“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
― Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night/Dawn/The Accident
“Any organization and any nation that is beyond self-critique and evaluation will be doomed to repeat their past mistakes” – Pastor C. Wesley Knight
Another day. Another dollar. Another Black man shot. Another gay person shot. Another police officer shot. Nothing new under the sun. Life goes on right?
No. Life can’t just “go on.” We need to address this.
Only thing is I don’t have anything else to say dear readers. I don’t have anything left to say. So sometimes (not often though), I remain silent and post about Zumba or food because my brain cannot process any more death.
I mean, it’s one thing to be silent when words escape you because of shock, grief, or pain. It’s quite another to be silent out of indifference and apathy.
Sometimes I speak out, such as in this instance.
Sometimes, however, the silence of the Christian community, and the Adventist community particularly, is confusingly deafening.
Where is the church when it hurts? Allow me to explain further.
A few weeks ago, some friends of mine took me to see Jeremiah Davis’ sessions. He was preaching what Adventists like to call “present truth” and telling the audience to “Get ready, get ready, get ready” because Sunday law is imminent and Jesus is coming sooner than we think. It’s been a long time since I have heard sermons such as these – sermons about the mark of the beast, investigative judgement, and other doctrines particular to Adventists.
As Adventists, we are really good about talking about (and trying to predict) end time events. In fact, that’s how our church started.
But I find when it comes to present day events and present day realities, we are silent, we are complicit, we are ignorant, we are apathetic, we are ambivalent, we take a back seat and we put our fingers in our ears and say “Nah, nah, nah nah nah! Jesus is coming! What’s happening doesn’t matter! I don’t see what’s happening around me!”
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Despite heralding itself as the remnant church and pontificating on the third angel’s message, the Adventist church has often been lax when it mattered most – when the other children of God were dying. In fact, Adventist church history is tinged with racism. We’ve never quite been on the right side of history.
I think of Lucy Byard. In 1943, Mrs. Lucille Byard (1877-1943) had taken ill and sought treatment at the Washington Missionary Sanitarium. The Adventist church owned many sanitariums (aka hospitals) in those days. Adventists still have one of the most extensive health-care systems in the world. But having such recognized institutions doesn’t matter if you end up turning away the people who need your care on account of their skin colour. Such was the lot of Ms. Byard. Hospital attendants saw that Mrs. Byard and her husband were Black and subsequently refused them admittance, directing them instead to the colored hospital across town — Freedman’s Hospital at Howard University. Mrs. Byard died shortly thereafter.
“What of the love and compassion believers are to have for humanity, especially one of the same faith?” reads a retelling of the story in the Adventist Review. “What of equality in Christ? What of the healing ministry of the Adventist Church? What of human dignity? It was all too much. Something had to be done. This was an overt act of racism perpetrated in one of Adventism’s flagship medical institutions. Because Adventists followed prevailing racial discriminatory practices, a wonderful, loving Adventist believer was dead.
“The Lucy Byard incident turned out to be the last tragedy that would occur before the church took decisive action and aggressively sought to address racial inequities. Shortly after this incident Black-administered conferences were instituted [a conference is similar to a diocese or an administrative region]. Immediately things were done to set the regional conference system in motion. Although the Lucy Byard event was atrocious, God used it to serve His divine purpose.”
I don’t know what’s worse – that the article insinuates that there were prior racial tragedies or that the solution was to imitate the deranged mindset of the world and segregate church members one from another on the basis of skin colour (according to an article in Spectrum magazine, each conference has its own churches, schools, and camp meetings. Each functions as a unit on its own with hardly any interactions between the two regardless of their proximity. The churches of other races (Hispanic, Asian, etc.) are evenly distributed between the two conferences). I am also unconvinced that it was “God’s divine purpose” to have the church in the United States divided along racial lines – a system that remains in place today. Yes. The Adventist Church still has “black conferences”. Yes. Today. In 2016. The officials from one conference have recently apologized, but the regional/black conferences still exist.
There are other instances that have occurred of which the church is not proud: the fact that the cafeteria at the General Conference (the world headquarters of the SDA church) was segregated, as well as the creation of the Negro Department of the General Conference that was first – ironically — directed by white men. Racial segregation was practised at one of the church’s post-secondary institutions, Union College. In his book, The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics, Dr Zdravko Plantak suggests that the church was all but complicit with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust (see also the paper “Fatal Flirting: The Nazi State and the Seventh-day Adventist Church”). Although the whole church shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for the action of a few, it is chilling to know that an Adventist pastor/church administrator and his son, who was also the head of the Adventist hospital, gathered desperate and scared Tutsis into an Adventist church and co-opted the massacre of 3000 Tutsis on a Sabbath during the Rwandan genocide (you can read more about it here and here). And this all a product of the remnant church, a church that preaches that we are all part of one body, the body of Christ.
I suppose then that it is hard to call out racism in the world when we have racism of our own. I mean, how can a church decry and repudiate racism if it still holds fast to some of its own racist vestiges?
One would think that the church would be the stalwart leader of morality in times like these, but often the church basks in a bed of complacency.
Martin Luther King Jr. similarly marvelled at the laxity and nonchalance of the church when he wrote from his Birmingham Jail cell. Sadly, again, nothing is new under the sun, and the very same excerpt could have been written today in 2016:
“I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? […]. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
One thing that the church struggles with is relevance, which affects retention and attrition. I dare say that it is partly because the church is reluctant to address issues head on that we are losing so many of our young adults. Instead of changing and challenging corrupt popular culture, the church often seems content to acquiesce and mimic it.
But there is hope.
I would be remiss if I did not mention what a few churches have been doing in the wake of all of the hate crimes. In fact, I am proud, because now, more than ever, finally pockets of Adventists are standing up and saying enough is enough.
One thousand Adventists marched against violence in Washington D.C., from the Lincoln Memorial to the Marting Luther King Jr. Memorial. Columbus Central SDA church took time out one Sabbath to host a dialogue between the young people and the local police department. And here in my own stomping ground, in the wake of the Dallas shooting, the young people of the Ottawa Seventh-day Adventist church travelled downtown on Sabbath to the Ottawa Police Station headquarters to pray with police officers and show their appreciation for their work. I’m sure there are many other instances where a small group of Adventists have decided to take a stand.
But where are the White people?
I have Adventist friends of all races staying “woke” on social media. Some of my White Adventist friends and my White Christian friends really get it. They really do. Praise God. Some Adventists, and dare I say… how do I put this nicely?… many of my White sisters and brothers are shockingly oblivious. Some Adventists, and not just White ones, see #blacklivesmatter as divisive. They trumpet inanities like #alllivesmatter. Some non-Black people feel unnecessarily targeted. Now, there are so many resources, books, blogs and academic papers out there that discuss White guilt, White tears, White privilege and White allyship. I don’t have time to get into all of that here, but luckily libraries and Google can help us all out. Just to be clear, just because we/I highlight race doesn’t mean we’re racist. It just means that we acknowledge fundamental, significant details and differences in our lived experiences. Yes, we are all equal in Christ, but we certainly aren’t all equal on this earth. Take the binders off and acknowledge this reality. Let the scales fall from your eyes so that you can see that race exists. Race exists. Our great God, who happens to be a Lover of diversity, painted us in hues of a great variety of colours. By being colour blind, you ironically deny His craftsmanship and handiwork, and you are oblivious to creation. By being colour blind, you assist in the crucifixion of your heavenly siblings, all in a vain attempt not to stir the pot or be controversial or engage in the issues of the world. It is the very definition of being so heavenly-minded that you are no earthly good. Stop it. Stop it now. Be engaged. People are dying. Christians ought to be the first to care.
We are in the world but not of the world, yes. But we are still in the world. So many Christians don’t get that. Apathy and distance aren’t helpful because you are in this world too and you will be until Jesus comes. Might as well help make it a good one — a just one — while we are here.
I’ll also say this: “White people” are not the enemy. Systemic racism and sin writ large are. At its heart, it’s not a skin problem but a sin problem. I get that. But if you are silent when people who look like your friends in church are being shot willy-nilly, then I seriously wonder if we are truly brothers and sisters in Christ. If you are silent during current persecution, how can I be so sure that you will be vocal during the persecution to come? Or will you only be vocal then because the persecution will affect you, your progeny and your livelihood directly? Hmmm… I continue to sip my tea.
Adventists are doing something, but I wonder if it is enough, or if it is the most that we can do. (And, for the record, insofar as I point the finger at others, I point it right back at myself.)
For one, I’m surprised that we don’t often talk about the spate of police brutality at church or discuss ways to get involved. Sometimes the atrocities of the past week are simply mentioned in passing during the sermon on Sabbath. If we are going to fight racism collectively, we need to ensure that everyone is educated on the issue so that we can be “woke” together.
During the civil rights movement, churches were the place of mobilization. Why haven’t our churches similarly mobilized themselves during the civil rights movement of 2016 – the Black Lives Matter Movement? Why aren’t church members galvanized? Why are we content to hear about another killing on Thursday and fold our hands and sing hymns on Sabbath with narry a batting of the eye? Have we become desensitized? Do we feel powerless? Do we not care?
In a sermon preached on Black History Sabbath at an Adventist Church, Pastor Dr. C. Wesley Knight said, “The problem with racism is not that we hate another culture; it’s simply that we are indifferent. Most of us are concerned about stuff, but we’re not dissatisfied with it – we’re not dissatisfied enough to do something about it.”
To echo Jared Thurman, “We aren’t called to passivity in the face of great evil, but to forestall it, defend the helpless, insist on justice for the oppressed, protect all who must be protected.”
I pray that this humble blog post will stir something in us – all of us. To care. To get engaged. To get woke and stay woke, all in the hopes that the church will continue to be a light in the seemingly impenetrable darkness descending heavily upon Black bodies as of late.
When police officers take out their guns, go out and be a flashlight. When another Black man is felled by a bullet, go out and be a candle. The world still needs the light of the church and the voice of all of its adherents – of all colours.