This quarter we have studied in detail how to go about reading and interpreting Scripture. We noted statements in the Week 2 section of the quarterly that “the Bible is a unique and inseparable divine-human union” and that (Week 10) “faith is not simply a belief in something or someone; it is acting in response to that belief. It is a faith that works; this is what is reckoned as righteousness.” We saw described various tools for learning to interpret Scripture aright and how to apply those tools to specific scriptural passages, such as the creation story in Genesis (Week 8), biblical cosmology (Week 10), the meaning of beasts and symbols and the year-day principle in Daniel (Week 11), or difficult passages (Week 12). Now, after this study, we face the question asked by commentator Ginger Harwood (Week 2): “can we affirm that the Bible, along with the Holy Spirit, holds our best chance of realizing a theology that is redemptive and life giving?”
When this quarter began in March, and when these lessons entered the planning stage years ago, no one could have imagined our situation at this moment: watching a worldwide pandemic unfold; experiencing personal, institutional, and national/international financial crises; and witnessing unprecedented worldwide attention paid to the evils of racism, especially as practiced in the United States. This latter issue has come home to all of us in the form of an invitation from the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist church for its 1.2 million members today, June 27, “to join in a special day of prayer for the deep hurt and frustration that racial injustice and inequity have caused in North America.” More specifically, the statement urges “church members in the territories of Bermuda, Canada, Guam/Micronesia, and the United States to come together and prayerfully seek God’s guidance and leading in our lives, especially in how we relate to one another, and how we can help stop injustice against people of color.” The NAD asks us to pray not only for sensitivity and tolerance, but also for God to pardon us: “We want to ask for forgiveness, and we want to ask for compassion and strength to have the tough yet necessary conversations so our church can move forward in healing the wounds that run deep in our faith community” (NAD, June 13, 2020).
How do we apply the principles we have been taught this quarter to the moment we find ourselves in today? When our church board, facing reopening in an uncertain time for public health, requires us to wear masks during our worship together, is it inappropriately infringing on our personal freedom, or is it inviting us to do what we can to protect others from the contagion we might unconsciously carry into that public space? As our institutional church faces an uncertain future while some members’ unemployment stretches from weeks to months and tithe income plummets, what is the responsibility of individuals who can give? When conference constituency session delegates, considering a motion to ensure the vibrant, rapidly growing minority congregations a seat at the committee table, break into applause at a counter-motion that, instead, the group ought to “let the Holy Spirit work,” does that act reflect homage to the Holy Spirit or a re-assertion of white privilege? What guidance can we find in Scripture for this moment in our personal and collective spiritual life? On this day of repentance and prayer in the North American Division, I invite you to read and meditate upon several scriptural passages.
Put yourself in the congregation at Nazareth near the beginning of Christ’s ministry, as described in Luke 4:14-30. Standing to read the day’s scripture, Jesus opened the scroll to Isaiah 61:1, 2 and 58:6. Listen to these words as if you were hearing Jesus read them that day in Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (All scripture quotes are from the NRSV).
Christ then sat down, as was the custom, to deliver the sermon, jolting his hearers from their seats to look for the nearest rock they could throw: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. . . . there were many widows in Jerusalem in the time of Elijah, when . . . there was a severe famine . . . yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” What do the words of Isaiah, quoted here, and the words of Christ say to us, people with Seventh-day Adventist heritage, part of the highly-educated Spectrum-reading demographic, who more likely than not have spent our lifetimes saturated in white privilege? How many hours will we need to spend on our knees to decide to lay down our rocks and adopt the sense of deep need of the widow of Zarephath or Naaman the leper? How long will it take us to absorb Olive Hemmings’ counsel in her commentary on Week One of this quarter: “We are called now to decide whether our view of scriptures is going to be that of Jesus and the apostles, or our own as we seek to exploit the religious/cultural power of the sacred texts towards egoistic ends.” As Spectrum readers, we find comfort in ascribing narrow-mindedness to others. Yet each of us, with enough prayer and reflection, will find ways to focus our hypercritical lenses on our own shortcomings.
Place yourself in the crowd that watched the Sadducees try to nail Jesus with hermeneutical trick questions in Mark 12:18-34. In the midst of the disputations, one scribe brought out a simpler, yet fraught, question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus’ immediate response drew on Deuteronomy 6:4:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The scribe, quoting his own scriptural passages, agreed with Jesus, stating that His injunction was “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Hearing this, Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” If we were watching this conversation today, in what ways would we align with the Sadducees? In what ways would we resonate with the thoughtful scribe?
When I was growing up, I heard Ellen White quoted on many subjects. The only counsel on racial matters I remember hearing quoted from her then was her time-specific advice to avoid interracial marriages. I wonder why I never heard quoted her abundant and courageous calls for racial equality when she was in her 60s, 70s and 80s. In 1889, as she knelt to pray with a racially mixed congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, a former slave state, “these words were presented to me as if written with a pen of fire: ‘All ye are brethren,’” quoting Matthew 23:8. She was impressed that white church members there had mistreated black members, which was “an offense to God.” The black members there were “precious in the sight of the God of heaven, and they should have just as much respect as any of God’s children” (Ms6-1891). In 1896, during the height of Jim Crow oppression and violence in the South, and after northern politicians had given up trying to fix it, Ellen White told Adventists:
We are God’s messengers, and he has sent us forth to work for both the white and the black race without partiality and without hypocrisy. . . . We have no time to build up walls of distinction between the white and the black race. . . . The walls of sectarianism and caste and race will fall down when the true missionary spirit enters the hearts of men. Prejudice is melted away by the love of God” (Review and Herald, January 21, 1896).
During this day of prayer, confession, and repentance, we would do well to think about these questions: What has it been like to grow up black in the United States? To grow up black in the Seventh-day Adventist church? Just ask.
Read Isaiah 58. During Ellen White’s later years, this passage more and more frequently became the topic of her sermons. Given current Adventist proclivities, it might be best to substitute “Sabbath potluck” in every place “fast” is used in this chapter. For example:
Is this not the “Sabbath potluck” that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
If we do these things, Isaiah 58 promises, “the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places.”
I invite each of us to meditate prayerfully over each of these passages and let each passage be a guide to one action that each of us pledges to carry out to bring healing to our broken world. This time of unprecedented suffering also provides an unprecedented opportunity for healing and service. My prayer is that each of us will find our place in that healing process.
Terrie Aamodt is professor of history at Walla Walla University.
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