Sermon delivered January 22, 2005 by Mitchell Tyner

McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church

McDonald, Tennessee

Biblical quotations are from the New International Version NIV unless otherwise noted. Divine pronouns and titles are capitalized.

Religious Liberty: New Realities

(This morning, for our Religious Liberty Sabbath, It's our pleasure to welcome to our pulpit Elder Mitchell Tyner. Elder Tyner is the Associate General Counsel of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He's been a pastor as well as an attorney and deals with many of the cases that dal with Religious Liberty that comes to the General Conference for consideration. I know that he will challenge us and raise our thoughts on Religious Liberty Day. Mitch, we welcome you to our pulpit.)

It has been a long time since I was at McDonald Road Church. It must have been about 15 years; maybe twenty. You have grown and expanded. A lot has changed during that time, and that is part of what I want to say to you this morning.

We live in a new reality, especially as concerns the relationship between church and state and the image of religion in this country. When I was here last, religion was basically considered a good thing. If a church moved in next door, that was all right. These were people with good moral values. You were considered a good addition to the community. We might differ on details, but by and large, religion was a good.

We are no longer living in an age that simple. During the last month, I have had two interesting cases. One you have probably read about. A young man name Joel David Klimkewicz who enlisted in the Marine Corps, who initially, he admits, spent most of his pay on women and drink. Then he came face to face on a ship with an Adventist chaplain. His life changed. He became and Adventist and joined our church in October, 2002. At the same time, he re-enlisted in the Corps before anybody bothered to tell him anything about the church's historic background of non-combatantsy. He began studying that, and within four months he said, "I must be non-combatant. I cannot kill other people." He said, "My church teaches me that all people are children of God, we are all part of the same family, and I cannot go somewhere and kill other members of God's family." The Marine Corps did not believe that. They court-martialled him. He was convicted and sentenced to seven months in the brig plus loss of all pay and benefits and a bad conduct discharge. We are trying to get him out now using political and media pressure and all means available, but what I want to mention this. In his closing argument, this is what the prosecutor had to say, "All of us have to give up things for the greater good. We must all not do things we would prefer to do, for the greater good. I for instance, must occasionally give up having breakfast with my children because of my duties to the corps." I said to him afterward, "To equate missing breakfast with your children to violating deeply held conscientious belief is an insult to anyone who takes any religion seriously. You are saying that religion is no more important than having breakfast occasionally with your children!"

A week ago, I was in Chicago for a hearing before the national labor relations board, concerning Oak Grove Adventist Hospital in suburban Chicago. A small group of employees are trying to form a labor union. The Seventh-day Adventist church, since at least the 1880's, has said to its members that labor unions are something you should avoid. You should not be part of an organization unless you can in good conscience uphold both their aims and their methods for achieving those aims. We have also said, by doctrinal position, our church institutions cannot relate to a labor union. The lawyer for the union got up and said, "Hearing Officer, we are willing to stipulate that the Adventist Church has a sincerely held doctrinal position which prevents them from allowing the presence of labor unions in denominational unions. In effect, so what! The constitutional rights of my clients who want to form a union transcend and outweigh their religious rights." We had to remind him that the first amendment of the US Constitution and at least two paragraphs mention religion. It nowhere mentions labor unions, labor associations, or anything of the kind. They are statutory created rights which are subsidiary to constitutional rights.

But my point is this: In both instances, I was hearing: religion is nothing special. Religion is just another human undertaking. It deserves no more special treatment. We have come a long way, and that is the new reality. And in the last three years, we have gone beyond that even. l

  • Not just neutral.
  • Not just equal
  • with other human undertakings. Now religion is suspicious. If you take religion seriously, you can't be taken seriously, except that we need to keep an eye on you.

    Now bear in mind that this suspicion that I am talking about, especially of conservative religion, is not universal. I am obviously not talking about pew sitters, people who attend church either on Saturday or Sunday. I am talking about the cultural elites. I am talking about the

    Why? What happened? How did we get to this situation? There are a number of reasons. September 11 is one obvious reason. To boil that down into one sentence: "Religiously motivated people fly airplanes into tall buildings. They are dangerous." That is not hard to understand.

    There is more than that. The end of that conclusion is the rise of fundamentalism. You've heard a great deal about fundamentalism. We usually think of Muslim fundamentalism. It isn't their property. Fundamentalism is a state of mind that occurs in every religion, in every place. It's

    And that is what draws the ire of many people today.

    It is people who say "we have the truth, the only truth. And everybody else is wrong. If you want to know the truth, just ask us." This is a tremendous turnoff. It occurs in all religions: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu. I didn't believe there was Buddhist fundamentalism until I went to Sri Lanka. But it is there. It occurs everywhere, in every religion, including ours. And I feel it as a huge threat to Adventism. It must be opposed, battled, acknowledged; the fundamentalism that exists among us. Those who say, "I want the rest of the world to tolerate my religion, but I do not want to tolerate error." We have no more rights that anybody else. Our rights are no more secure than the rights that we grant to those with whom we fundamentally disagree. That is one reason: the rise of fundamentalism.

    Another is what I have to call Religious Hypocrisy. Religious Malpractice would be another term.

    You are familiar with all the stories of clergy pedophilia, notice I didn't say pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests. They may get all the publicity but don't have a corner on the market. I hate to tell you this, but it is something that occurs in every denomination, in every faith. And it must be stopped. People are saying, "And we give you tax breaks for this? For this kind of behavior? You expect to get respect?" No. That can't happen.

    Did you know that 1.6 Billion dollars will be embezzled from churches this year? And most of it will be embezzled by church treasurers. Do you know what the recovery rate will be? About five percent. These are institutions that claim to be the moral leaders of the community. This is clergy malpractice.

    There is the matter of religion as entertainment. I am past sixty. I'm ancient by the standards of a few in the audience. I am old enough to remember being taught that worship is Other oriented. When I worship, I expect the worship not to be directed to me, but to God. That is what worship is. It is not about me feeling good. It is not about my emotional, warm fuzzy feelings. That's fine for Sabbath School, but when I come to a worship service, it is Other oriented: toward God.

    We have come to a point where far to much of our worship, so called, is entertainment. It is people sitting around making each other feel good. Telling each other what they want to hear. That is not worship, and it does not get nor does it deserve the sort of special treatment that we have always wanted for religion.

    I could go on. There are many other reasons. Secularism, and Cynicism that comes with it.. Non-belief. But let's not kid ourselves that all those people who oppose religion today are immoral. They are not. I remember one person who wrote in about the Klimkewicz story, about the marine who was court-martialled. He was looking at all of the fractiousness that has been caused by religious belief, and his comment was: "We will have peace on earth when we finally get rid of religion." Not an immoral person. He wanted peace on earth. When he looks at religion, all he sees is trouble.

    There are many other reasons. One of the new ones you have probably not heard about is that religion is considered a source of discrimination. I find that especially troubling. Ever since colonial days in this country, the move toward social equality and human freedom has been

    religious organizations. The abolition movement before the civil war was religious led. The civil rights movement of the nineteen fifties and sixties was again dependent upon religious grass roots. In the last four years, we have come the point where many of the largest civil rights organizations in this country are looking at religion and saying, "You are no more the solution to discrimination, you are the cause of it."

    Do you know what they are talking about? Homosexuality. The fact that it is religious groups who are doing their best to lead the charge against saying that homosexuals are citizens with the same fundamental rights as everyone else.

    This is a place upon which we can differ. But I say this to you, "I do not want my church leading or participating in any effort to enforce a view on someone else, who does not share it, when that view is fundamentally traceable to religious belief, because I remember in a second-hand sort of way, the 1880's and 1890's when some very sincere Christian people in this country tried to do exactly that. They tried to enforce by law their sincerely held belief of Christian morality and pass Sunday laws. Right here in East Tennessee, some of our church members wound up on jail because of it. Anytime religious groups try to enforce by government fiat their version of morality, innocent people suffer.

    The typical reaction to this sort of thing is summarized in an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion last September. This is a so-called learned society, a professional organization, mainly of theology professors, theology professionals and a few people like me who work in allied fields. It was a man who was arguing that racism and religion both come from a more primitive part of man's history. They were an effort to expand on the family. It was an effort to identify safe people. "Those primitive people," he said, "thought that if you look like me; that is the same race, or if you believe like me; that is the same religion, then you are safe. I can trust you. But," this author said, "in a pluralistic, modern society, we have found that the concept of race is outmoded and not at all helpful. And," he said, "I think we should come to the same place, where the word religionist is just as odious as the word racist."

    Do you still feel good about being religious? We've come a long, long way. There has been a reaction by religious people. Militancy, a reach for political power, that has been going on for twenty five years now, is inherently majoritarian. It is based on the claim that the majority has the right to form the religious beliefs and public religious presence for the whole culture and country. It is a movement that claims non-existent rights. For instance, I hear people now protesting a number of court cases removing the Ten-Commandments from public squares. We can differ on this, but they say, they are violating our rights when they take them away. But I ask, "What right? What right do you have to have the Ten Commandments on the court house square. You certainly do not have that right as an individual. If you did, every Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, anybody else, could exercise exactly the same right for their sacred scriptures." You don't believe that, do you? No! Then what right are they claiming? Ultimately, what they are claiming, is the right of the majority of the good people in society (by their definition of course) to have their version of morality given government imprimatur and primacy. And that right does not exist.

    This reaction by religious people forgets that our rights are no more secure than the rights that we grant to those with whom we fundamentally disagree. Religious freedom is a two-edged sword. They speak of values. There was a great deal of talk about values in this last election. People voting on their values, supposedly Christian values. When I look for Christian values, I think of love, peace, patience, overcoming evil with good. Doing good to those who abuse you. I didn't hear much about those values. What values are we thinking about? Jesus stood before Pilate and said, in John 18:36,..."My kingdom is not of this world. If it were: if my kingdom was of this world, then would my servants fight." But they don't. "My kingdom is not of this world," He said. Nor is our political power to be. And there has been a reaction to that reaction, and that is further exacerbation and polarization. And when that happens, you have people lining up on both walls, yelling at each other, and not really accomplishing very much.

    And how do we react to all of that? Well, we must not react by joining those who seek to gain political power for religious reasons. We don't do it by seeking to impose our understanding of morality by the force of law. We do it by principle. That principle must start with Jesus' most famous teaching of all: treat other people as you would have them treat you (see Matthew 7:12). Imagine if you were anybody on the other side. How would you want to be treated? Would you want your rights diminished? Will you want your equality impugned? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you: Fundamental Christianity. Don't get all of your information from Pat Robertson and James Dobson and all the rest. Find out.

    If you listen to one side of this, you will hear a great deal about the supreme court case involving the Ten Commandments. You will hear very little about the vastly more important case that goes to the constitutionality of a little known law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. And you won't remember that one. But it is being challenged as being unconstitutional, and if that challenge is upheld, it will undermine virtually every other law that seeks to accommodate religion in a multiplicity of ways. That has a great deal more reach, more significance, to more people in more ways, than the Ten Commandments case, but unfortunately, you hear very little about it.

    How do we react? Get the facts. Get as many facts as you can. Think. Think. Analyze. Thinking is a preferred activity. Don't do it in 15-second sound bites as we have been trained to do. Our reactions, I would suggest to you, must be based on another scriptural passage. Those from Mathew 5:13-16, stating that we are the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Jesus went through all those beatitudes, that very fundamental statement of Christian belief, character, and practice, and then said "you are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth." What does that mean? It means, to begin with, a recognition that we are in, but not of the world. You might paraphrase it by saying that we must both love and resist the world. Love the people and resist the culture. Isn't it so easy to get this the other way around? Love the culture and not think highly of the people. Yet that is not our profession. Too often we get it exactly backwards. It means non-assimilation. We cannot run and hide. We must have a constructive engagement with society, but not be totally a part of it. Light and salt. Light illumines the world. Salt preserves it. It is our duty to spread light through the world and preserve it until the Lord's return. How do we do that?

    First, a clear expression of your own values. What are your fundamental values? Sit in front a mirror, alone and think about that sometime. What are your deepest held values? Money? Position? Adventism? Correct status? Being part of the privileged elite? Equality? We need to straighten that out in our own minds first. Then we need a very clear demonstration of those values. Right differences. On one hand, remember the story of Carl Wilkins, our man in Rwanda. They told him to get out. The genocide is starting. He said "I can't do that." "Carl the plane is leaving." "I can't do that." "Carl, go, you are the last European left," "I can't do that". He stayed in his house. He stayed in Bujim Bura, and he led who knows how many hundreds of people to safety during that time. He said, "I am an Adventist Christian. What else could I do?"

    I contrast that very clear demonstration of values with something that happened to me my third year in the ministry. A young man showed up in our church in St. Louis South Side Church. He had a women with him, with three children. I sensed they were not his. He asked me to come visit their home in a public housing project, which I did. At that time, he said to me: "I want you to talk to my wife (whose mentality I'd guess at about eight years) about pickles and ketchup, because they contain vinegar." I responded, "Sir, you are living here with a woman who is not your wife, and you want me to talk to her about pickles? Don't you think you have a priority problem?" We must clearly demonstrate our values.

    Third, we must confront this issue of exclusivism. We will not be the only ones in heaven and we are often known for thinking that we will be. Someone told me a story, in another country, about someone who went to heaven and there he was taking a grand tour. They came to an area with a very tall hedge around it, you couldn't see through it. On the other side of the hedge you could hear people laughing and gaiety and people going about their daily affairs. And he said to his guide, "Who is behind the hedge?" He was told, "Oh, those are the Adventists. They think they are the only ones here and we just don't bother them." If we were the only ones in heaven, it would be a very lonely place to rattle around in." We must confront that charge of discrimination and exclusivity. And finally, we must show why religious liberty is necessary even for the non-believer.

    Even if you believe religion is superstition, something left over from a simpler, more superstitious age, it is still important. Because,

    And that is the reason that freedom of religion is the basis of all human freedom.

    Christians influence society by their very presence. Salt and light cannot be ignored. God's kingdom has never advanced, but only retarded by people who take up arms or political power to coerce others to abide by Bible principles. Now what do I want you to do? Just put money In the offering? Please do that, yes. But in addition, I challenge you to understand the issues. Look beyond the headlines. Get the facts. Think about them. Use your influence. Stand up for everyone's freedom, not just your own. We live in a time when religion is no longer seen as the reflection of God, or the epitome of man's aspirations. But rather it has become a dangerous egotism that must be hedged about and restricted. And our task, living in the midst of that, is to disprove that opinion and demonstrate the necessity of religious freedom for all human freedom. Rarely has been being salt and light more challenging. May God make us equal to that challenge.

    Hymn of Praise: #4,  Praise, My Soul, the Kingdom of Heaven
    Scripture:  Matthew 5:13-16
    Hymn of Response: #365, O Zion, Haste

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