By Nathan Brown
Over the past few years, I have been intrigued by a series of conversations with my friend Dr. Lisa Clark Diller, professor of history at Southern Adventist University, in which she has explained to me that one of her key tasks with her students is to shift them away from seeing either historical events or the present as somehow inevitable. After one of these conversations, I invited Lisa to contribute a chapter to a book project I was working on at the time. The chapter she wrote included the following summary:
“The job of the Christian historian is to help us be more creative in seeing how many choices there have been in the past and, by implication, how many there still are today. So when we try to understand the past, we are expanding our imagination. Things did not have to be as they are. Recognizing this can cause us to change how we act now and create new possibilities for the future. This is what the biblical prophets did. While they predicted outcomes based on current actions, they were always begging people to behave differently so that they could have a different result.”1 It is part of our human psyche to tend to think that the way things are is the way things ought to be, even when it isn’t. We too easily come to understand our experiences as expected and natural. And the inevitability of the status quo is also urged on us by the loud and collective voice of the powerful interests that benefit most from the way things are in our societies.
But the assumed inevitability of our past, present and future is something that perhaps we as Adventists need particularly to guard against. While we might see the hand of God guiding in key historical events, we also insist on free will. None of us—whether kings or queens, bishops or pawns—is merely a piece on some kind of cosmic chess board. We cannot proclaim freedom to choose at the same time as assuming the inevitability of the status quo or that the history of the future has already somehow been written.
The realities of the world around us are not inevitable, nor are they unchangeable, as overwhelming, intransigent, or gloomy as they might sometimes seem. Whether in the words of the Bible or those who echo its vision in so many ways, prophetic voices are those that urge hope-fueled alternatives to the way things are, and better futures than the assumed continuities or extrapolations of those present realities.
Comparing the liberal disregard of God in their politics of justice and compassion, theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the “tendency in other quarters to care intensely about God, but uncritically, so that the God of well-being and good order is not understood to be precisely the source of social oppression. Indeed, a case can be made that un- prophetic conservatives did not take God seriously enough to see that our discernment of God has remarkable sociological implications.”2
It has been observed many times that the winners most often write the history. This is one of the ways by which the powerful tend to defend the status quo. But too often they also influence the dominant theology. Without great care and much prayer, theology too easily morphs into—or is co-opted toward—a justification of the world as it is and the inevitability of the divide between the poor and the powerful, with their many injustices and outrages.
The faithful and prophetic voices reject these assumptions of inevitability. Our vision of God and His kingdom always offers an alternative reality. Neither our ultimate confidence nor our greatest fears are invested in the powerful, the political or economic structures, or the status quo that our society urges us to accept (see Psalms 146:3).
The actions of God as we see them recorded in history have not been inevitable, rather they have always been disruptive, counterintuitive, and a real threat to those in power: “His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble” (Luke 1:51, 52, NLT). Observing God’s revolutionary acts should give us pause. It is sobering to hear the voices of the prophets and recognize the ways in which we might be on the receiving end of their warnings and rebukes—simply read any of the Hebrew prophets, without assuming we are the “good” people in the story. While we are tempted to applaud as the prophet critiques those we don’t agree with or don’t like, the louder we applaud, the sooner the prophet’s focus will turn on us.
But the rejection of inevitability also frees our imagination. The world did not and does not have to be as it is. Guided by the glimpses we see of God in the Bible and in our world, we can imagine societies shaped by Sabbath economics and the redistributive principles of jubilee, for example. We might imagine what it would mean to reclaim our roles as gardeners and stewards of Creation. We can see a shopping mall, airport lounge, detention center, or even a church as filled with people, each one of whom is created and loved by God, meaning that these are places filled with the love of God.
We will be people who begin to hear the voices and the stories of those whose voices and stories are not usually heard. Joining with God, our preference will be always “for the least of these” (see Matthew 25:40), giving ear and amplification to the “weakest reed” and the “flickering candle” (see Matthew 12:20). We honor the humble and welcome the stranger, seeking justice and creating beauty in both obvious and unlikely ways and places.
In all of this, we join with God in His mission of disruption and rejection of the inevitable. And we do this not in diminishing or disregarding the faith we claim, but precisely because of our faith and its distinctive insights: “What is desperately needed are people who speak distinctively and movingly from within Adventism to the larger community; voices who, from the core of Adventist particularity, express a universal message for our time; people who allow the power of the gospel to challenge those who oppress the vulnerable.”3
Our discernment of God must have “remarkable sociological implications.” It is universal and personal. It urges our freedom to choose—and insists that we choose well. It seeks to reshape societies and remodel economies, to rebuild communities and renovate lives. It demands the best of our human imagination, creativity and problem-solving. It requires effort and energy.
It culminates in the ultimate disruption and discontinuity of the Second Coming. But, because of this hope, it begins today—in ourselves, our churches and our communities— whenever we choose love over fear, courage over safety, generosity over consumerism, humanity over tribalism and nationalism, thoughtfulness over assumptions, welcome over prejudice, others over ourselves, the prophetic over the inevitable.
–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. His book For the Least of These was recently published as a companion to the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, Third Quarter 2019. Email him at: [email protected]
- Lisa Clark Diller, “My Historical–Prophetic Imagination” in Nathan Brown and Joanna Darby (editors), Manifest: Our Call to Faithful Creativity, Signs Publishing, 2013, p. 168.
- Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Second Edition), Fortress Press, 2001, p. 8.
- Charles Scriven, quoted in Zdravko Plantak, The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics, MacMillan Press, 1998, p. 135.