread and possibly end in death. The church at large in the region is not financially in a position to deal with such socioeconomic challenges on such a large scale.
Facing violence and looting
Meanwhile, young Christians are sometimes enticed or forced to join rebel groups. Some are taken as sex slaves. Innocent children are made into soldiers. Anyone unwilling to cooperate is tortured to “teach a lesson to the rest of the people.” Everyone lives in fear. Unfortunately, in some cases, undisciplined government soldiers sometimes commit similar atrocities.
One pastor told the story of holding an evangelistic meeting where some rebels agreed to be baptized. He could not tell them to give up their rebel activities before being baptized because such a statement would draw rage from the rebel leaders. He never knew what to do and had no one to counsel him on what to do under such circumstances. Church leaders who were asked about this situation were not able to give a common answer; they were divided about what to do.
One pastor told of situations where rebels control a territory. They cut the communities off from the rest of the country. After they loot merchandise from other cities, they bring it to their territory to sell in order to fund their rebellion. Buying something looted contributes to sustaining the rebel’s activities. On the other hand, if someone tries to get out of that territory in order to buy from other cities, that person puts his or her own life at risk.
In two cases, rebels asked some Adventists to carry loot for them on Sabbath. In one case, the Adventists refused but miraculously their lives were spared. In another case, Adventists refused and were shot dead. This has led some Adventists to simply give in to avoid being killed.
At times rebels who are church members bring their tithes and offer-ings from loot that they have pillaged. Some pastors believe that all riches belong to God, and that no one should be in a position to reject a sinner’s tithe and offering. Others believe that tithes and offerings from what has been pillaged should not be accepted. This begs one to wonder whether (a) it is possible to come up with some general guidelines for such issues or (b) if the church should continue to be silent on these matters.
Some Christians join rebels for the safety of their ethnic group. Some are regular church members and even hold church positions. On Sabbath they believe that they must continue assuming their position as church officers. They do not see any wrongdoing because they consider their roles in fighting as self-defense.
The Adventist’s official position on combatants in war is that an Adventist member should never bear arms for the purposes of killing. From the early history of the Adventist Church, the church has upheld a noncombatancy position. President Ted N. C. Wilson recently reiterated this noncombatancy position in an August 2014 Adventist World article.2 In the same article, however, he makes it clear that “the decision as to whether or not to serve in the military and bear arms is left to the conscience of the individual,” although he added that “the church does not encourage people to join the military for reasons that include the biblical concept of noncombatancy, the difficulty to obtain full Sabbath observance, and other challenges.” Elder Wilson emphasized that “regardless of the decision the individual makes, the church is committed to ministering and providing pastoral care and support to all of its members, including those serving in the military, and to their families.” This position is in line with Gary R. Councell’s recommendation about men and women who serve in the military.3
This position makes sense in nations where everyone is required to serve in the military. But what about those who join rebel groups whose purpose is to terrorize innocent people and cause desolation? The church may need to be more specific in regard to the question of military service, but it must be done from a global perspective, rather than just from the perspective of North America.
Some local Adventists in Central Africa complain that it is uncommon for the church to speak against evil, oppression, and genocide. This is partially due to the apolitical status of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. However, from the Bible it is clear that one of the roles of the prophets was to speak to kings whenever they oppressed their own people.
In August 2014, Elder Wilson made a statement against the persecution in Syria and Iraq.4 A similar statement was issued a few years ago when one rebel leader in Central Africa claimed to be an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The church dissociated itself from him and condemned his actions. This helped preserve the positive image of the church and most likely saved the lives of Adventists in that region.
Because the world, at large, is at war and things are not getting any better, it seems more and more important to create new departments at the local conferences, unions, and divisions to deal with issues related to war victims. This department could help address socioeconomic issues of our church members more effectively, and deal with their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. This could also be useful in getting help in a much more effective and efficient way to war victims. The church organization is the shepherd of church members. It must develop better ways to deal with the pressing needs of millions of people affected directly with war because a third of the world is currently at war.
Church leadership could set up special committees to address spiritual and ecclesiastical issues pertaining to the work of the church in war zones. Many ethical issues, some of which are unknown to the general church public, need very specific guidelines to help church pastors and leaders deal effectively with these challenges. Tough decisions should not be left to the sole judgment of the local pastor; this practice has left church members confused. They have found that the same issue is addressed differently by Adventist pastors in different villages, cities, regions, or countries. The church needs to set clear guidelines for some of the issues presented here.
The church should design specific training programs for members and leaders in war zones. Such seminars could help them deal with violence, emotional trauma, socioeconomic needs, health and moral issues, and, most important, spirituality during the time of war. These resources could help Adventists deal better with their personal and spiritual lives. Of course, such training programs would have to be adapted to the laws of each nation.
In our seminaries, where deemed necessary and appropriate, we could include courses or lectures on how to minister to people in war zones. When I recently spoke at an Adventist seminary forum, more than half of the students could easily identify with the issues of war. They were all surprised that we do not have any course to prepare them for the problems associated with war.
Whether we see World War III or not, the world is going through global turmoil that requires global measures from the church. Now is the time to start the discussion on this important matter that affects millions of people. We have a moral obligation to protect and defend the weak, innocent, and helpless. This is a strong biblical principle from both the Old and New Testaments. No matter the war situation that we may find ourselves in, we must defend this biblical principle, especially when the weak, innocent, and helpless are our own church members.
1 Corrie ten Boom, John Sherrill, and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (Washington Depot, CT: Chosen Books, 1971).
2 Ted N. C. Wilson, “The Battle: Should Adventists Serve in the Military?” Adventist World, last modified August 2, 2014, www.adventistworld .org/2014/august/the-battle.html. The official position on noncombatancy can be found at www .adventistsinuniform.org/article/30/military-service/religious-support/non-combatancy.
3 Gary R. Councell, Seventh-day Adventists and Military Service (Silver Spring, MD: Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, 2011).
4 ANN staff, “Wilson Releases Statement on Persecution of Religious Minorities in Iraq, Syria,” Adventist Review, August 12, 2014, www .adventistreview.org/church-news/gc-president-releases-statement-on-persecution-of-religious-minorities-in-iraq,-syria.