For two significant reasons, I have been thinking and talking a lot about race and racism over the past few months. These are important issues and something we should be talking about in various contexts. But these discussions have also given me opportunities to observe how our church tends to respond to big issues in the society and culture around us.
The first context in which I have been talking about this topic has been the launch of a book exploring what in our Adventist beliefs, faith, and history can contribute to addressing race and racism.1 While talking about the book is part of promoting the book, raising awareness of it and hoping to sell a few copies, the book also acts as a prompt for talking about the topic. So, over the past few months, my co-editor and I, often with other contributors to the book, have used the book as a launching pad for important discussions on podcasts, online panel conversations, and in-person events. Some of these I have been part of, and some I have been able to watch from the other side of the world.
One thing that has taken us by surprise—and that we have commented upon among ourselves—is how often questions surrounding regional conferences have been brought into these discussions, particularly surprising given that the book spends little time on this thorny subject. Of course, in talking about difficult topics, we would do well to heed Jesus’ instruction: Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? (Matthew 7:3, New Living Translation). In addressing the evils of racism there are plenty of logs for everyone—and we do need to be conscious of our own historical and organizational shortcomings and failures.
But I also wonder if this might be something of a diversionary tactic. We can note our awareness of the problem even in our own midst, recognizing that it is complex and perhaps not something we can easily resolve, but at the same time cutting the issue down to Adventist-size. In so doing, we might avoid confronting the enormity of racism in our cultures, but we also miss the opportunity for the best of our faith to speak to this kind of burning issue in the wider world.
In a book tracing how development work is different—or should be different—when undertaken by faith-based organizations, one of the key relationships to be negotiated is the relationship between the organization working for justice and opportunity, and its supporting church or churches: “There is a risk of partnering with the church when its strongly pietistic, priest-centric, and mystical beliefs give it a largely inward focus.” 2
Adventists tend to focus on personal piety. We might not call them priests, but we have spent quite a lot of our communal energy on arguing about ordination in recent decades. And we have a strong tendency to spiritualize much of our faith, even if we are wary of “mysticism.” And, despite our strong focus on mission, we tend to do this in a self-referential way—focused on what we want to tell people, rather than responding to the needs and culture around us.
So perhaps it is not surprising that we begin talking about the big challenges of racism in our world today and how Adventist insight and faithfulness might matter to those challenges—and then we are soon talking about anomalies of our organizational structures in some parts of the United States. As important and as difficult as this topic might be, given our temptations to inward focus, is it a way of avoiding more important, larger, and seemingly intransigent injustices in the world around us?
The second context in which I have been having these conversations over the past few months is that of the planned referendum for recognizing Australia’s First Peoples in our national constitution and including a mechanism for these Indigenous voices to be heard in our political structures. Amending a national constitution should be a difficult process but should also be a way of addressing deep historical injustices in our culture and society. With a national vote planned to take place later this year, I have been following the political debates, reading much in the history and background to this, listening to Indigenous colleagues and leaders, and talking with leaders of the Adventist Church in Australia about our church’s response to this issue.
Of course, there is a spectrum of views and opinions among Indigenous people and among non-Indigenous people. But as I have listened to Adventist leaders giving their own opinions and reflecting on some of the views expressed to them by church members, I think we have a profound barrier to engaging meaningfully with an issue like this in our society and culture.
The referendum question and proposed Indigenous Voice mechanism has come through a decades-long process seeking recognition and reconciliation that reached a high point in a constitutional convention of Indigenous peoples—hosted at Uluru, the big rock in central Australia, in 2017—which formulated and endorsed a statement known as the “Uluru Statement from the Heart.” It is a gracious and generous invitation to the Australian nation from its Indigenous peoples “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.” 3
As I was re-reading this statement recently, it occurred to me that whatever our various political views about the history of colonization, displacement, and ongoing disparity and injustice affecting our Indigenous peoples, this final invitation might be the largest stumbling block for Adventist support. Put simply, because of our assumptions, we lack the theological and culture resources to imagine a better future. We call it hope, but we do not hold out hope for the culture around us. Instead, we expect that everything gets worse—and find some perverse vindication in observing this—until a few of us are rescued. Sometimes it seems we can barely bring ourselves to imagine a future, much less a better one—or we feel guilty about doing so.
By contrast, Paul concluded his most grand and eloquent defense of the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of our future resurrection and re-creation with a call to engage in the world here and now in the name of this resurrected Jesus: So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Because we believe in the resurrected Jesus and His promises, we can imagine and work toward a better future. We expect our thinking to take us beyond ourselves and the issues within our church community, as important as they might be. And we turn back to the culture around us, with a renewed appreciation that working for justice, goodness, peace, and a better future now is working in harmony with God’s intentions and resurrecting power.
We resist the temptation to reduce the issues around us to a manageable, self-contained size, which we might then safely shelve. Instead, in the best of our understandings and practices of faith, we recognize that we have resources from which we can listen and speak, read and write, wrestle and respond, lament and hope amid the biggest and most challenging issues in our world, our societies, and our culture. And we expect to change them.
Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Nathan recently launched Thinking Faith, a collection of his articles in Mountain Views over the past few years, as well as being co-editor of A House on Fire: How Adventist Faith Responds to Race and Racism. Email him at: [email protected]
1 Jackson, M. and Brown, N. (2022). A House on Fire: How Adventist Faith Responds to Race and Racism. Signs Publishing.
2 Mitchell, B. (2017). Faith-Based Development: How Christian Organizations Can Make a Difference. Orbis Books. p. 116.