The forest: a broad overview of the book
Stylistically and editorially speaking, there is something that jumps out in an initial scan of the book. There are waaaay toooo many exclamation points! Almost! Every! Single! Paragraph!
Ok, not really every paragraph, but it doesn’t take long to feel the smoldering indignation rising from the pages. This is quite intriguing since 3ABN appears to have a preference for calm, conversational preaching, and Danny Shelton’s on-screen persona seems to plead, “Can’t we all just get along?” However, if this were an audio book, you might not want to be too close to the speakers.
So what has kindled Shelton’s zeal? Political correctness, abortion, gay marriage, rock and roll, and Sabbath breaking. Most of which fall in line with the talking points of the religious right, except for disagreement on which day the Sabbath is. It seems that the intended audience is White Evangelicals, for whom abortion and gay marriage form the major thrust of their social concerns.
Another Pavlovian bell announcing red meat is about to be served includes the presence of a chapter named after Richard Nixon’s “The Silent Majority.” The term was used to convey the idea that the anti-war and civil rights protesters making noise in the streets didn’t represent the majority of Americans. Since it was finally no longer expedient for a politician to publicly disparage minorities, Nixon’s strategists used whistles of a different frequency to appeal to their base. Along with Ronald Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again,” “The Silent Majority” was a phrase revived by the Trump campaign. Also intriguing is the introduction’s notice that the author is going to “tell it like it is”—a phrase describing a trait admired by 2016 GOP supporters. One might wonder if Bro. Danny’s thinking cap has MAGA embroidered on the front.
Forest roots: examining the underlying ideology
This part of the critique is not to directly engage in the social issues debated in the book but to question the author’s professed independent approach to the topics covered. Although a professed political independent, Shelton frequently rails against the liberal media’s role in sowing divisiveness and corruption. Absent is any outrage about the conservative media’s role in contributing to the nation’s polarization. Democratic leaders like President Obama and Hillary Clinton are called out for their support of LGBTQ rights and transgender bathrooms. Therefore, someone who repeatedly states his independence would be expected to call out the other major party for their contributions.
Where is Shelton’s critique of President (then candidate) Trump’s April 21, 2016, Today show interview in which he said transgender people should be able to “use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate”? To clarify the question and make it practical, Today show cohost Matt Lauer asked Trump, "If Caitlyn [formerly Bruce] Jenner were to walk into Trump Tower and wanted to use the bathroom, you would be fine with her using any bathroom she chooses?" Trump’s reply was, "That is correct."
Caitlyn soon took advantage of the green light by posting a thank you video from inside the women’s bathroom at one of Trump’s properties. This was not the only time the current Republican president courted the LGBTQ community. He was the first GOP nominee to invite an openly gay speaker, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, to address the Republican National Convention. Along with proclaiming his pride in being gay, Thiel reprimanded the GOP for being distracted by “fake culture wars.” How is it that Spiritual Vigilantes’ polemic regarding the LGBTQ debate condemns Democratic support of those issues with exclamation points while treating the 2016 RNC’s about-face with silence?
The trees: barking up the wrong ones
From the first page, Shelton demonstrates his blindness to the irony of the American experience. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed in his speech (delivered April 14, 1967, at Stanford University), “there are literally two Americas.” Shelton unwittingly recognizes this as he compares the era when “America was the greatest superpower on Earth” to when “the hippie and Civil Rights movements” were “reshaping America’s social culture” and “brought in a jarring change to our music culture as well” (p. 9, 10).
After shaking my head over why he chose to pair the Civil Rights movement with hippies, I found myself flipping back and forth between pages 9 and 10. On page 9, we read, “America is extremely divided right now—unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.” He then describes how he misses the good ole days which preceded “the tremendous changes in the 1960s” outlined on page 10. The blind spot is made apparent if we ask why a Civil Rights movement was needed when Americans in the previous era “lived by the mantra of ‘Right is right, and wrong is wrong.’”
By pointing out, on page 10, that “Black Americans were forced into substandard living conditions and an inferior education system,” Shelton has inadvertently confessed that America had NOT been living by “right is right.” Instead, it was “white is right”and everything else was, "Yes ma'am," "No sir," and "Please don't. I'm sorry. I won’t do it no more. Help!" By lamenting that Blacks were “shamefully segregated from mainstream whites,” Shelton, by necessity, admits that he DID witness extreme division previously in his lifetime. It’s hard to be more divided than by “white” and “colored” water fountains and toilets.
To say that Americans are divided by race, religion, and politics like never before is to be ahistorical. The Southern Baptist Convention came into being because Baptists in the South split from those in the North, so that slave-owners could serve as missionaries. The AME Church came about after whites interrupted black people during prayer time to demand their exit from the White section of the church (and this happened in the liberty loving, northern city of brotherly love—Philadelphia). The birth of regional conferences in the SDA Church was catalyzed when a Black Adventist woman died after being denied treatment in a White SDA hospital. Anyone remember Strom Thurmond filibustering the Civil Rights Bill? What about the mass exodus of Southern Whites from the Democratic Party after a Democratic President pushed the Civil Rights agenda? What about when so-called Redeemers rolled back our nation's first Civil Rights Bills of the 19th century?
Equal Prayer in School?
Shelton basks in his nostalgia of prayer in school. Never mind the fact that Adventists have long been concerned about the religious liberty implications involved with organized prayer in schools. How about the fact that these prayer-filled schools were separate and intentionally unequal, underfunded, and often without transportation—in the North as well as the South? Boston opposition to desegregation in 1974 was just as barbarous as the mobs of Little Rock in 1957. What kind of prayer led parents, students, teachers, pastors, and legislators to be so bigoted? Who were they really praying to? "Almighty Zeus, in the name of Hercules," or perhaps, "Hear us awesome Odin, in the name of Thor, Amen"? It doesn't seem they were praying in the name of a brown-skinned Jew, whose appearance blended in with Egyptians when the angel told Joseph to flee Herod's infanticide (Matt. 2:13-16).
Again on page 9, Shelton describes the pre-1960s as an era in which "everyone had full expectations of seeing their dreams and ambitions come true." While it may have been that way for some, it was also concurrent with the history of convict leasing, sharecropping, Henry Ford's weekly defamation of Jews in his newspaper and books (The Dearborn Independent & The International Jew), Japanese internment camps and property forfeiture, Jim Crow, voter suppression, assassination of civil rights workers, the bombing of Black churches by so-called White Christians, White SDA leaders (like Francis D. Nichols, editor of SDA Commentaries) chastising black Adventists who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and the Huntsville Central SDA Church threatening to shoot Oakwood College students who wanted to worship there. (For documentation of the Adventist incidents mentioned above and to learn more about the ups and downs of Adventist social ethics, see Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement by Samuel G. London, Jr. and The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics by Zdravko Plantak.)
Yes, new music began to fill the airwaves and not all of it was good. But acting as though there should be universal appreciation for Black-face performers like Bing Crosby is another testimony to the selective memory of the other America. What Shelton’s isolated view doesn’t account for is that some of the “jarring” music served as a release valve on a pressure cooker for people who always had to smile while biting their tongues in order to survive. If it wouldn’t have been for B.B. King (mentioned as one of the negative examples in Vigilantes, p. 10) and others providing an outlet for people living the blues to vent their blues, America may have experienced even more turmoil.
There was also music produced and performed that served as rallying cries to keep optimism from being crushed by forces opposing equality. When you hear Sam Cooke’s "A Change Gonna Come," it should prompt the question: Why were so many people looking for a change to come? Wouldn’t you be looking for a change if you were a professional musician who had booked a room in advance and were ready to pay for it, only to be forcibly removed from the premises when you tried to check in—because you’re Black?
Did Edwin Starr’s "War, What Is It Good For?" offend patriotic sensibilities? Certainly. Yet shouldn’t people who recite “with liberty and justice for all” find it offensive for African Americans to comprise 25% of the Vietnam combat deaths when they were only 11% of the population? One thing the Vietnam War was good for was the international drug trade, as pointed out by History Channel's four-part documentary, “America’s War on Drugs” (aired June 18-21, 2017). While America was supposed to be waging a war on drugs, some U.S. agencies were involved in creating the epidemics in the first place.
"Strange Fruit" was a chilling song of the struggle that never should have needed to be written, sung, or remade. But when we're in the 21st Century and unarmed Blacks can be beat up, shot down, and choked out without consequence, it still seems relevant today. When tear gas, water cannons, and police dogs were used in 2016 on unarmed Native American protestors trying to preserve their ancestral land and water from being polluted by oil pipelines, then you're going to hear some songs expressing the obscenity that people are experiencing.
Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney partnered to promote racial harmony through their chart-topping “Ebony and Ivory” in 1982. Decades later, even Stevie Wonder can see that many people haven’t taken the 80’s hit to heart, thus leading him to collaborate with the rapper Common on the song, “Black America Again.”
It's easy to happily whistle down the street when you're living in Leave It to Beaver world, but that's not everyone's reality. When scores of videos confirm the police brutality and evidence planting that people of color have been testifying about for decades and there's still little or no accountability, then you're going to hear some different songs. Shelton should get better acquainted with people enduring the American nightmare (spoken of by both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.) before condemning them for what they feel compelled to sing in a strange land (Psalm 137:4).
The Liberal Media
Many of us agree that modern TV shows have very concerning content. The controversial singer, Madonna, shocked many when she said that she didn’t let her children watch TV. But let’s not act as if TV was so innocent back in the day. Casper the Friendly Ghost filled our minds with humorous, yet subtle spiritualism. The old Westerns and detective shows didn’t have a lot of blood and guts, but had their portion of gratuitous theft and violence. Even comedies like The 3 Stooges and Laurel and Hardy weren’t immune from sexual innuendos. A review of the cartoons from the days of black and white TV reveals a propaganda machine to instill young minds with demeaning perceptions of non-whites. (See this link for a compilation of samples of racist cartoons.) Yes, sex, violence, and spiritualism in entertainment is on steroids now—but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there before.
Respect the Flag
Perhaps as a jab at Colin Kaepernick and others who have publicly protested during the national anthem, on page 9, Shelton fondly recalls how “every school-aged child in America started the morning off with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.” However, civil rights activist, James Baldwin explained that not everyone was misty eyed while performing the required civic ritual: "one was expected to be 'patriotic' and pledge allegiance to a flag which had pledged no allegiance to you: it risked becoming your shroud if you didn't know how to keep your distance and stay in your 'place.' "
"The Soiling of Old Glory" taken by Stanley Forman on April 5, 1976
It is because of a lack of accountability for how law enforcement treats minorities that protests continue in an effort to bring awareness. Yes, it disturbs many people, but as Frederick Douglass stated, “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.”
Didn’t our revered revolutionary heroes appreciate agitation when the policing practices of the British military had become brutal and invasive? Sure, we call them patriots now, but what did the British government think of them then? If The Boston Massacre or Boston Tea Party would have been televised, do you think most viewers would have described the scene as a peaceful protest?
Shelton's definition of political correctness is unique to himself. The problem is that when you're defining a widely used term, it is incumbent upon you to do so in keeping with how most people use the word. He takes upon himself a prerogative that only someone who has coined a term is allowed. To say that PC is when people in power refuse to take a stand against those who compromise or destroy God's moral laws is a summary that I've never heard before.
One thing that is commonly referred to as politically correct is condemnation of the use of racial slurs. I've heard people rail against the so-called PC designations of African-Americans, for example, who say “Why don't you just refer to yourselves as [regular] Americans? Why isn’t that good enough for you?” Do you really want an answer, or two? 1) Not all Americans are treated as “real” Americans—birtherism, anyone? Being born here with a legitimate certificate doesn’t grant you the same respect, no matter what degrees you earn or what office you attain, and 2) the only real American is a Native-American, and if it weren’t for illegal immigration by European “settlers,” the natives never would have had occasion for calling themselves Americans, and 3) What does it mean to be an American anyway, when the land was named by a German who never visited it after an Italian who didn’t discover it?
Abortion: the first step?
"Legalized abortion was the first major step taken by the United States government to chip away at the Ten Commandments Law of God," was a mind-numbing assertion on page 35 that begs a few questions. What about the stolen labor from the African continent? What about the stolen land of the American continent? What about the 3/5 Compromise, giving undue representation to the Southern States for people who didn't count as people? Talk about taxation without representation! What about the Trail of Tears? What about multitudes of church goers who proudly posed for the cameras while lynching Blacks yet were never prosecuted? What about Plessy vs. Ferguson?
What about the 13th Amendment which provided a loophole that allowed the North and the South to collude on developing a new form of slavery—convict leasing? What about needing a Voting Rights Act in 1965 when we already were supposed to have a right to vote through the 15th Amendment of 1870? Doesn't that mean the nation was bearing false witness for almost 100 years? What about declaring a War on Drugs when documentaries show that much of the trafficking in LSD, heroin, cocaine, and illegal guns have been facilitated by government agencies? What about the 1912 racial cleansing of Forsythe County, GA, (which banned Black people until 1987) with its attendant land theft that has never been restored or recompensed?
Aren't any of those things “major steps?” Doesn't this short excerpt from a long list of historical and abiding hatred, theft, intimidation, forced assimilation, and murder “chip away” even a little at the Law of God? Don't just a few of these things predate legalized abortion? Why is it that pro-life champions seem to obsess over the unborn and skim over the life and death issues of the living? Perhaps Shelton doesn’t know that early Adventists pointed out the hypocrisy of proclaiming liberty and practicing slavery as an identifying mark of the second beast of Revelation 13. A good place for him to begin chronicling early Adventist views of America’s chipping away at the commandments would be the 2002 Adventist Review article by Bill Knott, “Writing Against Wrong.”
Additionally, why is the pro-life platform so narrow? Pro-life and pro-war? Pro-life and pro-death penalty? Why aren't pro-lifers seeking an end to the tobacco industry when we have 480,000 tobacco related deaths per year in the U.S.? What about the 88,000 alcohol related deaths per year in the U.S.? Is there too much mammon involved in those industries? Oh, my bad, those issues fall under the sacred cows of free enterprise and limited government, right?
Marriage is a civil institution in America
Shelton drags the NAACP into the fray in a rather disparaging manner that displays either ignorance (as in uninformed) or bias. He basically labels the Civil Rights group as another liberal foe to be feared and fought because they have supported gay marriage. Where do I even start with this one? LGBTQ issues aren’t the major emphasis of the NAACP—civil rights are. As stated on the back of my membership card:
The mission of the NAACP is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.
Like it or not, marriage in this country is a function of the civil government. Whether or not a pastor, rabbi, or imam pronounces vows over the couple, they are not married until they have a signed certificate from the state. That means a person has the freedom to marry according to their religious practices, whether Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, or even Satanist. It also means they don't need to have any religious involvement at all.
Religious Liberty Implications
If religious people in a society based on civil and religious liberty prevail upon the state to enforce their beliefs on marriage, whose doctrines would rule? And would we still have civil and religious liberty? If we applied religious tests for marriage, then whose religion do we go with? Should everyone be bound by those sects which don't allow intermarriage with people of other sects? How many of us want to be bound by traditions that still believe in parents choosing spouses for their children? How rigidly do we want to interpret Jesus' teaching that says if someone divorces and remarries they commit adultery? Would the author of Spiritual Vigilantes insist that the state disqualify divorcees from remarrying?
Aren't these the questions we open up if we press for biblical marriage to define the standard for how the state regulates marriage? If so, why should the church settle for only that issue? Why shouldn't the church require the state to regulate the meat industry to make sure no animals are strangled and that we drain the blood from the animals before making them available for purchase, according to Acts 15:28-29? How many Americans would vote to outlaw rare steaks?
Where is the push for the shutting down of strip clubs that line interstate highways, even in the Bible Belt South? Scripture condemns witchcraft, seeking familiar spirits, and fortunetelling, so where's the push to outlaw haunted houses, ghost tours, and psychics? Since the Bible condemns eating certain animals as abomination, why isn't Shelton outraged by legalized pork and seafood?
There's another reason why civil rights leaders aren't being intimidated by the religious right regarding gays and abortion. The religious right didn't begin its power brokering with those issues. The first social issues they fought against were race issues, as sojo.net and others have pointed out.
Consider Jerry Falwell, Sr. on Martin Luther King, Jr.:
I must personally say that I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations. . . . It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”
And here’s Falwell, Sr. on school segregation:
If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. . . . The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line…The true Negro does not want integration….He realizes his potential is far better among his own race…[integration] will destroy our race eventually. In one northern city, a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”
Jerry Falwell, Sr. and other “evangelicals” went on to found private Christian schools expressly for white children in order to resist school desegregation. Now Falwell, Jr. has referred to a president that other Republicans have denounced for racism as his “dream president.” The proverbial apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
History has caused many people of color to question if any true brothers and sisters in Christ may be found in White evangelicalism. The people and policies they vote for so often lead us to believe that “White Evangelical” is the politically correct term for “White Nationalist.” Given that Steve Bannon’s presence as a key speaker at the recent Value Voters Summit even alarmed some White conservatives, how can people of color be blamed for their cynicism?
That’s part of the reason for the coalition with those that have put their lives on the line since the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s. Some prominent thought leaders and activists of the era, such as James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, were gay. Was the NAACP to say, “We’ll fight for your rights as Black humans, but not gay humans?”
What about when my skin is my sin?
Shelton says this country doesn’t have a skin problem, just a sin problem (p. 11). First of all, the presumption of a White man to insist there’s no skin problem unless he says so, is a demonstration of the skin problem. What about this, this, this, this, this, this, or this?
Although the civil rights movement often had the church as its hub, some avid civil rights supporters (Blacks and Whites) weren't and aren’t even religious at all. In fact, racism among White Christians is a big reason why some aren't Christians. Many wonder, why is it easier for people who use profanity for a living, like Eminem (rapper) and Jon Stewart (former star of The Daily Show), to recognize there is a race problem in America than for so many conservative Christian leaders like Danny Shelton? When Bro. Danny can answer that, then he won’t have to be so outraged at so many people rejecting “Christian” values.
"God's Glory" Bible
It's a very easy decision to make for a lot of minorities in this country. Which would you rather have as a neighbor, someone who disregards church or whose sexual lifestyle you disagree with, but who treats you with respect? Or someone who supports stop and frisk, the dismantling of affirmative action, and the abolition of political correctness so that we can “tell it like it is” by calling a spade a spade, a Mexican a wetback, an Arab a sand-nigger, while chanting “God hates Fags!” or “Blood and Soil!” and professing belief in the Bible?
One First Corinthians 12 says that if one part of the body of Christ hurts, all the members hurt. But White Evangelical tirades like Spiritual Vigilantes are a reminder that some members still see other members of the body as expendable. Through its winks and nods, Spiritual Vigilantes, does its share to “chip away at the . . . Law of God” (p. 35).
The author of this review writes under the pen name C.M. Kinny's Ghost and is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Image Credits: 3ABN / Wikipedia / godsglorybible.com
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