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From the Horse’s Mouth

Although it’s still not perfect, Google Translate has gotten so much better since its humble beginnings. It used to be the technological equivalent of telephone: put one phrase in and get an incomprehensible jumble out the other side. Unsuspecting users were none the wiser. Trusting in the information they were given, they’d rely on the resulting bizarre translations. A friend once asked me to proofread her flyer advertising a ministry event. She wanted it to be in both English and Spanish. She had wanted Google to translate the word “free” as in “no cost.” In Spanish this would be “gratis.” Instead, it had translated “free” as in “emancipated.” My friend now had dozens of flyers advertising the event as being “libre!”

I’m sure we can all think of plenty of instances where we’ve had “lost in translation” moments. It may not have been due to a language barrier per se. But even in instances where we are technically speaking the same language, communication can get warped. Things you think are easy to understand might not be received with the same meaning they were intended to convey. And when we insert extra messengers as go-betweens, we’re exponentially increasing the likelihood of misunderstandings. That’s why, as far as possible, it’s best to get information from the originator of the story, from someone who knows the language, from a first-hand source.

This also underscores the importance of letting groups speak for themselves. In last month’s article, although it wasn’t my central point, I mentioned how we sometimes form incorrect ideas about communities when our opinions are based on secondhand information. Adventists are no strangers to being misunderstood. We’ve had many misinterpretations of our doctrines. Most have been debunked thoroughly … multiple times. But history often repeats itself. Although the Church has already contended with and answered accusations by detractors in the past, we unsurprisingly have new antagonists that pop up every so often. Recently, Pastor Ty Gibson excellently broke down misconceptions trumpeted on social media by a very outspoken deprecator of various faith groups. I don’t think anyone would accuse me of shying away from critiquing our denomination when necessary. However, critiques should be based on facts (not alternative facts). Unfortunately, this individual had gotten his information from someone he erroneously thought was a former ordained Adventist minister. Unbeknownst to him, while his source used to belong to the denomination in his younger years, he never graduated from one of our colleges or universities—much less was he ever ordained by the Adventist Church. His understanding of our theology is exceptionally skewed. And this source’s misinterpretations were relayed to the critic and his “telephoned” misunderstandings of Adventist theology have been trumpeted to his social media followers and readers. It’s exhausting and frustrating when you are misunderstood!

Despite our own disdain for being unjustly judged based on second- (or third- or fourth- …) hand information, there are times when we don’t give a second thought towards doing the same to others. I can imagine the number of people who gasped when they read in my article that I let my students learn about the beliefs of other faiths from leaders of those faiths! How many times have we recycled seminars decrying the teachings of other denominations without really knowing if we are accurately reflecting their beliefs? Relatively speaking, Adventism is a pretty young denomination. And even in our brief history, we have attained new light and changed positions on a variety of topics. The Fundamental Beliefs list has grown by 12% within my own lifetime! Where there used to be one baptismal vow, now there are thirteen. Our perspectives on the nature of Christ, clean and unclean meats, faith and works, the Sabbath, and a whole host of other topics, have evolved significantly in the past 180 years. So, we can’t necessarily assert that the stances some faiths affirmed in the past are definitively what they attest to today. If we want others to extend us the courtesy of hearing our story firsthand, we shouldn’t hesitate to do likewise. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We aren’t required to agree with someone before we hear them out. Merely listening to someone express their perspective doesn’t automatically concede their point of view.

And this doesn’t only apply to doctrinal issues. In March 2023, Washington Adventist University hosted its annual G. Arthur Keough Summit entitled LGBTQ: Theological and Pastoral Perspectives. Among the many distinguished panelists, the summit “dared” to have two members of the Queer community discuss their own life experiences. Unsurprisingly, there was an uproar. Similarly, at the inaugural JustLove Collective Summit in May 2024, one of the twenty workshop presenters was trans. The mere presence of this person on the flyer, prompted some groups on social media to reject posting it. No one had to take her workshop to attend the Summit. Yet just knowing someone from the trans community would be there was enough to taint the entire event in the mind of several critics. Particularly in recent years, the General Conference has been especially active in producing seminars, conferences, and media posts about the Queer community. But somehow, it’s unthinkable that people should hear their own stories in their own voices. That’s why the 2012 documentary Seventh-Gay Adventists, Kendra Arsenault’s 2022-23 podcast Imago Gei, and Alicia Johnston’s book, The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists, have been important sources of first-person expressions.

I’m under no delusion that everyone will agree with each other’s viewpoints. We can vehemently disagree about many aspects of life. However, it’s illogical to expend so much energy and time mounting campaigns against caricatures of groups you’ve created in your own mind. This is the very definition of “setting up strawmen” when we create exaggerated and inaccurate representations of people, only to knock them down. As much as Adventists fancy ourselves as apologists modeled after Paul debating on Mars Hill, it’s often forgotten that participants in those ancient verbal sparring sessions spent just as much (if not more) time listening, as they did articulating their own thoughts. But in our modern day we’ve learned to make boogeymen out of those we’ve never actually listened to. Although it’s intellectually dishonest, it’s more expedient to skip any inquiry about what others really think, and simply imagine their opinions and beliefs. Inventing an enemy is definitely one way to win arguments. But it’s no way to win people.

I’ve heard wild and fantastical ideas spread about groups that could be easily disproven. Hey, I’ve heard wild and fantastical ideas spread about myself that could be easily disproven! I don’t appreciate people making judgments about me based on hearsay. I’m sure you don’t appreciate it being done to you either. While we may still disagree with people, we can at least do so with integrity. If we want others to listen to us, we must practice reciprocity. Operationalize the Golden Rule and go straight to the source.

Image Credit: Peggy Anke on Unsplash

About the author

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.  More from Courtney Ray.
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