“I Can’t Breathe!” Selected Lessons from George Floyd’s Death for the Global Adventist Church

In the June 2020 Adventist Review issue,[1] several articles were devoted to reactions to the murder of George Floyd in the United States and its aftermath. A number of these reactions are of interest to this paper.

Seventh-day Adventists are customarily considered by many people to be apathetic to social issues.[2] Jesus himself did not overlook them. Quoting Isaiah 61:1, 2 in Luke 4:18, 19, Jesus indicated that his ministry was focused on granting equity and justice to those people who have been abused by others — especially by those of higher status — in the society. Jesus did this because in the Bible God himself is repeatedly known as a God of justice (see, for instance, Isaiah 30:18), who intimately works for the justice of the underprivileged (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 10:18).

Based on this, it is appropriate to ask, did any leader in the Seventh-day Adventist Church say anything in respect to this saga of racism? If so, what? This article analyzes key persuasions expressed by eight church leaders and/or pastors in the Adventist Review issue who cared to comment publicly on the subject. Then it goes further to relate their viewpoints with the leadership situation in the Seventh-day Adventist Church on that basis.

It transpired on Monday, May 25, 2020. Four policemen in Minneapolis arrested and handcuffed George Floyd on allegations he was using a counterfeit bill. One of the four policemen kneeled on Mr. Floyd with one knee on his back and another on his neck. The other policemen kept vigil so that no one could salvage the father of five. The African American man lost his life after agonizingly struggling for breath[3] for almost nine minutes under the knee of the policeman. Out of the unfortunate death, unprecedented turmoil, protests, and looting of properties across the United States immediately erupted.[4]

Defining the Racist Incident

Most of the writers in the Adventist Review issue defined the incident in one way or the other. Singer, minister, and the church’s former representative to the U.S. Congress, Wintley Phipps wrote that “many African Americans live every day knowing that their color is a huge target on their backs.” The recording of this incident and others has shown the world “so much more of what is repulsive and vile in the American character.”[5] Ganoune Diop, director of the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, argues that this kind of racism is pegged on the unfortunate and infamous eisegetical explanation of Genesis 9:18–27.[6] This biblical account plainly attributes a servitude curse Noah uttered to his son Ham. The curse in this sense is inappropriately concluded by many white people to be a condemnation of the people of African descent. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) president, Michael Kruger, defined this death as one of the “national heritage of racism and violence… [a] heritage of racial inequality.”[7]

Leslie Pollard, president of Oakwood University, a historically Black Seventh-day Adventist University in Alabama, wrote a letter to the school’s community in regard to Floyd’s death. This was reproduced as an article in the Adventist Review.[8] He described Floyd’s murder as a manifestation of “the incessant devaluation of Black lives,” and an “unnecessary and senseless death.”[9]

Four key church administrators also reacted to this racist incident. Ted Wilson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, was vague in his article.[10] The closest he came to addressing the incident was at the beginning: “this has been a very challenging and difficult week with racist and prejudiced situations.” Then, he proceeded to articulate Micah 6:8 as an applicable approach to discourse on the subject of racism, so as “to show value to every human being. To show value to human dignity.”

Ella Smith Simmons, [11] general vice-president of the General Conference, was categorical. In her view, “racism can be defined as the devaluing of one group of people as inferior while super-valuing another group or other groups of people as superior.” She pointed out that the matter of racism is founded on the “acquisition and maintenance of power.” Quoting Deneen Brown in the National Geographic,[12] Simmons saw the way Floyd’s life was snapped out as evincing “the ultimate display of power of one human being over another.” Incidentally, such matters happen “even in the church.” She seemed to admit, on that basis, that “it is past time to acknowledge that indeed we have a problem in the church at all levels.”[13]

Perhaps the most articulate view expressed by an administrator was Daniel Jackson’s article.[14] Jackson is the recently retired president of the North American Division,[15] the territory under which the atrocity occurred. He hit, in my view, six sublime admissions:

One, horrendous happenings of Floyd’s magnitude are an “illustration of what happens when men feel that they are superior to others.” Two, “prejudice and bigotry [occur] even in the church.” Three, genuine “Seventh-day Adventists will demonstrate God’s love,” unlike the fake ones who garb themselves in a flimsy robe “in order to maintain our self-satisfied superiority.” Four, if our guidance is “based upon the life and teachings of Jesus,” such that “the gospel of Jesus Christ is active — it is not passive” in us, then our “broken and battered world” will experience the work of God on this planet. Not until we “go to our knees and ask God to make us his agents,” will our programs and objectives take on a new meaning. Fifth is the need for change and where it must commence: “our church needs transformation. If change is to take place in the church, then it needs to take place first in me.” Sixth and perhaps last, to say sorry. Twice he expresses how his conscience is stung in respect to those who have suffered in one way or the other even within the context of the church.

Gary Thurber, president of the Mid-America Union Conference, equally conceded blame for the senseless murder. In his words, “We have let out God down. I have let our God down. I have let my Black brothers and sisters down.” He feels that as a church “we need to say I’m sorry to those we have harmed by our actions or by our silence.”[16]

Michael Kruger was bold as to identify himself with the downtrodden.[17] This is what God is said to do (see, for instance, Ps. 140:12). Ella Simmons, on her part takes the point further. She asserts that Christians staying indolent (perhaps in the hope that God will sort matters out) is out of the question. In her words, “there was a time when God told his people to get up off their knees, to stop praying, and move forward… I hear that charge to move now.”[18] This is in tandem with the statement in Vic McCracken’s book, Christian Faith and Social Justice: “Just as God sides with the poor against the rich and powerful, so are Christians to align themselves with the poor against the unjust powers that prevail in the world. Today, such solidarity requires a radical posture… in which Christians ‘screw with’ the system.”[19]

The articles by the Adventist writers disprove the view that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is detached from social issues. Additionally, these contributions in the Adventist Review demonstrate that Floyd’s death exposed the fact that injustices are done not only in society, but surprisingly and painfully, also in the Remnant Church.[20] The focus, therefore, shifts from the occurrence in the community to what is rife in the church.

Three Sticky Situations

For a long time, Blacks have been denigrated in America. As late as the 20th century, Blacks were struggling to have racial inequalities overcome so as to have all people considered human beings. Martin Luther King, Jr. was outspoken and assassinated for the same. With the enactment of laws to safeguard the dignity of all human beings in the United States, which is the world’s superpower, anyone anywhere in the rest of the world could expect that belittling other people on the basis of their color would have been a thing of the past. Yet, with the protests that were witnessed in America and in some cities across the globe due to Floyd’s death, the truth of the matter has been exposed: racism is far from over.

Where do we take it from here? With the views expressed by the various writers in the Adventist Review, do Seventh-day Adventist leaders in the very many levels of the church system in essence relate in any way? Does the content in the issue affect their leadership over the peculiar people?[21] This section is interested with three salient points raised by the articles in the Adventist Review. The selection is influenced by the view of the author that the matters raised are of prime concern in the Seventh-day Adventist Church as they touch on matters of equity, justice, and the abuse of power. “Sticky” is used in this case to mean a situation of serious mess which snares up leaders and therefore requires extrication.

Power

One of the salient features in the George Floyd saga is the exhibition of power by the police who arrested him. Floyd cried out for water. He called out his mother (which in itself demonstrates a desperate situation for a man in most cultures). He could not control his bladder anymore. He bled. People pleaded with the policemen, the possessors of power, to show mercy. Nothing worked. The four policemen were insensitive to all such cries and pleas; they were determined to make him feel their power.

In that regard, Ella Simmons writes that racism is all about display and maintenance of power.[22] Actually, it is not a dislike of the color of the skin, for instance. It is the possession of power that makes the holders want to make it felt. It is this display and efforts to maintain whatever power there is that makes those who hold the power arrogant overlords since “they feel they are superior to others.”[23] Practically speaking, power easily fosters a feeling of superiority and consequently causes all kinds of social evils including elitism, nepotism, authoritarianism, racism, and many more –isms. As some writers in the Adventist Review pointed out, unfortunately, such is resplendent “in the church at all levels.”[24]

There is something forcefully awkward about power. Wielders of power enjoy it and use it at leisure. Especially when it is applied in a religious context, it causes great concerns. Author and pastor Richard Exley, in his book Perils of Power,[25] quotes theologian and writer Richard J. Foster, that

“power can be an extremely destructive thing in any context, but in the service of religion it is downright diabolical. Religious power can destroy in a way that no other power can… When we are convinced that what we are doing is identical with the kingdom of God, anyone who opposes us must be wrong. When we are convinced that we always use our power to good ends, we believe we can never do wrong. But when this mentality possesses us, we are taking the power of God and using it to our own ends.”

Exley concludes that “the most dangerous power of all is that which cloaks itself in the guise of religion.”[26]

It behooves honest thinkers to assess if what is actually done or seen to be done in some levels of the Seventh-day Adventist Church — from the local church up the ladder of management — is actually virtuous, let alone Christian. In a chat with a fellow pastor in a country in West Africa, I was told that it is no secret that woe unto you “if you do not belong to the ‘ruling party,’[27] or sing with those in the corridors of administration.”[28] Suppose Jesus confronted church leaders face-on, how would they fare? Are leadership positions used to devalue other people? How do leaders consider some of their fellow believers, or more precisely those fellow workers who serve with them in the vineyard of the Lord? As not-so-good fellows? As those to manipulate at will?

Perhaps the best way for the leader to handle himself is in imitating Jesus Christ as Paul posits in Philippians 2:5–7. In that passage, Paul notes that in matters dealing with how a Christian should relate with others, the imperative is for one to “empty” all the power and authority they possess. The Greek term kenoō (translated empty) denotes a process of causing something to be seen to be empty, although in reality it is not. For the purpose of the matter under consideration, then those in power ought to carry themselves about as though they did not have that power.

Action

The second sticky situation is the call to action that is incumbent upon leaders. The Seventh-day Adventist Church leadership is keen on adhering to policy in addressing matters that have affected its workers at any given point in time. However, more often than not in practice, this approach is more or less done mechanically. It lacks sensitivity, or is carried out insensitively, to the situation in question in relation to a worker.

In the case of George Floyd, the immediate activity that comes to many Christians’ minds as to be done is prayer. It is true that all the evil surmising and schemes originate from hearts that rejoice in, and accommodate, perfidy. This area must be addressed, to start with. As Thurber says, we must ask God “to help us search our hearts to reveal the prejudice and [evil] attitudes that reside there, and then ask him to create a new heart within us.”

Three writers[29] in the Adventist Review have quoted Micah 6:8. Certainly, the verse should be connected with that which comes immediately before it. The two verses say: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? [God] has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV). It is obvious from this text that God is concerned with not only theology, basic as that is, but also with a relational dimension of life.

An early commentary, expanding on verse eight, succinctly writes that to

“‘do justly,’ is to give to everyone, whether superiours (sic), equals, or inferiors, their due; to do in all things what is equal and right, not oppressing any, nor defrauding them in any kind of dealing, not to hurt them by word or deed, nor injure them in their persons, estates, or good name, or anything belonging to them. Second, to ‘love mercy,’ is not only to give to everyone what he might in justice require, but to be kind, merciful, compassionate, exercising all acts of charity and beneficence willingly, cheerfully, and without expecting recompense.”[30]

Ella Simmons seems to be agreeing with this position when she writes that “We are called to act justly, not only to think and preach about justice, but to act justly.”[31]

Action is a dynamic word. It connotes doing something that is practically visible, and that can remain in record to be seen after. In contrast, it is clear that the thrust of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is generally proselytizing. The administration of the church stresses on individual churches to arrange for evangelistic campaigns with the intention of increasing the number of members on church rolls. A critical dimension in the church’s work, the consideration of acts of mercy, is left out either by design or by default. 

Consider this scenario, for instance. There are workers who have financial claims with the employing level of the church structure. Their dues have lain with the church for several years without being honored as the policy requires. The common response to inquiries as to the delayed payments is that funds are not available. These workers have families to attend to, in addition to outstanding bills to meet. Yet, the church leadership sits on the dues even when the church income rises. The impression created is “let the worker keep languishing, so long as we in the leadership pocket our allowances.” This paper is of the position that honoring such financial claims could have been a great action and/or opportunity to demonstrate justice and mercy.

It is not an easy task. “It could mean realignment of our resources. It could mean losing friends and family and coworkers who will not agree with us. It could mean laying down our very life for”[32] others. That calls for tact, effort, and perseverance.

Apologizing

The final sticky situation is the act of apologizing. Three times in his article, Jackson says “I am sorry.” Two of those are preceded by the adjective “deeply.” As president of the Division where the murder was committed, he squarely bore the burden of the crime. The biblical accounts of Nehemiah and Daniel are outstanding in the bearing of the blame committed not by them, but by their fellow countrymen. Perhaps it is time we acknowledged and confessed the wrongs committed in, and by, the church leadership.

Additionally, there are graver evils which have been committed, and which could be evident to many people. Withal, there are some wicked things which are hidden from the general public but known only to confederates. Or they may be squarely in the purview of the perpetrators. They may be in the matters of preying on the less empowered in the church structure, or in swindling the poor church members’ offerings. Perhaps it is when the employing organization frustrates church workers with unnecessary transfers so as to forestall their rising favor among church members, or simply because these workers are not in favor with the chief leaders of the church at a given level. Possibly it is in cajoling some people so as to keep some church workers at bay from serving in a given capacity in the church at a given time. Whatever it is that bears the semblance of the “devaluing of one group of people” and/or “super-valuing another group or other groups of people,”[33] is not only evil, but inviting the wrath of God.

Indeed, there are various evils in the church that are committed by some leaders and/or workers who use their powerful positions to disenfranchise other workers or common believers. They may be ingrained in the system of operation in the church. All these must be confessed and forsaken.[34]

In conclusion, it goes without saying that “anyone who is concerned about the challenges of living in community must assume some vision of social justice.”[35] There are mischievous accounts in the pastoral and/or leadership positions that water down the effectiveness of leaders as disciples of the Light. Actually, “being advocates for justice is critical to the Christian witness.”[36] Gary Thurber’s words ought to be a nudge to the Seventh-day Church leadership:

"We will need to be willing to have conversations with those close to us and in wider forums to ask what we need to know and then focus on how to bring healing and restitution. This means we listen to others’ experiences and pains. We listen to learn. And then the all-important question is “How can I help?”

 

Notes & References:

[2] Gary Thurber (“A Call to Stand against Racism,” found at https://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story14972-a-call-to-stand-against-racism, accessed June 21, 2020), president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Mid-American Union Conference, acknowledges that “our church has been fairly quiet.” He wonders “why our church has been silent so many times rather than entering the battle,” to confront, for instance, an injustice that Blacks have fought since slavery times in America. In a balder assertion, he laments that “we do not consistently come alongside to support and defend our Black citizens and church members when there is racism and injustice,” (emphasis supplied).

[3] He cried out repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” In the subsequent protestation, the demonstrators decided to use the now popular “I can’t breathe” slogan to drive home their message.

[4] Perhaps this was the climactic event after “other devastating losses… including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery,” (Gary Thurber, “A Call to Stand against Racism”).

[9] Gary Thurber also calls it “unnecessary,” and adds that it was a “heart-rending murder.”

[13] This admission is equally voiced by Daniel Jackson and Gary Thurber in their articles.

[15] The “Divisions” are actually sections of the General Conference, with administrative responsibility over given geographical territories.

[16] Gary Thurber, emphasis original.

[20] The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Fundamental Belief 13 states in part that “the universal church is composed of all who truly believe in Christ, but in the last days, a time of widespread apostasy, a remnant has been called out to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus,” (Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines [General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists, 2005], 181). Identifying themselves as the remnant out of the challenges in the history of Christendom, the Seventh-day Adventist believers consider themselves as the people of God who have been called out distinctively to help accomplish the crowning work of evangelizing the world prior to the Second Coming.

[21] As the Remnant Church.

[24] Ella Simmons. See also Daniel Jackson.

[25] Richard Exley, Perils of Power (Silver Spring: The Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1995), 61, 62.

[26] Richard Exley, Perils of Power (Silver Spring: The Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1995), 61.

[27] Which is a common terminology in the political circles around the world.

[28] Erastus Thomas, a pseudonym, June 25, 2020 chat on Facebook.

[29] Ted Wilson, Ella Simmons, and Gary Thurber.

[30] The Complete British Family Bible on Micah 6:8 (London: Alex Hogg, 1782).

[34] Worth of emulation: The Trans-European Division of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which covers an area comprising twenty-two countries, took a step to publish an apology in respect of evils done within the church in the past. The statement says in part: “We note [some] parts of our history, parts for which we express sincere regret. We recognize that unconscious bias, ignorance, prejudice, human fears, resentments, and suspicions have affected the church, most specifically within the British Union Conference…. While we cannot rewrite history, as leaders of the Trans-European Division we acknowledge that actions were taken that were not in harmony with God’s ideal. We apologize for those failures of the church in this regard.” The apology comes with a pledge to make amends: “While our apology is from the heart, we recognize that an apology is not enough. We must work vigorously and intentionally to eradicate any traces of prejudice and intolerance that continue to exist,” (“Trans-European Division Apologizes for Racial Bias in the Past,” in Adventist World, May 2020).

 

Bruce Kebariko is a district pastor in East Africa.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11043

Hear, hear! Thanks for the summation.

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Was there any resistance to arrest? It seems very unusual for law enforcement to have anyone on the ground unless there has been some resistance shown by the one being questioned or arrested.
Was there any substance use that was already in Floyd’s body that may have altered his ability to behave abnormally?
Is it safe to assume that the law officers were sober?
Does law enforcement conduct this kind of apprehension regularly to all people all of the time, to some of the people all of the time, some people some of the time or to all of the people some of the time?
It seems to me that the question “how can I help” can be partially answered with contributing to the idea that we are responsible for our actions, behaviors, and decisions. There are consequences for all of them. Rightly so, it is true that equal justice should be applied to all, whether a perpetrator or an abusive law officer.

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