21 Dec

#SABBATHBURDEN

Sabbath is one of the best things we have to offer to the busy, stressed, and weary world around us. In our own lives, we know the value of a day each week that is different, that offers an invitation to rest, and time to catch our breath and focus on the things that are most important. Not only is it an attractive idea, but Sabbath is also experiential, so we can invite friends, neighbors, and others in our community to experiment with this practice in their own lives. Sabbath is a gift, but it must also be more than that.

Sabbath Gift

In our part of the world, the Adventist Church has been promoting sharing Sabbath. As well, online events, a book, tracts, and other resources, church members have been invited to create social media posts and content that share their experiences of the #SabbathGift. And the Sabbath Gift website has invited visitors to sign up for the Sabbath Challenge, to experiment with practicing Sabbath over four weeks and discover the advantages of Sabbath for themselves.1

The Sabbath Gift project was launched in response to market research that found that only four percent of Australians consider that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is relevant today. While it might not have yet connected with the bulk of the Australian population, more than 20,000 people have visited the website and the #SabbathGift posts have received more than 1.4 million views on social media.2  There is more work to be done, but Sabbath is a gift and a wellbeing practice that we can continue to share with our communities.

Wherever they are at in their circumstances or faith, Sabbath is a gift that can bless the lives of those around us. It is a different kind of time that gives permission to disconnect from the always-on world around us, with all its pressures, demands, and noise. Sabbath feels quieter. It can be an experiential introduction to God’s care and provision for all of us, a pause in our busyness that also nudges toward eternity.

Sabbath Command

As much as it is a gift, Sabbath is also a commandment. This is something we have perhaps over-emphasized at times in our Adventist history, but neither should we forget it. Not only is it a command, the fourth is the most detailed for the Ten Commandments and is particular about what it is, how it should be remembered or observed, who it is for, and why. It is clear that Sabbath ought to be regarded as a moral principle. It is not only a matter of wellbeing but a matter of right-doing. In a sense, the commandment protects the gift—for us and for others.

Today we often hear talk of human rights, with an individual able to claim and defend their rights against the encroachments of others. However, in the laws and traditions of the Hebrew scriptures and the Jewish people, the relationships between people, particularly between the powerful and the weaker members of society, were more often governed by the concept of obligations on the more powerful parties as to how they treat and care for those who are disadvantaged. This is something we can see in the fourth commandment in relation to Sabbath. While Sabbath is a gift to all, the commandment focused on those we might be responsible for: your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you (Exodus 20:10).3

The focus on the benefits of the Sabbath to these outsiders is repeated beyond the Commandments: You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed (Exodus 23:12).

In this formulation, the Jewish master was to rest so that the slave, the animals, and the foreigner would also be allowed to rest. It was a day for their benefit, and Sigve Tonstad argues that this focus was unique among ancient cultures of the world—“no parallels have been found in other cultures.” The Sabbath commandment, he explains, “prioritizes from the bottom up and not from the top looking down, giving first consideration to the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. Those who need rest the most—the slave, the resident alien, and the beast of burden—are singled out for special mention. In the rest of the seventh day, the underprivileged, even mute animals, find an ally.” 4  Sabbath is a gift, but perhaps best understood and practiced as a gift for others, which is why it is commanded.

Sabbath Burden

But Sabbath is also a burden. While Isaiah 58 rightly described the gift of Sabbath as a day to speak of … with delight as the Lord’s holy day (Isaiah 58:13), it did so in the context of our call to identify with, stand in solidarity with, and work for the imprisoned, the oppressed, the hungry, and the homeless. Extending from the commandment’s duty on those we employ or care for, this understanding and practice of Sabbath included a burden for those who are forgotten, oppressed, and exploited in our society and our world.

This is one reason why our practice of Sabbath on the seventh day continues to be so significant, so counter-cultural, with a particular link to being Adventist. Theologians have often talked about the reality of the kingdom of God as being both already and not yet. Inaugurated and proclaimed by Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection, we insist that the kingdom of God is a present reality. But it is also incomplete and remains to be fulfilled. While our Adventist-ness speaks to both realities, we have tended to emphasize the incompleteness—the not-yet-ness—and to look forward to the Second Coming when God’s kingdom will be only and always already. To be Adventist is to urge that the world remains broken. Feeling the ongoing weight of not yet is the burden of Advent hope.

In contrast, many Christians explain their worship on Sundays as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and God’s victory over evil and death. They emphasize the already. At times, we might learn from their focus on the reality, power, and presence of the resurrection, but we ought not be too quick to surrender the burden of not yet, because that is a burden that continues to be felt so heavily by so many people in our world. As much as it is a gift, the Sabbath of the seventh day is a pause in the not yet.

A leading Australian journalist, academic, and Indigenous voice expressed this reality in relation to the ongoing disadvantage of his people in a way that caught my attention: “We come to God in our own way. We read the same scriptures, but they speak to us differently. I have been in White churches, and I have always felt slightly out of place. Not unwelcome, not at all, but as if I am a day out. These are the people of Easter Sunday, the triumphant resurrection, and my people are of the dark Saturday, the day after the crucifixion. On that day, God is dead to the world. This is the darkness of our suffering and, in that darkness, God is with us as he was with Jesus in the moment of abandonment.” 5

This might well be the seventh day at its most relevant. Both as Seventh-day and Adventist, we are “a day out.” We are not yet at resurrection and re-creation. We are a day away. We have hope, but we insist that we are not fully already. And, in that, we cannot help but identify with those who are burdened, those who suffer, those who feel the not yet so keenly, those who cannot yet join in the celebration of resurrection.

Gift and Burden

Sabbath is time for what matters most in what it means to be human, especially human in relationship with God. Sabbath is a gift, a practice of wellbeing and spirituality that we are privileged to know and to share with those around us. Sabbath is a command, a principle of how we relate to others and particularly to those we might care for or employ. Sabbath is a burden, a practice of solidarity with all who suffer and liberation for all who are oppressed as we insist on not yet, at the same time as we look for and work for already. And Sabbath is an affirmation that God is with us even in the not yet.

#SabbathBurden might be more difficult to get trending, but it is no less important than #SabbathGift. The gift of Sabbath is our invitation, but for those who suffer in our world, we are stubbornly “a day out” and the burden of Sabbath is our calling.

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  https://sabbathgift.info

2  Adventist Record. (2023, August 28). Sabbath Gift reaches 1.4 million. https://record.adventistchurch.com/2023/08/28/sabbath-gift-reaches-1-4-million/

3  Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.

4  Tonstad, Sigve (2009). The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day. Andrews University Press. p. 126–127.

5  Grant, Stan (2023). The Queen is Dead. Fourth Estate. p. 277.

24 Jul

SABBATH HOPE GRACE-PEOPLE

Seventh-day Adventism is a particular faith. When formalizing the organization of the church in 1863, the Adventist pioneers chose to put that peculiarity and particularity in the name of the new denomination. Particularity is important, but sometimes zooming in close can cause us to miss some of the bigger picture.

When we can see the brushstrokes, we experience a painting in one way. When we see the painting from the other side of the room, the brush strokes are still vital elements of the artwork, but we might also see, respond to, and understand the painting in a different and larger way. This longer vantage point might also be a way to better appreciate the individual textures and brush strokes in their proper context.

Seventh-day Adventist Church is a particular way of describing our faith. But if we step back for a wider view, we might appreciate the unique elements of our faith differently. Provisionally describing ourselves as “Sabbath Hope Grace-people” seems an experiment worth trying—that could offer a greater and more practical authenticity when we return to the particularity of what we believe.

Sabbath

The seventh day is an important particular of Adventist faith. It is not any Sabbath—we insist—but the seventh- day Sabbath. For much of our history, we have put a lot of effort into arguing against other Sabbaths. We might have won some arguments, but we have often lost the larger battles as increasingly our society has turned away from any kind of Sabbath-keeping. Now we like to claim to be one of the largest Sabbath-keeping faith communities in the world, which ignores the reality of the general disregard of Sabbath in most consumer cultures, where our particular claim is cause only for incomprehension for most people.

There has been some renewed interest in Sabbath in recent years. But our insistence on particularity has meant that such interest is suspect among many Adventists, we have created barriers to contributing to these conversations, and others have been hesitant to engage with our presentations of Sabbath. For example, most of the best books on the topic of Sabbath have not been written by Seventh-day Adventists1 and even those worthwhile books that have been written by Adventist scholars and authors2 have not received wide readership or acceptance, either within or beyond Adventism.

As important as it might be, Sabbath as Saturday is nowhere near as interesting or inviting as Sabbath as rest, delight, and liberation. While we continue to insist on the importance of Sabbath as a particular day commanded by God, we need to take that step back to rediscover these other components of Sabbath and its practice. After we do this work, we might then be able to share how the particularity of the seventh day can actually enhance these more meaningful aspects of Sabbath. That we rest when Sabbath comes to us, rather than when it suits us, gives rest more reliability and sustainability. That we delight in Sabbath means we begin to look forward to it more and to order the rest of our week in its light. That Sabbath comes to all, not only to us, means that we seek ways to share Sabbath with others in ways that benefit their lives, even if it costs or inconveniences us. We will be more authentically Seventh-dayers only after we are more fully Sabbathers.

Hope

When we talk “Adventist,” our particularity directs to thinking about, anticipating, and perhaps even “getting ready” for the second coming of Jesus. Of course, this is important and holds an overwhelmingly significant place in the identity, purpose, and mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It is the fundamental impulse and perpetual longing of Christian history, but has flowered anew in the Adventist movements of the past two centuries. It is also the as-yet disappointed expectation of our earliest pioneers and the focus of sometimes frantic attempts at prophetic interpretations among many misguided date-setters and preachers since.

Taking a small step back for that larger view, we can observe that Adventist describes the full story of Jesus, including His incarnation, which necessarily grounds His promises to return. A second coming does not happen without a first—and if we don’t know Jesus, news of His second coming is most likely unnerving. So a more authentic Adventism devotes more attention to Jesus, His life and teachings, death and resurrection, as key elements in any and all hope of His return.

The next step back for a bigger perspective takes us to the concept and practice of hope. As it is often used today, hope is a slippery and somewhat ephemeral word, more akin to wishful thinking. But we must insist on a more substantial understanding of hope.

Meaningful hope is not merely some distant beacon, but a future-oriented practice of present transformation based on past experience. What we believe about the future is based on what we believe about the past, which—most importantly—shapes us, our lives and our world today. The formula in Hebrews 6 includes the promises God has given to us in the past plus our present and enduring faithfulness leading to a future inheritance. This formula also insists that our present hope-shaped lives play a role in creating that future: Our great desire is that you will keep on loving others as long as life lasts, in order to make certain that what you hope for will come true (Hebrews 6:11).

When we reframe our anticipation of the Second Coming in the story of Jesus and the daily practice of hope, sharing Bible prophecy will sound less like the conspiracy-mongering that some have made it into and more like a truly blessed hope (see Titus 2:13). It will also be an increasingly transformative influence in our attitudes to the world around us, undermining evil and injustice and motivating us to make a difference with those who are most disadvantaged and marginalized. We will be more authentically Adventist when we are more hope-filled, hope-shaped and hope-motivated.

Grace-people

There are so many assumptions and images that leap into our minds with mention of the word church—and so many of them are less than what it ought to be. A few years ago, I was making a brief presentation to one of the “highest” denominational committees in our region, and I had the temerity to point out that, for all its church leaders and representatives, this executive committee was not the church. At best, it could offer only an administrative support structure for the actual church that lives, works, and worships together in so many local communities across the region in so many everyday ways.

Taking a step back from the particularity of church—in this case the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a worldwide organizational structure or even any of its more regional or localized constituent components—we might observe a community of grace, people drawn together from many different backgrounds and stories by little more than their common following of Jesus. They bring their large and small experiences of transformation and hope into common gatherings for worship, encouragement and service, primarily because somehow, He invited them individually together.

Such a community is welcoming and includes and invites people who might not otherwise interact, but for grace, as well as those who are not yet there. We are called out of the world, but not away from the world (see John 17:14–16). Church that makes sense is always about people, both those within the community of faith and those around it. Any church organization, institution, or policy is only useful to the degree that it supports, encourages, and enhances these communities of grace.

We will be more authentically church when we recognize our highest expression in the gathering of a few local followers of Jesus, perhaps with a few more who are trying to follow Him or are even quite uncertain about following Him, seeking to share their lives, encourage each other, and serve their wider community together.

Sabbath Hope Grace-people

The particularity that we know as the Seventh-day Adventist Church must not be allowed to eclipse the bigger meaning that the particular elements of the name rely upon. These wider perspectives must inform our understanding of the particulars. We cannot be an authentic Seventh-day Adventist Church without a better appreciation of Sabbath and hope practiced together by people in communities of grace.

Particularity is important, but our faith draws us into a broader view and a larger world. Sometimes we need to step away from the canvas. While admiring their precision or flourish, if we get lost in the brush strokes, we might miss the larger beauty of which they are a part and for which those brush strokes were created.

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 For example, The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel (1951), Sabbath by Wayne Muller (2000), Sabbath As Resistance by Walter Brueggemann (2014), and The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer (2019).

2 For example, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day by Sigve Tonstad (2009).

24 Apr

A BIGGER FOCUS FOR A BETTER FUTURE?

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]


Jackson, M. and Brown, N. (2022). A House on Fire: How  Adventist Faith Responds to Race and Racism. Signs Publishing.
https://adventistbookcenter.com/a-house-on-fire-how-adventist-faith-responds-to-race-and-racism.html

Mitchell, B. (2017). Faith-Based Development: How Christian Organizations Can Make a Difference. Orbis Books. p. 116.

https://ulurustatement.org

31 Jan

OUR FUNDAMENTALIST KNOTS

Two of the most interesting books of Adventist history published in the past year offer alternative views of the relationship between Adventist faith and fundamentalism. It is one of those arguments that we might be tempted to dismiss as merely academic or primarily semantic, but this topic matters because of the direct connections to many issues we continue to wrestle with in the church today—and also some of the things we don’t wrestle with, that we take for granted as just the way the church or the world is and ought to be.

As a sequel to 1919 and his study of the pivotal Adventist Bible conference of that year, Michael Campbell’s 1922 traces the further development and effects of a turn to Adventist fundamentalism in the 1920s.1 Influenced by similar movements in the wider culture and particularly among Christian churches in the United States, Dr. Campbell argues that key theological, cultural, and even political developments within the Adventist church constituted a significant fundamentalist turn, albeit with some uniquely Adventist features, which has profoundly shaped the development or not of Adventist faith and life in the century since.

Offering an alternative assessment is Ostriches and Canaries2—Gilbert Valentine’s study of the tension between fundamentalists and progressives, between administrators and academics, in the Adventist church in the 1960s and 1970s. Dr. Valentine argues that Seventh-day Adventists have always been fundamentalist, an assumption that has re-asserted itself at key points in Adventist history including the 1920s and 1930s, the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps again in the past decade. Of course, this paints early Adventists as proto fundamentalists, given that the term only came into common usage with the larger cultural trends of the early part of the 20th century, but the argument is that key planks of fundamentalism, such as the inerrancy of the Bible, were assumed by many of the earliest Adventist pioneers and have been largely maintained throughout out most of Adventist history.

Perhaps I am exposing my Adventist nerd-dom, but I find it an intriguing point for friendly debate. There is a sense in which both perspectives are helpful to our understanding. Putting aside questions around the use of terminology, there was the possibility and practice of fundamentalism in our earliest Adventist thinking, but there are aspects of our Adventist fundamentalism that were not possible until the 1920s. There might also be a recency bias in this assessment, but it seems that our fundamentalist turn 100 years ago has had a more profound influence on what Adventism is today and—perhaps more significantly—what it is not.

The History Between

The history between Adventism’s proto-fundamentalism and the turn toward fundamentalism in the early part of the 20th century was spanned and guided by the ministry of Ellen G. White. Her life and work gave Adventists an up-close perspective on key questions of inspiration, demonstrating how God works through people to speak and guide in the community of His people. The presence of this phenomenon affirmed the reality of inspirational influence, reminded them of how it could be awkward and confronting, and guarded against the excesses of expectations of inerrancy. At least it should have—and then Ellen G. White was working among them to offer a corrective voice, as needed.

Looking back on Ellen G. White’s ministry and experience, it is also possible to trace the maturation of her spirituality, thinking, and leadership. In some aspects, this was sketched a few years ago in Alden Thompson’s book Escape From the Flames3 and it is a theme that has seen more academic attention in recent years. It can also be observed anecdotally in surveying Ellen G. White’s books and the growing focusing on the centrality of Jesus to our Adventist faith in her writing of her later decades, particularly the 1890s and 1900s.

Unquestionably, Ellen G. White urged and maintained a high view and understanding of the Bible. As General Conference president A.G. Daniells summarized her work and focus in his eulogy at her funeral in 1915—perhaps with some hyperbole—“No Christian teacher in this generation, no religious reformer in any preceding age, has placed a higher value upon the Bible … . Those who still believe that the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of the living God will value most highly the positive, uncompromising support given this view in the writings of Mrs. White.” 4

However, the early Adventists also sought what they described as “present truth,” expecting that they would continue to learn and seeking to apply biblical principles to the changing realities of their times and places in ways that would be practical and transformative. This was an approach to truth and its practices also championed by Ellen G. White. Quoting Daniells’ eulogy again: “Through the light and counsel given her, Mrs. White held and advocated broad, progressive views regarding vital questions that affect the betterment and uplift of the human family, from the moral, intellectual, physical, and social standpoint as well as the spiritual.” 5

This perpetual seeking after and progressive application of truth was a substantial moderation of Adventism’s proto-fundamentalist assumptions, leading them away from the narrow certitude of its earliest days. It was only after Ellen G. White’s death—with her matured, Christ-centred, progressive voice diminished—that a turn to 20th-century fundamentalism was possible. We could have responded differently to the questions and pressures of the 1920s, but this was a turn that caused the most damage to the ongoing influence and legacy of even Ellen G. White’s ministry, as both her fiercest supporters and harshest critics demanded yet more from her writings. This was a turn that continues to shape the church today.

A Conservative Progressive Church

While there is a spectrum of thought, belief, and practice within the Adventist community, this entire spectrum fits firmly within a small slice of the conservative spectrum of the larger Christian world. When we are arguing about different ways of reading and applying Bible verses, it is almost always a conservative position arguing with a more conservative position. But the tendency, temptation, and turn to fundamentalism have stifled our ability to think broadly and engage positively with social issues and needs in the world around us.

Our drift toward fundamentalism has led us to spend undue time defending not so much the indefensible, but the unnecessary. In “defending” both the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White, apologists have mounted elaborate and sometimes disingenuous arguments that have created ever more problems, twisting ourselves into fundamentalist knots.6 This tendency has also seen our public witness too often co-opted by conservative political assumptions and attitudes.

By nature, we are a conservative church. But to be most true to our tradition, we are also called to be progressive, in learning and in responding to the world around us, and in including everyone we can in the invitation of God (see Revelation 14:6). If this sounds like mere academic debate or even just an argument about defining technical terms, it might be because we have not yet put what we say we believe into practice and set about that humble task of changing the world. As Ellen G. White herself put it, “If God’s word were studied as it should be, men would have a breadth of mind, a nobility of character, and a stability of purpose rarely seen in these times.” 7

In the 1920s, we had a choice to be different; in the 2020s, we have a choice to make a difference.

Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. Email him at: [email protected]


1 Michael Campbell, 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2022.

2 Gilbert Valentine, Ostriches and Canaries: Coping with Change in Adventism, 1966-1979, Oak & Acorn Publishing, 2022.

3 Alden Thompson, Escape from the Flames, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2005.

4 Life Sketches of Ellen G White, p. 471.

5 Life Sketches of Ellen G White, p. 473.

6 For example, consider the defense of slavery as part of making a case against the ordination of women as happened in the Theology of Ordination Study Committee or see an examination of another example of this tendency: Ronald Osborn, “True Blood: Race, Science, and Early Adventist Amalgamation Theory Revisited,” Spectrum Magazine, Vol 38, No 4, Fall 2010.

7 Steps to Christ, p. 90.

21 Oct

WHAT WE DO WITH WHAT WE DON’T (KNOW)

As churches and denominations, we tend to spend quite a bit of time writing down, debating, defining, and then re-defining what we say we believe. In our faith community, our core statement of doctrine is the “28 Fundamental Beliefs.” But for such a large number of “fundamentals,” it is surprising how much of what is core to our faith and faithful living is mentioned only briefly or even not at all.

And then there are all the things we actively disbelieve. A few years ago, one of my assigned textbooks for a class in systematic theology was a book that set out to define Christian faith by what we do not believe about life, God and faith.[1] It’s an interesting approach and there is some value in clearing away some of our misnomers and assumptions—and stating those things explicitly—but at 400 pages, it is not such a snappy way of describing or sharing what we believe or a guiding framework for what it means to live well.

But for all we specify about what we do believe and what we don’t—after all, we do spend a bit of time in some parts of our faith community critiquing the different beliefs of others—perhaps our most defining attitude is what we do with uncertainty, the things we don’t know. In “an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”[2]

Informed and good thinking, determination and a sense of assurance are valuable to a credible faith, but what we do with what we don’t know might be more important for sustainable faith and what our faith might offer to others. As 1 Peter 3:15 put it, we might be ready to explain our faith, but verse 16 counsels that this must be done “in a gentle and respectful way.”[3]This calls for something more than a well delineated list of what we do—or don’t—believe. It is a call to live and believe with humility, courage and curiosity.

Humility

In a personal letter, C S Lewis—writer, Christian apologist and long-time tutor at Oxford University—summed up this important goal of his teaching: “One of my main efforts as a teacher has been to train people to say those (apparently difficult) words ‘we don’t know.’”[4] Those “apparently difficult” words don’t come easily to any of us—and perhaps even less easily to people of faith, those who feel like they ought to have the answers.

But to admit “I don’t know” is an important spiritual discipline that we need to practice, precisely because it does not come easily. “Yes, we know that ‘we all have knowledge’ about this issue,” wrote Paul to people who did know how to answer the specific question. “But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much” (1 Corinthians 8:1, 2).

Humility is not trying to doubt things we know and firmly believe, but it is to honestly admit when we don’t and that there is often some margin between. If we can simply answer that we don’t know, we are relieved of the burden of knowing the answers and respecting the person whom we might otherwise be trying to convince of something we, ourselves, are not certain about.

Courage

It takes courage to admit that “all that I know now is partial and incomplete” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and then to seek to live well, as if our lives depended on it—because they do. But whatever we believe, most of us still must get out of bed tomorrow morning and make countless choices throughout the day, some of which might seem inconsequential but many that might cost us something and all of which will compound into a much larger life trajectory. All of which is decided with incomplete knowledge, human inconsistencies, and growing fatigue.

Yet so many of us keep doing it. If we were truly certain about everything, life would require little courage. But we keep showing up, even when it might not make sense. We courageously do things we don’t have to do and when we can never be sure of their outcome. We are brave when we are kind and still more courageous when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

Curiosity

What we don’t know and what we don’t understand are also an invitation to curiosity. Honest humility about our incomplete knowledge is not a cause for shame, but an opportunity for wonder. There will always be more for us to learn, create, discover, and grow. Curiosity should be a practice of our faith—in a God who made us and our world, in our recognition that the world is not what it was intended to be, in our hope for a world that will be redeemed and re-created.

By its beauty and its tragedy, by its wonder and its brokenness, our world is riddled with questions, urgencies, and possibilities. “They are an invitation to engage in an apologetic that is more concerned with ‘gentleness and respect’ than merely ‘giving an answer.’ They are an indication that Christian apologetics must shift its approach from having all the answers, to being present in the questions.”[5] One of the greatest gifts we can give—to our world, to others—is our curiosity and attention.

We live on fertile ground for humility, courage, and holy curiosity. What we don’t know or struggle to understand offers us the space to be most human and most faithful. More than further refining or adding to our doctrinal statements, whatever we might be for or against, our faith must be shaped by our listening and living. And the invitation we can most usefully offer to others is to join in with this incomplete project of humbly and courageously learning, discovering, and working together. What we do with what we don’t know is what makes our faith most real.

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] Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (2nd edition, T & T Clark, 2009).
[2] Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (Crown, 2016).
[3] Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.
[4] “To Father Peter Milward, September 26, 1960,” Letters of C S Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1993).
[5] Daniel Montañez, “From Truth to Trust: Reimagining the Future of Christian Apologetics,” The Anxious Bench, <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2022/08/from-truth-to-trust-reimagining-the-future-of-christian-apologetics>.

01 Jun

“A PLACE THEY MADE UP IN THE BIBLE?”

Writing a book can be an all-consuming endeavor requiring an intensity of focus and an amount of energy that seems absurd for the amount of energy needed to simply sit still for long enough. Even more so when the book is based on an intense personal experience.

But that was the task I had set for myself: two weeks traveling with a tour group through Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, exploring many of the key places and stories of the Bible, writing in my hotel room late into the night and early in the morning, as well as on the bus in between. Then writing for most of a day during a long wait in the back of a Starbucks in the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, on much of the long flight home and then more writing, re-writing, and revising across the following week.

Wanting to share as much of the experience as I could with those who might never be privileged to take such a trip, I was trying to get it down while the reactions were fresh, the details sharp, and the reflections at their most intense, even if it resulted in being as jumbled as the experience itself. As well as telling the stories of travel in exotic and interesting places, I was wanting to share some of the insights into reading Bible stories that can be gained from visiting the places where they happened and to reflect on how such experiences might change how we understand those stories. And at the end of that intense three weeks, I had completed the manuscript that would become Of Falafels and Following Jesus: Stories from a Journey Through the Holy Land,* with additional reflections to be added from two friends with whom I shared the journey.

It was close to the end of this time that I shut the computer for a break and headed to my usual Thursday-evening “old man’s” basketball game. I play in an over-30s league—and have done so for quite a few years with many of the same teammates. Because of the life stage of people in this league, some of us will miss games from time to time because of work and other commitments and some of the team will regularly bring their kids to help keep score and to cheer us on, even if with only occasional enthusiasm.

As I have missed games from time to time because of my travel for work, that Thursday evening, one of my teammates asked about where I had been the previous week, perhaps chiding me about what could be more important than our basketball team. I thought back to where I had been the previous Thursday and told him that, at that time the previous week, I had been walking the stone-paved streets of the Old City in Jerusalem. That’s quite a thing to be able to drop casually into conversation. And, with increased interest, he started asking about my trip and what I had been doing there.

But our conversation took an unexpected turn—for both him and me—when his elementary school-aged daughter tapped him on the arm to get his attention and, speaking more to her father than to me, half-asked, “But I thought Jerusalem was a place they made up in the Bible.”

We paused for a moment, before the father began gently teasing his daughter about what she was learning at school. And I pulled out my phone and began showing them photos of a few of the places I had a visited with a brief travel narrative, interrupted by the previous basketball game coming to an end and our team needing to begin our warm-up shoot-around.

But the brief exchange left me thinking. Consumed as I was with crafting profound reflections on the stories of Jesus and my intense experiences and focus on these stories over the previous three weeks, for that girl—and perhaps for her family as well—the most relevant thing I had to share was a few photos of real places that might move her a step closer to beginning to think about the possible reality of some of the stories of the Bible or even the potential credibility of the Bible itself.

We might lament the growing biblical illiteracy in our societies. This is real and no less a relevant concern even within some of our church communities. But we should also embrace this challenge and note the opportunity that comes with it.

The challenge is that we need to meet people at a much lower level in their knowledge, experience and understanding of what our faith is about. My teammate’s daughter is a long way from a Bible study, much less a detailed explication of each of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, the finer details of an obscure prophecy, or an argument about the day on which she “should” be going to church. Let’s not assume that our concerns are the things other people most need to hear. My literary reflections on the contested nature of holy places and the politicization of the temple, from the time of David and Solomon to its rebuilding by Herod the Great, would not answer this girl’s query about whether Jerusalem is a more believable place than a fairy-tale kingdom.

If we really want to share our faith, rather than merely saying what we think we ought to say, we need to begin by listening, asking careful questions, and then listening some more. This is modeled in some of the key “witnessing” stories in the New Testament—for example, the woman at the well in Samaria (see John 4), the disciples on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13–27), and Phillip and the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza (see Acts 8:26–38). Each of these conversations happened amid the activities of life and the conversations began where the people were, not with the conversation we might think most important or pressing.

When we do this, the opportunity we have is that of a fresh hearing for the stories, teachings and promises of Jesus. When the opportunities arise, I can share Bible stories with people like my teammate’s daughter without them knowing how the stories end, without their cultural baggage, without assuming that we know what they mean. And with our own stories and experiences of faith, we can invite them to share in exploring these stories together, which in turn, will help us see and appreciate them with new eyes. And, in its own way, that is as valuable as a trip to the Holy Land.

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]

*A little product placement never hurts. The book is available from an Adventist bookshop near you: https://adventistbookcenter.com/of-falafels-and-following-jesus.html

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]