Born and raised a Peruvian Adventist, I have wonderful memories of how a Latin-American church made me happy as a child. The son of a hardworking Adventist pastor, Rodrigo Gutierrez, and of a completely kind and dedicated pastor's wife, Orfilia Salazar, I will never be able to fully thank that church for having nurtured me all those precious years, through its various communities, including schools, Pathfinder clubs, choirs, camp meetings, evangelism campaigns, youth camps, inclusive worships and Bible studies. For the beautiful and inspiring Himnario Adventista and particularly for those few but wonderful years spent at the Miraflores Adventist Academy in Lima, Peru when, through people's care, attention, patience and dedication I entered life with trust and confidence.
But what is Latin-American Adventism and its twin-sister, African-Adventism today?
I think both represent the future of worldwide Adventism. Adventism in particular, and Christianity in general, are irreversibly moving Southward. But they are making this coming new day an obscure day if they give the image they gave on Wednesday, July 8 in San Antonio, Texas.
A meaningful leadership of the worldwide Adventist community now and in the future can't be characterized purely by strength in numbers but rather by the humble, empathic and intelligent capacity of reading people's needs as rooted in specific territories and in diversified cultural contexts. Delegates from these two continents intervened with all the enthusiasm, involvement and radicalism they are capable of, but for the wrong cause: to prevent Northern-hemisphere Adventist church sisters from taking better care of the people they serve, by ordaining women pastors to a full ministry. In an unbelievably naive and bold mix of ideological argumentations, obsessive religious reasoning and repetitive biblical mantras they lost the Holy Spirit-led capacity of trusting and understanding before speaking and acting.
Solomon, in his descriptive speech about human pride in Proverbs 11:2, said: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Misled by a myopic and self-damaging religious and cultural pride they lost a unique occasion to say to the Adventist worldwide community, “we are mature for leading the church.” Unfortunately this didn't happen. Nobody was pushing them to ordain women to pastoral ministry in their territories but only to allow that possibility in other, different cultural contexts. And where prohibition already implies a violation of civil law and a contradictory and poor witness to the Spirit of Christ.
One of the foundational conditions of leadership, individually or as a church, is to have the capacity to overcome primary and secondary narcissism. Latin-American and African Adventism will need to learn, even with suffering and healing disappointments, that they do not represent the unique or “better” form of Adventism, but just one expression of it. And their “higher calling” doesn't consist in becoming gate-keepers of 19th or 20th century Adventism, with the help of nostalgic Westerns. The capacity for making other people's needs and concerns their own, and the parallel wisdom of not imposing on others their own worries and obsessions, is the best proof of administrative and spiritual maturity. And that is precisely what Latin-American and African Adventism didn't show and that is also what they urgently need to learn if they want to play a leading role in the worldwide Adventism of tomorrow. Twenty-first century Adventism will not be Latin-American or African but a multicultural and polycentric Adventism. One that is able to coexist together with its various faces, sensibilities and projects. And the maturity of this coming church will not reside in its capacity to resolve or dismantle this irreversible complexity but rather in the willingness to accept the inevitable tension it implies, and be motivated by it to build up a welcoming and inclusively motivating perspective.
Sure, Western Adventism has not left us Southerns a completely noble example to follow concerning the need for having an inclusive and open ethos. This Adventism, that still represents the official one, has never really fully overcome its refined and continuously updated Euro-centrism. According to a reductive cultural view, non-Western Adventists are lazy, sentimental, gullible, disorganized, ethically unreliable, too spontaneous, unable to think and to express reasonable thoughts. And for a few – also dirty and ugly. How can they incarnate God's perfect Grace and Kingdom? This Machiavellian-judgmental Spirit has even been somewhat successful in making the Adventist family believe that the main hindrance to the ordination of women pastors is the retrograde and medieval mindset of Latin-American and African Adventists. But actually the terms in which this hot issue has been proposed is completely foreign to non-Western cultures. So, while Western Adventism has successfully been exported to other continents – Latin-America, Africa or Asia – it refuses to acknowledge problems, like this one, as also its own. Much like during the “Cold War” when Western countries exported their conflicts into third world countries, as happened with Cuba, Korea or Vietnam.
All this means that in today's circumstances, for Latin-American and African Adventism, it's not enough to believe, praise and preach. We all need to start understanding what we do and say. And especially consider more accurately the structural implications of our religious ethos on us and on others, for the well being of the worldwide church. We need to break down the spellbinding mindset that still makes us believe that salvation and meaning are uniquely dependent on numbers, baptisms and diligent effort. When salvation arrives it often breaks down our mechanical religious thoughts and compulsive actions and gives us new light to start considering ourselves and others in more generous ways. The fact of voting so mechanically and so ideologically has pushed Latino-American and African Adventism into making three simple but deleterious mistakes.
First, an administrative mistake. Because we can't really pretend to have a democratic structure if we give up so easily the subsidiarity principle that allows specific territories to face the new challenges based on a better understanding of the specific context. We don't need to follow the same administrative rule everywhere to say we are united. The union has more to do with the general perspective and not necessarily with the specific rule.
Second, a cultural mistake. Because in that vote Latin-American and African Adventists were elevating their own culture to universality and pretending that all other cultures should follow theirs. Paradoxically that's precisely what non-Westerns have always criticized about Westerns. But in this case non-Westerns themselves were committing the same mistake.
Third, a hermeneutical mistake. Because Latin-American and African Adventists were so certain that, without any hesitation and doubt, they pretended they were not defending their own culture –but just what the Bible says. Not being able to distinguish between what we say and what the Bible says is the first sign of idolatry and universalization of a culture.
Adventism can also be Latin-American and African, but it will remain poor if, short-sightedly, Latin-Americans and Africans remain only that.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. He is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
Photo Credit: James Bokovoy / North American Division