By Shawn Brace — Much to my chagrin, I don’t cry much. But this last summer I found myself sobbing after I decided to do what many other people around the world did in May: I pulled up YouTube on my phone and watched every second of an 8 minute and 46 second video. And I cried and cried and cried.
I cried as I watched a black man having his life literally asphyxiated out of him. No, he was not a sinless and perfect man. Who among us is? But George Floyd bore—a tragically past tense verb—the Imago Dei. He was a child of God just like all of us. And yet his life was taken from him in broad daylight by sinners who felt no remorse about casting stones.
As I re-watched the video a few times, another figure caught my eye and ear as well. A bystander on the sidewalk kept pleading with the police to stop murdering Floyd. At times, the bystander’s language turned entirely vulgar, utilizing four-letter words that the privileged are taught never to use.
And yet a strange thought came to me, perhaps too scandalous for the pious mind. I heard Jesus in that man’s voice, cuss-words and all. After all, if such a cold-blooded tragedy doesn’t raise the ire from the God who once cursed a figtree for not bearing fruit (see Mark 11:12-25), what does that say about this God who allegedly died for George Floyd?
The question is, does God have a church who will join Him and that man on the sidewalk, willing to shed traditional forms of polite piety for the sake of speaking up and advocating for the “least of these”?
Our History of Social Justice
It may come as a surprise to many, but Seventh-day Adventists used to be at the forefront of social activism, zealously fighting against slavery and the racism that justified it. Our early history is littered with pioneers who passionately argued that being an Adventist and being an abolitionist were not mutually exclusive. In fact, some perhaps would have said they were necessarily mutually inclusive.
Figures such as Joseph Bates, Uriah Smith, J. N. Andrews, and James White staunchly spoke out against slavery, expressing their views frequently in all the major church publications, including the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. John Byington, who became the first president of the General Conference, participated in the Underground Railroad, even building small chapels to hide runaway slaves. In fact, Byington had left the Methodist Episcopal Church and joined the Adventist faith partly because the former was so soft on the slavery question while the latter wrote and spoke passionately about it.
Of course, perhaps none were more outspoken than the prophet herself. Ellen White was clear on the slavery question, maintaining that any person who had pro-slavery sympathies should not have fellowship with Adventists, and insisting that the Fugitive Slave Law, requiring northerners to return enslaved people who had escaped, was to be dis- obeyed. “We must abide the consequences of violating this law,” she wrote. “The slave is not the property of any man. God is his rightful master, and man has no right to take God’s workmanship into his hands, and claim him as his own.” What is so fascinating about the pioneers’ attitudes toward the slavery issue is that they apparently didn’t feel that speaking against it would undermine their evangelistic opportunity. They didn’t worry that it would distract from their gospel witness. In fact, they felt that to not speak against slavery would undermine their gospel and evangelistic credibility. This they did, even while understanding that being staunchly abolitionist would close evangelistic doors in the southern states. But it was the price they were willing to pay in order to maintain gospel integrity and consistency.
Indeed, they viewed abolition and anti-racism as a gospel work. They were intimately connected in their minds. They even thought it was “present truth,” identifying America as the “land beast” of Revelation 13 partly because of its practice of slavery.
Is It Still “Present Truth”?
As we look across the landscape of Adventism today, one wonders if we still think that the work of anti-racism is a gospel work that reflects “present truth.” Some argue, of course, that since slavery was abolished long ago, and that further still, since the Civil Rights act was passed in the 1960s, the work of anti-racism resulted in glorious victory for America long ago. Those battles have been fought and won, both within and without the church, and we must instead focus on issues that will unite us rather than divide us.
Some further argue that harping on questions of racism distracts from Adventism’s primary calling to proclaim the Three Angels’ Messages. Those who focus on social justice and equality are playing a political game, the thinking goes, manipulated as pawns by political actors. We are therefore to bury all such questions.
For many of our brothers and sisters of color, however, it is anything but a distraction and it is anything but a political question. It is a lived reality. It is their reality.
A few months ago, one of my black friends, who had organized the Black Lives Matter march in our city in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which I gratefully marched in, offered this poignant perspective on such an attitude. “As a Black child, man, father,” he wrote, “no media outlet, politician, or organization has tricked me into thinking any- one is racist. Every single opinion I have about racism has come from my own experiences in school, in my community, and in the workplace as a Black American. Saying people of color are being tricked is essentially saying we are too stupid to interpret facts.”
In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul, in explaining how the church of Christ is like a body, noted that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, NKJV). For those of us who are white, who were raised in a context in which our skin color and race were never used against us as a liability, we may have a hard time understanding how racism could still be a problem.
But we are all a part of the body. And we need to learn how to trust our brothers and sisters of color and feel their pain with them. When they say they are frightened when they get pulled over by the police, we should take their word for it rather than trying to explain their anxiety away. When they say that the words we speak come across as insensitive and uncaring, we should honor their vulnerability and authenticity. No one ever changes their views by having someone invalidate them anyway. We bring healing to the suffering in our midst by suffering with them, not by telling them they have no reason to feel like they’re suffering. And we bring healing by speaking out, like that bystander on the sidewalk, against the ways in which our brothers and sisters of color are still being marginalized and excluded.
A few months ago, I got an unexpected message on Facebook from a young black man I didn’t know. He had attended one of our Adventist universities but struggled because of the climate of racism that he constantly felt on campus. A mutual friend of ours had sent him a number of posts I had written on Facebook in the weeks before that highlighted the important need for Christians to pursue the work of anti-racism.
Many of the posts had raised the ire of some of my white friends on Facebook, but connected deeply with my friends of color. When this young man reached out to me, he indicated that my posts had caused him to weep. He had never heard a white man, much less a white Adventist pastor, speak so powerfully to his experience. He had been tempted to give up on the Adventist church, but my posts had given him hope.
I don’t say this to imply any sort of moral superiority. I am far from perfect and have a lot to learn. But there are many people of color who are still wondering if they belong in our church. They wonder if it is safe for them.
We must learn to suffer with those who suffer, weep with those who weep, and curse with those who curse.
–Shawn Brace pastors in Maine and, along with his wife Camille and three children, is seeking to learn how to live out the gospel in his neighborhood and city. In 2018, he replanted his church to align more fully with God’s missional vision, focusing on the gospel, community, and discipleship. You can track his journey via his podcast, “Mission Lab,” [https://missionlab. podbean.com/] and his forthcoming book on the topic. Email him at: [email protected]