The Sabbath School Lesson Study: Does God Play Favorites?

The Sabbath School Lesson Study: Does God Play Favorites?

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Published:
June 17, 2021

My journaling habits are somewhat unorthodox. At the end of each week, I summarize what I consider to be the most note-worthy events of that week. My outline for the week ending April 24, 2021, included three names: George Floyd, Dwight Nelson and Joe Greig.

George Floyd
The George Floyd trial ended on this week, April 20 this year, with the prosecution winning conviction on all three counts it sought against Derek Chauvin. On the surface, the essential elements of the trial seemed to boil down to the conduct of the accused. At different times, the prosecution haled in high profile police officers and criminal justice experts who painstakingly pointed to Chauvin’s actions as aberrations of police training. The defense countered that these same actions were consistent with what he was taught. But the true underbelly of what was on trial was a two-tiered justice system where the rules are applied inconsistently, depending on skin color. A routine traffic infraction could quickly escalate to death if the person stopped by the police has too much melanin.

Dwight Nelson
Dwight Nelson waded into a sexual orientation quagmire that the church has somehow blundered into by attempting to “split the baby.” We have had a bad turn at it in our struggles to accord the gay community a non-otherizing identity within the church. Over the many years he’s been the senior pastor at Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University, Dwight has evolved to embrace and extend full “citizenship” to marginalized groups—women, Blacks, LGBTQ+. This is both groundbreaking and refreshing. He has made great strides in welcoming non-heterosexuals to church pews, argued for abolition of segregated Black regional conferences, all the while advocating for full ordination of women to gospel ministry in our Adventist body politic. But on this particular weekend during his Sabbath sermon, even Dwight could not close the deal on full acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, sans caveats. The price Dwight exacts, for unreserved acceptance, is a life of celibacy. This, after conceding that homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientations, Nelson concluded they still should sit out the only sexual expression available to them—as though the sexual act is the only thing that defines homosexuality. But if they pledge abstinence, Dwight suggests, then the church community could muster the grace to unclench its fist and embrace them. And not feel guilty.

Joe Greig
Same week. The world church was into the third week of a thirteen lesson study series centered on the premise of chosen-ness. It is a study that borrows heavily from Gerhard Hasel’s 1982 book Covenant in Blood, which was the basis of his 2003 Adult Sabbath School Study Guide. In this re-issue, we learn of the many torchbearers, individuals and groups, who have either made themselves available or been chosen by God to bridge the divide between divinity and humanity. But in my Sabbath School class this week, our facilitator, Joe Greig—departing from popular orthodoxy—pointed out the human fingerprints of Old Testament covenantal religion as we studied the topic: “Everlasting Covenant.”

These three names and associated discussions ostensibly seem unconnected. But there is an invisible link—conflict between those who glory in the blessings of being declared special and those alienated because they are excluded. Add to this the self-image that these attitudes foster: privileged access, manifested as belonging vs. the dispossessed who attempt to storm in from the outside.

• The trial of an on-duty policeman accused of murdering an unarmed Black man, with video-taped evidence generating storylines that serve as red meat for our racial divide. What makes a man at ease with sandwiching another’s neck between his knee and hard, hot asphalt for 9 minutes and 26 seconds until he dies in plain view, his final words reaching out to his mother who had preceded him in death? Is it the invincibility it projects? Or skin color superiority? Whatever it is, the perpetrator must first dehumanize and only afterward justify behavior that robs another of life.

• An influential pastor asking homosexuals to eschew sex in exchange for full acceptance by the church. To proffer this advice is to conclude that their sexual leanings are sinful. But how could that be if they didn’t choose their orientation, if their sexual expressions come to them as naturally as they come to heterosexuals, in much the same way as left or right-handedness? In that sense, the prescription to adopt a celibate life is not only unkind, but cruel. And it could be suggested only by those who live in the heterosexual safe zone, a counsel not unlike what right-handed proponents of a bygone era adopted as they tried to reprogram left-handedness.

• Then the remnant church community circles back again to the wilderness, there to study accounts that reinforce our conviction that we come from an old line of God’s favorites. It is to this subject, the belief that one is set aside by the divine and is therefore unique if not better, that we now turn our attention. Because, in a fundamental way, it forms the basis of, and legitimizes the notion that, a God who created all humanity in his image somehow privileges a subset for no reason other than arbitrariness.

There is so much of this preferential language attributed to God in Scripture: “Jacob I have loved but Esau have I hated;” (Malachi 1:2-3); “But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you;” (Exodus 7:3 NIV); “So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others, so they refuse to listen.” (Roman 9:18 NLT). We should not be surprised then that people read these statements and buy into the notion of divine selection, which invariably leads to cultural superiority and entitlement.

In past writings I have questioned the assumption that morally dubious biblical statements, attributed to God, actually originate from God. Many of those statements are self-serving and carry political advantage. When we ignore the political climates that produced some of scripture’s most egregious statements, purportedly from God, we do so to the diminishment of an ethical God. A case in point is Prophet Samuel’s contention that God gave the order for Israel to commit genocide, which incomprehensibly targets women and children. Any god who commands such barbarous acts should forfeit the right to be worshipped. One reason Jesus came the first time was to show us who God is, which is different from the ethically-challenged caricature often found in the Old Testament. Therefore, if we cannot conceive of Jesus endorsing the murder of infants and their mothers, it is highly unlikely that the same God would have ordered what Samuel wants us to believe God did.

I place into the suspect category the idea that God covenanted solely with some individuals in the Israeli pantheon, and Israel itself, in a way that set them apart from God’s other created beings. When a story is passed on from generation to generation within any community, especially if the setting is religious, the glorifying parts often uncritically solidify and gain acceptance by future members. But over time, as the claims are investigated and subjected to less parochial scrutiny, there is a clamor to reassess. We see this type of reassessment of what in American classrooms had been taught as official history. But now the characterization of Native Americans, Blacks and other non-European minorities is being revised to portray these groups more realistically, even favorably.

The basic premise of the entire Sabbath School study this quarter, dubbed “The Promise: God’s Everlasting Covenant,” is that in this fallen world God voluntarily enters into covenantal or “agreement” relationships with individuals or groups who “found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” (Gen. 6:8) Consequently, the conjecture follows that through this act, all who are thus “chosen” to partake in this agreement with God are forever favored by him. Because God, having promised, is obligated to keep his word. The core list is short: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Israel. And by extension, Christians, who in end times give way to Adventists. This list, it should be noted, is made up almost entirely of individual men and, even when a group is chosen, is extended exclusively to men—as when Dinah, the only female of Jacob’s children, is completely ignored in favor of the twelve males who eventually become the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

It is this favoring action by God, viewed by those who considered themselves favored that, I contend, sets up the environment for much of societal strife. Those who believe they have the almighty’s sole backing feel they can do no wrong and always press their privileged advantage, while those who feel left out of divine favor find ways to resist what seems to them an illegitimate conclusion. This push and pull is particularly evident in religious settings, but also finds expression in tribalism and ultra-nationalism, where most people find a deeper sense of belonging.

The biblical exodus story, which some Christians maintain is the second most seminal event in religious history, second only to Jesus’ first Advent, is illustrative of what often happens when previously oppressed groups, on attaining power and believing God is on their side, do to their enemies or total strangers when the tables turn. The oppressed can easily become oppressors. After their dramatic escape from Egyptian bondage, the newly emancipated “slaves” organized under their dynamic leader, Moses, who, together with his lieutenants, believed they had a mandate from God to occupy the “Promised Land.” The only problem was that the Promised Land, like other land dotted along their route, was already occupied by living people. So, Israel had to fight their way under “God’s” guidance and encouragement, defeating one community after another, until the land “flowing with milk and honey” was theirs. If specialness or set-asideness is part of the argument that God is exclusively on one’s side, it is impossible to do wrong. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you don’t ask questions if God is on your side, nor bother to count the dead with him leading the charge.

Fast forward to the end of World War II, after Auschwitz, and the Jewish clamor for a nation of their own. The West was guilt-ridden and feeling culpable for Hitler’s crimes, an attitude borne out of a deep sense of impotence in stopping the horrors of the Holocaust. Thus, they would champion the establishment of this new nation. But, similar to the situation their forebears faced after gaining freedom from Egypt, the proposed land earmarked for the new nation had existing inhabitants, who would be subjugated and ultimately end in seemingly interminable refugee camps dotted throughout the Arab world. When the oppressed gain their freedom, and if said freedom comes with tangible power, they can quickly forget their previous fate and unreflectively take on the role of despots.

So it is power, not mere freedom, which is at issue. Black slaves in America were freed after the Civil War, but their freedom came with no economic or political power. And consequently, as a group, they have largely remained marginalized. Would a non-Anglo America go the way of modern Israel in how it treats a power-reduced white minority when that time comes, as demographic projection infers it will? If their majority is coupled with true political and economic power, would they be magnanimous or vengeful? That remains to be seen, but such fears in part fuel the anxiety many whites, especially Southern Evangelicals, feel as the population slowly trends brown—which again, in part, explains the rash of new state laws aimed at suppressing minority votes, such as after Georgia’s Black electorate flexed its political muscle in the 2020/21 general and senatorial elections. Thankfully, the South African post-Apartheid example gives us hope.

These ruminations argue against just re-studying, or worse regurgitating, what our parents handed down to us, without learning from their mistakes and changing course where necessary. The goal of theology is not to arrive at a static truth or merely the systematization of doctrinal beliefs. It is to explore the meanings of God and how we relate to him. We should imagine theology as a journey to truth, which historically has been punctuated by many detours. This is where contemporary Adventism seems to be failing. We have a bad tendency to fossilize our Adventist story, freezing the conversation whenever time and events threaten our relevance. When that happens, we retreat and look for safety in the ramparts of past understandings when we felt most secure.

Over the last 18 months, two significant events—the pandemic and popular uprisings against racial inequality in policing triggered by George Floyd’s death—have dominated worldwide attention. The leaders charged with producing the Sabbath School lesson studies should have sensed the import of these events and used its unique global reach to engage the church, if for no reason other than providing comfort and reassurance to distraught members. Instead, for two consecutive quarters in year two of the pandemic, those in charge of the study guide trotted out two reissued studies going back 17 and 18 years, respectively. Both would approach social issues as though we live in a static world.

Our assumptions, as Isaac Asimov reminds us, are our windows to the world. We would do well to re-think and even scrap some of these occasionally, or else we might cease to mature in how we view the actual world around us. When a previous understanding of what we once ardently believed was true turns out to be inaccurate or untrustworthy, we should abandon it and move on to others with more promise. Is the creator God indeed so capricious as to randomly choose to be “gracious to whom [he] will be gracious, and show mercy on whom [he] will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19) to the exclusion of all others not lucky enough to be in the preferred group?

We have literalized so much of scripture and built not only theology but social policy on the diminutive edifices of our constructs. So, we discuss God in anthropomorphic language only, ignoring metaphoric portraitures, which, if embraced, would broaden our vision. Because we find comfort in our myopia, we consign God to the limits of where our selfish loves take us: our religions, our tribes, our nations. But is God not bigger or better than that? If God is the creator of us all, why do we box him in this way? If God indeed is universal, shouldn’t we give him a freer rein and allow him to love more abundantly, unconstrained by the smallness of our worldview, which fails to encompass the whole? We should never be comfortable with a small god who delights in only a few.

 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: SDA Sabbath School Lesson Guide

 

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