“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’” (Matthew 25:44-45)
In his book, Adventism and the American Republican, Douglas Morgan traces the development of a prophetic movement that understood the full ramifications of the term “prophetic.” It knew its place in the grand prophetic chronological scheme as it humbly received the baton from the historical sects who were on a quest to recover biblical Christianity. With courageous overtones, this fledgling movement decried the abuses of a religious system that claimed to be the representative of God (vicarius Dei), but had imbibed the intoxicating beverages of the bartender from the underworld. Bold representatives of this marginalized minority even dared to turn on their apostatizing Protestant siblings, whom they charged with throwing in the towel so that they could cling to treasured habits they had learned while in spiritual captivity.
In addition to its chronological awareness, this movement also understood that a people of prophecy were not merely called to cogitate on their remnant status but to agitate the status quo. It was not enough to print pamphlets with fancy charts and creatively crafted pictures of grotesque beasts designed to scare people into the kingdom. It was not enough to impress upon the masses the necessity to reform dress and diet as they exchanged constricting clothes and destructive diets for wide-fitting wardrobes and constructive calories. It was not enough to raise awareness about private sexual vices that chipped away at a person’s moral sensitivity and depleted their vital forces. This movement understood that a people of prophecy were called to be the voice of God in a kingdom captivated by Satan. This movement understood that the remnant were called to think how Jesus thought, walk how Jesus walked, and do what Jesus did.
With their invigorated awareness, spokespersons for the Adventist church dared to address unpopular issues with the full knowledge that their public actions would be seen by some of their very own and many outside the “little flock” as political activism. Nonetheless, committed to the dominant biblical call for social justice and driven by the practical demands of liberation theology, the seemingly insignificant crowd did not wince in speaking truth to power. Long before Dr. Martin Luther King preached the sermon, “Why America May Go to Hell”; long before Dr. Jeremiah Wright opened the nations eyes to a core aspect of the gospel as recorded in Luke 6; long before Bishop Tutu urged the apartheid government of South Africa to let his people go; Seventh-day Adventists understood that genuine Christianity mandated that those who are called by God’s name have no choice but to be a voice for the voiceless and a home for the homeless.
In the Spirit of the social prophets of antiquity, our pioneers challenged the warped, oppressive and demonic biblical interpretation of blinded American theologians who justified slavery by disseminating the venomous doctrine of the “Pauline mandate.” Though outnumbered by pseudo-Christians who sang in the choir on Sunday mornings and lynched Negroes at night, some among our spiritual foremothers and forefathers not only spoke out against the evils of slavery and segregation but developed systems for the full emancipation of those for whom the American dream was a living nightmare. It is true that some in leadership were paralyzed by fear and distracted by a “pie in the sky” mentality, but the fact that the most authoritative human voice in the church dared to speak about “our duty to the colored people” is proof positive that the Spirit of prophecy was very much alive.
Not only did church leaders challenge the cutthroat capitalism that dehumanized a major segment of the American population, but they sought to do something about the rampant destitution that ravaged lives in the inner cities. As Doug Morgan reports, Adventists were at the forefront of urban programs that provided shelter and skills training for the victims of a feudal system where those on top have no concern for the least of these. Additionally, the church did not shy away from its disdain for war that claimed innocent lives. They understood that no true citizen of the kingdom would applaud the carnage caused by war; no person with the mind of Christ will be satisfied with the explanation that innocent casualties of American aggression should be listed in the margins as “collateral damage.”
As I reflect on the bold stances taken by a people who understood the implications of being a prophetic movement, I wonder why my church chooses to remain silent in the face of the many injustices that confront our society today. I wonder why we choose to disengage from the national dialogue, not realizing that it is never possible to remain neutral. Indeed, it was Desmond Tutu who said, “If an elephant is stepping on the foot of a mouse, the mouse would not appreciate your neutrality” (my paraphrase). Our silence in kairos moments can indeed be deafening.
But must we be silent? Must we be silent when a xenophobic people forget that their ancestors did not have to formally apply for residency when they displaced the Sioux and Apache after landing on these shores on ships constructed in Europe? Must we be silent when unthinking people realize that the real problem with “our jobs” is not that foreigners are coming in and taking them, but wealthy American citizens who run the corporations and collect the dividends are exporting them? Must we be silent when a government enters into regional treaties that benefits the countries in the north and hurts the country in the south? Must we be silent?
Must we be silent when the gap between the haves and the have nots continues to widen? Must we be silent when so called Christian candidates for the presidency object to the fait taxation of the wealthiest Americans who benefit the most from the system? Must we be silent when a government uses public funds to bail out institutions that wrecked the economy and does nothing to alleviate the burden of the poor and middle class crippled under the weight of consumer and academic debt? Must we be silent?
Must we be silent when the cost of health care continues to rise and access to affordable health care consequently falls? Must we be silent when elected officials with six-figure salaries get to choose from an exotic menu of health care providers paid for by public money, but don’t think twice about voting against a public option? Must we be silent when state governments (e.g. Texas) deny funding to family planning clinics, because–although not performing abortions–some counselors may offer it as an option? Must we be silent?
Must we be silent as the spirit of war permeates the soul of a nation and churches boldly promote the government’s agenda in blatant defiance to the Prince of Peace? Must we be silent as the current administration continues destructive policies from the previous one and maintains detention camps in Guantanamo Bay where human beings are detained without due process of law? Must we be silent about the more than 1,000 military installations that the United States operates on foreign soil? Must we be silent when more and more Adventists see nothing wrong in volunteering for a military that teaches them to kill without conscience? Must we be silent?
As you contemplate your response to these questions, always remember that a tree is known by its fruit.
Keith Augustus Burton is the Coordinator for the Center of Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. He also contributed to the volume, The Peace Making Remnant, published by Adventist Peace Fellowship.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3443