Swamps and Dysfunctional Quagmires

I’ve suspected and fought against easy labels all my adult life. I try to refuse most of them! But especially as the first week of January brings round the anniversary of my baptism, I annually question two particular labels which can be applied to me. The first is “Seventh-day Adventist.” In what sense do I still belong to the church where my early faith was lovingly nurtured? The second label is “Christian.” It can seem like a more accurate and (you might think!) comprehensible description but I cannot identify with some views described as “Christian.” Both labels have marked limitations.

Someone who made me happier about both labels last week proudly describes himself as both a Seventh-day Adventist and a Christian. I have never met him and been only very dimly aware of his existence. He was quoted this week on the BBC as the news rolled in on Wednesday from Washington D.C. Uncharacteristically, the BBC — and, I’ve discovered, many other news outlets — quoted from his powerful prayer when the senators regrouped after the presidentially-encouraged riots. The words from the prayer that had caught the imagination of the BBC reporter were these: “the power of life and death are in the tongue.”

The prayer was said by Dr. Barry Black, chaplain to the U.S. Senate since 2003. The New York Times said his words “cut through the chamber with force” as he named what had happened: “the shedding of innocent blood, the loss of life.” This part of his prayer was hardly controversial. Four people had died during the riot. It was the words that followed that really resonated with me. He described the situation as, “the quagmire of dysfunction that threatens our democracy.”

To onlookers around the world, “a quagmire of dysfunction” seems an accurate way to describe the unfolding chaos in the most powerful nation on earth this week. But the audacity of an African American, sitting with scores of white U.S. lawmakers and naming the truth about their situation and reminding them of their responsibility to change things — that is something different. Knowing, as he says, that “the power of life and death are in the tongue,” Black had the courage to name the truth to those who need to hear it — and all of us — in a divided and violent world.

Chaplain Black was doing something very simple but very difficult — “naming the truth.” Very few of us get the opportunity to “tell truth to power” as he did but we all have the responsibility to name the truth in our own worlds.

To do it well demands imagination and honesty about motivation. It demands thought and wisdom and a careful choice of words spoken at the right time to people who just may be in the place where they are ready to hear it. Most of all, naming the truth demands loving courage. Not holier-than-thou-bluster but the taking of a wise risk in the name, not of my “rightness,” but of something bigger and more important than both me or my listeners. For my money, Barry Black did all of the above last week — and if that’s what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I want to be one too!


This article was written by Helen Pearson. She and her husband, Michael, run the website Pearsons’ Perspectives where this and similar articles can be found. It is reprinted here with permission.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash


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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10985

Thank you Helen!! Not having heard the Chaplain’s prayer, I appreciated hearing about it from you. It is not accidental that besides being a lover of poetry, a well-educated and sophisticated pastor, Black is “black”. There is remonstrance in his words, rising up from not only current events but the history of white racism in this country. It is also not accidental that the protestors were almost entirely white and some carried confederate flags. His prayer was one of pain, regret and prophetic courage. We should all be grateful to him.


Thank you, Helen, for highlighting this. Truth telling must address two types of lies. Enabling lies that weave a broad narrative. And, activating lies, that give cover for violent acts. I believe it is time for the Adventist church to take note of the enabling lies that have festered in our churches.

I notice that it is corporations that are making stands about being on the side of truth and democracy. Democracy will be preserved by democratic institutions, but also, as Gramsci noted, by civil institutions—press, churches, business. I believe the churches have not done the hard work in this moment. I notice, again and again, that corporate actions are landing on the side of truth and equality. I would think churches would also want to speak truth and advocate reality, The church’s focus on individual after-life-management has removed the prophetic imagination to be impactful in this moment. I lament. Reading through the minor prophets this month. Alot of resonance there for me.


It seems to me that Helen Pearson’s point of view and rejection of labels is understood and correct.
She has identified a label that is creating problems for us in the Adventist Church in the 21st century. It is the label that reaffirms our identity. That identity traps some in their defense, others in their rejection, or others in their reform.
From its beginnings, until today the Church has defended its identity. An identity that is born from the Bible, the prophecies of Daniel, the eschatology of Revelation, the message of the 3 angels, the present truth, and the influence of Ellen White, on topics such as the Sunday law, persecution, the cosmic conflict between the good and evil, the remnant, the sanctuary etc.
The problem is complicated when that label (identity) of Seventh-day Adventist, becomes an end in itself and we move away from true Christianity and the Great Teacher: Christ
That label (identity) is being challenged within the Adventist Church and outside it, as is the author, Helen Pearson.
That is why, coinciding with Mrs Pearson, Dr Barry Clark’s sentence acquires relevance. He is a Seventh-day Adventist who, departing from those legalistic, religious prayers that speak of Revelation, Daniel, prophecies and the doctrines of the Church, speak of values ​​and wisdom.
Dr. Clark stepped away from the Adventist label (identity) and boldly mentioned the current dysfunction of democracy and American society. I mention and call by his name what a handful of men in Congress filled with racial and / or political hatred did: bloodshed and loss of life.
He carried to those present, the Spirit of God and of Christ through what his Word says in Proverbs and in Santiago, but making that Word relevant and in the context of the political problem and violence in the United States racially divided for centuries.
It is a prayer that motivates us to reflect and act in the reconstruction of our lives and of the Nation.
It encourages us to achieve the personal transformation that Jesus and Paul spoke about, which must have a collective impact on changing society.
In a nation where each and every one claims that the life of their race is what matters, Dr. Clark quotes the Scriptures and tells us that it really is what matters: the language and the words that emanate from it, because the power of life and death is on the tongue.
A muscle that the Apostle Santiago (Jesus’ brother) described very well and that can help us to explain what happened in Congress and that to some extent was the chronicle of an announced insurrection.
The rhetorical word full of hatred, which emerges from the language, dominated the minds and hearts of many and what happened in Congress was the product and result of it.
The problem is complicated when that hateful rhetoric is accompanied by statements that are lies that, after repeating them so much through social networks, people believe them, repeat them and become a truth, which will hinder governance, and generate and they will detonate violence.
I conclude with a quote from James and another from Proverbs:
James 3: 5-10 King James Version.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
7 For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:
8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
10 Out of the same mouth proceeded blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.

Proverbs 18:21 King James Version:
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.”

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As an American, I have been deeply disturbed by what I have seen happening in our country over the past four years, as I’m sure many, around the world, have been. The curse of racism still afflicts America, and seems to be renewing itself. I am just thankful for the presence of a truly godly man, representing our highest ideals and our church, as a spiritual guide in the US Senate. May God yet prevail before our country destroys itself.


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