28 Mar

THINGS THERE IS NO LAW AGAINST

By Nathan Brown … As school was opening for the new year in Australia, a Christian (not Adventist) school made national headlines after its new principal sent an ultimatum to parents. An email sent on the eve of the school’s re-opening, included a new enrollment contract that required parents to commit to their children respecting traditional sexual orientation and gender identities. In a heated political and cultural environment, the news about this school’s demands sparked media attention and debate. But talking with a parent from the school, I was struck by the reality that, while this ultimatum was perhaps intended as a shot in the ongoing “culture wars,” it was felt less as a matter of public debate or point-scoring than an action attacking existing members of the school community and destroying much of the school’s hard-earned community spirit.1

Or consider a different kind of example. A recent book I helped publish tells the story of a pastor—the author— who specifically invited six mothers of gay children he was aware of in his “normal” suburban Adventist congregation to meet at his home one Sabbath afternoon. Because not often talked about, most of these women were not aware that they shared experiences in common with others with whom they had attended church for many years. They arrived nervously, but the conversation soon flowed and new understandings and friendships were formed, with affirmation of their love for the respective children.2

More than a decade ago, I wrote a “controversial” editorial that asked questions about how we relate to LGBTQ people and dared to suggest that our first response ought to be modeled on the “scandalous inclusiveness” of Jesus.3 There was much response—a surprising amount of it positive. But one of the most treasured responses came some years later when, at a large church event, I fell into conversation with a retired church evangelist who thanked me for “that editorial.” He told me that the editorial had begun a personal journey for him that had a profound impact in his family over the ensuing years.

When one of his younger relatives had come out, this reputedly-conservative evangelist was the last in the extended family to be told because the family feared how he would react. Instead, he told me, he was able to respond with love—and a number of relationships in his family were strengthened, where they might otherwise have been seriously damaged.

I was struck by how these stories from different contexts demonstrate the introductory comments from a recent book pointing out that the primary challenge when it comes to how we respond to many social issues is not external pressures but internal realities: “We’ve done a disservice by painting sexual minorities as outsiders and painting this issue as originating in the outside world. LGBTQ people are already in our churches, silently observing, asking if they are wanted. We face the primary challenge of gay, bisexual, and transgender people growing up inside our churches and schools. The first challenge is about our own people.” 4

We can apply this recognition, by analogy, to many of the social and cultural issues that create controversy in our churches and communities. As much as we might assume about our neighbors, our family members, those we share a pew with, and those we work with, we are more diverse than we often assume. And we can do damage when we seek to impose our expectations of “normal” faith and action on others. While there are times when we should speak up, our railing against perceived outrages in the world around us are likely to be heard less “out there” than they are heard and felt much closer to home.

This article is not about the specific issues of sexual orientation and gender identities. I am not going to quote any of the Bible verses that are often cited—or employed as cudgels—in these cultural debates. Yet it is no less an article about theology—perhaps more so. It is about the theology of how we live together, love each other, listen to each other, and learn together. Something the Bible says so much more about.

These principles—and questions and challenges—also apply to our lives beyond the church and our witness in the wider world. Some years ago, the then Australian Attorney General made headlines and sparked public discussion when he made a speech to the national parliament in which he asserted that people should have the “right to be bigots.” He was speaking in the context of debating possible limits on freedom of speech, particularly in considering how that speech might hurt or harm others. It was awkward for some to have this question put so bluntly, even if in supporting that right. But there are certainly those among the Christian community who consider being considered a bigot a badge of honor.

Even as we might defend the principles of freedom, we must also recognize that the unbridled exercise of some of these freedoms are not without consequences. Whether in our churches, families, or communities, what we say matters and how we listen and respond matters. This is as true for our neighbor down the street or that mother sitting along the pew or the faceless person you are arguing with on social media. We might insist on our freedom to speak, but others will be equally free to dismiss us as jerks or bigots. Sometimes we and they might both be right—but by virtue of them being right, we are wrong.

When we resort to the language of rights and freedoms to defend what we might say or how we respond to people around us and among us, we have probably already lost the debate, even if only by turning it into a debate. We are called to live beyond the law, above insisting on our freedom of expression, laying down the verse-cudgels of the culture wars. Instead, we offer an alternative vision for life, for community, for well-being and seek to live it out in our churches and in the world around us: “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” (Galatians 5:22, 23, NLT).

We might have the right to speak, freedom to insist on our view of the world and how we think it should be, but we have the greater responsibility to love, the calling to kindness and the practices of faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we focus more on these, we will not only change our attitude to the world around us, but, it seems will also transform the environment of our churches. Them is us; they are we. That should require us to re-imagine and reformat our churches and communities, and rethink some of our assumptions, even some of how we have formed and expressed our theology in the past. But there’s no law against that.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. His Christmas devotional book Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth is great for seasonal reading and gifting. Email him at: [email protected]

1 Concerned Parents of Citipointe Christian College, “Why we, as Christian parents, cannot sign a school contract that condemns gay or transgender students,” The Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 2022, www.smh.com.au/national/why-we-as-christian-parents-cannot-sign-a-school-contract-that-condemns-gay-or-transgender-students-20220202-p59t68.html

2 Bruce Manners, The Command: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Signs Publishing Company, 2021), pages 90–1..

3 Nathan Brown, “Beyond Assumptions,” Record, October 4, 2008, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/AAR/AAR20081004-V113-38.pdf

4 Alicia Johnston, The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists: A Theological Conversation About Same-sex Marriage, Gender, and Identity (Affirmative Collective, 2022), page 4.

10 Jan

LISTENING TOGETHER, BETTER

By Nathan Brown — I have a strained relationship with the local church of which I am a member. There have been various factors, but a key moment was a sermon from the then-head elder of the church warning the congregation about “dangerous ideas” that were “creeping” into the church, specifically focusing on a project that I was working with at the time.

After experiencing a renewal of my own faith at events organized as part of this project, I had become part of the group organizing similar events in Australia, had spoken at some of those events and even helped publish1 a book in collaboration with project leaders. My support and contributions to this project were open and obvious. Now, together with my fellow church members, I was being warned in serious tones about the dangers and deceptions therein.

Of course, the earnest elder had watched some videos online, “researched” some websites and perhaps even purchased copies of various books addressing these dangers. Later, he would host one of these US-based authors on a speaking tour in Melbourne, so this author could repeat these warnings with still greater “expertise” and urgency. But the one simple thing this local church leader did not do was ask me about it, either before or since.

It would not have been difficult. He knows me. We used to politely greet each other at church and still occasionally in the main street of our small community. My office is directly across the street from the church building. Some of the material he was referencing even mentioned me as a minor contributor to this project. What would a simple question have cost him? Except perhaps the invalidation of his personal “project” and his projected sermon topic.

It was a pattern that was repeated among others of my friends in their local churches around that time and since, on a variety of matters and topics. It seems we are more inclined to believe something posted on social media, an online video or some conspiracy-mongering from the other side of the world than we are to have a conversation with someone who might answer our questions and concerns in our own communities and congregations.

And I have seen this pattern repeated amid the many and varied ideas around the coronavirus pandemic and vaccinations. From my days at a university student, I have now been friends with several medical doctors for almost three decades. We went to school together, shared Pathfindering adventures, then shared accommodation during university days and studied together—and since then I have remained friends and followed their careers as they have worked through the arduous processes of becoming fully qualified, gaining specializations, and working terribly long hours. Some are leaders in their respective states’ medical and hospital systems.

They have been sources of good and reliable information as I have negotiated the pandemic personally, but also professionally as a writer and part of the management team at our church publishing house. But I have also had opportunities to listen to them as they have expressed their heartbreak, frustration and discouragement as conspiracy thinking and anti-vaccination sentiments have infected their church families, networks, and communities—including “people I really like and respect,” as one friend put it.

As health professionals working tirelessly to combat the traumatic disease effects of the pandemic, these attitudes have been an additional and profound challenge, to their work but also to their relationship with their faith. The resistance to the common practices of public health, together with the focus on individual “freedom” rather than community wellbeing, particularly among people of faith, “seems so counter to everything I was raised with and believe,” said a doctor–friend who regularly works with seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

In short, we need to listen more to the experts and experienced in their respective fields who are members of our faith communities. This is the model of church Paul championed: “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function . . . and we all belong to each other” (Romans 12:4, 5).2 I am not a doctor and prefer not to have to make sense of complex medical questions with my limited knowledge, which is why I appreciate being friends and fellow believers with some very good and smart people who are.

As a church, we need to give more space and attention to the professionals among us. In the right context and with sufficient politeness and notice, they will usually be willing to respond to genuine questions and concerns we might have. And as we listen, we might learn to trust them a little more. In turn, this will also be an opportunity to support them as they wrestle with difficult issues and work through hard experiences in their working lives.

Our world is complex, and it is a Christian imperative to be discerning. We are to “hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good” (Romans 12:9b)—and this is more effective when we seek to do it together, particularly respecting those who have trained insights and expertise to offer. As such, it is remarkable—and lamentable—that we are more inclined to believe a YouTube “preacher” than someone we have worshiped with for years. Perhaps it is revelatory of the shallow relationships many of us have with our fellow church members, so maybe we need to begin with asking those questions and seeking to grow together, so that we not “just pretend to love others. Really love them” (Romans 12:9a).

This is also the safeguard against the false or pseudo-community we find online and in social media channels. Those who peddle the “secret information” that creates so much of this angst and tension, even in our church communities, are not our friends. Nor are the social-media algorithms that push them at us. For those so inclined to question and seek alternative “insights” no matter how speculative, it is surprising that their suspicion does not seem

to include their preferred information sources, “expert,” “preacher” or “ministry.” Some do it for influence, some for-profits and donations, some simply to cause mischief and sow division in our churches and societies.

For example, a recent study found that 19 of the 20 most-followed Christian pages on Facebook were run by Eastern European troll farms, spreading Christian-ish sounding content either for profit or to cause social tension.3 Similarly, the Center for Countering Digital Hate has found that two-thirds of the anti-vaccination content on social media comes from just 12 people, a group of “for-profit anti-vaxxers” dubbed the “Disinformation Dozen.” 4 None of these information sources are on our side, they are small groups of people trying to cause trouble and profit from it. Then their disinformation is shared and re-shared by all kinds of people and for all kinds of reasons, including various preachers who decorate the same information with a few misquoted Bible verses and so build their “ministry” followers and donations.

This is where we encounter real people, build real relationships, and humbly share how we seek to live well in our complex world. “Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!” (Romans 12:16).

My experience with the elder in my local church was contrasted by another experience with an elder in the church in which I grew up, where my mother is still a member and thus where I am an occasional visitor. Confronted by the same anti-project material that my local church elder was drawing upon, my hometown elder noticed my name and contacted me to make a time to talk when we next crossed paths. Because he knew me a little, he assumed that I would not be part of something that was trying to lead the church astray or tear it apart.

When we sat down, he had both books—and one I had helped published and the other warning of the “great deception”—and seemed to have spent some time with both. He seemed genuinely perplexed by the contradictions between the two, not merely arguing two sides of the same discussion but talking about two quite different things.

Based on his actual research, his genuine questions, and his concern to find a greater understanding, we had a good conversation. I don’t think I recruited him—after all, that’s not what I was trying to do—but I think I did answer some of his questions. We still have quite a few differences of perspective and even beliefs, but we prayed together that day and we have worked together on occasional projects since.

The complexities and confusion of our world constantly tempt us toward shortcuts and simple answers, part of which is the temptation to listening to a single view that fits and feeds our assumptions and fears. But our faith calls us to live and listen differently and together: “Love each other with genuine affection and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble and keep on praying” (Romans 12:10–12).

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. His Christmas devotional book Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth is great for seasonal reading and gifting. Email him at: [email protected]

1 For the One: Voices from the One Project (edited by Nathan Brown with Alex Bryan and Japhet De Oliveira): https://adventistbookcenter.com/for-the-one.html

2 Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.

3 https://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/tech-gaming/almost-all-of- facebooks-top-christian-pages-are-run-by-foreign-troll-farms/

4 “Pandemic Profiteers: The Business of Anti-vaxx”: https://www.counter-hate.com/_files/ugd/f4d9b9_13cbbbef105e459285ff21e94ec34157.pdf

29 Sep

IMAGINE UNDOING RACISM

By Nathan Brown — I was in law school in the early 1990s at the time when one of Australia’s most landmark court case was decided. Taking its name from the already deceased Indigenous plaintiff who was seeking recognition of his pre-existing native title over the traditional lands of his people, the Mabo case saw most of the judges of the High Court of Australia reject the long-held doctrine of terra nullius—the assumption that the land now known as Australia had belonged to no one before European colonization. A legal fiction more than 200 years old had finally been undone.

As an upstart law student with all of a few months of legal education behind me, I wrote a paper critical of the High Court’s decision and their “unprecedented judicial activism” in overturning such an established legal doctrine. In 30 years of writing, it is one of the few pieces that I regret. Thankfully, no one read it beyond my long-suffering professor and the paper is now long lost in my academic history—but it represents attitudes that probably have had real-world applications at different points in my life.

Of course, there is an element of humor in reflecting on my precocious railing against the legal judgment of the highest court in the land, but there is also regret that I did not recognize and celebrate this ruling for the watershed moment it was for Indigenous Australians. And I am deeply disappointed that for all my years of Adventist upbringing, worship services, Bible studies, Sabbath schools and Pathfinder classes, I did not have a theology that would have helped me respond better to an issue such as this, even in the context of my studies but more so in how this might have been lived out. In further studies in more recent years—including a postgraduate degree in justice and theology—I have become increasingly convinced of the centrality and pervasiveness of racism in many of the issues of injustice in our world today, how deep-seated, and systemic the roots and realities of racism are, and that racism is primarily a theological issue.

This growing realization of racism as a theological issue brings two immediate and profound responses. The first is a sense of shame: for those of us with a Christian heritage and confession, this is a faith issue—and we have mostly not done it well, either historically or presently. The second is a sense of hope and imagination: theology is something we can work with and the best response to bad theology is better theology.

As commentators such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have pointed out, race is primarily an invention of racism. There is no biological or other scientific basis for identifying race, and the concept as we know it is largely a creation of our modern world. While the Bible describes rivalries between families, tribes, and peoples, these are more focused on cultures, languages, and gods than they are on any physical appearance. Fast-forwarding through history, the plays of Shakespeare offer a relatively more recent literary example in which different characters are portrayed, but “without explicit value judgment, political utility, or the sort of generalizing about a people group with which we are familiar today.”

The historical reality is that racism and race developed significantly in the 15th and 16th centuries as a theological rationale for the burgeoning European expansion, exploration, and colonization of the world. The physical differences of the inhabitants of the colonized lands became a practical short-hand for implementing a theological decree issue by Pope Nicholas V issued on June 18, 1452, which gave the king of Portugal permission “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed”—meaning almost anyone non-European—“to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” and “to convert them to his [and his successors’] use and profit.” Part of what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery, such belief was the theological basis for much of what has become the politics and economics of racism, as seen in slavery, discrimination, systemic disadvantage and disparity, and so much more in the centuries since. It was also the underlying belief of the terra nullius doctrine so recently rejected by Australia’s High Court.

Unfortunately, this innovation of late-medieval Christianity received less attention in the great reformation movements of following centuries and remains a largely unfinished, perhaps barely commenced, work of Christian reformation. So many in our world have suffered for it. Employing a second Latin term for this short article, we are called to semper reformanda—the heirs of the Reformation are always reforming. In the theology of race, there is much work yet to be done and it begins with better theology.

Our foundational understanding of what it means to be human is that all people are created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:27), loved (see John 3:16), and invited (see Revelation 14:6) by God. This ought to be particularly so in the context of the fellowship and work of the church: “Distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation.” But, as the concluding comment might suggest, this should also be our posture towards those in society around us.

Here there is yet more theological work to be done. The assumptions of 550 years of theological history are not easily untangled or undone. We have followed much of the dominant Christian world in reading the Bible as a white and Western text. We perpetuate the Doctrine of Discovery in our standard interpretations of Revelation 13, and we maintain a prophetic focus that ignores much of the world, its peoples and its history. We privilege music, language, and art from a European heritage as somehow holier than other cultural expressions. We have grown our missionary and evangelistic reach on the wings of American empire across the 20th century.

A better theology and better expressions of our theology will launch us into the world around us with more to contribute to the necessary theological and systemic work of un-doing racism. Perhaps this was hinted at in the words of then-General Conference president A G Daniells in summarizing part of the life work of Ellen White at her funeral in 1915: “Slavery, the caste system, unjust racial prejudices, the oppression of the poor, the neglect of the unfortunate—these all are set forth as unchristian and a serious menace to the well-being of the human race, and as evils which the church of Christ is appointed by her Lord to overthrow.” This is the language—and faith—of reformation and revolution.

I wish this was the understanding of faith that I was taught at Sabbath school, Pathfinders, and church when I was growing up. I wish this was the faith that I held when I stepped into law school almost 30 years ago, which would have seen me much better equipped to applaud and support the slow but significant progress in recognizing Australia’s Indigenous peoples at that time. But I also imagine the difference that such a better and growing understanding of our faith could have in the church today—and in our world that so needs to be changed.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. His Christmas devotional book “Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth” is great for seasonal reading and gifting. Email him at: [email protected]

Notes

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “How Racism Invented Race in America,” The Atlantic, June 24, 2014.
  2. Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, IVP, 2017, p. 33.
  3. Quoted by Mark Charles and Song-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, IVP, 2019, p. 15.
  4. Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, #14. Unity in the Body of Christ.
  5. Life Sketches of Ellen G White, p. 473.
23 Jun

OF CHARITY AND JUSTICE

By Nathan Brown … Some of the commands of the Bible seem straightforward. Consider “Do justice” (Micah 6:8); “Learn to do good. Seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17); or, more poetically, “Let justice roll down like waters” (see Amos 5:24)—among many other Bible verses we could cite that urge us in this same direction. Of course, this does not mean it is easy to do, but it seems we would need to squirm quite a bit to wriggle our way out of these direct commands. And so, we do—squirm and wriggle, duck and weave—to try to diminish this call on our lives of faith. Or we simply don’t know where to start, so we move on to a different Bible study.

But, giving us the benefit of the doubt for a moment, it seems our language can also let us down when we try to talk about justice. Author of Pursuing Justice, Ken Wytsma, points out that our first thoughts on hearing about justice often take us in one of two different directions, either thinking about criminal justice or charity. Unless we work in related fields, criminal justice is not something most of us have regular contact with, nor do we want to, nor would we know how to relate in a meaningful way if we wanted to. But our default to charity is easier.

Do Charity?

Charity is good. I do not want to discourage anyone from giving. Give generously, regularly, intentionally and maybe sometimes recklessly. When someone is hungry, they need to be fed. When disaster strikes, we need to respond and to help. It is one aspect of the other action of Micah 6:8, that God also requires us “to love mercy.”

Churches and church people tend to be good at charity. We give donations and raise funds, we hold bake sales and take up collections, we donate clothes and household goods, we praise those who volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters and tell stories of our mission trips and outreaches to neighborhoods across town. These are common markers of what it means to do good in our communities. I am old enough to remember when we used to mark Sabbath school attendance with recording “persons helped,” “food parcels delivered,” and “items of clothing given” as part of our reporting system for measuring our collective impact on those around us.

Again, much of this can be good. And many of these actions will be commended by Jesus, according to Matthew 25:31–46. But it can feel like we can never give enough. There are so many needs in the world and so many different causes we could support that we can despair of ever being able to give to the degree that feels like it truly makes a difference. While this might be because we don’t give enough—only rarely do we give in a way that actually costs us, rather than giving from our excess—it can also be because charity itself is not enough. If we only do charity, this brings two serious risks to fulfilling our justice calling as the people of God:

Charity does not always bring out our best.

Most of us like to be thought of as generous—and we like to be able to think of ourselves as generous. Our motives for doing good are always slippery and fickle. This was something that Jesus warned about (see Matthew 6:1–4). When our sense of generosity gets mixed up with our charity, it changes what we are doing and, according to Jesus, it changes how God views our supposed generosity. It can also change our relationship with those who might benefit from our giving. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned that charity could work to entrench the obvious power imbalances in our world: “philanthropy combines genuine pity with the display of power and that the latter element explains why the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.” (Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 127).

Many of us have experienced the awkwardness that can arise in the donor–recipient relationship. Giving can create unstated or assumed expectations. It can be a way in which the relatively wealthy and powerful can flex their privilege, and economic disparity can be styled as a societal good—all with the veneer of generosity and benevolence. Even for those of us who do not consider ourselves among the super-wealthy, making occasional donations can be a way to salve our consciences and perpetually defer the call to justice.

Charity is not a substitute for justice.

Partly for the reasons above—no matter how large the donation, perhaps even exacerbated the larger the donations become—charity can undermine justice. It can make the status quo seem necessary and side-step the questions of why some are perennially marginalized and vulnerable. Feeding a hungry person today is necessary and important; feeding a hungry person—or a succession of hungry people—every day for months and years must prompt questions about the systems that make this necessary, while such generosity seems to make that system possible. “Charity is no substitute for justice. If we never challenge a social order that allows some to accumulate wealth—even if they decide to help the less fortunate—while others are short-changed, then even acts of kindness end up supporting unjust arrangements. We must never ignore the injustices that make charity necessary, or the inequalities that make it possible” (Michael Eric Dyson, “Voice of the Day,” Sojourners, December 9, 2019).

Doing Justice

Charity is good—too often, it is necessary. Charity can be a contribution towards justice. But justice is more. Doing justice requires a deeper engagement with issues and people, as well as the systems that create and perpetuate injustice. Doing justice demands that we take action.

In the history of our church, we can see many good examples of this. We have been outspoken and led campaigns for freedom of conscience and religious liberty. We have championed broad access to education and health care. Early Adventists defied unjust laws in relation to fugitive slaves and campaigned for the abolition of slavery. At our best, we have advocated for peace, created inclusive communities, and spoken out against the evils of racism.

Today, we continue in all of these actions, as well as expanding our activism in new ways. As people of truth, we must find ways to confront and dismantle the disinformation that has come to blight our societies, risk our public health, and poison our politics. We must speak up to expand access to voting, making it easier rather than more difficult for as many people as possible to be engaged and heard in our political debates and in electing our leaders. We must use our choices as consumers to support companies and products that work in ways that are better for people and our environment. And there are so many more ways in which we can live justly and conscientiously, in our individual lives and through exercising our collective voices and influence.

Some will object that these actions and priorities will move us into the realm of politics. It will. Rather than being reluctant to do this, we need to learn to do it better. Yes, we must be careful and discerning in this engagement. We must also be careful not to be drawn into assuming that all “doing justice” is merely political. Politics is just one of the tools for doing justice, but when confronting systems that are unjust, racist, oppressive, and exclusionary, our political influence can be a key tool for changing these systems more for the benefit of the most vulnerable and marginalized. As people of faith, we need to get involved—or, as Proverbs 31:9 (NLT) puts it, “Speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”

Writing about the ongoing and necessary work of antiracism—as compared to merely claiming to be “not racist”—Ibram X. Kendi urges that we should prioritize working to change unjust policies and systems: “To fight for mental and moral change as a prerequisite for policy changes is to fight against growing fears and apathy, making it almost impossible for antiracist power to succeed. . . . Critiquing racism is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change. If a person has no record of power or policy change, then that person is not an activist,” (How to Be an Antiracist, pp. 208–9).

Such a focus on policies and systems is not only about national politics, but also calls us to speak and act in the context of our cities and communities, where we should seek to cooperate with community leaders, other community groups and people of good will, working with and on behalf of those who most need our communities, policies, and systems to be different. This takes work, focus, listening and learning. Writing a check or submitting credit card details to make a generous donation can be helpful and important—it can even sometimes have an influence in larger justice causes—but we are also and always called to more, committing our energy, influence, and resources as we are able.

Most of the ancient Hebrew prophets urged their people to the faithful work of “doing justice.” To this, Jesus added a valuable promise: “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). As such, doing justice is a necessary expression of the hope we claim to live by and response to the goodness of the God we claim to serve, and it contributes to the necessary change in the world around us.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Nathan is co-host of a new podcast series called “Moe and Nathan Go to School” as part of the Adventist Peace Radio podcast: http://www.adventistpeace.org/podcast. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

THOSE SERMONS WITHOUT ANGELS

By Nathan Brown … I’ve seen a few of these social media posts recently: earnest church members expressing their “concern” or disappointment that Adventist pastors aren’t preaching like they used to. Too many sermons these days—so the complaint goes—are “merely” about Jesus or the gospel or love or caring for others. These are sermons that you could hear in any “other” church—it is assumed—rather than the “real” Adventist preaching of prophecy and preparedness. Whether a criticism of a particular pastor or local church or the perception of a larger trend, in the minds of these concerned critics, Adventist preaching has lost its edge.

At the other end of the church, the three angels of Revelation 14 are back in focus, if they ever weren’t. The General Conference has voted that the Three Angels’ Messages will be the worldwide church’s theme for emphasis, study, and evangelism in the current quinquennium. Resources are being developed, books written, logos designed. Away from church headquarters, a plethora of independent ministries seem to compete to be the most Three-Angel-y; thus, the most “Adventist” and most worthy of your donations.

But this continuing attention on the Three Angels raises questions about whether we risk a preoccupation with the angels themselves, as some kind of shorthand, slogan or logo, rather than the messages that they and we are called to share. And perhaps if we understood these messages more deeply, we would come to recognize and hear them more commonly, even in supposedly mundane sermons and everyday faithfulness.

The Angels Are Not the Message

The ideal delivery system is one that we don’t notice. If we are noticing the system, it is likely that there is a problem. When I am in my office, reading and sending many emails each day, I am thinking about what I am writing, not the functions of the email software or the hardware of our internet servers—unless these systems stop working.

Throughout the Bible story, one of God’s key messaging systems has been angel delivery. As dramatic as this tends to be, the risk is that the appearance of the messenger tends to overwhelm the recipients, which is why so many angelic messages begin with, “Do not be afraid.” The natural human reaction can get in the way of good communication. Yet the angel would be the first to urge that they themselves are only the messenger, not the message.

Similarly, proclaiming, sharing and living the messages of the Three Angels do not always require a scripture reading of Revelation 14:6–14, an explanation or depiction of the angels, or a stylized triple-angel logo. It isn’t that the angels are unimportant, but they are not the message. There’s a place for that specific Bible study, but read the messages again . . . Wherever the gospel is shared, whenever diverse people are invited, welcomed and included; when the created goodness of our world is affirmed, protected and celebrated; when the injustice, oppression and the systemic evils in our world are condemned and undermined; wherever people are called to live differently and better; whenever we anticipate and imagine a world in which evil will be undone and creation restored, the messages of the angels are shouted again.

The Messages Are Good News

When reading the Bible through, by the time we get to page 1031 (in my Bible), the key messages of the angels are not new. These messages are a summary of the good news of God’s intentions for our world, including His plan to remove evil and restore us and our world to what they were always meant to be. Revelation 14 has an added element of end-time urgency, but even the warnings of judgment against the fallen systems of this world and those who profit from them or are deceived by them are themes that have been growing across the breadth of scripture.

The earliest Hebrew prophets were insistent that a day would come to destroy wickedness and those who have refused to give it up. That our world is broken and fallen is not news to anyone paying attention. But the real news is that a different story, a different ending, and a different way of living is possible—and necessary.

This is what makes the good news “good.” For us and for all who choose, the world as it is does not have to be this way. The “eternal Good News” is that God offers a choice, an alternative, that “everyone who believes in Him will not perish” (John 3:16*). The content of the messages of the angels is an expansion and specific application of this good news, expanded beyond all human prejudices to include everyone and applied in a final warning to and demarcation of those who insist on evil.

Such judgment is a two-sided equation. Judgment can be for or against. For those who suffer injustice, judgment means liberation and restoration. For those who benefit from injustice or just don’t care, judgment is a grave danger. God’s announcement of the liberation of the slaves in Exodus sounds very different if one is a Hebrew or an Egyptian, a slave or an oppressor.

So how do we live in expectation of such judgment? Jesus’ answer was given in the second half of His end-time sermon in Matthew 25. Wherever we live and act with hope, anticipation, faithfulness, and compassion, we respond to and enact the messages of these angels. When we begin to see with God’s eyes and work for greater justice and mercy in our world, we are doing the work the angels have urged us to do. And whenever we worship the God who promises ultimate justice and restoration, we answer their call.

A Sermon Without Angels

As such, these messages are heard and repeated in a million ways. The angels are part of the picture, but they are not the point. In fact, the angels might be a distraction. Not that I have anything against angels but in a world where stories of angels are often misunderstood or dismissed, there might be better ways to share their messages. We don’t need to quote the angels to sound their call.

And within our community of faith, we need to be careful about mistaking the Bible study for the application or the invitation. One could be suspicious that Paul was writing to a particular faith community that understood itself as repeating the shouts of the angels and aspired to a superior understanding of the Bible’s prophecies: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, . . . but didn’t love others, I would be nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1, 2).

It can be helpful for us to understand our faith with the picture of angels flying with an urgent message. But Paul would caution that the loudest proclamations are not always most faithful. We live and share this understanding most fully when we love our neighbors, our communities, even our enemies and those who might persecute us, and even if at great cost and self-sacrifice. Without that, we are only making more noise in an already noisy world.

Often the strongest invitation is given quietly. The most faithful sermons are not always the most dramatic, sensational or complicated. The best story we tell is always the story of Jesus. And the best witness probably doesn’t have a logo.

Rather, love is our edge, the thing that makes our faith real and unique, the thing that will set all our preaching, sharing and serving apart. That is the most Adventist-y thing we can be looking for and living out. That is the worship that most honors our Creator God and all those who are equally created in His image, with whom we are firstly recipients of the angels’ call.

So those humdrum gospel sermons that are “merely” about Jesus suddenly take on a fresh urgency. These preachers are speaking in tune with the angels if they are again reminding us of the story of Jesus, the grace and love of God, and urging us again to surrender our lives to His invitation to follow Him with all our lives. Even in the most “unprecedented” of times, the most important thing any of us can say to the world is to insist that God is good, that we can see this still in the now-broken world that He has made, and that we can see and accept it most fully in the story of Jesus. This is the best, everlasting and ever-new Good News that we offer to our world.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Nathan is co-host of a new podcast series called “Moe and Nathan Go to School” as part of the Adventist Peace Radio podcast: http://www.adventistpeace.org/podcast. Email him at: [email protected] signspublishing.com.au

* Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.

05 Jan

MORE THAN EQUALITY

By Nathan Brown — It was a relaxed and sunny Sunday morning at a camp- meeting in a distant state. Over a breakfast of pancakes and other good things, I had shared a worship reflection as part of the youth program, situated, as youth venues often are at such events, on the far side of the campground. The program had come to an end and I was enjoying the sunshine and talking with a few friends as the crowd dispersed.

My relaxed conversation and state of mind were interrupted by a phone call, asking if I could do a book promotion before the next session began in the main venue in a few minutes’ time. I arranged to drop by the temporary camp bookstore to collect the books to be featured as I hurried to the stage on the other side of the campground.

The plan went smoothly enough, as I grabbed the books at the front of the bookstore with the ease of an incident-free relay baton change and arrived at the next venue with time to catch my breath before being introduced and delivering a presentation of the two or three books I had been asked to promote to the small morning Bible-study crowd. Returning the sample books to the bookstore at a more leisurely pace, I also returned to my more relaxed state of mind—and then my phone buzzed again.

A concerned someone had posted on my social media wall, direct-messaged me, posted on the host conference’s social media feeds and that of the publishing house I work for, all in quick succession in the few minutes since I had stepped onto the stage to promote the books. The “problem” was the T-shirt I was wearing. Dressed as I was for a Sunday-morning breakfast in the youth program with no time to change as I hurried across the campground, even if it had occurred to me (perhaps a T-shirt was underdressed for the main venue), apparently more “troubling” than my casual dress was the single word on the T-shirt: EQUALITY.

It was only a single complainant, but over the following weeks, he was persistent in seeking an “explanation” and trying to draw conference leaders into the conversation about wearing an item of clothing emblazoned with such a “political” message at an Adventist camp meeting. His protest is symbolic of a sense of uneasiness that many church members seem to have about the language of equality, justice, and tolerance that should be more a part of how we address the world around us.

There are two levels at which we need to think about these concepts in larger and more faithful ways. The first is the primary context in which these ethical principles are usually debated: in the political, legal, economic and cultural structures that organize and regulate our lives together. Here we are called to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed” (Proverbs 31:8).

To this task, we bring insights from our origin story that all human beings are created in the image of God (see Genesis 1:27), and affirmed by the incarnation of Jesus and the invitation He offered to “everyone who believes in Him” (John 3:16) for salvation and citizenship in the present and coming Kingdom of God. In short, we have deep theological reasons to insist that all people are created and valued as equals and society should treat them as such, with a particular focus on and prioritization of those who are most marginalized, vulnerable, and excluded.

Rather than contested concepts, as these tend to be in our societal and political contexts, at the second level in our personal attitudes and actions, they should be considered the bare minimum for our public engagement. Some ethicists argue that Christian love, as it is directed toward those in the world around us, could be defined as “equal regard” and Gushee and Stassen argue that such an understanding “is basic to any Christian understanding of love. . . But it seems somehow incomplete” (Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, p. 113).

Authentic Christian ethics must include equality, tolerance and more careful and thoughtful ways of speaking and acting.* These are actually the least we can do, but our faithful calling is much higher and deeper—a call to lead in all our human and communal interactions with love, humility, service and kindness.

Thinking about equality in this way fits by analogy with a statement from English novelist E. M. Forster, describing tolerance as “just a makeshift, suitable for an over-crowded and overheated planet. It carries on when love gives out” (On Tolerance).

Similarly, equality might be the best we can do if we ignore the Bible’s pre-eminent commands to love others, even to the extreme of loving our enemies (see Matthew 5:44). When we simplify and sentimentalize love, we ignore the depth and transformative nature of the way in which we are called to live. But the Bible does not allow us this superficial response.

Consider the attitude that Paul urged we should have in our relationships with others:

Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.

Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though He was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to (Philippians 2:3–6, emphasis added).

Imagine if that earnestly-concerned church member from that Sunday morning at camp meeting was upset because my T-shirted call to equality was insufficient, that equality—even equality with God—was not something we should be clinging to or promoting because it is a lesser good. Ironically, he probably would not have protested nearly so much if my T-shirt had proclaimed love, humility, or kindness. We have tamed and diminished the power of these “church words” to such a degree that we miss the point that these callings are higher and much more politically, economically and culturally disruptive—if only we would take them seriously enough and live them out to their full extent.

Equality is necessary. A passion for the equality of others is something we must insist upon as a foundation for working and speaking up for justice in our world, in turn built on some of our most fundamental beliefs about our world and what it means to be human. But important as it is, equality is a makeshift for systems and institutions that are unable to love. We are called to more. Our equality is not something to cling to. Instead, we are called to love. Everyone equally—as difficult as that will be, in whatever ways we can.

–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Nathan’s newest book is “Advent,” available from your favorite online book retailer. Email him at: [email protected]

*This has come to be termed and often described dismissively as “political correctness” by critics and, while there are obvious excesses in some contexts, using language that is conscientiously kinder and sensitive to how it is heard by others is something we should strive toward.