Insights from an Adventist Communicator

Question: You are one of the featured speakers at the Adventist Forum conference, coming up this weekend, with a theme of “Non-Violence and the Atonement.” What will you be talking about?

Answer: On Sunday morning I’m speaking under the title “The Violence of Silence.” I’m equal parts fascinated and horrified by how traditional teachings about atonement seem to be predicated on the silence or continued suffering of various groups of people. We seem to expect people to wait for future justice while we teach them their suffering in the meantime is either necessary or sacred in some way.

That disturbs me and I hope that by the time all the speakers are done next weekend, attendees will be just as bothered about it!

Do you feel that the Adventist church's teaching on atonement has its focus in the right place? Should we be moving past this concept, which feels very Old Testament, or maybe outdated?

I don’t like to dissociate Christianity from the Hebrew scriptures it draws from. After all, these were the same scriptures that Jesus and that first generation of followers used. But I think that after 2,000 years of debates about what it means to put the world right, which metaphors to use, how to parse certain Bible verses, and how to weight faith and works or justification and sanctification, we could probably do with a time out!

“For God so loved the world” is one of the hub verses of the Christian gospels, and I wonder whether we’ve paid enough attention to “the world” in that phrase. The conventional Adventist understanding of “atonement” can be both ethnocentric and egocentric: focusing on the denomination’s role in this phase in human history, or on me and my personal salvation. What could The World Restored teach us about the way we get to live together on this planet today? What could it teach us about our ecological responsibilities? How might it challenge our addictions to domination, bigotry, and waste?

I don’t think we need to jettison any of these big themes, but we could certainly handle them and each other in more humane ways. That’s where the principles of nonviolence and nonviolent communication could be useful.

As a 30-something Adventist, what does the Adventist church offer you? What do you appreciate about it?

I grew up attending and participating in Adventist congregations in London and was baptized at 13. As well as being like an extended family, my home church encouraged me to study, serve, and learn leadership skills that have been a real lifelong advantage, and I’m grateful for that. (I keep threatening to write a series of articles about seven of the things I value most about the Adventist tradition; things that I’d keep regardless of my membership status, but I haven’t done it yet.)

I’m a third-generation Adventist community member. Thanks to slavery and colonialism I have no access to our family’s spiritual heritage before this church, so I’m walking the path I’m on and serving as I can. The denomination doesn’t circumscribe my spirituality but the tradition will probably always shape me in some way. I’m okay with that.

What do you wish the church would do better?

I wish we took more seriously the Adventist teaching on the unity of human nature. Whether we’ve pitted spirit against body, reason against emotion, male against female, humanity against nature, empire against colonized, or straight against LGBTQ, our dualism hasn’t done us many favors, and I’d love to see more intentional integration in our theology and practice. A lot of people are suffering because they’ve been asked to fragment themselves in some fundamental way. We should be the last church asking people to do that.

How do you see the Adventist church changing in the next decade?

Outside of North America and Europe the church is a much younger church than it is here. But within the North American Division, I know administrators are concerned about retention, and for good reason. I’ve been participating in NAD churches for about 12 years now and am hopeful that the fulcrum of influence will shift from the church administration to the local congregation where people connect with each other, learn from each other, and actively serve their neighbors and communities. Some of us spend a lot of energy trying to discuss and propose issues in terms and at a pace that the organizational structure understands — but I’m not sure that’s been very fruitful.

When moderates set the pace of change the pace is glacial, and not everybody can endure that. So I know quite a few people who are exhausted by “the church” but still long for some form of community, support, and accountability in local relationships. Whatever the formal church structure does, people still need people. (I think that’s my pastoral side talking.)

Why do you think the Adventist church still has some segregated conferences in North America? Do you feel that the church is a different place for a black person than a white person?

I wrote about the NAD’s regional conference system in my college Christian Ethics class. While Adventism has always had issues with prejudice, the structural fissure goes back to the 1940s. The proposal began with the death of a black woman in an white Adventist hospital, I think it’s done deep damage to our moral witness as a community, and the administration keeps “studying” it. Most of us realize that the church should not be structurally divided on ethnic lines and it’s a testimony against us that we still are.

At the same time, having separate conferences has allowed more non-white ministers to lead and serve over the last 70 years than the white-dominant church would have otherwise made room for. US churches have developed congregations, schools, and ministries that have taken our different cultural contexts into account, and I can’t see how that would have happened in the 20th century given the church’s fear of taking a clear and moral stand against racism or segregation. None of us is a generic human being. We’re all raced, not just black people; all gendered, not just women; all planted in cultures that influence how we perceive the world and how we express our faith. So our communities reflect that. But segregation goes well beyond the facts of difference.

I now attend a multi-ethnic congregation — not a majority black congregation — and, yes, there are substantive differences between regional conference churches and state conference churches. When my local church and some of its sister churches gathered around the MLK Memorial this summer, there were so few representatives of local state churches present. It was a stark illustration of the fact that we don’t all walk in this world in the same way. People’s hearts were broken over racism and social violence so they rallied to pray together and mourn together and talk about what our next steps might be. But for most of the area’s churches, it was just another Saturday afternoon. If this is what being one means, we’re doing it badly.

You graduated from Northern Caribbean University, then earned your masters and PhD in technical communication and rhetoric from Texas Tech University. What did you write about for your thesis? How does your research tie in with the work you are doing now?

Yes, I graduated from Texas Tech in 2012. My doctoral research focused on how institutional structure, professions’ and disciplinary values, and individual motivations influence organizational texts and arguments. I looked at the materials the British government used to make their public case for war in Iraq, including how they handled secret intelligence and technical reports, and while I was studying that context, I couldn’t help but look at our own church as a system and the ways that administrators communicate with the laity and the public.

Technical communication is about informing; rhetoric is about the delivery of arguments and attempts to persuade. I’m on staff at a small congregation, and church life involves both informing and persuasion! But beyond the routines of congregational communications, understanding Adventism as a system with its own cultures has probably made me more patient with it. If I didn’t have a way of interpreting it as an organization, several of its recent policy decisions would not have made sense to me.

What book that you have read over the last year would you most highly recommend?

I read Kelly Brown Douglas’ book Sexuality and the Black Church last summer and it was really rewarding. Brown Douglas is a professor of religion at Goucher College in Baltimore and her book cuts through the fog on Christian teachings about the body, sex, gender, and the legacies of religiously justified slavery and racism in the United States. Alcohol companies always say “drink responsibly!” Well, I think Christians have every historical reason to practice faith more responsibly. That includes how we engage one another on matters related to the body.

Is there a book that you believe every Adventist should read?

That’s a hard question! I think we could all benefit from a little perspective on our tradition, so reading Bull and Lockhart’s Seeking a Sanctuary or the new Oxford collection on Ellen White, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, could do us good. We need our historians and sociologists to help us tell the truth about ourselves.

But I wonder if we also need something like Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. It caught me at the right time, deepening my view of God and expanding how I practice grace in my relationships and teach it to others. I should probably read it again if I’m going to keep recommending it to people! M. Scott Peck’s A Different Drum, a book on community-building, is also on my all-time top ten.

What is your favorite verse or chapter in the Bible?

I’m a big fan of John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life.” And the phrase “all things” running through Colossians 1 has gripped me ever since I first read it. Colossians insists on the restoration of all things, and that’s the kernel of atonement for me, whatever else we have to say about it.

Keisha McKenzie does communications, development, and board-level strategy consulting through her McKenzie Consulting Group. She works part-time as communications coordinator at Unity of Gaithersburg, Maryland, a small Christian community. She volunteers at her local Adventist church as the webmaster and is part of a small group team there.

Register for the Adventist Forum Conference, September 16-18, here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7636
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Wow. I am really wanting to jump on a plane in a few fays to hear more from her! What a fantastic interview. Thanks for posting–and I want this as a meme to share: “Alcohol companies always say ‘drink responsibly!’ Well, I think Christians have every historical reason to practice faith more responsibly.”

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The very title of her discourse caught my attention and set in train a series of contemplations flowing from this posit. It exemplifies the path I raised my daughter( also co-incidentally also named Keisha) NOT to adopt. I duly sent her to Sabbath School to get acquainted with the Adventist tradition but exposed her at the same time to other traditions I was then exploring, such as Buddhism. That was my way of protecting her from " suffering in silence" when she left Caribbean climes and may have come face-to-face with ethnic prejudice in the North American Division. She told me that one Sabbath she dropped in at an SDA church somewhere in New York which was mainly white attended. When offering time came ,she said, the white deacon tried to by bher seemingly ignoring her hundred dollar bill. Whether so or not, she walked out of the church and has never been in an SDA church again. She married a Roman Catholic-leaning American-Italian fellow, The young are not putting up with the violence of silence as much as in the past it seems

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Keisha, it might be useful if you had a better understanding of various views of “atonement theology.” You assert, "traditional teachings about atonement seem to be predicated on the silence or continued suffering of various groups of people. We seem to expect people to wait for future justice while we teach them their suffering in the meantime is either necessary or sacred in some way. "

Atonement has nothing to do with “various groups” of people. Christ died for the sins of the whole world. Jn. 3:16 reads literally " In this way God loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him/Christ should not perish but have everlasting life." So I suggest your apparent reason/position is but a strawman to suggest and put forth an alternate.

Present governments under Rom. 13 have the authority to create justice by punishing evil doers and making them fear by use of the sword.

The gospel is simply saying that is not going to become a complete reality in the present order of things but only completely occurs at Christ’s appearing. So that is our hope and faith as Christians that though the present order of mankind fails, Christ coming eternal order brings complete justice and order. No sincere knowledgeable Christian discounts the injustice of the present age. BUT the issue is NOT the Atonement. In fact Rom. 3:21-31 describing the need of atonement in Christ was so that Justice could be fulfilled.

Regards,
Pat
.

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Intrinsa,

Like you my two granddaughters have been raised to enjoy the benefits of many associations other than just the Adventist. They attended (one is long out of school, the other is a high school senior) public schools, had friends from the SdA church and high school and other groups. This way, they are very comfortable outside the cocoon and able to gracefully function in many places without limitations.

Patrick,

There have and still are so many theories of the atonement as to confuse a Philadelphia lawyer. I like Abelard’s, who rejected the death of Jesus in order for the Father to be reconcile to us. Abelard said that Christ came to show us how to live, not to die in submission to the brutal power of the Father. His death was exemplary, not expiatory. Jarislov Pelikan agrees: “Christ did not die on the cross to change the mind of God, but to reveal the love of God to us.”

Abelard did not ask “How are we to be saved” but "How do we know that we are already saved? The story Jesus told of the Prodigal Son is the perfect illustration: He was always a son, and there was nothing more required

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Wonderful interview…thank-you!

“A lot of people are suffering because they’ve been asked to fragment themselves in some fundamental way. We should be the last church asking people to do that.”

And the “why?” of this should keep therapists busy for a very, very, long time. It needs to be answered or the SDA church will continue to be responsible for this “decompensation” that it has caused.

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when Adam sinned, Saton said , “I got y’all”. the Godhead had prepared for that moment in the Everlasting Covenant. God could be just and still call the unjust who trusted in the atonement as just. That gift rightly understood should bring forth a life style of gratitude and generosity. Gender and race are under the same condemnation and are offered the same covering of Christ’s Rightousness. H ow deep. And how enduring will. Soon be tested. Even so come Lord Jesus TZ

The Lost Sheep was still property of the shepherd even though it lost its bearings and sense of direction.
The Lost Coin, part of her dowery that her husband paid for her, and very valuable, still belonged to the woman while it was lost.
The son remembered, knew the way back, was OK with whatever reception he was going to receive and status after that.
The sheep knew it was in unknown surroundings, no sense of direction, fearful, and at the mercy of the elements.
The coin didnt know it was lost or that it belonged.
But, all were the property of the owner, and very valuable.
God calls us to be part of the Rescue Squad – finding sons, finding sheep, finding coins.
But as Keisha says –
What type of environment will be bringing them into when we do find them???

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Kudos to Keisha and Alita for this insightful interview. Moreover, plaudits to both for the ongoing work of their daily lives–the most efficacious rhetoric possible.

I came to know Keisha as a calming and deepening influence in the film Enough Room at the Table. Her voice deserves to be heard more widely, especially if “at-one-ment” remains our grace-filled goal.

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