“…she could see by their shocked and burning faces
that even their virtues were being burned away.”
We hate ourselves all too easily, and so in its call to love of neighbor the Bible also affirms the love of self. But it never affirms self-satisfaction.
The Adventist Forum’s Conference in Chattanooga was a call to strong Christian identity coupled with love, not hostility, toward those different from ourselves. Not proud love. Not even kindness merely. It was a call to something deeper and more unsettling. The talks and conversation grabbed us by the shoulders and besought our commitment to listen and to learn from others. From Muslims and Hindus. From Jews and Buddhists. From Atheists, too.
Diversity in worldview is not an irritant you put up with, speakers said, but a genuine help. God cannot, after all, be mastered. Insight from people not ourselves, cracks open the prisonhouse of arrogance. It grants understanding we would otherwise miss, and enriches who we are. “We do,” one speaker said, “have gifts to offer, but only if we’re prepared to accept gifts from others.”
The God-intoxicated Flannery O’Connor, writing about the American South in a time of blatant racial prejudice, wrote about a Mrs. Turpin who takes in and sizes up all the people seated with her in a physician’s waiting room. The fat one, the pleasant one, the white-trashy one in the cotton print dress—she finds herself feeling superior to them all. And to at least one person in the room Mrs. Turpin comes across that way. She is young, bookish, angry and troubled, and when she has had her stomach full, she hurls her book toward Mrs. Turpin, landing it on a spot just over her left eye. Springing to her feet, the girl follows up with an attack both verbal—“…you old warthog”—and physical. But in the end it is the angry girl who, to a background of murmurings that she “is going to be a lunatic,” is carried away in an ambulance.
At dusk back on the farm, watering the pigs, the decent and deeply shaken Mrs. Turpin loses herself in a fury of disbelief. “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to,” she thinks. How could someone call her a hog?
Suddenly the highway that cuts through the cotton fields in front of her seems to extend upward, and she is seeing “a vast horde of souls…rumbling toward heaven.” There are white trash, black folk in white robes “and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.” The people like her, the respectable ones, are at the end of the procession, so shocked by who is ahead of them that “even their virtues” are being “burned away.”
O’Connor’s story is called “Revelation,” and it is about the same washing away of self-satisfaction that occurs whenever you realize you are not, after all, better than everyone else. The realization is altogether healthy, but it requires the shock of revelation, the disturbing honesty that comes easily to no one and leaves a wound even as it alters and improves your self-awareness.
We Adventists make up a community long steeped in the sense of specialness. And the gifts we enjoy—the fervent and unruly hope, the blessing of Sabbath, the passion for wholeness—do constitute a priceless heritage. But the temptation to self-satisfaction stifles honesty in our circle. We know how official conversation in official publications and official gatherings seems too careful and too packaged. We know how easy it is to repeat self-satisfying bromides and to throw up walls against humility and truthfulness.
Those walls didn’t crumble in Chattanooga—that would be, as we Adventists like to say, the work of a lifetime—but they cracked and some of the pieces fell, and if the effect was destabilizing it was also energizing. There is sweet liberation, not just pain, in the shock of revelation, the shattering of tired paradigms. We need others? Yes, we do! Humility matters as much as confidence? Yes, it does.
I chair the board of the Adventist Forum, sponsor of the Conference and publisher of this website and of Spectrum magazine. The people who make up the board care with all their hearts and minds about the flourishing of Adventism. They care just as much—no, care even more—about honest conversation. Honesty to the point of hurt is the only way to escape self-satisfaction; it is the only way to dig deeper into the true meaning of our faith and mission.
You can help. Every non-profit must earn the trust and support of its constituents. We will continue to foster the sort of experience so many people had in Chattanooga, and we will continue to publish in the spirit of truthfulness and determination to improve. We won’t be perfect, so your help can take two forms: edifying criticism, which we need as much as anyone, and generous, regular financial support.
The Adventist organization has its voices and its megaphones. The people the organization serves have voices that matter just as much. The Adventist Forum and its publications intend to be the people’s megaphone. That’s our intention and our promise.
You can contribute from this website, and help to make this church stronger for its Lord.
There’s so much more to talk about. How we can grow beyond self-satisfaction and still share with the world gifts that truly matter? How can we listen and learn and, at the same, challenge those different from ourselves?
That is a difficult conversation, too. Let us engage it together.
Illustration by Flannery O'Connor.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5528