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Baltimore, Race, and Being…a Seventh-day Adventist Christian


I have tried to be silent about this. I have posted the popular posts on Facebook to show my support for equal justice, and tried not give too much opinion. But I have to say I am frustrated.

I can’t find it in me to condemn the Baltimore riots. How can I condemn what’s been the black Baltimore experience? How can I condemn the historic American response to injustice? There have been more than that young man who have died like that at the hands of the police in that city, in all cities, since MLK. While I am not advocating violence, how and why should a people, who are consistently viewed as the enemy and as subhuman, take any issue to the courts and expect justice when that very system has shown itself time and time again to not work justice for them? America, what would you have them do?

Historically, when the king of England was abusing the colonies, they rioted, went to war, won their freedom, and got their justice. The under-current of the average American “majority” mind is that all know there is a justified claim to violence, or is violence simply for whites who feel unjustly oppressed, or their college kids who are drunk or lost a basketball game?

The hypocrisy of media and law enforcement with drunk white kids rioting is realized in the fact that the destruction they cause is on par with the destruction caused during black riots, and yet at no time are they called animals, thugs, or anything else. This is because there is no threat to the social order when they riot. Their rioting is considered justified, or innocent fun to be guarded, corralled, and then ignored. If the things which consistently happen to people of color were happening to white people, the news outlets would be calling for riots and impeachment. Billy-bob and John-boy would come out in force with shotguns, Wall Street executives would behave like generals, and we would have immediate war. Whites would not be for peaceful protests, or legislative action, but for blood. Their history has demonstrated this time and time again here in America.

The only reason we are here right now is because of social media advancements, which have allowed the average person to film cops, so that the abused across the nation can see that there is no such thing as a one-time incident, and that they are not alone in their experience of abuse.

I served in the military with some honorable men, and yet even among them there were those who referred to me as a coon, laughed at racist jokes, and denigrated my music and culture while expecting me to join in and enjoy theirs. They saw nothing wrong with this, and those who didn’t join in simply acted like it was something to be washed under the rug, not confronted. Confronting things like this would be like confronting that racist family member one loves, and so one turns the other cheek, and keeps some distance from that family member. But confront them? Challenge them? Incarcerate them? No, that is not American history.

I also acknowledge the numerous white people I know who fight for justice and equality: Reverend Aaron Maurice Saari​​, Mark Daniel Belda​​ (RLTW), Matt Martin, Nicholas Miller​​, Ramona Reynolds Netto​​, Brad Kurlinski​​, to name a few. These are people I have worked with, whose open-mindedness and moral character I respect. There are many more who have shed blood to ensure freedom of speech, religion, and expression. The culture as whole, however, has demonstrated belief in a system that has consistently worked against people of color in this nation.

There have been sermons, there have been appeals, there have been lawsuits, and there have been calls for justice. These have done much visibly to stem the tide of abuse, but they clearly haven’t done enough and can’t do it all. Historically speaking, when whites felt abused, after their appeals, lawsuits, and calls for justice, this nation came into being when they took up arms and took justice.

There is the question of blacks policing black on black crime. I have no issue with that being discussed. I think my black community and people have largely failed on this, but the issue is far bigger.

We thought everything was fine after MLK, that the nation as a system and as individual peoples had turned a major corner on race relations, equality, and justice. Then we had jobs shifted to third-world dictatorships, while a war on drugs was declared before crack was even in the ‘hood, resulting in the mass incarceration of black men for marijuana, from which white, middle class soccer moms can potentially make billions. We saw the creation of Planned Parenthood, and it was placed in our neighborhoods by people specifically interested in reducing the black population. The war on drugs paradoxically introduced more drugs to the black community than we actually had access to, by people interested in our eradication or re-enslavement.

During all this, we kept swallowing the pill that change, equality, and justice had come. As long as some of us could be born in the lower middle class we kept silent, while inner-city, lower class black youth and men have been continually hunted, framed, imprisoned and/or murdered. Our men and youth have turned to crime, and where have our intelligentsia been—the black minds who could have lead and made changes in the hood? In the suburbs, next to people who will move away when too many minorities move in, because the value of the land will depreciate. We have failed to build thriving black communities and failed to empower our own.

Not that this is entirely our fault, mind you. American whites haven’t done a great job of policing their own either. The 20th century historical narrative is full of stories of black wealth and cities which have been attacked and taken by whites. Tulsa, Oklahoma is a classic example of this, a sin for which, to my knowledge, there have been no apologies, no reparations, and no justice.

Wall Street and Enron also come to mind. White America watched corporate gangsters escape on golden parachutes, and did nothing. A president lied to the public about the Iraq War, and White America did nothing; no calls for impeachment, no protests, no heated debates on Fox News. But President Obama calls for equal access to affordable health care, and American is up in arms about his ethnicity, his nationality, whether he is Islamic, a socialist or both. He receives blame for the state of the Union, not Congress for the lobbyists it allows to fill congressmen and women’s pockets so that interest groups can continue to extract jobs and wealth from the white middle and lower classes. The narrative simply would prefer to think that all the jobs are going to Hispanics, and that if the blacks can stop asking for handouts the nation would return to its pristine Christian glory.

When was this “Christian glory”? When Native Americans were having their land stolen and their people massacred? When African-Americans were officially enslaved since the very early 1600’s, then unofficially enslaved with black codes post-civil war, continually marginalized and towns destroyed, petty crimes garnering felonies and imprisonment, thus reintroducing slavery under a different name? When? When we imprisoned Japanese-Americans during WWII. When were we ever so great a Christian nation that our Christianity spoke demonstrably louder than our bigotry or capitalistic greed?

And what of my Church? Where have Adventists been on the social justice spectrum after the 19th century? We’re mysteriously silent, culpable of riding the wave of bigotry while seeking to call people into God’s “Remnant”; preaching a Three Angels’ Message so narrowly imagined that it is laughably irrelevant to current issues; debating and arguing women’s ordination (a conversation that is 50 years behind the issues of today), and a host of other things that we should have already handled, all in the name of keeping the Remnant “pure and holy,” while having nothing to say to the suffering going on around us. Sure, there were black preachers who marched with King, but that was in the face of the North American Division instructing Adventists to not get involved.

Among Adventists, self-appointed pundits preach sermons of legalism and sexism, while defending a structure of ethnic separation birthed in nothing less than racism, refusing to acknowledge the sin that birthed it. The North American Division is as guilty of sin as the South African Division was during of Apartheid, Rwanda was during its genocide, and the German and Austrian Conferences were during Hitler. The difference is that those areas at least offered an apology formally and publicly for racism and ethnocentrism, while in good old American fashion, the West has simply sought to cover up such sin by defending the division based on the purposes of mission, and by accepting ethnically diverse churches within the white conferences as a show of diversity, while having no integrated leadership. Adventism has failed in this capacity, and done it on a global scale.

What of the Gospel? What of integrity? What of Agape? Christian America, with its capitalistic, elitist bent toward the ethnic majority, as well as the North American Division, must accept the fact that, while in the pursuit of comfort, ease, and the American way, they have asked people of color to be more Christian than they. “Let us be called Christian, but please carry this cross for us while we stay comfortable. Please stay in your economic place. Please don’t ask for equality. Please don’t point out injustice. Please let us keep viewing this as God’s ordained design for us and you, and then once we have lived our lives to their materialistic fullness, please forgive us for our willful ignorance, injustice, silent culpability, and forgive us our transgressions, even as our mutual Father in heaven has forgiven yours.”

I served my country, and would do it again with the exact same people. I grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where justice was valued. I am an Adventist from birth, and genuinely believe in our doctrines and mission. America is a great nation, when compared to others around the globe. But America and Adventism have been extreme let downs when compared to the high claims each makes about itself. When I compare institutions to the claims they make about themselves, the hypocrisy is more than visible…it is painfully palpable.

I am not passing judgment. I am sad. I hear calls for peace, and in my heart want to ask why. I hear calls for violence and want to ask why? We have had sermons…and here we are. Soon we will have blood…and then what?

I am afraid for my nation, I am afraid for my people (black, as well as white). The experiment of America has shown itself to follow the same path of all nations. We are no more holy than the next nation. America has lied to everyone. Justice is not blind, it looks out for its own. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a true Christian nation. There can only be Christian people. And to be Christian means to bleed. We cannot bleed for social change, because we have already done that in the 60’s, and we are here. Christians will have to actually be Christian, walking away, if need be, from culture, nation, ethnic affiliation, fiscal security, and religion/denomination to solely follow Christ. The preaching of the Gospel is for heart change, and changed hearts change society. But the time for using the Gospel to fulfill the American dream is far spent. The Gospel is not fulfilled in the American dream, and the kingdom of God is not American. One cannot reform a system which is based ideologically and theologically in the superiority and inferiority of people groups. There can be no reformation of a broken system: there is only modification of the status quo, or all out revolt.

Christ alone is the Gospel. His is the only government which matters to the Christian. His love is the only currency by which we must navigate life, and if Christ is not living and going to return, then there is no resort but violence, no recourse but another American revolution, for there is none to save us.

J. A. O’Rourke is a husband, father, military veteran, and hospital chaplain. He resides in Orlando, Florida.

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