“Jesus lived and taught love, compassion, and the kingdom of heaven. When we live and follow what He taught, that looks like justice.” —Nathan Brown, For the Least of These (p. 75)
For the first time in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Sabbath School Quarterly is on the topic of social justice, specifically “The Least of These: Ministering to Those in Need.” The Sabbath School Department partnered with the Adventist Development & Relief Agency (ADRA) to explore this topic in depth, with ADRA International CEO Jonathan Duffy as the official author of the quarterly.
Nathan Brown, author and Signs Publishing book editor, penned the official companion book, For the Least of These, which is the focus of this review.
The church has had an off-and-on relationship with issues of social justice. The early Adventist pioneers were abolitionists; the first General Conference president, John Byington, was a member of the Underground Railroad. But later generations of church leaders have been less inclined to get involved with the issues of their times. Most recently, GC President Ted Wilson criticized “those who overemphasize social issues while downplaying or neglecting biblical truth and its relevance for today’s society” during his Sabbath sermon at the 2018 Annual Council.
The great thing about Brown’s little book (it is a slim 120 pages, including footnotes), is that he clearly shows that addressing social concerns IS biblical truth.
There are various facets of justice, as Brown explains, but they are all interlaced, and at the core are about care for God’s creation.
In Chapter 1, “The Great Web of Humanity,” Brown quotes Ken Wytsma and D. R. Jacobsen in their book Pursuing Justice who state, “Truth corresponds to what is; justice to what ought to be.” Brown adds to this, “The work of justice is working back toward the ‘oughtness’ of creation — God’s original intention for our world and our creation (11). He continues, “…as environmental exploitation and destruction have grown in our consciousness and in their impact on our planet and its most vulnerable people, we have seen only limited responses from the perspective of faith.” (12).
In chapters two and three, Brown moves the conversation forward, discussing how we undo injustice and make space for justice. His passages on the celebration of jubilee and the spirit of the Sabbath were particularly striking. The biblical “jubilee year was to act as a reset provision for the social and economic systems of the nation…such redistributive economic justice was part of God’s plan to mitigate injustices in society,” while the Sabbath is a spiritual practice that can change both us as individuals and the world community. “The Sabbath gives us a weekly space…in which equality and justice can be practiced….we seek the benefits of the Sabbath for all with whom we may be able to share them. The Sabbath is a day for the good of humanity, for all of us, as we live out God’s love in the world” (31-32).
Brown also calls on Adventists to have a broader understanding of politics and our role in that realm:
“In its simplest form, whatever we do in public is political. Collectively and individually, our voices, votes, influences, choices and actions are political — as are our silences and inactions. Ironically, our all-too-common corporate Seventh-day Adventist silence ‘speaks to a crippling misunderstanding of the church’s mission and the glaring need for clarity of our role in matters of social concern.’ In a world of so much wrong, injustice, and suffering, we must regularly ask whether our silences are complicities” (39).
Another compelling part of the book is Brown’s analysis of the Old Testament prophets and their messages to the people of their day, which seem all too relevant for us as well.
Brown includes Eugene Peterson’s The Message version of Isaiah 1:13-15, which reads in part:
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I’ll not be listening.
Brown writes, “In these and a number of other places in the writings of the prophets, God explicitly linked worship with the call to do justice and made it clear that it does not make sense to do one without the other” (53).
Brown concludes with the practical ways we can do justice in the world, and challenges us to answer God’s call to care for His creation:
“As a corporate church, we need to find our voice again. In a world of injustice, oppression, and violence, maintaining silence or claiming neutrality are not faithful options. We must speak for those who are not heard and stand with the poor and vulnerable, seeking to be a ‘power under’ those who are being crushed. As good as ADRA and its work are, the broader church cannot afford to outsource its responsibility for doing justice to a single agency. In all that we do as a church, we must be just and generous in how we act in the church and in the world” (116).
For the Least of These is a challenging and moving testament to the need for justice in our world, and our Christian responsibility to lead the charge for change. Everything Brown has written in this slim volume is backed up with a solid foundation of biblical teachings. The fact that it feels revolutionary speaks to how far we’ve drifted from what is plainly written in God’s Word.
Whether you’re someone who faithfully follows the Sabbath School lessons each quarter, or you’re like me and don’t usually pay much attention, For The Least of These is invaluable as both a quarterly companion and a stand-alone book that I encourage everyone to read.
For those living in the United States, a free copy of For the Least of These (plus $3 shipping) is available through ADRA. More information here. (The book is also available for purchase on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.)
Adventist Forum board member Alexander Carpenter recently spoke with Brown about this companion book, the current Sabbath School Quarter, and the writing life. Listen here.
Adventist Peace Radio, the podcast of the Adventist Peace Fellowship, has a special series of episodes for this Sabbath School Quarter. Co-hosts Nathan Brown and Lisa Diller join Jeff Boyd in leading the series in weekly conversation with a number of guests. For more information and to listen click here.
For an article by Linda Edorsson on the Adventist Record website about how the South Pacific Division is leading the Church on this quarter’s conversation, click here.
For information about this quarter’s lessons, including suggested Bible readings, discussion questions, 13 videos produced by ADRA South Pacific and more, visit their website by clicking here.
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org
Cover image courtesy of Pacific Press Publishing.
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