Racism in America: Are We Ready to Talk?

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Published:
July 28, 2016

On July 8th, an Adventist publication asked me to write an opinion piece exploring how we as Adventists should respond in the wake of the police-involved shootings that occurred across the country earlier in that week.  I very quickly accepted.  After struggling with the painful realization that I didn’t know what to say in the midst of my frustration with yet again having to address this issue, I managed to get a draft submitted by the end of the next week.

After some back and forth discussions as well as a few subsequent drafts, the publication that asked me to write this article decided not to publish it.  I will not go into all of the reasoning behind that and I will not reveal which publication it was, but needless to say though I was disappointed with their decision, I understand and respect it.  In the wake of that experience, I decided to prayerfully give this article another look.  After doing so, I was convicted even further of the need for it to be published…somewhere…anywhere.

I did not come to this conclusion because I am the author of it, or because anything included here is groundbreaking or new.  I came to it because I believe that in order for us to have a meaningful discussion regarding how we should respond to these kinds of issues going forward, we cannot be afraid to analyze and critique (constructively) the way in which our church (leadership and members) responds in the present.  If we back away from this responsibility, we will never truly find our “prophetic voice” that speaks to the atrocities we see around us with Spirit-infused boldness and discernment.  It is my hope and prayer that some of the things I say here can assist this church that I love so much get to that place.  

Will this time be any different?
I have participated in conversations & panels on race relations & social justice.  The panels hosted by the Compass Magazine on race relations in the Seventh-day Adventist Church were great, but sadly, it seemed that participation & interest dwindled after the first one was held.  In our church we tend to warm up to these issues for a season, only to cool back down like the Fall giving way to the Winter.

Cynicism crept in.  What words could I possibly find that are adequate enough to motivate readers into meaningful action?  Am I too angry to say anything that won't do more harm than good?  Will this still even be a relevant topic to our church by the time this article gets published?  After years of seemingly banging my head against the wall, I was not sure if I even had the energy to engage in this all too familiar dialogue any longer.

In the days that followed the shootings, I truly felt numb.  Other than a few social media posts, I really didn't feel motivated enough to do or say anything.  So many words and thoughts poured into my mind, but the silence of my tongue was deafening.  That lack of motivation was rooted in the fact that we have been here before and now we are here again - searching for a relevant voice in the midst of so much chaos and noise.  I kept asking myself, "will it be any different this time?"  The helplessness that I felt paralyzed me.  In fact, it scared me.  I could not stay in that place.

An Unlikely Source
In my search for hope and a renewed sense of my voice, I turned to an unfamiliar source.  Rather than read articles from my media outlets of choice, or tuning into my favorite news programs for motivation and guidance, I opened up this quarter's Sabbath School Lesson.  The question I had been tasked with answering is should we as Adventists be involved in speaking out against injustice, and if so, how?  Rather than re-invent the wheel, I would like to share a few of the passages/excerpts found there that I believe will help us in finding our voice.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.  Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice." (Proverbs 31: 8-9, NLT).

"Learn to do good.  Seek justice.  Help the oppressed." (Isaiah 1:17a, NLT).

July 13th's Lesson Study entitled Prophetic Voice: Part 1 put the previous two passages of scripture into their beautiful perspective:

Though, of course, many of the Old Testament prophets pointed to future events beyond their lifetimes, they also heavily focused on spiritual and moral reform and unselfish service in the present. The prophetic voice of God’s servants rang loudest when His people made extravagant efforts to worship but did not reflect God’s compassion for the suffering of those around them. One can’t imagine a worse witness than those who are too busy 'worshiping' God that they don’t have time to help those in need. Might not a form of 'worship' be revealed by those who are serving the Lord by ministering to the needs of others?"

Two Approaches to our Response
There appears to be two schools of thought amongst those in our church when it comes to engagement in social justice issues.  I think they were reflected by two different statements put out by church leaders.  

One was released on July 8th by Daniel R. Jackson and G. Alexander Bryant, the president and executive secretary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.  The other was released on July 11th by Pastor Ted N.C. Wilson, President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

I will not post the content of the statements in full, but I want to deal with the NAD's statement first.  After expressing condolences for the families of those who lost loved ones in the three senseless acts of violence our country witnessed last week, the statement got directly to the heart of the matter:

“This week has been an extremely difficult week as we wrestle with the senseless loss of life. It is past time for our society to engage in open, honest, civil, and constructive conversation about the rights and equality of every member of our community. Having an open discussion means talking about difficult topics in a productive manner. However, we must move beyond the talking stage and begin to actually develop practical ways of dealing with racial intolerance in all of its forms—whether subtle or overt.

“This week we continue the struggle with what it means to fear for your life because of the color of your skin. We struggle with the pain that the African-American community feels. Last night we struggled seeing a hate so evil, so intense, that it led to the murder of those who were attempting to protect the right of American citizens to peacefully protest."

The statement ended by discussing the ways in which we as Adventists can personally and corporately respond:

"Now is the time to listen, to hear, and to understand the cry of those living in fear.  Now is the time for the men and women of the North American Division to stand up and link arms together, in peace and love, to say “NO” to racial inequality; and demonstrate that love is stronger than hate.  Now is the time for our local congregations, for our state and regional conferences, for our educational and medical institutions to pray together, to engage in creative thinking together, and then to work together to strengthen what we have in common and bring the hope and healing compassion of Jesus to our communities."

President Jackson & Secretary Bryant did not stop there.  The NAD decided to put those words into action and partnered up with NAD church members and pastors to participate in a march that was coordinated on July 9th.  This was Proverbs 31:8-9 in its essence!  They decided to speak up for the voiceless - right now.  They did not merely point towards some utopia far off into the distance that we can sit on our hands and look forward to.  As Pastor David Franklin of the Miracle City Church in Baltimore, Maryland said under the shadow of the Martin Luther King Memorial - the march's final destination - “We need this to be the beginning that creates an avalanche of change that continues until Jesus comes.”  They exuded a commitment to speak out and fight for these issues until that glorious day when we see the face of Jesus.  Our work will not be complete until we see His face!

The actions by the NAD demonstrated that this approach is holistic in its nature.  It is one that addresses the present condition of our world as well as views all things in light of the future realities of the coming of Christ. It sees the prophetic ministry as an active participatory process, not passive and detached.

I was encouraged and motivated after seeing the NAD's words & actions in response to these senseless tragedies that initially made me feel so down.  It was refreshing to see our church - lay members, pastors, employees & leaders - all united in a commitment to no longer be silent to the issues that affect the communities that we worship and serve in.  President Wilson's July 11th statement appeared to reflect a different school of thought (or tone).

He did not directly reference the shooting incidents that were on the minds of so many in this nation (and around the world).  To be fair to him, I am not entirely sure if he intended for his statement to address those incidents.  He merely referenced that the "winds of strife" have increased all across the globe, including the United States.  One portion of his statement said the following:

"We know from prophetic understanding of Daniel and Revelation that this world will degenerate into chaos and opposition to God’s Holy Word, but that does not mean that we cannot be strong sentinels of God’s grace and heavenly power to focus people’s attention on the Lord’s soon return.

I appeal to Seventh-day Adventists worldwide to focus your attention on Christ, His Word, His righteousness, His sanctuary service, His saving power in the great controversy, His three angels’ messages, His health message, His last-day mission to the world, and His soon second coming."

There is nothing inherently wrong with these words.  I have heard some version of them my entire life growing up in the church.  At times messages like this can be used to urge church members to focus on what is "really important."  In the opinion of those who give messages like these, the ills of this world are merely a distraction from our heavenly calling to uplift Christ and call everyone's attention to Him.

This is approach is dualistic in its nature.  It views the world through two lenses – one secular and one sacred.  Political and social issues are seen as secular with no spiritual implications that prophecy speaks to other than to use these socio-political events to confirm our prophetic accuracy without addressing the conditions of society.  Those who hold to this approach feel that the church has a “higher calling” to point people to the soon return of Christ which leaves us no time to address the violence and injustice that we see around us.

In my view, what I have always found lacking in such calls is a realization of what the implications of such an approach may be.  How will those around me react to my insistence on them ignoring that which is currently causing them pain?  Will spiritualizing the pain of others help lead them to Christ, or cause them to resent us for being out of touch?  The church has to be mindful of these implications, regardless of what the actual intention of this approach may be.  Our true higher calling can only be realized when we find our true prophetic voice.  I understand our need & obligation to point humanity upward because, as President Jackson said at the march:

“We will not find political solutions to these problems.  Jesus says, ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid’ [John 14:27]. We must make personal determinations — we personally will commit to the ideals that Jesus taught."

Personal Responsibility
That idea of personally committing to modeling the ideals that Jesus taught is what is key here.  There have been white Adventist members who have appealed to other white members asking them to speak up, be informed, get involved, and stand alongside black members who are hurting.  There have been conference calls geared towards addressing how we can advocate for changes in policies surrounding the training and tactics of the police.  Facebook interest groups are forming to create a space for Adventists who are interested in putting our faith into action and advocating for a better future for our church and our communities.

Ultimately, the number one way that you as an Adventist can get involved is to do the following: "And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’  The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these."  (Mark 12:30-31, NLT).

Some are interested in developing a guide or model for churches as they approach social justice.  I think that is a good thing to consider, but we should also admit that Christ's command for us to love our neighbor as ourselves - a love equal to the amount that we love God - should motivate us to speak out for those who are hurting immediately.  Complacency equates to complicity, and we cannot be complacent with our status quo any longer.

The prophetic words of Isaiah 58 cry out to our church today.  After lamenting the state of Israel's worship in the beginning of the chapter, he puts into perspective the true worship that He was calling them (and us) to:

"[T]his is the kind of fasting I want:  Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you.  Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.  Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.  Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.  Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal.  Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.

"Then when you call, the Lord will answer.  ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.  'Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.  Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!  Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble.  Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.'" (Isaiah 58:6-12, NLT).

I am committing myself to being known as a rebuilder and a restorer, not just of walls & homes, but of relationships, communities and lives.  We can walk & talk at the same time, and both should be done in love.  We can do better, we must to better, and by God’s grace, we shall do better.  Will you join me? 

 

Michael Timothy Nixon is Legal Coordinator at the Fair Housing Justice Center in New York, NY. His website is michaeltnixon.com.

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