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(Image credits: My mom, from Dauchua Concentration Camp, Germany)

“And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).

My brother texted me a story a few minutes ago that was eye-opening. The headline reads, “Adventist Leaders in Germany Apologize for World War I Stance.” The first paragraph summarizes this intriguing concept:

A hundred years after World War I created a split among German Seventh-day Adventists that remains to this day, the church’s two unions in Germany have apologized for the combative stance taken by church leaders during the war and for their treatment of dissidents who left to create the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement.

As I read through the article, it reminded me of another article of a similar nature that I read a few years ago – also in the Adventist Review. That time, on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Adventist churches in both Germany and Austria also apologized for the role they played during the Holocaust in both supporting the Nazi activities during the war, as well as neglecting to protect the Jews and others from genocide.

Two wars, two apologies – decades after the events occurred; in fact, in the case of World War I, it was a full century after the event, with people apologizing for events that occurred before they were even born.

What a beautiful picture of corporate repentance – a concept you need to wrap your mind around if you’ve never encountered it before.

It is, in fact, a biblical concept – and a vital one at that. Throughout Scripture, individuals and groups frequently apologized for sins they themselves had not committed. In some cases, apologies were made on behalf of others from a previous generation. One example of this is found in Nehemiah 9:2, after a remnant had returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity. “Then those of Israelite lineage,” Nehemiah records, “separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

Interestingly, according to Ellen White, Jesus Himself repented on others’ behalf: “After Christ had taken the necessary steps in repentance, conversion, and faith in behalf of the human race,” she explains, “He went to John to be baptized of him in Jordan” (General Conference 1901, p. 36). Again, she writes, “Christ came not confessing His own sins; but guilt was imputed to Him as sinner’s substitute. He came not to repent on His own account; but in behalf of the sinner” (Review and Herald, January 21, 1873).

All this turns my attention to another event in the relatively-recent past whose ripple effects across the universe has been even more drastic than both World Wars. In fact, had things gone differently for this event, the bloodshed and heartache of the 20th century never would have happened.

Those who are at all familiar with Seventh-day Adventist history perhaps know what I’m talking about. It’s known simply by its four-digit number: 1888. It was then that the “Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones,” according to Ellen White (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 91). This “most precious message” was destined by God to go to the entire world, announcing and displaying His love in a way that had – and still has – never been witnessed before. It was the “loud cry” message of Revelation 18 that would enlighten the whole world with God’s glory and usher in Christ’s Second Coming.

But something went drastically awry: “The light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted,” Ellen White recounted in 1896 “and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world” (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 234). Not only was the light resisted, Christ and His “delegated messengers” were treated with disdain and scorn. The Holy Spirit was “grieved” and “insulted” (Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 468). And on and on these sad descriptors go.

And it leaves me wondering: is there a place to follow the example of our German and Austrian brothers and sisters and acknowledge what “we” have done in resisting, insulting, and grieving the Godhead through the events that happened in 1888 and their aftermath? Is God pouring upon His people the “Spirit of grace and supplication” that He promised through Zechariah, which leads us to look to Christ and mourn and grieve for Him because of how we’ve treated Him?

The Germans and Austrians realize something: they realize that healing can take place only when the “giant elephant” in the room is acknowledged and repented of. They realize that platitudes and warm words mean nothing in the present if hurts from the past are not dealt with – and, similarly, that events of the past are bound to be repeated if they are not confronted.

This is just a simple and humble appeal – first and foremost to myself.

So what do we have to lose when it comes to our corporate denominational history?

It could bring only healing.

And maybe even the Second Coming.