21st August 2014

Friday, 15 August 2014 saw more than 100 Seventh-day Adventist pastors and leaders, together with guests from the world of politics and civic leadership, meet at the Bethel Convention Centre in West Bromwich for the first Religious Liberty Symposium run by the Adventist Church in the United Kingdom.

In his introduction BUC President Pastor Ian Sweeney welcomed the guests who included MPs John Speller and David Jamison, Councillor Yvonne Mosquito, and representatives from the Sikh community. Representing the Adventist Church were Dr John Graz, Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), Dr Ganoune Diop, Director of Adventist-United Nations Relations, General Conference Vice President Dr Delbert Baker, and Chaplain Barry C Black, a retired Rear Admiral and 62nd Chaplain of the United States Senate.

Daniel-1-and-religious-freedom-with-Senate-Chaplain-Pastor-Barry-BlackChaplain Black began the day with a devotional based on Daniel chapter one. Drawing from his 27 years of service in the US Navy and subsequent service to the Senate, Chaplain Black acknowledged the right of everyone to worship God according to their own conscience. However, he also pointed out that in practice some ways of securing this right are better than others. He recalled one situation when, at a formal meal, he and some Adventist colleagues had been served meat instead of the vegetarian food they had requested. While he resolved just to eat the vegetables another of his party decided to make a point of the error, thus drawing the comment from their secular host, "he has an attitude problem."

A consummate diplomat himself, Chaplain Black went on to examine the situation of Daniel and his three Hebrew friends in Babylon, and how they found diplomatic ways to remain true to God even in the service of a powerful autocrat. Three principles stood out for Chaplain Black:

Firstly that the young men were well prepared. As General Paton said in a speech to the Third Army in 1944, "I believe that an ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood."

Secondly we should trust God for His favour. Daniel managed to win the eunuch on to his side and, whilst there are times when we need to be prophetic, sometimes we need to have allies.

"God was programming my hard drive because He knew that one day a clever Senator would think he had me checkmated."

Thirdly that we should put God to the test. "God is not intimidated by the challenges that we face", said Chaplain Black. In his own experience of becoming chaplain to the Senate he had faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, one of which was a direct challenge from a senator regarding his religious beliefs. On the spur of the moment he responded, "I can say a hearty amen to the Apostles' Creed" and, though he hadn't learnt it as such, proceeded to recite it word for word. With hindsight he realised that he had heard the Apostles' Creed many times in his work as a navy chaplain. "God was programming my hard drive because He knew that one day a clever senator would think he had me checkmated."

Concluding the story of Daniel Chaplain Black noted that after the period of ten days the Hebrew young men were found to be ten times better than the others. Under the power of the Holy Spirit we too will achieve far more than most people can dream of.

DSC_9108Following Chaplain Black's devotional Dr Graz shared something of what is being done to promote religious freedom around the world and why it is important. "If we don't promote and protect Religious Liberty we will lose it", he said. "The most difficult place to promote it is in countries where we have it. But people should remember that a lot of sacrifices have been made to arrive at where we are today." Dr Graz also surprised some in the audience by strongly emphasising that Adventists "need to defend the rights and freedoms of all people, of all religions, and of those of no religion." Thus Adventists should be prepared to defend vigorously the rights of Muslims, Catholics and even atheists.

Dr-Ganoune-DiopDr Diop, who represents the Seventh-day Adventist Church at the United Nations, spoke about the importance of human dignity. Citing the establishment of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1787 he highlighted the key role of the Quakers, whose belief in equality was founded in their understanding of the Bible. Today similarly motivated Seventh-day Adventists continue this tradition in their focus on religious freedom.

"The most important foundational value in every society is human dignity", said Dr Diop. "It is the foundation of human rights… Human dignity is the foundation of all other values in society, whether freedom, justice or peace."

According to Dr Diop the Adventist view of creation is key. "The fact that we are made in God's image," he said, "is the foundation of human dignity itself. We can only understand who people are in the light of who God is."

Dr-Delbert-BakerConcluding the morning programme Dr Baker related the story of Pastor Antonio Monteiro who was falsely imprisoned for nearly two years in Lome, Togo, before finally being released on 13 January of this year. Although the IRLA had helped to secure this release Baker was quick to point out that there are other cases still outstanding and there is much work still to do.

The theological basis for a strong Religious Liberty stance continued in the afternoon with Dr Diop pointing out that "Whatever is done to any human being is done to God" and that, "The Love of God for the world is a model of relating to others."

Attorney-Dwayne-LeslieDwayne Leslie, a veteran attorney of 20 years, represents the Adventist Church on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. He noted that we "must have relationship to influence people. We need to go to our political leaders before we are in trouble."

Dr Graz then concluded a positive exchange of ideas by pointing out that Jesus was a strong believer in religious freedom. He gave people choice asking, "Do you want to go away too?" John 6:67. He gave information to help people make a decision, "Whoever wants to be my disciples must take up their cross…" Mark 8:34. He gave free choice. In Revelation 3:20 He states, "I stand at the door and knock", but leaves it to the believer as to whether or not that door is opened.

The day finished in debate – but also in unity, as Dr Diop concluded, "Both Religious Liberty and Truth are important aspects of Adventism."

A selection of photos from the day can be found on the Adventist Church's Picture gallery


A video report of the whole 'Free to Worship' weekend is also available.

[John Surridge / Victor Hulbert]

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