It’s been over five months since the murder of George Floyd in late May unleashed protests worldwide, re-energized the Black Lives Matter movement, and changed the conversation about racism in society. Merriam-Webster even revised its entry defining racism to include “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another specifically: white supremacy sense.” Over the summer Adventist leaders, churches, conferences, unions, divisions, and organizations have issued statements condemning racism and police shootings of black individuals including Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and others.
In September 2020, the General Conference Administrative Committee voted a statement on “One Humanity: A Human Relations Statement Addressing Racism, Casteism, Tribalism, and Ethnocentrism.” Then at the October 11 Annual Council meeting of the General Conference Executive Committee the statement was read to the members after a two-hour presentation by the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty. In his introduction of the agenda segment, GC President Ted N. C. Wilson told the committee gathered on Zoom that there would be no vote on the topic, however he encouraged divisions to take up the issue at their year-end meetings and discuss it in their local context.
Including the local context, making a statement specific to the moment, has been a challenge for the General Conference and its officials who tend to see things in global terms. For instance, Wilson’s first statement after the death of George Floyd spoke of racism around the world, and didn’t mention Floyd’s name. He issued a second statement that did.
The statement from the GC Administrative Committee begins with this global outlook: “The moral duty of declaring biblical principles in the treatment of fellow human beings has become paramount as the world increasingly recognizes the lingering scourge of racial injustice, tribal conflicts and caste system bigotry suffered by millions of persons in every society and world region.”
To localize the context for the Annual Council presentation, eight General Conference employees spoke, with most addressing conditions in specific areas of the world after a broad introduction on the topic by Ganoune Diop, director of the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty. He called racism a disease, an attack against God’s character, an insult to Christ’s sacrifice, a rejection of divine law. He said racism is a heresy, an attack on God’s truth, and it makes a mockery of Creation, because all are created in the image of God. He then turned to the Bible to provide a framework for his assertions, beginning with a consideration of what Adam and Eve lost when they sinned: they lost fellowship with God, immunity against suffering and disease, immunity against death. “Death crept into all relationships,” he said. Adam accused his wife, Cain killed his brother Abel, violence spread like a virus. But God decided not to abandon the human family. He wanted all people to be saved.
To overcome racism, Diop said requires embracing God’s vision of the human family. There is one human race. We are all connected, descended from one blood. However, all human beings are under the curse. Christ bore this curse so that all people can be blessed. Christ tears away the walls of partition, the dividing principles of nationality, abolishes all territorial lines. All are seen as neighbors. Every Sabbath, Adventists remember that equality matters. “We remember that there is no master, no slave, all are loved by God, all are equal in God’s sight.” He concluded by calling for this remembrance to be a deterrent to racism, tribalism, casteism, ethnocentrism.
The first presentation on a local area came from Ella Simmons, vice president of the General Conference. She started things off by describing the legal decisions in the United States that perpetuated its racism — the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that ruled that all people of African descent were not citizens of the United States and therefore had no rights in federal courts. The Plessy v. Fergusson decision that blessed the separate but equal system of cultural institutions. She pointed out that while racism is often defined as individual prejudice, it is incorporated in cultural artifacts, ideological discourse, and institutional realities in America. It is embedded, institutionalized in the fabric of American society.
Moving past American society, she said racism flies across boundaries and can be found in cultures across the globe. She then noted statistics from a survey of SDAs in all 13 world divisions. She said 36% of the respondents reported experiencing racism directly, and 58.4% said they had witnessed racism against others. Tribal bias was experienced by 45.5% directly and 63.3% said they had witnessed tribal bias against others. Nationalism prejudice was experienced by 37.1%, while 48.3% had witnessed national prejudice against others. Racism lives in our world today, she concluded.
Geoffrey Mbwana, vice president of the General Conference, got the assignment of addressing the isms in Africa, a difficult task given the 54 countries, 1.2 billion people, 3,000 tribes bound into ethic groups, and 2,100 languages of the continent. He called out ethnocentrism — the belief of one’s own group superiority — and tribalism as being driven by colonization and competition for resources and land. He said the African Christian church has not been immune to the evils of the isms, and has struggled at church elections and in church hiring practices.
Stanley Ponniah, senior accountant at the General Conference, described India as a sleeping tiger, but one that is waking up, changing. Casteism, while officially outlawed in 1947, still exists he said. He credited education, urbanization, globalization, and communication with bringing progress.
Bettina Krause, associate director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty and director of Government Affairs, spoke to the plight of the Aboriginal peoples in Australia, and the structures of racism that live on in the justice system. She said the church had a mixed record in its treatment of the Indigenous people. While a special work was created in 1901 to reach them, one could also find articles in church papers that referred to them as a foul blot. Today, there is a specific ministry for them within the Australian Union, and she asked Pastor Darren Garnett, one of its leaders for his perspective. “Racism must be acknowledged and declared for what it is,” he said. Understanding the effect of racism on individuals, the family and a community comes next. “When this is understood, then empathy will flow, and healing will take place in acts of reconciliation.” He concluded by saying, “My hope is that my church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, will lead the way in addressing racism, powered by empathy and a sense of brother and sisterhood in Christ to build a community where racism has no place. What a powerful witness that will be to the world.”
Nelu Burcea, deputy secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association, told of the plight of the Roma people in Eastern Europe and their chronic exclusion. Linda Koh, director of Children’s Ministries, had the task of noting all the minority peoples in China and Southeast Asia.
Josue Pierre, associate general counsel of the GC, acknowledged the aversion that the church has in having a conversation on racism. “I get it,” he said. The conversation is uncomfortable and can lead to anger, bitterness, and resentment. Some would say that the conversation is pointless and distracts from the mission of the church. “On the contrary, I would say that these conversations are necessary in order for the General Conference and other segments of the church to insure that our efforts to share the Gospel are relevant to the time in which we’re living.”
Mark Finley, evangelist, closed with an illustration from his experience walking on a beach in South Africa, post-apartheid. In one section, all the people on the beach were white, and in another section all were Black. There were poles from where barbed wire used to separate the two areas, but the barbed wire was gone. It surprised him, because it showed how rules and regulations may change, but that doesn’t mean that people necessarily change. He said only God can change people’s hearts. He said it is the everlasting gospel, the cross that unites all people. Racism is evil because it denies the Gospel. We are not two groups, we are one. We are family. He concluded by pointing to the ultimate solution of hearts transformed by God. Then we can rise to our destiny and share the gospel with the world.
Now it is up to the Divisions to take it from there.
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
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