Analysis: A Pastor’s Quandary at the Intersection of Faith and State in Jamaica

Analysis: A Pastor’s Quandary at the Intersection of Faith and State in Jamaica

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Published:
March 21, 2016

A Seventh-day Adventist pastor has not been allowed back into his pulpit or to resume other pastoral duties after he went against denominational policy on the matter of political advocacy.  It’s a development that sends a resounding message but gives a complicated lesson. The pastor in this instance provided support to a national political party at a public event. 

Until the 1st of February 2016, Dr. Michael H. Harvey held two positions at Northern Caribbean University (NCU) in Jamaica: Senior Pastor of the NCU Seventh-day Adventist Church and Vice President for Spiritual Affairs.

The event that upended his world (and his family’s) was a mass rally of the People’s National Party (PNP) during which Harvey spoke to a large crowd of PNP supporters. The rally took place at the proverbial “starting gate” of a fiercely-fought general election contest.

A known and admitted PNP supporter, Harvey had been invited to conduct a “devotional exercise” at the meeting. He apparently later went off script: "It is time to rise up and be counted. Step up Jamaicans, rise up Comrades and rally to the cause. Because if it is a mountain we can climb it, if its a race we can win it," he said.

“Our country and the party need a great leader to lead us through tough times,” Harvey urged. “Someone who is socially aware, one who has a genuine love and can empathize with the people... that’s who this country has in the leadership of [Party President and incumbent Prime Minister] Comrade Portia Simpson Miller and her lieutenants.”

The election ended with the opposing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) winning and being commissioned to form a new government. 

The morning after Pastor Harvey’s participation in the PNP rally, Jamaica Union Conference President Pastor Everett Brown denounced Harvey and distanced the Church from his comments. Harvey had “violated the principles of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in which we encourage our members not to take partisan political lines," Brown told the Jamaica Gleaner. "Taking a partisan political line could be very divisive for the Church," Brown continued, adding that he would not, "at this point in time," say whether Harvey would be sanctioned.1 But Harvey was sanctioned, swiftly. His immediate boss, outgoing NCU president Dr. Trevor Gardner, suspended him—initially for two weeks, then one month—from his University positions, appointing the dean of the School of Religion and Theology, Dr. Newton Cleghorne, to serve temporarily as University Church pastor. 

In early March, Pastor Harvey communicated to me that he had received written word of what he understood to be a final disposition: he was out as pastor of the NCU church but could continue—tenuously in effect—in his job as a University vice president.  He’s not been asked to surrender his ordained ministerial credentials,2 but a palpable standoff persists between Harvey and his University and Church administrators.  Also palpable is the silence from brethren and colleagues. 

Harvey’s  violation derives from an injunction, directed at denominational workers, by Seventh-day Adventist Church co-founder and guiding light Ellen White. The injunction states in part:

Those teachers in the church or in the school who distinguish themselves by their zeal in politics, should be relieved from their work and responsibility without delay; for the Lord will not cooperate with them. 

Moreover,  

The tithe should not be used to pay any one for speechifying on political questions.... [A]teacher or minister or leader in our ranks who is stirred with a desire to ventilate his opinion on political questions, should be converted by a belief in the truth, or give up his work. His influence must tell as a laborer together with God in winning souls to Christ or his credentials must be taken from him. If he does not change, he will do harm, and only harm.3

The directive, written more than 100 years ago, is straightforward and unambiguous. However, two questions for further reflection, under scrutiny of the Pastor Harvey saga, might justifiably be raised. The first regards what used to be termed the “Advent movement” in Jamaica, and the other pertains to the nature and pursuit of Christian justice.  

The first question is this: Viewed within fuller textual elaboration of the Ellen White injunction, are there not evolving contradictions in 21st century, corporate Adventist practice in Jamaica—and elsewhere—when it comes broadly to matters of state?  

The second question is: What’s the best way to help resolve Pastor Harvey’s quandary in a manner that makes manifest the values of the Kingdom, as brethren we ought?  (Which I don’t think is for people to “just stop writing about it!”)

Let’s first examine some ineluctable, perhaps uncomfortable facts of growth and change in Jamaican Adventism, which have had complex bearing on the matter at hand.

Not My Grandparents’ Church Any More
My pioneer western Jamaica Adventist grandparents understood as unequivocal—up through the time of their deaths in the 1950s (their lifetimes overlapping with Sister White’s)—the fundamental dictate of the “Message.” The prophetic command was that they, Seventh-day Adventists, God’s “elect remnant,” should “Come out of her [meaning Babylon/the ‘world’] my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).

Sister White made the dictate abundantly plain a few pages subsequent to the quote cited earlier; this time not merely to the denomination’s workers and ministers, but to all believers at every station.  Neither was she aiming her counsel narrowly against engagement in electoral or partisan politics—but away from all things relating to the political state.  

"There is a large vineyard to be cultivated,” she admonished, 

but while Christians are to work among unbelievers, they are not to appear like worldlings. They are not to spend their time talking politics or acting politics.... God's children are to separate themselves from politics, from any alliance with unbelievers. They are not to link their interests with the interests of the world...4

This statement, too, is plain and unequivocal. Ministers and believers of my mother’s generation took this inspired instruction to mean, using as best I can recall my mother’s enduring, stern language: “Have nothing to do with them—not with their kings, queens, knights or princes; their governors or prime ministers; their wars and rumors of wars; their government and their politics; nor with their schools and universities.  Nothing . . . !” 

Devout church elders around whom, as a young child, I was growing up—in the landmark, militant Mt. Carey Seventh-day Adventist Church—defiantly refused to stand and sing the national anthem, especially the pre-1962/pre-independence one about God saving the Queen.

The only acceptable reason to associate with “them” was to “make them Adventists.”

This austere, isolationist model of Seventh-day Adventism, with its distinctive avoidance of matters relating to the state, essentially prevailed on the island until as recently as perhaps forty years ago. Things changed when we began crowning as “centurions,” and presenting as models of performance, ministers who in evangelistic crusades regularly baptized 100 and more converts, massively swelling the ranks in the pews—and the tithes and offering. An increase in members, and in the “quality” of membership, would further come from interested audiences that regularly followed Seventh-day Adventist programming on profusion of satellite dish (and later cable) networks in the 1980s and thereafter.

Sure, there had always been in the 1940s through the 1960s a few lonely Adventists, facelessly employed in the civil service; and a generally frowned-upon handful always ran for, and succeeded at, political office—mostly under the banner of the Jamaica Labour Party.  

But, however we may wish to rationalize or explain it away, the teaching of discrete “separateness,” of non-alignment and non-engagement in matters relating to the functions and functioning of the state, are not at all followed in today’s biggest-denomination-on-the-island (more than 283,000 member-strong) Jamaican Seventh-day Adventism.

Agencies of the organized Church and/or its believer representations have been acutely involved, in the era of the 2000s, at all key levels and stages (lobbying, legislative, executive and administrative) of epoch-shifting discourse, adjustments and transformations.  All presumably in the interest of helping to shape a modern, rights-based, democratic society—from changing labour and right-to-work laws to safeguarding liberties, notably freedom of speech and freedom of all religion.

Jamaican Adventists have, in other words, gone way past symbolic voting in elections, because it is our civic duty to do so, to engagement in the Big Picture of governance: the arena of oftentimes struggle over national choices and priority decision making. And politics, as Pastor Harvey has defended, is, at its most elemental, about governance.

We have thus, over the course of just beyond one generation, changed (unalterably?) the profile of Jamaican Seventh-day Adventism: from a hands-off, no frills, expectantly-awaiting-the-Second-Coming “sect” to an established, religio-institutional force that—by virtue of organizational muscle and numerical strength, and, yes, high moral standing—intentionally partners with, and participates in, the governance of the Jamaican state. This represents a dramatically different kind of believer-ship, a different kind of church, from the one Ellen White wrote to more than 100 years ago—which takes us squarely back to Pastor Harvey.

Given the widespread acceptance of engagement in the affairs of the political state (notwithstanding opposition from status quo ante preservationists, who, out of abiding love for my late mother, have my respect), Harvey’s actions ought to be judged only on the basis of degree: that it may have been extreme, over the top.  But the contours and context for the behavior had already been set.  It was, therefore, neither intrinsically anomalous nor inherently contrary.

Of course we, his congregants, did find it discomfiting—in fact we were aggrieved at—the print media’s incessant caricaturing of him as the “PNP Pastor.” But again we, his NCU church village family, could have straightforwardly worked through this and other incurred harm directly, face-to-face with him. Certainly we should have been given an opportunity to—and indeed we still can; which leads to my second reflective question.

Resolution Consistent with Values of the Kingdom
The narrative of Pastor Harvey’s undoing—and the attendant anguish to his family—brings into sharp focus the primary duty of the gospel mission: that is, to make whole again.  This should have been relatively easy, considering the lesser magnitude (though I’m not going there) and the sociological counter currents implicit in Harvey’s “sin.”

Be that as it may, sorely missing from this painful saga—at least up to this point—has been transparent conversation (which ought now to include the laity), accompanied by prayerful contemplation on what is the right, just and merciful thing to do—while still holding Pastor Harvey accountable. More centrally: What would Jesus do? Cold-shoulder Harvey while finding a way to “let him down easy”?

As one thoughtful Spectrum reader commented, when the Harvey story first broke:

[T]he man made an error in judgment, just [as] all of us at some point in our lives [do]. The Bible in Proverbs 24:16 states: ‘For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again…’  Note, it did not say an ungodly or wicked man, but a ‘just man.’ The Bible also states that ‘…if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.’ (Galatians 6:1) 

An academic department at Harvey’s Northern Caribbean University demonstrates for both students and law-enforcement practitioners, in this crime-bedevilled country, the usefulness of restorative justice—a moral-philosophical approach to human relationships that places a premium on putting things right. 

Restorative justice shares Divine Kingdom values of penitent acknowledgement, accountability, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and ultimately restoration as the only means for putting things right—not punishment (as we’ve come to know it) or retribution.

We have in Pastor Harvey’s misstep two principal sides needing little prodding to face each other in a series of agonizing, grace-filled restorative circle sessions, together prayerfully engaged in reciprocal search for healing and for putting things right: a shunned and humiliated “offender”, and a harmed and aggrieved church community and family.

The way forward, to end the stand-off and resolve this unholy impasse, is—if “we’re serious about Christianity” (my mother again)—putting into action precisely this kind of transformative healing-restorative process.  Our children and grandchildren are watching!

NOTES:

  1. President Samuel Sinyangwe of newly created North Zambia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists recently issued a directive that shares remarkably Brown’s sentiments. “If leaders in the church show open support for a particular political party or candidate they will divide members and fail to carry out their core mission of winning souls for Christ,” Sinyangwe reportedly told a Lusaka gathering of more than 1,300 church board members.
  2. This general set of facts Jamaica Union Conference communications spokesperson Nigel Coke confirmed. He insisted, however, that it was the NCU president whose verification mattered. President Gardner in email correspondence stated that administrative discussions relating to reconfiguring of roles and functions within the University hierarchy—which would involve reassigning Harvey away from pastorship of the NCU church, anyway—were ongoing at the time of Harvey’s blunder; implying, palatably, that the blunder had merely accelerated Harvey’s reassignment—not a removal—to a non-pastoral function. 
  3. Ellen White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, MD: Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1943 [Copyright 1915]), p. 393.
  4. Ibid, p. 396

 

Bernard Headley is an educator (a Professor Emeritus of sociology and justice studies) and a board officer of the Northern Caribbean University Seventh-day Adventist Church in Mandeville, Jamaica. His current book project is “Adventism and the Jamaican Political State.” You can email him at bernardheadley1(at)gmail(dot)com

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