A Small Gap

Lincoln E. Steed July/August 2021

A little more than 22 years ago I sat down in a new office, at a new desk, and pondered what to do next. On the desktop were just a few items that tied me to this new reality. There was a cake-top decoration in the style of the Statue of Liberty, left over from the farewell with editorial staff at the Review and Herald Publishing Association. In a card that came with it, an editor friend had noted my possible risk in defending religious liberty in a volatile world: the thought perplexed me at the time, and did not make much sense till years later, walking alone through the religious-riot-ravaged streets of Ambon City, Indonesia, it hit me that there was mortal danger. In an incongruously small box on that desk was also a little pile of articles, some yellowed and marked as accepted decades earlier: my “slush” file, otherwise known as the makings of my first issue as editor of Liberty magazine!

And so it began: an editorial journey I had never really anticipated. My predecessor, Clifford Goldstein, younger than me, was about seven years in the job before leaving precipitously to take up editorship of the Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist world church. Ironically, I had been called back from Australia about 15 years earlier to coordinate editorial and production on those same lessons! But Liberty magazine was not on my mind then; even if issues of religious freedom were.

As a young man I had been privileged to travel at a time when it was still a bit of an adventure. 

I still remember the “escape” out of Kabul, Afghanistan: we had been stoned on highways out of the city by Muslim youth angry at Christian Westerners, and as the plane struggled up a narrow valley between towering peaks and crippling turbulence, I anxiously monitored the huge pile of luggage strapped to the floor where the first 20 rows of seats usually were in a Boeing 727. We made it! In Pakistan I encountered the pilot washing his hands in the garden of the hotel and quizzed him about the risks on that flight: he spoke cryptically about the wings falling off if he’d made a wrong move!

In Iran things seemed peaceful enough. I still remember walking down a Parisian-style boulevard and peering through the wrought-iron gates of the U.S. embassy, later to be the scene of a drawn-out hostage drama. But what I remember most clearly was driving hours out of Tehran to meet with Seventh-day Adventist Christians at a camp meeting convocation. Political freedom is relative, and they were using what they had.

But it was in Communist Bulgaria that the importance of religious freedom most took root in my psyche. At the time Bulgaria was one of the “Reddest” of the Communist states and usual host for Warsaw Pact military war games. Christians were not so much persecuted in the active, violent ways many in the West imagined, but marginalized and restricted. Party membership and advancement in any line of employment was denied people of faith. Worship was allowed only in proscribed venues and for limited times. The older faithful were seen as irredeemably out of step with socialism; but the young were to be kept from this contagion at all costs.

My father was not allowed to preach in the Adventist church in Sofia, the capital. But his work with the government on anti-drug education meant he was a guest of the authorities, and they allowed him to bring greetings to the somber congregants—all, I noted, clutching contraband handwritten or typewriter carbon-copied Bible study lessons! Those greetings went for more than an hour, with extensive Bible texts and allusions—rather sermon-like, I thought!

After it was over, we met in the side room with the translator and his sad-eyed daughter. She was not much younger than me at that time, so she had my attention. “She is a good daughter,” her father said. “She comes to church every week, rather than school, as the government requires. But pray for us,” he asked with tears in his eyes. “They are going to take her away from us because she would rather come to church than go to school.” In that instant I understood what was at stake with conscience and religious liberty.

Later on that same trip, almost a lifetime back now, we crossed much of India by train. I will never forget looking out on the fields one morning, as the train chugged across the countryside, and seeing humans, almost shoulder to shoulder in morning ablutions, dotting the plain from trackside to horizon. It was disorienting to my sense of humanity. Jesus Christ was said to have looked on the crowds and had pity on them. Far easier to depersonalize one’s concern and transmigrate religious liberty to legislative action, court cases, and efforts to protect religious organizations. I know we have to fight our own sensibilities in standing up for the conscience rights of all humanity. How easy it is in matters of religious liberty to slip into thinking it does not apply to Untermensch, only to we who understand all its complexities! As though we ever could!

Back in my Australian homeland, with my foreign-born wife, Rosa Delia, whom I had met while living and studying in the United States, those visions and insights seemed dreamlike. After all, in a nearly empty lucky country, a two-hour drive into the country might reveal only dusty-road-edge-to-distant-ridge congregations of kangaroos and wombats: existential emptiness and easy forgetfulness.

Then in the early hours of the morning: a call to return to the United States for editing responsibilities. “Don’t go,” cautioned my wife, echoing the view of many that the United States is the eye of a hurricane best avoided. I was conflicted, to be sure. “But this is so unexpected, and the signs of God’s leading so clear [no time here to enlarge on that amazing part of the story], that I must go,” I explained. “It may be that I am just a small connection in a big plan: a single contact I make may complete the chain.” And so we returned. And a few years later I sat at the Liberty editorial desk!

For most of my formative years Roland Hegstad was the editor of Liberty magazine—34 years in total for him. So for me he will always be Mr. Liberty. But of course Liberty belongs to none of us, editor or reader. Religious liberty is as big as humanity and everyman’s stirrings of conscience. It is surely the idée fixe at the center of a gospel proclamation. For years I have tried to remind Christian audiences that fallen humanity has been released from millennia of captivity to sin by the actions of a Redeemer. We are free; we have freedom; no one can take that from us. “I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it” is how the Bible puts it (Revelation 3:8, NKJV).*

And during the time with Liberty I have seen the religious world warp and narrow religious freedom into an entitlement to restrict others. And during that time I have seen a narrowing of even the secular concept of freedom. After the towers went down in 2001, an article in Le Monde commented on the realism of the moment. More than real, it said: symbolic! As I remember, the author wrote that “we have reached the point where the very idea of freedom, itself relatively recent and new, is in the process of being replaced by its polar opposite, that of a terror of security.” And so, enhanced interrogations; unitary visions of executive power; impromptu prayer sessions by insurgents in the House chamber; a choice of isolation over worship during a pandemic. What next? God only knows (try reading the book of Revelation)!

So where is my place within all this? This will be my last issue as editor before retiring. I dare not apply General MacArthur’s self-pitying epilogue. “Old soldiers never die—they just fade away,” he said. Of course we fade away, like the grass, according to the Bible: but our actions can endure. Instead, I’d like to invoke a Russian folk song of wartime loss. I always find a deep sadness and melancholy in Russian song and literature. ( As a young man of the Vietnam War era, I was deeply affected by reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.) The song is called “Cranes”: I loved it best sung by the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

The lines of that song that admit me now are:

“Flying in the fog at the end of the day;

And in those ranks there is a small gap:

Maybe this is the place for me.”

Article 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."