What if you say Yes to Christ and miss the point altogether?
A month ago, in “First, Face Delusion,” I began an argument that it is time to start over. In the lost normalcy of the pandemic, Adventism has had to halt ordinary religious life. But in the several essays now begun, I am saying that, by God’s grace, we can seize this moment to make a new beginning toward self-correction and fresh vision. One mistake, flagged in the first essay, is that of reading scripture without explicit attestation of Christ as a yet-higher authority, the one living Word of God, the one “exact imprint” of divine glory.
My technical claim was that scripture must be judged by its Lord. Sheer fundamentalism, a fact or at least temptation in much of Adventist life, overlooks this. Still, most Christians, not least fundamentalists, think of themselves as worshippers of Christ: they pray to Christ, not to ink and paper. It turns out, however, that Christians of any stripe, including those who value science and historical criticism, can say Yes to Christ and fall short of comprehension; they can somehow miss the point.
Perhaps it won’t surprise you that the white, male Adventist establishment missed the point during the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 one Adventist Review editor lambasted Christian ministers for participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Later he said witness concerning public policy was “omitted from the gospel commission.” Soon afterwards another editor repudiated church efforts to “reform the social order.” In his inaugural sermon (Luke 4) Jesus had announced himself as the liberator of the “oppressed,” but that was no concern, apparently, of proper Adventism.
What may surprise you, however, is that earlier in the same century Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the iconic martyr theologian from the Nazi period in Germany, missed the point as well. By age 24(!) he had completed two dissertations, and had arrived — it was the fall of 1930 — at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The recipient of a fellowship for one year of study in America, he had already propounded a theory of Jesus’ centrality for the church. But hard as it may be to fathom, he was still sympathetic to German nationalism. He still believed, as was then common in Lutheran circles, that the laws of the state were the fully legitimate standard for Christian life in the public sphere.
As it happened, Bonhoeffer was soon impatient with what he took to be superficial discourse at Union, and in a new friendship — with Albert Fisher, a Black student — he found stimulus to explore another environment. Fisher introduced him to the then-flourishing Harlem Renaissance and to the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street. A short subway ride from Union and its neighbor, Columbia University, Harlem and its culture provided what would turn out to be a life-changing shift in Bonhoeffer’s perspective.
Only a year or so before, he had told an audience in Barcelona that “Christianity and ethics have absolutely nothing to do with each other.” The gospel was essentially about sin and forgiveness. But the preaching, singing, and ministry at Abyssinian Baptist upended his thinking. Here he discovered a spirituality steeped in Jim Crow oppression and pain. Here he met Jesus the co-sufferer, the one who identifies with all who bear hardship, injury, and disdain. Here he found “applied Christianity,” a faith that follows its Lord and takes concrete moral guidance from the Sermon on the Mount. At Abyssinian Baptist, Jesus was no complacent European and the Gospel no mere sedative for the cruelties of the high and mighty.
Bonhoeffer was stunned — and energized. He sought to learn more, and under Harlem’s influence became the person we all recognize: enemy of cheap grace, torch-bearer for discipleship, critic of German nationalism, defender of outcasts. Now Jesus — the “man for others,” Bonhoeffer said — was both source and standard for authentic Christian community.
What had happened? As scholar Reggie Williams has shown, in Harlem Bonhoeffer immersed himself in the experience and perspective of an oppressed community. Now, for the first time, he saw things from “below,” from the vantage point of outcasts such as Jesus himself embraced. Before Harlem, as he later recalled in a startling sentence, “I had not yet become a Christian.”
You might reckon that the truth in all this would flash forth like neon lighting after dark, or that even without knowing the Bonhoeffer story Christians would see that wealth and privilege skew perception. But as noted above, white Adventist editors missed the link between the Bible message and the civil rights movement. To take another example, while an American anti-slavery activist like W. E. B. Du Bois quoted Acts 17:26 to make the point that God has made us all “of one blood,” white, Dutch Reformed defenders of apartheid in South Africa read the same verse another way. Its cryptic (but by no means racial) reference to “boundaries” became, on their reading, legitimation for confining Blacks to separate “homelands.”
Often, it seems, formal obeisance to Christ fails under the delusion brought about by political and economic advantage. But again — and in Adventism as surely as elsewhere — those actually beset by oppression can chime in with corrective insight. During the civil rights movement the Black evangelist E. E. Cleveland repudiated Adventist “passivism” regarding social justice; Black minister Charles Dudley infuriated the church’s white bureaucracy by sending the South Carolina conference’s medical van to “Resurrection City” on the Washington Mall in support of the 1968 Poor People’s campaign. Charles D. Brooks and Frank Hale, also Black Adventist leaders during this period, published articles in Insight and Spectrum calling for witness against racial injustice.
In interpreting Christ, no individual or community deserves unquestioning fealty. We Adventists cannot truly start over unless we listen to many voices, embrace humility, and stand ready, always, to repent and to begin again. But the direst of intellectual temptations is that of privileging the privileged. The risk is that we should claim Christ as our center while revising him into an unthreatening moral cipher. Against privileged self-deception, those who know oppression at first hand are indispensable.
When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1931, he was alarmed. Political and economic turmoil was deepening the shame and anger that followed Germany’s World War I defeat. Nationalism was thriving. Hitler’s National Socialist Party was gaining influence. Winter, with its grinding hardships, was approaching. Armed with his new perspective, Bonhoeffer worried about how Christians and their pastors would relate to all this, and wondered whether the German church could “survive another catastrophe.” His letter to a friend continued: “Will it not reach the end of its existence then, if we do not change immediately, speak and live completely differently?”
Adventism has its own problems. Over the past 50 years, especially in the church’s older strongholds, discord over the ordination of women in pastoral ministry has been a particular threat. It has roiled the membership to the point of catastrophe, exacerbating resentments and propelling exits born of resignation and disgust. All the while — what is to the point here — reasoning against gender equality in ministry has come primarily from white men, Adventism’s most privileged caste. On this topic, interpretation of scripture is difficult. But other things being equal, it is best to rely on arguments from the victims of discrimination, not the perpetrators.
The point here is not to discredit all white men (of whom I am one). It is just to discredit any perspective that ignores or glosses over what those who suffer feel and say, and so remains oblivious to the hardship, injury, and disdain Christ came to relieve. Christ without Christ can really happen. Missing the point is easy. It’s so easy that even Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, after two theological dissertations, that he had missed it.
Can the church survive the catastrophe of gender injustice? Can it thrive under Adventism’s lengthy and somewhat tortuous doctrinal commitments? The answer depends on putting Christ first, a hard enough challenge in itself. But it depends, too, on listening to all those who understand from their own life stories what it means to be insulted and debased by oppression. We cannot know Christ unless, like him, we do what we can to be co-sufferers with the suffering. And if the church fails to know Christ, it cannot flourish or even, in the long run, survive.
Bonhoeffer’s urgency should be our own.
Notes & References:
 Reggie L. Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and the Ethics of Resistance (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014).
Charles Scriven is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
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