Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sabbath afternoon – Samir Selmanović, founder of the interfaith nonprofit Faith House Manhattan, and author of It’s Really All About God, was Sabbath afternoon’s featured speaker at the Adventist Forum Conference.
Selmanović opened with the story of his wedding – actually, two weddings (both to the same woman, one right after the other). He told how he and his wife planned two weddings, with two distinct sets of rituals, separate parties, and different bridesmaids. He explained this was because his family was atheist, while his wife’s family was Adventist. Having two weddings meant he had to wait an extra night before the wedding night. He confessed that he hoped that Jesus would not come before the second wedding!
“How did I get myself into this ridiculous situation?” Selmanović asked, then answered:
“Because there were two separate groups of people who just couldn’t think of being together.”
“Wouldn’t we be better together?”
Selmanović highlighted the fact that our world is ever more interconnected. If someone in Thailand gets sick with bird flu, we are all worried. We all know each other better and better: the good, the bad and the ugly. This is the current predicament of the human race.
But we are different. Imagine, he said, what the world would be like if everyone in it was an Adventist. Veggie franks everywhere!
No – diversity is not a problem to overcome, but the life-giving order of the world. Differences can feel threatening, but they are the only way we can go into the future.
Community is important, but you have to spend time away from that community – away from the well you have been digging in for a long time – to really see the amazing grace.
What do we as Adventists have to give the world?
Selmanović described how he answers when someone asks him what a Seventh-day Adventist is. He tells them about Sabbath – a day of mindfulness and presence. A day when you don’t have to do anything, or be anything, but just walk into the space that has been given to you. It is time – a critical enzyme that has been deleted from our lives.
He tells the people asking that we believe in ministering to the whole person: body, mind and spirit. The whole experience. Adventist hospitals and our medical work is key. The hospital is the last public, sacred ground – a place of birth, death, suffering and healing.
Selmanović talked about how we often think of God as a vertical God – a God above us. But he is a sideways God – a horizontal God.
He mentioned Melchizedek, described in Genesis as a priest who blesses Abraham. But a priest of what? Wasn’t Abraham the first believer? This is God entering sideways, Selmanović said.
And the three magi? Not Jews, or Christians later, that we know of. They were astrologists. They followed horoscopes. They came in sideways.
The Samaritan? Who is he? A stranger. This is God sideways.
We need these sideways relationships.
Interdependence is a difficult thing. To be interdependent you have to know how to receive. It means loss of control. But it is crucial.
After Selmanović finished speaking, Charles Scriven, recently retired president of Kettering College, gave a prepared response.
First he praised Selmanović’s book as “disturbing,” “paradigm-shattering” and a “challenge to conventional wisdom.”
Scriven carried Selmanović’s hypothetical farther, and asked us to imagine if Ted Wilson ran the entire world. “If any one group ran the show it would descend into some kind of hell,” Scriven said. “We could not experience redemption if all we had was a mirror image of ourselves.”
Scriven said that we need to think of our Adventist church in terms of benevolence, love and peacemaking if we want to demonstrate what Jesus himself embodied. The phrase “the remnant” should be eliminated from the Adventist lexicon immediately, Scriven said. Instead, we need to say yes to wholeness, and yes to the world.
Beatrice Neall, a retired professor of theology at Union College and creator of a website for Muslim youth, offered the second response.
She said that when she read Selmanović’s book, it felt like a swarm of bees, challenging everything she believed.
Neall highlighted Selmanović’s idea that we should keep our own identities, because we have more genuine dialogue if we are true to ourselves and our own convictions. She also mentioned that he doesn’t seem to like words such as “certainty” and “truth.”
She mentioned how troubling it is that Adventists have not always done the right thing – such as in Nazi Germany, or in the Civil Rights Movement. And now we don’t know what to do with gay people, or women pastors. She said it is so important for us to do our part. (She mentioned that Spectrum is good at “getting after us when we are lazy and not doing our part.”)
The third response came from Amin Issa, a Muslim who is active in the Muslim community in Chattanooga.
“Samir used the word ‘stranger’ at the end of his talk,” Issa said. “That’s me.”
Issa said that we need a progressive identity, as opposed to regressive. We can use that as a framework when we go out in the world and act. Whenever we act, we should ask: How will this benefit my world? Because these things build.
Issa said the Adventist community in Chattanooga has always done good things with the Muslim community, such as helping when the tornado came.
“We can progress ourselves, but together we can progress a lot faster, better and more efficiently,” Issa said.