His name is Bert B. Beach. Until his retirement in July 1995, he was director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department (PARL) of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Among religious leaders of other denominations worldwide, Dr Beach is, in the words of Adventist theologian Roy Adams, probably the best-known living Adventist. An observer at the Second Vatican Council, Dr Beach also wrote a book on the subject: Vatican II: Bridging the Abyss. He later published Ecumenism: Boon or Bane? I had the opportunity to speak with an exceptionally simple and friendly man, despite the fact that at the age of 85 he had been in contact with some of the world’s most important religious and political leaders.

Dr Beach, you are well known in religious circles for your very long work as a defender of religious freedom for all and as a diplomat in inter-church and inter-religious relations. What factors prepared you for this remarkable career?

I am a citizen of the world. My father, although American, worked in Switzerland, where the Adventist Church’s regional organisation for Southern Europe was based. So I was born in Gland, where the Adventist Church has a famous hospital and medical clinic. I’m not afraid to tell you the year: 1928. From there, my father moved to Brussels. French was already my mother tongue, so it was very easy for me in Belgium. Then we moved to Paris, where my father worked for four years. But in 1936 my father was transferred back to Switzerland, to Berne, as secretary general of the regional organisation. At school we studied literary German, and in everyday life we spoke Swiss German or Bernese. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I was able to go to America and learn English.

Then I went back to Europe, did a doctorate in history at the Sorbonne and later a doctorate in theology in my church. For a while, I worked at the Adventist college in Villa Aurora, near Florence, and learned Italian. Being able to speak all these languages has helped me a lot in developing direct and close relationships with many personalities around the world. Having lived in so many places in my youth, I have learned to appreciate different cultures and to be attuned to their peculiarities.

Have you met people who have inspired and motivated you to work in the field of religious freedom?

When I was working in Paris, I met Dr Jean Nussbaum, an extraordinary man who is remembered by some older Romanian pastors and believers. He had a great influence on me.

Dr Nussbaum was Swiss doctor whose father was a pastor. During the First World War, his government sent Nussbaum to Serbia as a doctor to help the Serbs who needed medical help to care for the sick. In Serbia, he met and married a nurse from a noble family. In this way he established links with the Serbian royal family. As a result, he met people from all over the world. He had a rare gift: he knew people and had a great influence on them. There were members of the government who felt honoured to know him. I always felt that I was the one who was honoured when I had to meet an official. Dr Nussbaum could make others feel honoured.

I remember in the 1950s when I was the director of the college in Villa Aurora, Italy. This was before television; radio dominated the communications market. I remember that at six o’clock in the evening the main news of the day was broadcast and probably half the population of Italy listened to it. The bulletin began with this news: “This morning the President of the Italian Republic received a visit from a special guest, Dr Jean Nussbaum, with whom he discussed the problem of religious freedom in the world.”

I said to myself, “This man has a gift!” I worked with him for a short time in Paris and then took over some of his responsibilities at the European level and then at the global level. I was convinced that there were diplomatic means by which we could influence people to treat each other’s beliefs and religions with respect.

Tell us more about how you have promoted the cause of religious freedom. How have you dealt with authorities and governments when they have neglected or restricted the freedom of their citizens?

I don’t think you have to attack the authorities, especially if your church is a minority church. It is a different matter if you are part of a large church with millions of believers in a given country. A big church that makes waves survives easily. For example, the Orthodox Church in Romania can resist government decisions. A minority church cannot do that because it does not have a large number of votes in the political arena.

I have always believed that we have to make friends, get to know the leaders of the country before we have problems. It is unwise to approach them for the first time when we are facing a serious crisis. I can give you examples where there have been problems because a church was not known. If they had been known beforehand, their members would have been able to resolve the situation.

I believe that we, as representatives of the churches, need to be open, honest, and sincere. We have to be able to talk to people, get to know them and make ourselves known. We have to show them—and this is what my church is constantly trying to do—that we are loyal citizens, that we understand our responsibilities towards our own country, that we do our best for the economic, social, and moral well-being of the people. This is what I have learnt from my experience.

I have not tried to be in the news by writing offensive letters or making hostile speeches to officials. Maybe we will have to do that too sometimes, when a government makes completely wrong decisions. We may have to take a stand, but most of the time we don’t have to do that; we can help a lot more by being influential and explaining why we have to take that stand.

Sometimes people don’t understand—for example, in the army, where military service is compulsory. I remember some problems I had with military service in Greece a long time ago. If a soldier refuses to work on Saturdays, or refuses to carry a weapon, this attitude can be seen as defiance of one’s country, as disloyalty when the country is facing something like a civil war. There are partisans, there are foreign influences. Such a soldier, for reasons of conscience, can be seen as being on the side of these foreign powers, instead of being seen as a loyal citizen who wants to serve his country, but at the same time he wants to serve God—he wants to do both.

So this is what you call silent diplomacy.

Some people call it making friends and influencing other people. It takes time and persistence. Sometimes people give up too easily. I’m reminded of a neighbour in England. The Church had just established its headquarters in St Albans. I remember that people in the area got scared. One neighbour immediately put up a fence! “I have heard that the Seventh-day Adventists are coming. They’re dangerous,” someone said. Later the man apologised. “I didn’t know who you were. If I had known who you were, I wouldn’t have spent money on a fence I didn’t need.”

People don’t understand us. I met a church leader, a good Baptist theologian, who said to me, “You call yourselves Seventh-day Adventists. That means the most important things to you are the return of Jesus and the Sabbath. That is your creed.” I replied, “You’re not quite right. We believe in salvation through Jesus. That is the most important thing. The Christian life is the most important thing. The two doctrines mentioned point to something that distinguishes us from others.” I added: “You are a Baptist. That means the most important thing for you is baptism”. He said, “Not quite. The most important thing is salvation!”

There are often misunderstandings. Another theologian once said to me: “Your name is Seventh-day Adventist. That means you expect Christ to return on the seventh day!” This had never occurred to me. I had to explain to him that this is not what our denomination believes.

If we don’t reach out to people, if we don’t talk to them, if we don’t explain to them, if we don’t give them a reason to believe, as the Apostle Peter tells us to do, we won’t even know what things they misunderstand. Peter says: “Always be ready to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, but with gentleness and reverence, with a pure mind.”

You have met and discussed and worked with many people from other denominations. How would you describe these relationships?

Adventists are not members of the World Council of Churches (WCC). What is not known is that we could not even be a member, because we are a world religious denomination, and this council is organised in such a way that only national churches can be members, not world religious denominations. In other words, the Lutheran World Federation or the World Alliance of Reformed Churches did not join the Council. These organisations are not part of the WCC because the WCC is made up of the national Lutheran churches of Norway, Denmark, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and so on. So that is how it is made up. I was a consultant there and met with these people. I had some interesting conversations with them.

The same thing happened with people from another organisation called World Religious Denominations. The Adventist Church is one of these world religious denominations. This organisation has annual meetings. The secretaries of these religious denominations meet every year. I have been attending these meetings for 36 years.

I think I was their secretary for 32 years until I retired. My successor in the Adventist Church worldwide, Dr. John Graz, took over my position. I have been secretary for so long that they are happy to have another Seventh-day Adventist as secretary. They appreciate that we do our job and help everybody, that we are honest and not biassed. We haven’t just tried to defend our interests, we have defended the interests of the whole group that is there.

On the other hand, we have had very useful discussions on a broader level, for example with some denominations that also keep or have kept the seventh-day Sabbath. We have also had theological discussions with the World Council of Churches, with the Faith and Order department. These discussions took place a long time ago. I think they started in 1968 and lasted until 1972-1973. For a number of years we had annual meetings to discuss what we believed, what our direction was, what our expectations were. They explained to us their position, what their expectations were. They were very useful discussions that opened our eyes in certain ways. They began to treat us with more respect. One result of these meetings is that we have been invited to be part of the organisation of the World Christian Confessions. We had not been invited before.

You have worked to make the Adventist Church better understood. Have you noticed a consolidated change in the perception of Seventh-day Adventists over time?

Yes. I think we Adventists had a more difficult start. We broke away from the Millerite movement, which had set dates for the second coming of Christ. The Adventist Church has never set dates; the Millerite movement did that. Some of the Millerites came later and formed the Adventist Church. They talked to their members about the second coming of Jesus, about the need to “come out of Babylon”, and because of this some hostility developed. The other churches sometimes saw these followers of William Miller, the Adventists, who were always talking about the second coming of Jesus, as a negative influence and excluded them from membership. So there was hostility from both sides. The beginning was not promising. In the early days of the Adventist Church, the Adventist evangelicals were quite aggressive. One of the things they liked to do was to challenge leaders of other churches to public debates. It should be noted that this was part of the culture of the time. Today it is not part of our culture. In any case, I have to admit that it was partly our fault.

Another part of the blame lies with other people, with prejudices and a poor understanding of religious freedom. Traditionally, even in the Catholic Church, religious freedom was seen as the right to truth. If you have the truth, you certainly have the right to religious freedom. If you don’t have the truth, you don’t have the right to religious freedom.

Fortunately, the Roman Catholic Church changed its mind at the Second Vatican Council [1962-1965]. History will tell us how long this change will last. They made a change and said: “Heresy may not have rights, but the individual does. You may not have all the rights to believe and teach heresy to others, but no one has the right to stop you from doing so.” It is true that this can be seen as religious freedom in a negative sense, but it is religious freedom. If I can preach my message, if I can teach others about my faith, if I can practise my religion and nobody has the right to stop me, that is a form of religious freedom. I like to put it in positive language and say I have the right to do that. But it can be expressed in other ways.

I think society in general has changed and become more tolerant—that is, when we talk in general, but in private it doesn’t always happen.

I think society has also become less religious. If you’re secularised, you don’t fight for your religious beliefs, even if you went to church when you were baptised and didn’t have the right to an opinion because you were a child. You may still go to church later for confirmation, or maybe for a wedding, and maybe your relatives will still take you to church when you die. This is what the spiritual life of a great many people in the Christian world today boils down to. They don’t have an active religious experience. Because there is now this atmosphere of secularised Christianity, it is easier for religious freedom to exist.

Going back to the question, at the international level where I’ve worked, most leaders of other churches feel that Seventh-day Adventists believe too much in eschatology or overemphasise the importance of the Sabbath. There are others who say, “Keep the Sabbath because we’re losing Sunday! It’s so good to have someone who keeps a day of worship.” I think it is going well. When people know us, they know that Seventh-day Adventists are good people, and that’s important.

We also have to realise that there are a lot of good people in other churches. Sometimes I get the impression that there are Adventists who think that the task of evangelising the world is only on our shoulders. I do not think that is true. It is true that we have that responsibility, but I believe that God uses other churches and other organisations and entities to preach the gospel.

When I was a child, there was very little talk about the second coming of Jesus, about salvation by faith. Maybe the Lutheran Church still talked about it. Today we have the Pentecostal movement with hundreds of millions of believers who talk about the second coming of Jesus. Maybe they don’t talk about it in the way we think they should. But it is very important that people are talking about the imminent coming of the kingdom of Jesus. I think that is a step forward.

Dr Beach, thank you for taking the time to share your perspective on the importance of good communication between believers of different churches and the vital importance of religious freedom.

Note: This is a television interview by Adrian Bocaneanu, broadcast on the Romanian HopeTV channel. The transcript of the interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.