Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Being Adventist in the Wake of Charlottesville

My church has a troubled track record on race. I studied it once, for a campmeeting afternoon seminar for young adults.  I composed the lecture with a five-month-old in a pack on my chest, reaching around whichever twin refused to sleep, to type on my laptop. And I delivered it to all of a half-dozen participants. But it left it's mark on me, if on no one else.

Right now, while my country is enraged over racially-motivated violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, it's all coming back.  Because I know my church knows what to say about this.  We have the right ideology, the right theology of the value of mankind. And yet all we are able to do is shake our heads from a distance.

I think I know why. We have such a mixed record when it comes to race.  We have such a mixed example now.  We were among the first to invade the American south to educate (and not just evangelize) former slaves, but a hundred years later many thought segregated churches were a moral obligation. We abhor human inequality in no uncertain terms, and yet we can't seem to find a way to de-segregate our racially divided conferences in parts of the US.*

What is our problem?  Well, there's the usual susceptibility to culture--the fact that we are products of our context, even though we try to think beyond it.  And then there's the way we cling to an instruction rather than applying a principle (Ellen White had urged segregated churches after both black and white workers had met violence from the opposition.)  But our real problem, at heart, isn't about racism.

I won't claim there isn't racism in the church, or even that it's not a serious problem.  But the trouble that haunts the soul of this denomination isn't how we feel about race.  It's how we feel about activism.

Before the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation, there were activists in the church. But the prophecies of Revelation talked of slaves in Babylon at the end of time, and many, including Uriah Smith and James White, insisted that it was wasted work to push for the end of slavery.  It couldn't happen, so the time was better spent freeing men from spiritual bondage.

Even after the Civil War, the church discouraged former slaves from fighting for political or social equality, urging that they would do more good by keeping their heads down and working hard.  Besides, Smith argued, the eschatology still applied.  That meant slavery was bound to come back into play.

In the 1920s, church administration gave up on the idea that our institutions would voluntarily de-segregate, and we created black Regional Conferences in parts of the US.  From the record, one feels that the disappointment in the church was as palpable as the relief.

And then came the 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement.  But it hadn't come from us.  We could have taken that opportunity for change, but the church was suspicious.  We saw dangerous elements in the protests.  Some accused Martin Luther King of being a Marxist.  Although Adventists, many of them young people, did participate, church leaders often warned them not to.

In 1963, a Review and Herald article urged members generally to take the "middle of the road" and not rock the boat.  In 1965, Oakwood students were told they would be disciplined if they participated in King's famous march on Washington.

And finally we come to Charlottesville.  We are sickened by the news from Virginia.  We're grieved that anyone could hold and promote racist views in our midst.  But we stop short of saying too much, because we're not comfortable with the counter-protesters either.  We don't identify with people who step out into the streets to have a confrontation with an ideology that's wrong. I know I don't.

 The Adventist response is to issue statements, sad and measured, and insisting we don't condone the racism or the violence.  But the statements are nothing better than paper for the people living the violence.  I'm not sure they're a comfort to those living the racism, either.

This is our trouble with issues of social justice.  It's not that be don't believe in equality.  But we are, as a denomination, allergic to activism.

Activism is political, and we don't want to b lumped into someone else's party agenda. It's confrontational, and we don't want to escalate the conflict. Most of all, it's social, and we are too busy talking about the gospel.  And so, because we don't march, we are left issuing statements.

But the gospel ought to change the world.  So if we are sitting back and letting others change it, if we cannot even change the church, are we really living the gospel?  What if the harmony of races actually is the incarnation of the gospel in our time?**

I am uneasy about it all.  Because I'm not comfortable with punching Nazis.  But I don't want to be comfortable doing nothing, either.

Charlottesville is an opportunity for you and me.  We can either use the chance to pat ourselves on the back, because we're so much more enlightened and godly than the Nazis.  Or we can take the opportunity to question ourselves.  In what way does our faith make the world a better place?  What are we doing about problems like racism?  What do we want to be doing?

*We also have a problem transferring that equality to men and women.  Many in our midst, for reasons I can't explain, believe that "separate but equal" is actually a thing if you apply it to gender instead of race.  But that's another conversation.

**Not, of course, the entirety of the incarnation of the gospel. We have a lot more problems to address than race.

{Since I am writing from a college campus, I feel compelled to include an informal (and casually formatted) bibliography for my historical assertions.  These are my sources:

Ronald D. Graybill, Ellen White and Race Relations, Review and Herald, 1970.  This entire volume is available to read online here:

Bert Haloviak, "The Impact of SDA Eschatological Assumptions on Certain Issues of Social Policy," Race Summit Workshop Presentation, October 27, 1999. This paper can be found here:

AT News Team, "Adventists Remember the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King and the Impact on the Church," Adventist Today August 28, 2013. Found here:

Bill Knott, "A Journey and a March," Adventist Review 2005. Found here: }


  1. I agree. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

  2. If I have to look at another 'white' depiction of Jesus used/pushed as a desensitizer /sedative for NOT springing into action against racism and (global) slavery I am going to puke!

    1. A 'black' depiction isn't any better. He was a Palestinian Jew.

  3. I've been an Adventist and a political activist for more than 4 decades. It makes my brethren uncomfortable, especially the ones who are secret Democrats. I saw the abuses perpetrated by government agencies upon the people they were supposedly helping - especially on kids caught up in the system. My work with nonprofits with government agencies made a small government conservative out of me. I look around and see the world wondering after Babylon like the old evangelists used to preach when I was a kid. I thought we were watchmen on the walls. Instead, my brethren too often counsel me to remain quiet about the threat outside the walls and to focus on foolish controversies going on inside the walls. Political activism has a long history in Scripture. Samson, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Nathan, Elisha, Jeremiah, Daniel, virtually all of the minor prophets, John the Baptist, all the disciples who were killed or imprisoned by angry governments and Christ Himself who was crucified in order to silence his criticism of the government (the Jewish priesthood was the government in Judea for all practical purposes). Should we remain silent as the Vatican works full time to reunite Christendom under the Catholic banner and to create a "global government with teeth" as suggested in a papal bull a few years back?

    As Martin Luther said, "I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen."

    Tom King

  4. Personally? I disair for the Church ever being that light set on the hill. It seems to me that secular morality has surpassed that of the church in so maney ways. I don't see how you can be a Christian by today's definition and still be a follower of Jesus.

  5. Totally agree Tom; keep up the good work. For my "anonymous" friend who seems unaware that the original Hebrews were Black, while trying to find comfort in labelling Jesus a Palestinian Jew, overlooks the evidence in history, archeology and anthropology. So please get comfortable with a Jesus who possibility looks like you, or you may not want to go to "heaven".

  6. this was such a good read. it is nice to see you concerned about all that goes and and giving it a though unlike all the others. keep posting more