Time to Start Over: Christ without Christ, or, How Not to Miss the Point

What if you say Yes to Christ and miss the point altogether?

A month ago, in “First, Face Delusion,” I began an argument that it is time to start over. In the lost normalcy of the pandemic, Adventism has had to halt ordinary religious life. But in the several essays now begun, I am saying that, by God’s grace, we can seize this moment to make a new beginning toward self-correction and fresh vision. One mistake, flagged in the first essay, is that of reading scripture without explicit attestation of Christ as a yet-higher authority, the one living Word of God, the one “exact imprint” of divine glory.

My technical claim was that scripture must be judged by its Lord. Sheer fundamentalism, a fact or at least temptation in much of Adventist life, overlooks this. Still, most Christians, not least fundamentalists, think of themselves as worshippers of Christ: they pray to Christ, not to ink and paper. It turns out, however, that Christians of any stripe, including those who value science and historical criticism, can say Yes to Christ and fall short of comprehension; they can somehow miss the point.

Perhaps it won’t surprise you that the white, male Adventist establishment missed the point during the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 one Adventist Review editor lambasted Christian ministers for participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Later he said witness concerning public policy was “omitted from the gospel commission.” Soon afterwards another editor repudiated church efforts to “reform the social order.” In his inaugural sermon (Luke 4) Jesus had announced himself as the liberator of the “oppressed,” but that was no concern, apparently, of proper Adventism.

What may surprise you, however, is that earlier in the same century Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the iconic martyr theologian from the Nazi period in Germany, missed the point as well. By age 24(!) he had completed two dissertations, and had arrived — it was the fall of 1930 — at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The recipient of a fellowship for one year of study in America, he had already propounded a theory of Jesus’ centrality for the church. But hard as it may be to fathom, he was still sympathetic to German nationalism. He still believed, as was then common in Lutheran circles, that the laws of the state were the fully legitimate standard for Christian life in the public sphere.

As it happened, Bonhoeffer was soon impatient with what he took to be superficial discourse at Union, and in a new friendship — with Albert Fisher, a Black student — he found stimulus to explore another environment. Fisher introduced him to the then-flourishing Harlem Renaissance and to the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street. A short subway ride from Union and its neighbor, Columbia University, Harlem and its culture provided what would turn out to be a life-changing shift in Bonhoeffer’s perspective.

Only a year or so before, he had told an audience in Barcelona that “Christianity and ethics have absolutely nothing to do with each other.” The gospel was essentially about sin and forgiveness. But the preaching, singing, and ministry at Abyssinian Baptist upended his thinking. Here he discovered a spirituality steeped in Jim Crow oppression and pain. Here he met Jesus the co-sufferer, the one who identifies with all who bear hardship, injury, and disdain. Here he found “applied Christianity,” a faith that follows its Lord and takes concrete moral guidance from the Sermon on the Mount. At Abyssinian Baptist, Jesus was no complacent European and the Gospel no mere sedative for the cruelties of the high and mighty.

Bonhoeffer was stunned — and energized. He sought to learn more, and under Harlem’s influence became the person we all recognize: enemy of cheap grace, torch-bearer for discipleship, critic of German nationalism, defender of outcasts. Now Jesus — the “man for others,” Bonhoeffer said — was both source and standard for authentic Christian community.

What had happened? As scholar Reggie Williams has shown,[1] in Harlem Bonhoeffer immersed himself in the experience and perspective of an oppressed community. Now, for the first time, he saw things from “below,” from the vantage point of outcasts such as Jesus himself embraced. Before Harlem, as he later recalled in a startling sentence, “I had not yet become a Christian.” 

You might reckon that the truth in all this would flash forth like neon lighting after dark, or that even without knowing the Bonhoeffer story Christians would see that wealth and privilege skew perception. But as noted above, white Adventist editors missed the link between the Bible message and the civil rights movement. To take another example, while an American anti-slavery activist like W. E. B. Du Bois quoted Acts 17:26 to make the point that God has made us all “of one blood,” white, Dutch Reformed defenders of apartheid in South Africa read the same verse another way. Its cryptic (but by no means racial) reference to “boundaries” became, on their reading, legitimation for confining Blacks to separate “homelands.”

Often, it seems, formal obeisance to Christ fails under the delusion brought about by political and economic advantage. But again — and in Adventism as surely as elsewhere — those actually beset by oppression can chime in with corrective insight. During the civil rights movement the Black evangelist E. E. Cleveland repudiated Adventist “passivism” regarding social justice; Black minister Charles Dudley infuriated the church’s white bureaucracy by sending the South Carolina conference’s medical van to “Resurrection City” on the Washington Mall in support of the 1968 Poor People’s campaign. Charles D. Brooks and Frank Hale, also Black Adventist leaders during this period, published articles in Insight and Spectrum calling for witness against racial injustice.

In interpreting Christ, no individual or community deserves unquestioning fealty. We Adventists cannot truly start over unless we listen to many voices, embrace humility, and stand ready, always, to repent and to begin again. But the direst of intellectual temptations is that of privileging the privileged. The risk is that we should claim Christ as our center while revising him into an unthreatening moral cipher. Against privileged self-deception, those who know oppression at first hand are indispensable.

When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1931, he was alarmed. Political and economic turmoil was deepening the shame and anger that followed Germany’s World War I defeat. Nationalism was thriving. Hitler’s National Socialist Party was gaining influence. Winter, with its grinding hardships, was approaching. Armed with his new perspective, Bonhoeffer worried about how Christians and their pastors would relate to all this, and wondered whether the German church could “survive another catastrophe.” His letter to a friend continued: “Will it not reach the end of its existence then, if we do not change immediately, speak and live completely differently?”

Adventism has its own problems. Over the past 50 years, especially in the church’s older strongholds, discord over the ordination of women in pastoral ministry has been a particular threat. It has roiled the membership to the point of catastrophe, exacerbating resentments and propelling exits born of resignation and disgust. All the while — what is to the point here — reasoning against gender equality in ministry has come primarily from white men, Adventism’s most privileged caste. On this topic, interpretation of scripture is difficult. But other things being equal, it is best to rely on arguments from the victims of discrimination, not the perpetrators.

The point here is not to discredit all white men (of whom I am one). It is just to discredit any perspective that ignores or glosses over what those who suffer feel and say, and so remains oblivious to the hardship, injury, and disdain Christ came to relieve. Christ without Christ can really happen. Missing the point is easy. It’s so easy that even Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, after two theological dissertations, that he had missed it.

Can the church survive the catastrophe of gender injustice? Can it thrive under Adventism’s lengthy and somewhat tortuous doctrinal commitments? The answer depends on putting Christ first, a hard enough challenge in itself. But it depends, too, on listening to all those who understand from their own life stories what it means to be insulted and debased by oppression. We cannot know Christ unless, like him, we do what we can to be co-sufferers with the suffering. And if the church fails to know Christ, it cannot flourish or even, in the long run, survive.

Bonhoeffer’s urgency should be our own.

 

Notes & References:

 

Charles Scriven is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Photo by Yannick Pulver on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10826
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At some point, Chuck, Bonhoeffer “felt” the need to “break” with the church he once loved, right after he “saw” the need to break with its thinking, its ideology, its passion for a leader who could not possibly be a gift from God to the German people. Those who do not (or “cannot?”) see that they have embraced a folly, an “antiChrist” (someone who is seen as a Christ figure but is false as the Greek renders it) cannot be affirmed by those in their fellowship who cannot walk with them. We are watching something akin to this happening in our nation; we pray we will not see the same in our community of faith.

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It is quite evident to anyone reading the articles appearing in Spectrum and Adventist Today, and the comments readers make to them, that the time has come for the leaders of this church to face reality and come to terms with the irrelevancy of their doctrinal fundamentalism. The Gospel is always liberating and encourages hope for living meaningfully as followers of Christ. To remain tied to apocalyptic interpretations of the nineteenth century and delusion of male headship and perfect obedience without God’s grace while refusing to read the biblical texts in their own historical terms is bound to bring about irrelevancy and spiritual discontent. If the SDA church continues to refuse to take a good look at its performance and change its focus from numbers of baptisms and the enhancement of personal careers to the contributions to the energizing of love in a fraternity that is a force for the betterment of life in the larger community it will continue to be what now is: a tragic miscarriage of its original vision. The gulf between the ecclesiastical structure and the faithful in the pews needs to be bridged if this church is to have a future as a Christian witness to the power of God. This days the faithful lay members are the ones who make Christ presence in God’s world visible.

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Charles, thank you again for another timely message that challenges the level of thinking which many express. I have seen in this forum and others abstract thinking at best or at worst cold indifference and contempt expressed on this topic. It is time for this to be openly expressed and directly challenged in our church and want to thank you for helping this happen.

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“Can the church survive”? My answer is yes because “the church” is not the "white privileged " leaders, it is the body parts down to the toes and now from 50 years of observation, great changes have occurred that were not top down but from the body. The church is His and so lets be positive that change will continue and let’s do our part to contribute. Keep writing about it. Bonhoeffer can serve us well as to what we can do.

Christianity is a “world view” (speaking about which) that makes Christ its center. Adventism is not classic Christianity. The Adventism focus is the LAW, and Christ facilitates obedience to the law, - forgiveness for past sins, and guidance for present behaviour that overcomes sin. Sin is defined by the ten commandments. The entire process is focused inward - "What must I do to be saved; and the marching orders come from Exodus 20. Nowhere within those ten, does it tell us to tend to the suffering, or to not beat your wife. The TEN, as a unit, was culturally bound; that culture wasn’t particularly gender neutral, or worried about the poor or the infirmed - women were property, and the sick got what they deserved. Jesus drove that point home as he delivered his sermon on the mount. Christians, especially those whose trajectory is sinless perfection would not be particularly sensitive to civil rights or women’s equality - not by adhereing to the minimum “required.”

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I appreciate the substance of these comments.

I feel sure some do break with our faith because of its moral failures. But on the morality-and-politics front, our earlier leaders had a pretty good (not perfect) record, unlike the mid-twentieth-century Adventist Establishment and some of the Establishment today. This fact, I take it, is one reason why Herold Weiss speaks—arrestingly—of the church now as “a tragic miscarriage of its original vision.”

I intended to communicate a bit of hope by attending to black Adventist leaders who were courageous during the civil rights movement. The (imperfect but remarkable) record of the earliest Adventists would have buttressed the argument for hope. Back then ordinary Americans, including elite Americans, did not, for the most part, begin to get what the pioneers saw and acted on.

I assume, Sirje, that you do not here intend to drive a wedge between Christ and the law. The law is the Torah as a whole, and although it contains elements now repugnant to Christian conscience, it is, fundamentally, an affirmation of outcasts. It was written from “below,” and, among the great religious, moral and political documents, is thus practically unique. (Just think of Hammurabi’s Code, which is abysmally aggressive in its institutionalization of social hierarchy.)

So the law is a fitting inspiration for Jesus and for his effort to radicalize the Hebrew vision. That radicalization included, of course, inchoate revision of usual attitudes toward women.

I agree, by the way, with your worries about “inward” focus in Adventism.

I am developing a list—I hope a short one—of the things I hate (in myself as well as others). Here are a couple of those things: hubris and indifference. So it worries me when the church’s most influential leaders—both in administration and in theology—tend not to publicly engage such issues as the ones I am raising here. Their silence is usually, as the phrase has it, deafening. (I do realize, of course, that this stance may reflect the feeling that I personally am not relevant as a spokesperson for a new realization of Adventism, and so not worth engaging. I must, alas, confront reality myself.)

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I think it’s a viable point to make if we are talking about Acts 2-5 development of communal voluntarism that exists in a church.

The other context would be government-enforced mandates that attempt to achieve the community via communism.

I really hope that the author is talking about former and not the latter.

So many years later, is it possible for history to repeat in our day?

No, but there is social stratification inherit in how the Hebrews understood the law. At some point it even became racial (as we see racism today) - they were God’s chosen people - period. Not until Jesus touched the outcasts did the law benefit them. The difference is the letter vs the spirit of the law.

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Isn’t that the condition of the Laodiceans? …They thought that they had everything, but Jesus said that they were poor, miserable, naked and blind. Saying " Yes to Christ and fall short of comprehension".

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5 nov. '20. Amen to charles scriven’s essay on bonhoeffer’s realization that Jesus wanted him to act and speak out against Nazi injustice, even to death. yes the SDA church is not perfect in doctrine and organization, but it allows and hopefully ponders well, opinions and suggestions by SDA members that are aimed to improve the SDA culture. the 21st century is vastly different than Moses, Jesus, Paul’s, Ellen White’s milieu. there are no bible or prophetic standards that addresses hydrogen bombs, time relativity, quarks,etc, 7 billion diverse peoples w diverse governments and religions, rapid information & mega data computers, CO2 emissions, DNA technology, etc. Yes boenhoffer finally got that point that Jesus’s command to actively love one another, love mercy, do justice and walk humble w God is necessary and sufficient for mankind and planet earth to co-exist and flourish together until our death and the second coming of Christ. I pray that we also get the point.

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