A Search for Understanding
In my own limited lifetime, I have seen so many needless and pointless killings. We have experienced endless wars, perpetual economic failures, and flaccid leadership from governments. But what really breaks my heart is the consistent and persistent choice of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to avoid clear and decisive action equal to the needs of our time. And so, what do I do? Do I leave, do I fight? How should I protest? And like a good Adventist, in moments between my grief and rage, I seek guidance through prayer, the scriptures, and especially the inspired writings of Ellen G. White. And I enter into this spiritual dialogue with serious questions in my heart. Are we really supposed to stay apolitical? Is that even possible given the suffering that we see around us? What should be our public response when we hear our brothers and sisters crying out for help? These hard questions require a renewed focus on Ellen White’s most challenging counsels around race relations. A good place to start is in the Testimonies Volume 9. It is this counsel which, to me, is one of the most challenging texts that I have come across in my spiritual walk, but it also serves as one of her clearest prophetic expressions applicable for such a time as this.
To the Law and to the Testimony
I believe that what we find in Testimonies Vol. 9 has been misunderstood, much like how the current protests have been misunderstood. It is easy to look at the chaos and uncertainty as an isolated occurrence, but we know that what we have seen is part of a continued cry for justice that has gone on from slavery, to “freedom,” to the fall of the Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow, and from the Civil Rights Movement to today where social outrage has once again erupted after the public execution of George Floyd by four police officers. Along this vein of unfulfilled dreams, most of our treatments of Sr. White’s statements around race relations have either overemphasized the need to separate along ethnic boundaries or have sought to minimize such an untenable position with a more hopeful interpretation. “Until there is a better way” offers this message of hope that someday our church can get it together. And yet, this truly hopeful position tends to avoid the challenges in the text. For she also says, “proclaiming the truth is not to be hindered by an effort to adjust the position of the Negro race” (T9: 214), which suggests Sr. White would have us remain silent in the face of social injustice, especially over issues of race. And indeed, this interpretation rings throughout the minds of our most influential leaders throughout this precious world church. But, in my prayerful study of this passage, I would like to suggest a revolutionary reading. A reading that I believe is critical for us moving forward with Holy Spirit power. Everything Sr. White said in these pages was meant to prepare this Adventist movement to become a center for justice and integration.
Sr. White abided most closely to the principles of Booker T. Washington and it was his industrial education model which she trumpeted from 1890 to the end of her life. With this bit of information, it becomes easier to find Sr. White’s thesis statement within “The Color Line.” Just after she states her unwillingness to publicly promote racial justice, she states:
If we move quietly and judiciously, laboring in the way that God has marked out, both white and colored people will be benefited by our labors (T9: 214-5).
To support her thesis, she offers historical and prophetic precedence. And, as a church, I believe we have misunderstood both. In the section “Proclaiming the Truth” she refers to a council meeting in 1895 at Armadale, Melbourne in Victoria, Australia where she clarified how we were to effectively share truth in the Jim Crow South. Found in The Southern Work, it is here where we find important clues into her rationale in T9. The problem was that Adventist missionaries were convincing African American converts to work on Sunday, which was illegal in the South. These Northerners did not fully comprehend that incarceration for a Black body could be deadly. But Sr. White did: “Punishment for any offense would be visited unsparingly and unmercifully upon the colored people” (Swk 75). As a practical solution, she challenged any Bible workers in the Southern field to become more strategic in their efforts. After quoting 1 Co. 9:20-23, Sr. White states:
We know that the apostle did not sacrifice one jot or principle. He did not allow himself to be led away by the sophistry and maxims of men… This was the manner of his working — adapting his methods to win souls. Had he been abrupt and unskillful in handling the Word, he would not have reached either Jew or Gentile (Swk 76-7).
Her counsel to Adventist workers was to initiate strategies that allowed for sustained interactions with Southern communities in order to subvert prejudice:
Here is our sufficiency. Our defense is in the preparation of the gospel. The Lord will give wisdom to all who ask Him but let those who are to work difficult and peculiar fields study Christ’s methods (Swk 76).
She had in mind a gospel initiative that taught people the truth about Jesus in order to counteract society and she knew that such a proposal was so dangerous that she had to say at the end of this letter:
I would not advise that this be published in our papers, but let the workers have it in leaflets, and let them keep their own counsels (78).
Her vision for Adventist mission was one that internally cherished and celebrated all human life, but externally was able to navigate all human depravity in order to undermine it: Spiritual Guerilla Warfare.
The Loud Cry
It was with this position in mind that Sr. White gave her counsel against open opposition to Jim Crow. Her thesis, to move in the way God had established, meant continued acts of spiritual subversion to racism and prejudice around the country. Now… The church ultimately rejected such a task and would create a segregation compilation of her words stripped of their power. For my purposes here, I must save that exposition for another article, but I would like to now expose what I believe to be Sr. White’s prophetic vision for what God’s Spiritual Guerilla Warfare was to produce. In “Proclaiming the Truth,” Sr. White lays out a prophecy that has been unfortunately neglected by this movement:
The men of talent among the colored believers are to be laborers together with God for their own people. And yet there will sometimes be opportunities for them to bear a testimony in tent meetings and in large assemblies, which will reach many, many souls. These opportunities will appear as the Southern field is worked and the loud cry is given. When the Holy Spirit is poured out, there will be a triumph of humanity over prejudice in seeking the salvation of the souls of human beings. God will control minds. Human hearts will love as Christ loved. And the color line will be regarded by many very differently from the way in which it is now regarded. To love as Christ loves, lifts the mind into a pure, heavenly, unselfish atmosphere (I9 209).
When we understand that Sr. White’s counsel from God was to strategically sustain the loud cry in the South, this prophetic utterance erupts into a staggering realization: The Seventh-day Adventist Church was meant to be a beacon for racial social justice in three key ways: By our Testimony, by remaining internally integrated, and by rebuking the sin of racism.
By our Testimony
Notice that the reason for training Black leaders was not just for them to effectively reach their own demographic, but that they could bear their testimony to the entire assembly. Sr. White envisioned that Black leadership would testify openly within our church about the struggles and the triumphs of African Americans living in America.
Sr. White expected that White laborers in the South would work under the principles of 1 Cor. 9:20-23. They were to never compromise their convictions that every person is created in the image of God. The loud cry is especially important here, because it is a call for God’s children to flee the fallen systems of Babylon (Rev. 18). The subversive message of the loud cry, in its very nature, undermines oppressive systems. Sr. White’s references to these two passages mean that she expected our church to operate internally integrated, and in doing so our external actions would ultimately subvert racism.
Rebuke the Sin of Racism
The internally integrated SDA church, with its externally subversive tactics, was to accompany the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, according to the Spirit of Prophecy, was to accompany the loud cry message that made clear the sin of racism and prejudice in this country. Unfortunately, that is not our history. We as Seventh-day Adventists marginalized, segregated, and fought against racial justice. And our actions in times of trial, when we should have stood up for our values, led to some of the most tragic moments in our church’s history — and I am thinking here of our hypocritical actions during WWII or our participation in the Rwandan Genocide. Of course, there have always been among the faithful those who took on unjust practices and brought comfort to the voiceless. Amen! But this prophecy speaks of the whole Seventh-day Adventist Church that would carry out this loud cry rebuke over social injustices.
A Prophecy for this Time
What I would like to suggest here is that it is not too late for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to take up its proper role in regard to social justice. I am convicted that if we as a movement had adopted Sr. White’s tactics for meeting the complexity of human bigotry, we would have in place an institution that was wholly integrated and equipped to meet this current crisis that befalls this country and the world.
Our leaders perpetuate the sins of our fathers by ignoring the clear counsel of our prophet. We can no longer avoid our clear responsibility to offer the loud cry message that includes the clear rebuke and action against all injustices that are before us. Although we missed numerous opportunities in the twentieth century, we need not miss this opportunity here and now. It is time for us to turn away from the theological bickering that threatens to turn this movement into another fallen institution. It is also time for us to reject the efforts of some to decentralize this church. It is time that we fully activate all our ministers (female and male; young and old) into the gospel work of reconciliation.
As we look upon the fires that are raging here in the United States and around the world. As we see the oppressive hand of Satan so bold and uncaring for humanity. Where are we? What are we doing? Where is our voice of protest against the enemy? To stand on the wall is to stand for racial justice. It is to stand for the cessation of all oppression. It is to reject the deception that America was ever great and to once again trumpet the proclamation that this system has fallen but we still have a Savior who is able to break every chain. Let us pray. Let us fast. And let us champion justice.
Jon-Philippe Ruhumuliza has a BA in Religion and a BA in history from Andrews University. He recently graduated with his Master of Theological Studies degree from Emory University: Candler School of Theology and is currently preparing for PhD studies. He is a proud and active member in the Decatur Seventh-day Adventist Church in Decatur, Georgia.
Image: The Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct building was set on fire on the evening of May 28, 2020. On the third evening following the death of George Floyd, Minneapolis Police Department officers abandoned the 3rd Precinct at around 10:00 p.m. Afterwards, protesters breached the building and then set it on fire. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.
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