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.