Colorful as our cover is for this issue, it puts me to mind of an old black and white movie. In 1957, Swedish playwright Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed The Seventh Seal. The title was taken from Revelation 8, verse 1: “And when [the Lamb] had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” The film is apocalyptic in tone and intent.
The opening scene is dramatic. There is a desolate seascape and a burning sky marked by a wheeling bird of prey. A choir yells the “Dies Irae.” It is medieval Europe, and a knight has returned from the Crusades to find the Black Death ravaging the population and religious extremism coexisting with a growing fear that God might not exist.
It is an old dynamic, repeated often enough in the past, and arguably at work even today. Witness comments from certain preachers in the United States after Katrina and September 11, and also from certain mullahs in sun-baked regions of the Middle East. In the Bible dynamic one can expect certain consequences when God is forgotten. In the Bible, recorded in Deuteronomy chapter 28, the mixed multitude who had left Egypt for Sinai were reminded that disobedience would have consequences: “And your heavens which are over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you shall be iron” (verse 23).
Bergman was tackling a big issue with his play/film. It’s an age-old issue. One of the oldest stories recorded is that of Job, the wealthy man in the land of Uz. After disaster struck (trouble from Satan, not from God, by the way) Job argued his integrity against four friends who were convinced that he deserved what he got. In our day the issue is tackled by authors such as Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
So we have this dual model. God will punish people for disobedience, but not everything bad that happens is a punishment from God or even an indication of wrongdoing. Too bad so many people keep getting the two confused.
In The Seventh Seal those in medieval society were convinced that the Black Death was God’s punishment on them. Therefore it called for extraordinary repentance and extraordinary acts of faith to ferret out the evildoers who were calling down God’s wrath upon society. One of the more dramatic sequences in the story is the mistreatment and final burning of a poor simple girl accused of witchcraft. The knight, who is the observer in the story, looks into her eyes and sees only unknowing fear.
After September 11 many Americans learned to live with unknowing fear. It was like the worst days of the Cold War again, only this time there was no end in sight and few really understood the nature of this new conflict. I’m not so sure they understand it now—nor do many of those in charge seem overly committed to acknowledging the real issues at play. So much of it revolves around God, His will, His people, and moral culpability.
Like the unfortunates in plague-ravaged Europe, many today suffer the situation in uncomprehending numbness. Do we hear “Dies Irae,” or is it just global warming and cyclical disruption of the markets? Is the church our comforter in distress, or do we look to it to identify the moral blight that has caused our troubles? Big questions.
Liberty Magazine has been arguing for religious liberty for 106 years now; a few decades longer than that if you include its predecessors, the American Sentinel and The Sentinel of Liberty. From the beginning we have argued for the separation of church and state: a constitutional mandate designed to protect religious freedom. We have argued for full religious freedom for any and all—and for the right to change your belief or to have none at all. This has only been right and just. But there is a little more to it than that.
Seventh-day Adventists began this magazine not just because we believe in religious freedom—which we do and always will. It was not begun because early Adventists suffered under blue law restrictions in the United States that often had them fined or imprisoned for disobeying a law based on religious compulsion of a “sun” day that had been substituted for the Bible Sabbath. Liberty was established and continued because we see in Holy Writ indications that the most egregious persecutions of the Middle Ages will be repeated worldwide—even in the United States—before God replaces this human-directed world with an eternal kingdom of glory. Revelation chapter 13 is quite specific about the global compulsion to a false worship.
From time to time we have articles differing with past teachings or present policies of the Roman Catholic Church as they relate to religious liberty. This is done not to tweak their noses or to be difficult. There are real issues at play here—and as the United States was once self-consciously Protestant, so is Liberty Magazine. But those issues as we outline them in these articles are bigger than that divide. Remember, for the religious liberty principle, every individual has a right to follow his or her conscience, and every church, sect, or cult has a right to hold any belief.
Not too long ago I attended a religious liberty event at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. It was heartwarming to hear so many Catholic leaders outline their commitment to a religious liberty construct that is both biblical and in tune with a constitutional separation of powers. Before anyone thinks me historically naive, let me say that this is all predicated on Vatican II holding. That council of 1962 came up with Dignitatis Humanae—a document that completely restated the rights of the individual conscience. Cardinal Timothy Dolan expressed it well when he said, “Once upon a time we held that error had no rights.” That medieval attitude is gone now and will only come back when and if the battle to sustain Vatican II is lost.
This past summer was the third hottest on record for the United States. This past year saw the greatest number of natural disasters ever, by a wide margin. This past year saw not only the death of Bin Laden but the resurgence of his brand of terrorism. This past year saw the closest of close calls for the financial viability of the European Union. This past year would suit the opening scenes of The Seventh Seal just fine. The upwelling of narrow, reflex religious solution is not confined to the Middle East. Just today I received a review copy of a book entitled Wall of Misconception. It is a rethink of the separation of church and state, and a redux of the godly state. The worse things get, the stronger is the appeal of this medievalism. More and more the voices say, “If we just morally cleansed our nation—our world—then God would stay His hand.” There is a half-truth here: God wants willing obedience and will bless it—but I cannot imagine any mandated worship being pleasing or effective.
In times of crisis early humanity turned to the visible symbol of power in the sky and worshipped the sun. I see in the emerging Sunday family rest day in Europe the beginning of another Rite of Spring solution. Religious liberty models say it matters not the form of worship—we will allow and defend it. Religious liberty models also say that there should be no compulsion or state oversight of religious practice. And the models of history tell us that when church and state work together to solve a moral crisis, it produces dysfunction. Bergman had it right: God was not in the flagellant revivals, He was not in the witch hunts, He was not in the edicts of clergy or ruler—as always, He is found in the heart and the conscience of free individuals.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."