I have an amazing friend named Sandi,* someone I call “a real Roman Catholic” (as opposed to my father, but that’s another story). Sandi has a consecrated space in her living room devoted to daily Scripture reading and prayer. Centering her contemplation is an icon of Jesus she received in Rome. Sandi distributes Holy Communion to shut-ins. She has traveled El Camino de Santiago in pilgrimage. Most important, she is a Benedictine oblate, a layperson who has committed to following the Rule of St. Benedict: ora et labora (pray and work). I understand the labora part since Sandi is one of the most prolific academic writers in my field. I struggle to keep up when she deigns to collaborate with me. But it’s the ora aspect of Sandi’s life that fascinates me, and the fact that this faithful woman struggles to pray today.
Not long ago, Sandi learned that the Bishop of her former diocese in Pennsylvania, Ronald A. Gainer, had released a list of 300 priests and seminarians accused of the sexual abuse of parishioners — including a priest who had served her local congregation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed more than 30 years of diocesan documents totaling 500,000 pages detailing the accusations of more than 1,000 survivors and the ensuing cover-ups. Friends, I give you Spotlight on steroids.
Sandi went to share her shock and outrage with her current pastor. His message? “Trust God. He’ll work everything out.” For a real Catholic like Sandi, this amounted to an insult to her intelligence and spiritual betrayal. True, God would work things out, but probably not in this lifetime. Sandi wants justice now for the victims. She wants punishment for the perpetrators, who have sullied the name and character of the Jesus she loves so much. And until she sees both justice and punishment, it is difficult for her to pray.
We Adventists think we understand Catholicism: It’s the little horn of Daniel 7, the antichrist of 1 John 2, the whore of Revelation 17. Having grown up Catholic and been schooled in Catholic theology, I can tell you that there is some truth to the syncretism, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, and overreach of Rome. Yet on another level the Catholic Church, just like the Adventist Church, lives in and through its individual parishes and congregations. Many Catholics, just like many Adventists, love Jesus and their churches, wonder about salvation, struggle with sin, disagree with one another, and sometimes eat their pastors for Sabbath (or Sunday) lunch. Both our churches have histories, including some parts that we’d rather not share with outsiders, along with fallible human leadership and followership, as George Knight has detailed in his recent book.
What we also have in common is our membership in abusive organizations from the highest to the lowest levels. Anne Wilson Shaef and Diane Fassel, analysts of organizational culture, detail how addictive, abusive organizations function: The organization’s “mission, centrality, its products…and the loyalty it expects” dominate members’ lives (p. 8). Even religious organizations, purportedly “more moral” than other institutions, are “frequently deceptive about participative management” (p. 17). Organizations also function like “active addicts” in that they “perpetuate and patch up problems instead of facing and solving them” (p. 9). To maintain control and power at the top, addictive, abusive organizations engage in “planning” while fomenting denial, fear, isolation, dishonesty, projection, disrespect, and gossip at all levels to distract from the real issues.
So let’s talk about abuse in the Adventist Church. According to Dictionary.com, abuse (n.) has three senses:
1. to use wrongly or improperly; misuse (to abuse one’s authority)
2. to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way (to abuse one’s eyesight)
3. to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about; revile, malign
To illustrate (1), consider that GC President Ted Wilson sent a statement to the delegates who elected Pastor Sandra Roberts President of the Southeastern California Conference explaining that she would not be recognized in her new office by the world church. It is an abuse of authority to improperly intercede in a legitimately constituted, delegate governed, conference level procedure that followed the Church Manual to a “t.”
To illustrate (2), consider my own experience as a member in an Adventist church not long ago. In that congregation, women were not allowed on the platform, not allowed to do anything during the service but lead congregational singing. No praying, no Scripture reading, no nothing. When I questioned the head elder, he told me I obviously hadn’t read the Bible or the Church Manual. End of discussion. Soon after, I was removed as adult Sabbath School teacher.
To illustrate (3), consider our fascination with “historical” Adventist women Ellen White, Sojourner Truth, Ana Stahl, and Anna Knight while persecuting Adventist pastors Patricia Wilkinson Bunker, Janice Daffern, Frances Weigand, and Alicia Johnston. These able women no longer serve the church, and in two cases are no longer members.
Yes, Jesus did say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). This is no easy piety. I’m inspired by Claira Eastwood, who wrote in Adventist Today:
There were people in [my church] who were hurt by this [the anti-ordination] vote, myself included. There were people in that room who will not rest until a solution has been found. There were people in that room who will still love, and love, and love, and love with all their hearts. I promise to be one of those people…To the Seventh-day Adventist church leaders: you have messed with the wrong generation. And we will not hesitate to let our voices be heard.
I am not equating sexual abuse in the Catholic Church with our Church’s abuse of women — the majority of our membership — through lack of recognition and downright hostility. What I am saying is that both are abuse, and both have the power to destroy lives.
The Adventist Church has reached a turning point, I believe — or at least some of its members have. Will we continue to participate in an abusive organization? I, for one, am choosing to remain a member of my local Adventist congregation as long as they’ll have me. Like Sandi, I will ora and labora, calling out abusive words and behavior wherever they arise, including in myself.
Notes & References:
“Abuse.” Dictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/abuse
Church Manual, Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Retrieved from https://www.adventist.org/en/information/church-manual/
Day, J. (2016, August 24). Ora et labora 101. Catholic Exchange. Retrieved from https://catholicexchange.com/ora-et-labora-101
Eastwood, C. (2018, October 23). I am Claira Eastwood, and I am Angry. Adventist Today. Retrieved from https://atoday.org/i-am-claira-eastwood-and-i-am-angry/
Hilde, S. (2013, October 27). Sandy Roberts Voted SECC President. Advindicate. Retrieved from http://advindicate.com/articles/2013/10/27/sandy-roberts-voted-secc-president
Holy Bible. New International Version (NIV). Biblica, Inc., 2011.
Knight, G. (2017). Adventist Authority Wars, Ordination, and the Roman Catholic Temptation. Pacific Union Conference of SDAs: Oak and Acorn Publishing.
Schaef, A. W., & Fassel, D. (1990). The Addictive Organization. New York: HarperCollins.
Terese Thonus is a linguist who directs the Writing Program at the University of Baltimore. Previously, she taught at Southwestern Adventist College, East Carolina University, California State University-Fresno, and the University of Kansas. She is mother to David, 21, and Cassandra, 23.
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