Fifty years ago this last Friday, on a sun-swept autumn Friday, unspeakable sorrow convulsed millions of hearts and drew the world together. On the campuses students stood weeping, in Berlin—on both sides of the infamous Wall—candles of remembrance flickered in countless windows, even in far-off New Guinea primitive tribesmen built rush mats in which to bury the leader whose inspiration had touched humanity everywhere. An eight-year-old Nigerian girl would cite from memory the President’s inaugural address, alongside her sobbing father. Sports events were cancelled, houses of worship filled to capacity, Times Square in New York stood draped in black. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy—the stirring hope of a generation, described by one author as “the incendiary man” (1)—was dead, slain by a bullet in Dallas, Texas.
Like Pearl Harbor for a distant generation and 9/11 for our own, it was a moment never to be forgotten. As with similar seismic events, all will remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. As a three-year-old toddler at the time, I can still vividly recall my mother explaining to me how a very bad man had shot our President with a big gun.
What lessons can Seventh-day Adventists learn from this world-altering tragedy, in particular those Adventists who cherish their church’s heritage of faith and its continuing relevance to a postmodern culture?
I would like to focus on five such lessons:
I. History can change quickly. Scholars and political pundits have observed that the year 1963 probably had more in common with 1953 than with 1964. What was thought to be stable, predictable, and secure beyond challenge one moment, was instantly recognized as vulnerable and fleeting the next.
One is amazed how rapidly, and radically, public opinion can change regarding major issues and societal figures. Slightly less than 50 percent of Americans had in fact voted for John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Yet, a month after the deceased President’s remains were interred at Arlington Cemetery, a whopping 65 percent of Americans claimed to have cast their ballots for him (2). In polls released this week, as many as 90 percent of Americans approve of the job President Kennedy did while in office (3). Yet in the South at least, on the eve of the President’s fatal visit to Dallas, a mere 40 percent said they approved of Kennedy’s performance as President (4).
In recent decades, many First World Adventists have assumed that because “times have changed,” the church presumably needs to adjust its doctrinal teachings and moral expectations to fit new times and cultures. Many problems arise from such thinking, of course, and not just the fact that in recent years most churches that have changed messages in order to keep pace with changing times have themselves ended up losing members and relevance, for the simple reason that most people look to religion for constancy, not adaptability.
Perhaps the biggest problem with such flexibility in the church’s witness to society is that society can change awfully fast. Confidence can turn to consternation, apathy to anger, in a heartbeat. The aftermath of both the assassination of President Kennedy and September 11, 2001, offer brutal evidence of this reality.
II. Whether for good or evil, one person can make a big difference. The question of whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, as the Warren Commission alleged, is not a debate I wish to address in this context. But it is not impossible that in fact he did. Just as big doors turn on small hinges, so events in the human saga can be hugely affected by the singular conduct of saints and sinners alike.
Many faithful church members, out of fear and a sense of personal insignificance, often think they can do nothing to stop the negative onrush of events they see in the denomination. But more than once, I have witnessed how the determination of one or a few can turn a situation around, whether rightly or wrongly. As one who has participated in church affairs all his life, both as a layman and as a pastor, I have seen the illusion of invincible power structures, unassailable personalities, and ecclesiastical decisions “rigged in advance” repeatedly exploded.
While still a child, I remember my parents attending a special Conference constituency meeting, called for the purpose of selling the Conference campground. The brethren calmly unrolled their charts and made their case, showing how much money could be made by disposing of this prime property. It looked as if the decision was about to slide through, as the Conference leadership desired. But then a little old lady rose to her feet, and stated, “All we’re hearing is how much money we can make by selling the campground. Has anyone asked if it’s God’s will that we sell the campground?”
It was as if this dear sister had pulled a cord and loosed a tank of ice water over the heads of the delegates! In the end, none of the brethren could answer her question, and the campground remains in the possession of this particular Conference to this day.
III. Beware the lure of conspiracies. No event in modern times, perhaps in all of history, has been so subject to conspiracy speculation as the murder of President Kennedy. As one who has nurtured a lifelong interest in the Kennedy presidency and the legacy of the Kennedy family, I have seen and sampled the multiplying, contradictory, yet equally persuasive theories various ones of varying views have advanced through the years. In truth, I doubt we will ever know for sure what truly happened fifty years ago today, and why, till we sit under the tree of life and ask the Lord Himself.
Conspiracy theories thrive on suspicion of authority and established institutions. Such speculation can, of course, be found across the spectrums of both political and religious thought, as persons of strong conviction on either end of these spectrums tend to view “the establishment” (whatever it is) as more concerned with self-preservation than strict adherence to principles of any kind. In the secular political realm, such theories flourish from left to right—from Oliver Stone to the John Birch Society. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, such theories are found in liberal as well as conservative theological circles—from those liberals who accuse the General Conference and the White Estate of allegedly concealing incriminating “facts” about Ellen White and unique Adventist doctrines, to those conservatives who claim the spiritual declension of recent decades in the First World church is largely traceable to “Jesuit infiltration” or other sinister plots.
Perhaps the worst thing about conspiracy theories is the disempowerment they exert on so many goodhearted yet gullible people. Whether in the church or society, such theories tend to create feelings of helplessness—that forces far bigger than ordinary people are responsible for the terrible things that transpire, and thus that wrongdoing can’t possibly be stopped or reversed by “paeans like me.’ In no setting is such thinking more destructive than among God’s people as they face the final crisis. While none can deny that real conspiracies exist, both in the world and the church, obsession with such possibilities tends to obscure the fact that most bad things that happen to institutions as well as individuals are the simple, often uncomplicated results of the bad choices people persist in making.
Ralph Waldo Emerson perhaps said it best, “In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite simple” (5).
IV. High ideals are the best source of inspiration. In his famed inaugural message, President Kennedy spoke of defending freedom “in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it.” He went on to speak of the vigorous pursuit of justice and similar ideals, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Seventh-day Adventists would do well to heed this challenge, particularly in the spiritual realm. Too much of Adventist theology and spirituality in recent times has nurtured a spirit of self-accommodation, the quest for a comfort level where assurance and peace of mind—rather than the achievement of difficult goals—has defined the understanding many hold concerning the gospel and salvation. Articles, books, and theological messages revolve too often around personal experience—and too often, personal failure—as the means whereby people filter and process the robust summonses of God’s Word.
I remember watching an interview with the late Rose Kennedy, matriarch of the Kennedy family, following Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968. One was dumbstruck by the resilient courage of this woman—having lost one child in war, two to political murder, one in a plane crash, and still another to mental illness. Looking steadfastly at the camera, Mrs. Kennedy declared in a steady, steely voice, “I will not be vanquished!”
What excuse do Seventh-day Adventists have, possessing as they do God’s ultimate message for mankind, in crafting theologies in which defeat is taken for granted? When the infinite power of God lies each moment at the command of every penitent sinner, what business do we have telling the world that disobedience to God’s commandments remains inevitable, even for one filled with the grace and power of the Lord Jesus Christ?
V. We serve the ultimate Conqueror of death. Through all his soaring rhetoric, John Kennedy remained a hard realist who never claimed to be anyone’s savior, certainly not in a spiritual sense! But human beings often invest beloved figures with larger-than-life quality. And when such a one is savagely cut down, the image of remembrance grows larger still. As Larry Sabato has noted in his masterful, just-released account of the Kennedy legacy: “Martyrdom’s blood and tears can wash away grievous sins—the martyr’s and our own” (6).
Beautiful words, perhaps, yet misleading. The blood of only one Martyr can wash away sin (I John 1:7). A vast and lustrous gallery of heroes are remembered and honored by humanity, but only One of these vanquished death by his own bodily emergence from the grave. Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr—and yes, John and Robert Kennedy—all in their own way inspired and motivated millions. But all of them are dead. Jesus of Nazareth, by contrast, ever lives as the divine-human Redeemer of those who claim His grace and His mercy for pardon and for power.
Conclusion: The Eternal Flame
At the tender age of ten, I stood beside the slain President’s grave, with its tongues of fire flashing their weather-defiant, never-fading light. Yet a fire even more consuming, even more powerful, even more unquenchable, fills my heart today—the passion imparted by God’s final message to the world in the angelic warnings of Revelation, chapter 14. The glory that one day soon will lighten every continent of earth through the Spirit-empowered conquest of every sin in the lives of committed Christians. That flame of unconquerable love whose compassion, no less than its consecration, brooks no compromise with evil.
At last year’s GYC convocation in Seattle, Washington, the theme song was, “Revolution’s Flame.” The chorus read:
But only by God’s Spirit can the work on earth proceed.
Let us rely upon that plan which can alone succeed.
That this revolutionary flame might burn longer and more glorious than the one still dancing bright on the resting place of President John F. Kennedy, is my heartfelt prayer and deathless hope on this tragic day of remembrance.
- William Doyle, An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 (New York: Random House, 2001), pp. 37-48.
- William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 (New York, Bantam Books, 1974), p. 890.
- CNN/ORC poll, reported Nov. 22, 2013.
- Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), p. 229.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, The Cycles of American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1986), p. 292.
- Larry J. Sabato, The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 1.