The Problem We All Live With
This is not an article you want to read. It’s uncomfortable and some might say blasphemous. It deals with an issue that is both highly sensitive and difficult to discuss: racism within the Seventh-day Adventist church. Throughout this article, there are points where we are speaking in generalities. We are not suggesting that all members of any racial group think and act (or react) in the same way. All Bible texts are taken from the New International Version of the Bible, unless otherwise noted.
On April 12, 2018, two African American men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks for trespassing. The men were waiting for a third party to join them for a business meeting, and Starbucks employees called 911. According to reports, the men were asked politely to leave three times because they had not purchased anything, and the men refused.1 It is worth emphasizing that the white Starbucks employees considered two black men waiting quietly for their friend an emergency worthy of calling 911. The Starbucks employees assumed that the black men were breaking the law, even though it was clear that they weren’t. And if we’re honest with ourselves, some of us feel the exact same way: we see trouble where there is none just because the persons involved are persons of color.
When the police came, other Starbucks patrons protested their arresting the men, saying the men had done nothing wrong.2 Incidents like these have always occurred between white and black people in America,3 but because of social media, they are becoming more recognized: the woman who called 911 because black people were having a barbecue in a public park or the woman who called 911 because an eight-year-old black girl was selling water (to raise money for her education) without a permit. The mere presence of black people seems to make some feel like it’s a state of emergency.
Starbucks was heavily criticized for the way they responded to the incident in Philadelphia. They didn’t respond at all for nearly two days, and when they did respond, they chose not to fire the manager of the store. This would have been the knee-jerk reaction of many companies facing this type of situation, but Starbucks chose instead to confront the issue on a much larger scale. The CEO of Starbucks issued a statement condemning the behavior of the Philadelphia employees, and Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores to give racial bias training to over 175,000 of its workers.4 In spite of the criticism Starbucks faced for this incident, they should be commended for doing something by making an effort to address the larger issue within their company. They saw a problem with racial profiling, a kind of microaggression, and they chose to train all of their employees on the negative impact it can have on the mission of the company.
In other words, Starbucks admitted there was an issue and took steps to resolve it. The SDA church can do the same: admit there are problems with race relations in the church, and take steps to resolve them. If we don’t even acknowledge problems exist, the issues will never be resolved.
Many limit what racism is: lynchings, saying the “N” word, not hiring someone because of his or her race, etc. While these are examples of racism, racism is bigger than the “hot button” issues that immediately offend. Racism also includes, but is by no means limited to: clutching your purse when a black person is walking by; asking to be reseated on a plane if you’re sitting next to a person of Arab descent; assuming the Hispanic person is the janitor, the black person is the cook, or the white person is the manager; saying “you’re so articulate” to a black person; trying to touch a black person’s hair; assuming a Hispanic woman who has children is a single mother; considering black natural hair unprofessional; considering elements of cultural worship “blasphemous”; and many more.5 These examples highlight unconscious biases that lead to microaggressive behaviors. Columbia professor Derald Sue defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (emphasis added).6 Microaggressions occur at all sorts of places of business. The way a company deals with them often speaks to their perspective on the issue.
Because microaggressions often stem from unconscious or implicit bias, they can pervade a community, even an SDA community, church, or institution. Being a church organization does not mean we are immune to the problems of the world. In fact, if we believe 2 Timothy 3:12-137 to be true, being a church organization really means the devil will attack us even more than other entities. It should be no surprise to us, then, that members of the SDA church suffer from the same sins that plague those who are not church members, up to and including racism. Thus, it is incumbent on church organizations to be intentional about addressing in practical ways all of the troubling issues of race relations, including microaggressions.
However, white communities often have the luxury of not addressing racial concerns, or taking their time to address them. It’s easier to deal with matters of discomfort in small doses, but taking too much time to digest an uncomfortable conversation, or an event that focuses on race relations, means it can be years, if not decades, before anything really happens other than conversation and telling stories. In the meantime, people of color experience intentional and unintentional racial discrimination at their jobs, on vacation, on the road, at church, at coffee houses, at public parks, on their own blocks, everywhere, every single day. Often, in order for white people to be comfortable, people of color around them have to live in discomfort and danger.
This stark difference between realities is not biblical, and it is a matter that the SDA church must address. Indeed, one of the greatest things that Jesus did when He died on the cross is He erased all lines of division within the human family. Paul said it best in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And again in Colossians 3:11: “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” The harsh reality is that, in this area, the SDA church functions in a decidedly un-biblical manner. In our church, these divisions are still prominent: slave (poor) and free (rich), male and female, Jew (SDA) and Greek (non-SDA).
Our responsibility as a church is to operate in complete unity. John 17:22-23 says, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (emphasis added). Not only does our division misrepresent the character of Christ, it also lets the world know we are not of Christ. If it is truly our mission to be Jesus’ disciples, to proclaim His everlasting gospel, and to prepare the world for His soon return, then we must operate as He operates.
It occurs to us at this point that we haven’t given any examples of these microaggressions in our church. Some readers may be thinking that this issue doesn’t actually apply to Adventists. Let us disabuse you of that notion now with some true examples, one from one of the writers of this article, and two from our parents.
The Blind Eye Microaggression
When I was in South Korea as a missionary, I had a coordinator who was a white man from South Africa. One day he shared his opinion that I could not be an American because black people originated in Africa. He said this in spite of insisting that he himself, a white man, was originally from Africa because it was all he had ever known. I tried to reason with him, telling him the selfsame fact that he referenced made us similar: after hundreds of years of slavery, generations of blacks knew nothing but America. If he could be African, I could be American. But he couldn’t see my point of view. Whether it was a result of his having privileges because of his whiteness or me having deficiencies because of my blackness is somewhat immaterial. The very act of questioning my belonging because I am black is a microaggression.
The Insulting Compliment Microaggression
Two additional examples illustrate a pervasive microaggression. After church one Sabbath, a white woman complimented our mother on the quality of our father’s sermon. She was effusive in complimenting him on the perfect grammar and articulate nature of the sermon. She asked my mother where my father was from. My mother answered truthfully that he was from Brooklyn, New York. The woman continued, repeatedly asking, “Really?” “Are you sure?” “What part of Brooklyn?” and “Where are his parents from?” as though it was impossible for him to be from the United States. There’s an implied insult in the amazed reaction of this well-intentioned woman that a pastor with a doctoral degree and 30 years of experience in the ministry should be able to do what any well-trained sixth grader could do—speak using correct grammar.
Similarly, at one particular white SDA church, our father was complimented after every sermon on how articulate he is and how perfect his grammar is. The microaggression is that all these people are so surprised that a black man speaks well. It’s a microaggression because they don’t mean any harm; they actually intend to pay a compliment.
The Insulting Compliment is treating as exceptional in a minority person something which in their own cultural group would be considered ordinary, thus implying a natural inferiority of the minority person.
Adventists often speak about being the head and not the tail, but concerning race relations, we are the tail (Deuteronomy 28: 13,8 43-449). Non-Christian entities such as Starbucks have proven to be much more vigilant about race relations, while we are still stuck even admitting we have the problem. The reason lies in the first part of Deuteronomy 28:13: “If you pay attention to the commands of the Lord your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them…” (emphasis added). It is a conditional promise with the payoff only coming when the first criterion is met. Thus, we can reason that if we do not carefully follow those commands, we will be the tail, not the head (Deuteronomy 28:43-44). The commands of the Old Testament were all superseded in the New Testament when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
The same conclusion can be drawn when looking at texts like John 13:35.10 If they will know we are Christians by our love, what will they know about us if our very structure and organization demonstrate that we lack love? And how can we expect to be fully, truly successful in accomplishing the great mission that God has given His church when we operate in this way?
Love is an action word, and loving as Christ loves means acting to resolve the difficult issue of race relations in our church. James 4:17 reads, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” Microaggressions are a form of racism, and being a microaggressor is participating in the act of racism. Turning away when we witness acts of racism, including microaggressions, is participating in the act of racism. Failure to respond, then, is being complicit, and it is a sin.
Oswald Chambers discusses the bravery that is required for such matters in his book My Utmost For His Highest: “God’s grace produces men and women with a strong family likeness to Jesus Christ, not pampered, spoiled weaklings. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to live the worthy and excellent life of a disciple of Jesus in the realities of life.”11 Racism is a reality of life, in and out of the SDA church, and it is going to take a tremendous amount of courage and discipline to effectively address racism and microaggressions in the church.
We called this article “The Zion Effect” because of what Zion represents, and the kinds of people who will be there. Zion is a name often used interchangeably with Jerusalem, the City of David. Historically, it represents the place where God’s chosen people lived; eschatologically, it represents the New Jerusalem. So for us, The Zion Effect is the process of undergoing the personal changes that are necessary to make a person into whom God would have that person to be. In this way, it is not unlike the process of Sanctification. As a church, we are desperately in need of The Zion Effect in the area of race relations.
The Zion Effect
If we take on the seemingly impossible task of loving our neighbors as ourselves, it is guaranteed that we will become the beacon that the world looks to in matters of relational and spiritual growth. For many, this is a daunting task as it can mean not just a behavioral change (superficial), but a lifestyle change (spiritual). But isn’t that what Christ calls us to? Jesus speaks very plainly in Matthew 5:20 when He says, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (emphasis added).
So what do we do? How do we start the process of recognizing, addressing, and repairing the issue of broken race relations in our church? We do not claim to have all the answers, but we believe we have a good starting point.
Step 1: Personal Commitment
Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We don’t always know what lives in our hearts or where evil lies dormant; we have to ask God to reveal to us our areas of unconscious bias. And we have to be open to facing the ugly truths that lie underneath all of our pretty exteriors.
People may assume that someone is calling them a racist when racism is identified in the world or even in their immediate sphere. Instead of becoming defensive when the concept of racism is raised and saying “I’m not a racist” or “That doesn’t apply to me,” prayerfully engage in the difficult conversation and allow the Holy Spirit to use that opportunity to penetrate your heart. Our natural instinct is to protect ourselves when we feel threatened or attacked. But identifying the existence of racism is not necessarily a personal attack.
Ultimately, any commitment to Christ is a personal commitment. This is really what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5 with the idea of having a greater righteousness than that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They knew all the rules and regulations, but they had not given God their hearts. The beginning of a solution to the race relations problem in our church is each of us giving God our hearts, sinful and damaged though they are. Cultural change, institutional change, and behavioral change all stem from a change of attitude. It is the Holy Spirit who does this work, and we must yield to the Spirit of God in order for Him to do this work in us. “Fearing people is a dangerous trap, but trusting the Lord means safety” (Proverbs 29:25 NLT). Trust the Lord to keep His promises.
Step 2: Familial Commitment
Vulnerability is at the heart of strong relationships, yet we often hide our struggles from those we love because we are afraid of judgment and rejection. While hiding our struggles does protect our emotions, it does not strengthen our relationships. It’s okay to model for our children our struggles with and victories over racism. Ellen White speaks to this point when she says,
Without human effort divine effort is in vain. God will work with power when in trustful dependence upon Him parents will awake to the sacred responsibility resting upon them and seek to train their children aright. He will co-operate with those parents who carefully and prayerfully educate their children, working out their own and their children's salvation. He will work in them to will and to do of His own good pleasure. Human effort alone will not result in helping your children to perfect a character for heaven; but with divine help a grand and holy work may be accomplished (emphasis added).12
Sister White goes on to say that God will work with parents who are doing their best, and He will not do the work that He has left parents to do. She counsels parents against becoming lazy in their childrearing efforts, if the parents’ desire is for their children to be saved from the troubles that surround them in the world.13 When we teach our children the lessons we’ve learned and answer their questions in the home, we can also show them a better way.
This knowledge can be shared with our local churches as well. For those families/churches/schools who lack experience and/or resources in healthy race relations, collaborate with other families/churches/schools who have experience and resources.
Step 3: Organizational Commitment
De-segregating our institutions and conferences must become a priority if the SDA church is to fulfill its mission. Some non-SDA companies that are already helping other organizations do this work include: Cultural Intelligence Institute, National Coalition Building Institute, ELI, and America Healing (Racial Equity Resource Guide).
Against the Wall14 is an SDA organization that highlights race relations in SDA institutions. Having more SDA groups and businesses like this that specifically target Adventist race relations can be a huge asset in the church. Collaborate with outside companies that are committed to the same work with the goal of improving race relations in our institutions and conferences.
Applying for grants is a great way to acquire funding for partnerships with such companies. Recently, Southern Adventist University was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation. With these funds, Southern created the SOAR initiative (Studying Our Attitudes Racially), “a four-part initiative designed to move us beyond our limitations and blind spots to a deeper and more informed view than is possible without intentional, collaborative effort.”15 Southern recognizes its need for outside help to combat an issue that plagues the country and, therefore, can penetrate their campus.
Our church can be the head and not the tail on this issue. Ephesians 3:10-11 says, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (emphasis added). The church is supposed to be a conduit of God’s light through Jesus to the world. This is again highlighted in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We don’t know what this looks like because it’s never been modeled for us; we have never lived in a racially-safe society. We cannot allow the ways the Adventist church has grown to prevent us from continuing to grow in the name of “that’s how so and so did it…” or “we’ve never done it that way before.” Being the head means leading society in new ways; whether they follow our lead is up to them. But it is our responsibility to be the world leaders in the concept of love as an action word.
We don’t have all of the answers, but let’s begin seeking the answers together.
1. Vera, Amir. "A Video of Black Men Being Arrested at Starbucks. Three Very Different Reactions." CNN. April 16, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/14/us/philadelphia-police-starbucks-arrests/index.html.
3. Dias, Elizabeth, John Eligon, and Richard A. Oppel. "Philadelphia Starbucks Arrests, Outrageous to Some, Are Everyday Life for Others." The New York Times. April 18, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/17/us/starbucks-arrest-philadelphia.html.
4. Calfas, Jennifer. "Inside Starbucks' Racial Bias Training, According to Employees." Time. May 30, 2018. http://time.com/5294343/starbucks-employees-racial-bias-training/
5. Gordon, Kasha L. “Wordwise.” Lecture, Southern Adventist University Department of English, Collegedale, TN, September 7, 2017.
6. Sue, Derald Wing, et al. “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.” World Trust, world-trust.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/7-Racial-Microagressions-in-Everyday-Life.pdf.
7. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (NIV)
8. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail. If you pay attention to the commands of the Lord your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom.
9. The foreigners who reside among you will rise above you higher and higher, but you will sink lower and lower. They will lend to you, but you will not lend to them. They will be the head, but you will be the tail.
10. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
11. "Get Your Daily Dose of Wisdom." My Utmost For His Highest Is There Good in Temptation Comments. https://utmost.org/all-efforts-of-worth-and-excellence-are-difficult/.
12. White, Ellen Gould Harmon. The Adventist Home: Counsels to Seventh-day Adventist Families as Set Forth in the Writings of Ellen G. White. Southern Pub. Association, 1979. 206-207.
13. White, Ellen Gould Harmon. The Adventist Home: Counsels to Seventh-day Adventist Families as Set Forth in the Writings of Ellen G. White. Southern Pub. Association, 1979. 207.
Additional References Consulted:
Classic8Designs. "White Woman Called Out for Racially Targeting Black Men Having BBQ in Oakland." YouTube. April 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fh9D_PUe7QI&frags=pl,wn.
DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It's so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Beacon Press, 2018.
Drollinger, Ralph. “The Remedy for Racism.” Capitol Ministries, 7 Sept. 2017, capmin.org/theremedy-for-racism/.
"Mission Statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church." Seventh-day Adventist World Church. October 05, 2016. https://www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/statements/article/go/-/mission-statement-of-the-seventh-day-adventist-church/.
PBSNewsHour. "How Unintentional but Insidious Bias Can Be the Most Harmful." YouTube. November 13, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgvjnxr6OCE.
Piper, John. Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. Crossway, 2011.
Smith, Emily, and Eric Levenson. "After Internet Mockery, 'Permit Patty' Resigns as CEO of Cannabis-products Company." CNN. June 27, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/25/us/permit-patty-san-francisco-trnd/index.html.
Clarise Nixon is a Cultural Intelligence certified Assistant Professor in the English Department at Southern Adventist University. She enjoys cooking and working as an amateur food critic.
Paul Nixon is the Founder and CEO of Virtual VP, a new education consulting firm that provides support services to busy school administrators and teachers. He also writes success tips for teachers, administrators, and parents at his blog found at www.virtualviceprincipal.com. He stays connected to the profession by teaching part time at Oakwood Adventist Academy and Oakwood University.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.