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Two weeks have passed since a gunman terrorized a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., killing 49 people and injuring 53 more. The senseless massacre prompted an outpouring of support for members of the LGBT community who felt especially hard hit by this homophobic attack.
The North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists (NAD) joined the chorus of supporters, offering a ray of hope to LGBT members in an otherwise desolate moment. The same day of the tragedy, the NAD issued a statement expressing heartbreak over “the loss of innocent lives.” Although the statement failed to name homophobia, it “denounc[ed] the hate that led to this mass shooting” and “condemn[ed] all expressions of hate, from speech to deadly violence.” In a video posted a few days later, NAD President Dan Jackson added, “Our hearts grieve with the LGBT community.” The post included the affirming #loveisloveislove, which has been used by same-sex marriage advocates.
In sharp contrast, just four years ago, the church’s General Conference (GC) managed to add insult to injury when it responded to reports that pastor Blasius Ruguri of the East-Central Africa Division had publicly supported Uganda’s anti-gay legislation, which would have sentenced gay individuals to death in some cases. Instead of condemning homophobia, the GC doubled down on its condemnation of homosexuality while also claiming to be “strongly opposed to acts of violence, hatred and discrimination against a person because of his or her sexual orientation.” The GC’s hypocritical statement drew the ire of black Adventist lawyer and religious liberty scholar Jason Hines who asked: “How can we expect a pastor in Africa to care about the rights of homosexuals when the Adventist rhetoric in America is at the very least tinged (and more often saturated) with homophobia and hate?” Indeed, the GC’s statement failed to appreciate that, for many LGBT Adventists, the church’s one-sided disparaging views of homosexuality and same-sex relationships feel like “acts of violence, hatred and discrimination.”
From that perspective, the NAD’s response to the Orlando mass shooting stands out not only for its compassionate tone but also for its omission of any condemnation of homosexuality, and may signal a shift in the way the church is now approaching homophobia. If so, it would not be the first time Adventism evolved on a significant social issue. The church’s troubled history with racism comes to mind. As civil rights leader Coretta Scott King aptly noted, “Homophobia is like racism . . . it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.”
In this regard, the Adventist civil rights movement delivers a prophetic message of hope to LGBT Adventists fighting homophobia today. In the same way the Adventist church came to accept desegregation and interracial marriage, Adventists are slowly embracing LGBT equality and same-sex marriage as well. Already, 25 percent of Adventists in the United States favor same-sex marriage, and of the 64 percent that oppose it only 21 percent are 18 to 29 year-olds. Ethicist Gary Chartier affirmed this trend in The Future of Adventism. He explains that the Christian community blurs “divisions based on ethnicity, nationality, and class, and increasingly also divisions based on gender and sexual orientation,” because “the church, rooted in the inclusive practice of Jesus, is an institutional rejection of the destructive business of boundary-making.”1 The Adventist civil rights movement is a stark reminder of that important truth. The sooner Adventist leaders grasp this reality with respect to LGBT members, the safer the church will be for all people of faith.
Adventist Civil Rights Movement and the Church’s Struggle against Racism
As recently as the 1980s, an Adventist pastor stunned his Canadian community when he refused to perform an interracial marriage.2 News reports of the incident reached E. E. Cleveland, a black Adventist pastor and civil rights leader in the United States. He shared the story with Neal Wilson, Jr., GC president at the time. Wilson discussed the matter at the GC’s human relations committee, and the group voted to revoke the credentials of any pastor who refused to marry interracial couples.
The discriminatory practice of denying marriage to interracial couples was not divorced from the church’s teachings. In 1968, less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, the NAD issued guidelines advising against such marriages on religious grounds. The guidelines invoked the counsel of church visionary Ellen White who at one time directed, “there should be no intermarriage between the white and the colored race.” The GC published the NAD’s guidelines in the Church Manual in 1977, and did not remove them until 15 years later in 1992.
Concern about mixing between the races was driven, in part, by pseudo-scientific beliefs that percolated American society in the nineteenth century. In her early writings, Ellen White suggested that “certain races of men” were the product of mixing between humans and animals (also known as the “polygenesis theory”).3 Her statements stirred controversy among early Adventists “with critics charging that she believed Negroes were not human and defenders insisting she meant no such thing.”4 Eventually, she distanced herself from such views and declared: “Birth . . . or color cannot elevate or degrade men.” It took the church several decades to follow suit.
Well into the 20th century, many Adventist institutions still barred black members on account of their race. As late as the 1960s, some Adventist pastors justified these exclusionary practices with dated interpretations of biblical texts such as the “Curse of Ham,” suggesting that Ham’s son Canaan turned black after Noah cursed him to be a servant to his brothers.5 According to these pastors, black Adventists could not hold positions of authority or even enter certain facilities because, as descendants of Canaan, blacks were also cursed.
Again, these segregationist practices found support in official church policy. Although Ellen White had initially observed that “sin rests upon us as a church” when prejudice got in the way of building a racially inclusive faith community, she reversed course a few years later when Adventist missionaries confronted violent southerners who disliked the church’s integrationist values. Motivated by safety concerns and a desire to evangelize white and black southerners in spite of the racial divide, she endorsed segregation “until the Lord shows us a better way.”6
A better way emerged when, in the 1960s, black Adventists enlisted in the civil rights movement and demanded equal treatment in the church as well.7 Black students and their friends amplified the demands for change through public protests across Adventist colleges. Black Adventist theologians supported these efforts through liberationist interpretations of the Bible, and a renewed emphasis on Ellen White’s integrationist commitments. Other black Adventists such as Frank Hale Jr. formed the Laymen’s Leadership Conference (LLC) with the purpose of ending racial discrimination in the church. In 1961, the LLC urged the GC to re-articulate Adventism’s position on race “in light of social changes,” to require diversity training for pastors, and to remove racial barriers to church membership, employment and access.8 The GC responded by issuing a statement rejecting segregation as incompatible with Christian teaching, but little else changed in practice.
Pressures to desegregate mounted following two important events: the landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racial segregation in schools and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning racial discrimination in public facilities. Relying on these new anti-discrimination laws, black members of the South Central Conference (SCC) sued the denomination because many Adventist academies continued to deny admission to black students. The U.S. Attorney General joined the lawsuit on the side of black Adventists, and pressured the GC to end segregation or risk losing federal tax exemptions. The GC gave in to these demands and, in 1965, resolved to desegregate. Charles Dudley, a black civil rights activist and SCC leader, chided the GC for letting the government play the role of the Good Samaritan. In Dudley’s view, the church should have acted out of its own initiative rather than legal compulsion.9
Although efforts to combat racism continue, the GC formally shifted the tone on race relations in 1985 when, at the insistence of black Adventists, it condemned racism as “one of the odious evils of our day.” That statement also declared that “Scripture plainly teaches that every person was created in the image of God” and “made of one blood,” refuting any lingering doubts about the Curse of Ham and the polygenesis theory in Adventism. Here, the prophetic voice of the Adventist civil rights movement sounds all the louder for LGBT Adventists today.
LGBT Adventist Struggle for Equality and Parallels with Adventist Civil Rights Movement
Similar to issues of race and race relations, Adventists have been engaged for decades in an ideological debate over the proper understanding of homosexuality and same-sex relationships.
This debate has been influenced by modern conceptions of sexual orientation, which emerged in the late 1800s when European psychologists started to study same-sex love and labeled it “homosexuality” and “inversion.”10 Some psychologists followed the so-called “degeneracy theory,” which taught that biological and moral degeneration in certain groups threatened social progress and cast homosexuals along with “Jews, Negroes, rapists, murderers and incest abusers as the most dangerous of social ‘degenerates.’”11 Other psychologists, however, found homosexuality to be an innate, morally neutral characteristic akin to heterosexuality.12
Early Adventists stayed aloof from these developments in the study of sexual orientation.13 By contrast, the degeneracy theory infected Adventist teachings on health and sex.14 For example, Ellen White attributed the “sad degeneracy” of the human race to a failure to observe the “laws of health,” such as eating meat, drinking stimulants or indulging in sex.15 Her health reform protégé Dr. John H. Kellogg took those concerns further and dedicated his life’s work to combatting “race degeneration” by promoting dietary cures, sexual abstinence and selective breeding to eliminate undesirable characteristics (also known as “eugenics”).16 An extreme example of the degeneracy theory’s effects on Adventism occurred in Germany in the years leading up to World War II when some church officials there endorsed the Nazi’s efforts to sterilize “all physical and mental degenerates,” and supported “the extermination of . . . Homosexuals, Jews and people with physical infirmities.”
Today, Adventism is still dusting off traces of the degeneracy theory, which in retrospect sounds more like nineteenth century folktales about “certain races of men” than well-researched science.17 For instance, the church’s Fundamental Beliefs presents homosexuality as a “disorder” and “homosexual practice” as a “distortion of the image of God.” The GC’s official statement on same-sex unions indiscriminately characterizes all same-sex relations as a “lowering of the heavenly ideal” and a “manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations.” The authors of these documents cite biblical verses such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to support their claims, harkening back to a time when some pastors used the Curse of Ham to brand blacks as less worthy than whites.
These “official statements” also obscure a rich history of LGBT activism and dialogue in the Adventist church. Much as the civil rights movement precipitated desegregation in Adventist institutions, the 1969 Stonewall riots that gave birth to the modern gay rights movement triggered a more robust discussion on homosexuality as well. Throughout the 1970s, Adventist authors expressed concern over the way homosexuals were abused in society, yet they failed to consider how their religious views might be fanning the flames of fear and prejudice.18 Instead, they fell back on the soon-to-be-discredited medical notion that homosexuality was an illness that could be “cured” through therapy and prayer. In response, some gay Adventists wrote letters to the editors of these publications and offered their positive stories, providing the earliest murmurings of an Adventist gay voice.
Towards the end of the 1970s, a group of openly gay Adventists formed Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International to support gay members who felt excluded by the church. Like the LLC, which had been established by black Adventists to end racial discrimination, SDA Kinship also desired to rid the church of its prejudice against gay members. In 1980, SDA Kinship invited church leaders to speak at its first spiritual retreat. Three theology professors from Andrews University and two pastors attended the gathering with the GC’s approval. The guest speakers presented papers on homosexuality and faith, and concluded that a “simplistic” reading of the few references to homosexual acts in the Bible was insufficient to discern God’s will for gay Adventists today. After listening to the stories of the retreat’s gay attendees, the guest speakers returned to the GC with a three-page written report.
Similar to the LLC’s 1961 platform urging the GC to revisit its position on race relations, the SDA Kinship report asked the church to study the question of homosexuality holistically. The report suggested that pastors, teachers and administrators undergo sensitivity training to help them minister to gay members under their care. And it asked the church to create closer ties to SDA Kinship and to become more inclusive of gay members. The GC initially accepted most of these proposals, but then quickly and quietly retracted its approval under pressure from right-wing conservatives who began questioning the denomination’s bona fide Christian credentials.19 Fear and prejudice had reared its ugly head once again. In short, to appease conservative members uncomfortable with change, gay Adventists like black Adventists would have to wait for equality “until the Lord shows us a better way.”
Just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s improved the situation of black Adventists, a better way started to materialize for gay Adventists as the gay rights movement gained momentum at the turn of the twentieth century. The most public display of support for gay Adventists came in 2008 in the form of a campaign called, “Adventists Against Prop 8,” protesting a highly contested California law prohibiting same-sex marriage. Filmmakers contributed to these efforts with a trailblazing documentary, “Seventh-Gay Adventists,” which chronicled the story of three Adventist same-sex couples making sense of their faith and sexuality in a church that was often hostile towards them.
Like Adventist theologians who offered liberationist interpretations of scripture to support desegregation, Adventists scholars began to publish theological and ethical perspectives that prioritized the wellbeing of gay Adventists over dogma.20 These scholars understood that faithful gay Adventists were not seeking to undermine God’s authority. On the contrary, gay Adventists desiring the same covenantal relationship available to heterosexual couples were merely affirming the church’s teaching on marriage and family. Still, church officials seemed unwilling to engage in open dialogue.
A sea change took place when countries around the world started legalizing same-sex marriage. In 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry. Repeating its reactionary response against interracial marriage after the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1968, the NAD issued guidelines this time opposing same-sex marriage. The Andrews University Seminary also issued a white paper condemning “homosexual practice” while conceding that an innate homosexual orientation is not morally culpable. An Adventist satirist wittily captured the tension in that position with a blog post titled, “Adventist church cool with gay people as long as they’re not gay about it.”
Despite the church’s continued resistance to LGBT equality, a new wave of students is breathing life into the type of activism last seen at the height of the Adventist civil rights movement. One example is Andrews University alumnus and news commentator Eliel Cruz, a self-identified bisexual Adventist who founded the school’s unofficial gay-straight alliance. As a student, Cruz led a widely publicized social media fundraising campaign to benefit LGBT homeless youth in Chicago after school administrators rejected his club’s plans to raise the funds through a bake sale on campus. Other students started gay-straight alliances at Adventist colleges in the hopes of making these campuses more welcoming of LGBT persons.
With time, gay Adventists at all levels of the church will feel more comfortable with coming out of the shadows. Same-sex couples that marry outside the church will bring their children to Sabbath school and a growing number of openly gay students will attend Adventist academies and colleges. Like the SCC’s black members in the 1960s, gay Adventists will be able to hold their faith community legally accountable for any discriminatory responses. And, as was the case with segregation, the church will find itself once again in a losing battle against social change unless it learns from its past mistakes. Ellen White’s counsel on this point is compelling: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us . . . in our past.”
The NAD’s response to the Orlando mass shooting may be an indication of lessons learned. Perhaps this time the GC will not wait for the government to act as the Good Samaritan to point out that “sin rests upon us as a church” when it fails to create an inclusive faith community. An easy place to begin is to condemn homophobia explicitly like racism as “one of the odious evils of our day.” Starting from that premise, the church’s position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage should look very different.
Juan O. Perla is an attorney in New York who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy, and Andrews University. After college, he represented the General Conference as a field intern at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (now the U.N. Council on Human Rights).
1. Gary Chartier, Christ and Salvation, in The Future of Adventism: Theology, Society, Experience 126 (2015).
2. Samuel London, Jr., Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement 149 (2009).
3. See Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream 271-72 (2d ed. 2007).
5. London, supra note 2, at 86-87.
6. See Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet 274-75 (2014).
7. See Gary Land, Adventism in America: A History 174-75 (1998).
8. London, supra note 2, at 117-18.
9. Ibid at 125.
10. Neil Miller, Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1969 to the Present 13 (1995).
11. Ben Kemena, Biological Determinants of Homosexual Orientation, in Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives Part 2 5 (David Ferguson, Fritz Guy, and David Larson eds. 2008); see also Miller, supra note 10, at 15.
12. See Miller, supra note 10, at 13-25.
13. Michael Pearson, Millennial Dreams and Moral Dilemmas: Seventh-day Adventism and Contemporary Ethics 231 (1990).
14. See generally John Money, The Destroying Angel: Sex, Fitness and Food in the Legacy of Degeneracy Theory, Graham Crackers, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes & American Health History (1985).
15. Bull and Lockhart, supra note 3, at 164.
16. See generally Brian Wilson, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living (2014).
17. See Kemena, supra note 11, at Part 2 10-19.
18. See Pearson, supra note 13, at 243-51.
19. Ronald Lawson, The Caring, Welcoming Church? The Seventh-day Adventist Church and Its Homosexual Members, in Christianity and Homosexuality, supra note 11, at Part 3 35; see also Pearson, supra note 13, at 247.
20. See, e.g., John Jones, “In Christ There Is Neither…”: Toward the Unity of the Body of Christ, in Christianity and Homosexuality, supra note 11, at Part 4 3-30; Fritz Guy, Same-sex Love: Theological Considerations, in Christianity and Homosexuality, supra note 11, at Part 4 43-58.
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