All texts are taken from the New International Version of the Bible unless otherwise stated.
In Part 1 of “Compelling Christianity,” we talked about giving up our right to be angry about the issue of racism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We acknowledged that blacks have been victims of racism since the inception of the Church, but we pointed to evidence from the Bible, from Ellen White, from Oswald Chambers, and from James Baldwin that indicates the path to reconciliation means giving up our rights to ourselves. In Part 2, we will present one possible solution to this issue.
The Seal of Damnation
1 Thessalonians 3:12 says, “And may the Lord cause you to increase and excel and overflow in love for one another, and for all people…” (AMP). This is just one text that helps us to understand the biblical view of excellence. To God (and for Christians), excellence is a matter of deliberately improving our interpersonal relationships and treating each other better. Jesus teaches the same lesson when He is asked about the greatest commandment: “‘...Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” To God, excellence is a matter of love.
In “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation,” James Baldwin says to his 1963 black audience, “You were born into a society that spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” Spiritual mediocrity is saying we forgive, but holding on to our right to separate ourselves from “the authors of devastation.” By maintaining the existing barrier, we are buying into the very method of subjugation put in place for us. Separation is spiritual mediocrity, and by continuing the pattern, we are sealing our own damnation. Following Christ means releasing the perpetrators of racism from guilt.
But, releasing them from guilt does not mean ignoring their actions. Indeed, “it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Baldwin uses innocence ironically here. In the first case, innocence means having done nothing wrong. In the second case, innocence means ignorance of wrongdoing. Baldwin is saying it’s criminal that they aren’t aware of their wrongdoing.
We are called to hold our brothers accountable for their hurtful behavior. Baldwin suggests that “...we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (emphasis added).
The juxtaposition of the terms “with love” and “force” brings us to a very challenging place. How do we make someone listen to something they don’t want to hear? How do we start a conversation that we don’t want to begin? How do we build a relationship with someone who actively causes us pain? We do not know the answers to these questions, but we do know that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Ephesians 4:17-32 is subtitled Instructions for Christian Living. In this section, Paul seems to be speaking directly to the 21st century Seventh-day Adventist: put off your old self, do not give in to your deceitful desires, put on the new self, put off falsehood, speak truthfully to your neighbor, in your anger do not sin, and more! We must take steps to begin the process, hurtful though it may be.
Spiritual excellence includes both forgiveness and accountability. Luke 17:3-4 says:
Pay attention and always be on guard [looking out for one another]! If your brother sins and disregards God’s precepts, solemnly warn him; and if he repents and changes, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him [that is, give up resentment and consider the offense recalled and annulled]. (AMP)
There is an equation here: spiritual excellence = accountability + forgiveness + longsuffering. If any of these elements is missing in the process, we are not being spiritually excellent. In order to prioritize God’s way, we must submit our personal rights and hold our brothers accountable.
The Road of Reconciliation
Some suggest the solution to this problem is to dissolve regional conferences; we disagree. Others suggest dissolving state conferences is the place to begin; we disagree with this, too. Dissolving any conference at this point before our relationships are fixed can lead to power-hungry behavior. We don’t know what the structure of the SDA church should look like, but we must begin the process by fixing our relationships.
We are in no way suggesting that we should overlook racism and become passive aggressive about it or sing “Kumbaya” and breathe deeply in hopes that’ll fix everything. When Jesus saw His Father’s house changed into a market, He acted immediately and quite aggressively. Where there is injustice, the people of God should move to bring justice. Spiritual excellence is the higher calling to which we should aspire.
It requires faith to be forgiving. This fact is underscored by the disciples’ response to Jesus’ instructions in Luke 17: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.’” Jesus is the author and finisher of every aspect of our faith, and we must turn to Him to fully realize a forgiving spirit.
But, the solution to the race relations problem in the SDA church is not just forgiveness.
It is reconciliation.
Reconciliation includes forgiveness, but it extends to the release of guilt and returning to, or beginning, a healthy relationship. Reconciliation means forgiving as Jesus forgives: for the purpose of the restoration of relationship, not so that we can have a reason to be separate. The only way to do this successfully and long-term is to begin by reconciling ourselves to Jesus. There is so much negative history between white and black people in America that if we begin the process without first having Jesus in our hearts, we’re doomed to fail. It’s too hard, nay impossible, to reconcile without Jesus at the helm at all times, not just when it immediately benefits us or makes us feel good.
And if we’re being honest, we don’t know how; we don’t even know if we want to. But we do know that “God will not shield us from the requirements of sonship. God’s grace produces men and women with a strong family likeness to Jesus Christ, not pampered, spoiled weaklings” (emphasis added). If the SDA church is to finish the work that God has before us, we must seek God to lead us to a reconciliation between all people.
As tempting as it is to run away when we are faced with difficult racial situations, lasting change comes from the inside. Jesus didn’t run, nor did He use His divine power, when He was being talked about, ignored, marginalized, spat on, kicked, slapped in the face, speared in the side, and nailed to the cross. He loved us through every single brutal act, and He didn’t wait until He was resurrected to release us from the wrong we were doing Him. He released us as He was bleeding to death.
Spiritual excellence requires that we do the same.
The Approach of David
We have never seen healthy corporate race relations in our country or in our church, so we don’t really know what it looks like. But we have a biblical suggestion for finding the answer to the problem. We call it The Approach of David.
In 1 Samuel 30, David and his men returned from battle to find their village had been burned and all of their wives and children had been kidnapped. The Bible says that “David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.” In this situation, the appropriate response seems obvious. David was a man of war, a commander of a powerful army, and his enemies had committed a blatant act of aggression against them. What do you do when someone kidnaps your wife and children? Obviously, you go Liam Neeson on ‘em.
Get. Them. Back.
But that is not what David did, and this is evidence of the reason he is called “a man after God’s own heart.” In this situation, David prayed a curious prayer: “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?” What do you mean shall I? What kind of question is that? And that’s the key to The Approach of David. Even though the answer to the question seems obvious, even though you have the right to react a certain way, even though some may say you have a responsibility to react in that way, we as disciples of Jesus Christ are not called to react; we are called to seek the face of God.
And sometimes God says “go get them,” as he did in 1 Samuel 30, but other times God will give you a different plan. The key to the Approach of David is to seek God’s will and to be obedient to His plan of action, even when it does not coincide with our strong preferences.
In contrast, 2 Samuel 6 provides an excellent example of what happens when we do not follow God’s plan and we do what we think is right. The chapter tells the well-known story of Uzzah and the Ark. If you recall, Uzzah was the man who tried to steady the Ark of God when the oxen pulling the cart stumbled. When Uzzah touched the Ark of God, “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.” Uzzah’s error was his own, but David was the one who had orchestrated the circumstances. When David conceived and executed the plan to bring the ark to Jerusalem, he did not ask God if he should take that action. Again, the plan seemed obvious: move the Ark of God to the capital. But David’s failure to seek the face of God meant he lacked both God’s permission and His plan to fulfill the task. If David had moved the Ark God’s way, the oxen would have never stumbled because oxen weren’t supposed to be moving the Ark of God at all.
1 Samuel is full of stories of David’s rise, and 2 Samuel is full of stories of David’s failures. We, too, will have successes and failures as we pursue loving relationships. Inevitably, when we try to change a habit, particularly one we feel justified in having, our inner selves will fight back. C.S. Lewis says, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good… We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it.”
But we need not fear ourselves nor the enemy when we are trying to do the will of God. “Satan with all the host of evil cannot destroy the weakest of God’s saints. Angels that excel in strength will protect them, and in their behalf Jehovah will reveal himself as a ‘God of gods,’ able to save to the uttermost those who have put their trust in him.” When we continually seek the face of God in both our successes and our failures, we are called men and women after God’s own heart.
The Approach of David means there is not one cookie-cutter solution to the problem of racism in the Adventist church. The solution may look different from one community to the next. But God is calling us to reconcile with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is up to each one of us to respond to this call.
We don’t have all of the answers, but let’s begin seeking the answers together.
Compelling Christianity (Part 1)
Notes & References:
Bedney, Donald L. “The Dissolution of Regional Conferences: Another Perspective.” Spectrum, March 20, 2017.
Lehmann, Claire. “The Evils of Cultural Appropriation.” Tablet Magazine, 11 June 2018.
Nixon II, John. “God's New Thing.” Divine Worship, June 30, 2018, Takoma Park, Takoma Park SDA Church.
 Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation.” Dial Press, 1963.
 White, Ellen G. Prophets and Kings. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1917. (513)
Clarise Nixon is a Cultural Intelligence certified Assistant Professor in the English Department at Southern Adventist University. She enjoys cooking and working as an amateur food critic.
Paul Nixon is the Founder and CEO of Virtual VP, a new education consulting firm that provides support services to busy school administrators and teachers. He also writes success tips for teachers, administrators, and parents at his blog found at www.virtualviceprincipal.com. He stays connected to the profession by teaching part time at Oakwood Adventist Academy and Oakwood University.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9527