On May 23-24, 2016 the North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA) and the International Religious Liberty Summit convened in Washington, D.C. The following are reflections from Daniel Cho, an attendee at the event.
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil . . . Not to speak is to speak.
With these powerful words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Hon. Frank Wolf, a former U.S. Congressman and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, concluded his opening keynote address at the 2016 International Religious Liberty (IRL) Summit held May 24 in Washington, D.C. The event was co-sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Newseum Religious Freedom Center, and brought together over 200 leaders of non-governmental and advocacy organizations, clergy, dignitaries, and lay people to explore practical ways to enhance advocacy for international religious freedom. The event was preceded the day before by a smaller meeting hosted by the North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA) that provided training for Adventist religious liberty leaders and lay people from across the United States and Canada.
The quotation from Bonhoeffer followed on the heels of a riveting presentation challenging those of us in attendance to speak and act in the face of grave global threats to religious liberty. Wolf mentioned the renewed aggression against Christianity in China (the worst since Mao’s cultural revolution), the growing tide of anti-Semitism on American college campuses, and warned that religious freedom, traditionally cherished as America’s first freedom, was in danger of becoming a second-class right. And while all this was happening, the West, including Christians and their churches, he argued, says and does almost nothing.
By quoting Bonhoeffer, Wolf not only rebuked the prevailing silence towards the suppression of religious freedom but also provided an opportunity for those of us in attendance to consider the striking contrast offered by the German pastor’s life. While others were muted in fear, Bonhoeffer raised his voice against the unspeakable evils being perpetrated in Nazi Germany and paid the ultimate price. This fearlessness to speak was embodied in Wolf himself who championed religious freedom over his 30 years and 17 terms serving in Congress. The words and lives of Bonhoeffer and Wolf presented to the attendees a clear challenge: In the face of religious intolerance, will we speak or be silent?
Whose Job is it Anyways?
As I reflected on this challenge, my thoughts turned to myself and my peers, other Adventist college students and young adults. Why is it that this important demographic of the Adventist church seems largely silent on issues of religious liberty? As Adventism’s first social media generation, we are certainly not short for words – posts, comments, and tweets to be precise – or avenues to express ourselves. Then why the silence?
One possibility is the misperception that religious liberty is not the purview of young people, except perhaps, young law students. Young people sing in the youth choir, collect the offering, go on short-term missions, and lead AY programs. What they don’t do is try to decipher legalese and navigate the cantankerous world of politics. That’s for the lawyers, public affairs and religious liberty (PARL) directors, and policy wonks in the church. They’re the ones who speak, not us.
Then there’s also the possibility that religious liberty is not even on the radar for many Adventist young people. Think back to the last time you scrolled through your Twitter, Facebook or Instagram newsfeeds. Somewhere among the endless stream of selfies and life updates, do you recall a post or tweet by a young Adventist about religious liberty? Were current threats to religious liberty a recent topic of passionate conversation or study in your church youth group? Bonhoeffer said silence in the face of evil is evil itself. But if we aren’t even aware of the evil, how can we speak against it?
Both these possibilities were addressed during the Summit. The presenters, which included some of the Church’s leading voices for religious freedom – Dr. Ganoune Diop, PARL Director for the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church, Lincoln Steed, Editor of Liberty magazine, and Melissa Reid, Executive Director of NARLA – reminded the attendees that defending religious liberty should be of interest to all Seventh-day Adventists, not just lawyers and PARL directors. Religious freedom protects the rights of every Adventist to observe the Sabbath as a minority religion. It ensures young Adventist professionals can take Sabbaths off at work and Adventist students can receive exemptions from Saturday exams. Without it, Adventist youth could not freely run AY programs or openly share their faith. We all benefit from religious liberty and should all raise our voices in its defense.
The general inattention to religious liberty issues, not only among Adventist young people, but also in the media and politics, was also addressed. In the ruthless struggle to attract viewers and sell ads, news organizations prioritize that which is novel and provocative, and the interests of the broader culture. In the political world, ISIS, immigration, the economy, and the stunning rise of Donald Trump have taken center stage. This is the stuff that pops-up on social media newsfeeds and discussed on late night talk shows. Add to this the, gossip, sports, entertainment, and cares of this life clamoring for attention, and the relative silence on religious liberty from our pulpits, and it is easy to see how religious liberty goes unnoticed by many young Adventists.
Future Adventists Leaders and Religious Liberty
Nevertheless, there are young people who are paying attention and rising to become champions for religious freedom. They were among the attendees at the Religious Liberty Summit: Young business students and computer programmers, young adults and even a few teenagers. They were there for different reasons. One student, a 21 year-old studying finance at Union College, became interested in religious liberty after observing family and church members struggling with Sabbath accommodations at work. Another young person was there to better understand the relationship between religious liberty and righteousness by faith. But what was common to them all was a passionate interest and concern for religious liberty. But they weren’t just present; they were articulate, informed, and could engage in intelligent conversation on same-sex marriage, the Constitution, the transgender bathroom controversy, and the U.S. presidential race.
These young Adventists understand, as we all should, that religious liberty cannot be a side issue, something that we superficially acknowledge as a good idea but say or do nothing about. Not for Adventists who understand that religious freedom is a God-given right, grounded in the eternal principle of love, the very character of God Himself. Not for Adventists who understand that we are a prophetic movement called to speak against the trampling of this precious freedom by the two beasts of Revelation 13 and ultimately the entire human race just before our Lord’s return. Religious liberty is a central piece in Adventist eschatology and should be of keen interest to all Adventists who take seriously the proclamation of the Three Angels’ Messages calling people out of Babylon and into the freedom of God’s love.
A Call to Action
The church needs more young Adventists to champion religious liberty. Imagine young people conversing over church potluck, not merely about sports, school or relationships, but about the religious liberty implications of the culture wars over sexuality and abortion, the presidential race, the rise of Pope Francis, and other contemporary developments. Imagine young adults inundating social media feeds with tweets and posts about religious liberty, and students raising awareness of religious liberty issues on their college campuses. Imagine the membership of grassroots organizations like NARLA and subscriptions to Liberty magazine exploding with new young members and readers. Undoubtedly, such a movement of young people would be worth praying and working for.
We all have a role to play to raise such a movement. It begins with Adventist parents faithfully teaching their children about the inseparability of God’s love and freedom, and our calling as God’s remnant people to preach the Three Angels Messages as a rebuke to Babylon’s trampling of God’s law and religious liberty. Pastors should bring religious liberty before our young people in sermons and study groups. And those of us already passionate about religious liberty must redouble our efforts to pray, educate and share our passion with our peers. Certainly, more young Adventists would raise their voices as a result.
The time has come for young Adventists to take seriously the words of Bonhoeffer and Wolf. Both the Left and the Right are chipping away at religious freedom. Some politicians openly denigrate the idea of separation of church and state. Religious freedom is now put in scare quotes by some sectors of the media. Individual liberties are routinely sacrificed on the altar of security. The masses seem increasingly unable to act with restraint, civility, or tolerance. And the two beasts of Revelation 13 embraced when Pope Francis spoke in front of a joint session of Congress. We are fast approaching a time when every principle of the Constitution will be repudiated and the lamblike beast will speak like a dragon. We are looking evil, square in the face.
Will young Adventists speak or remain silent?