February 14, 2007

The Pictures on Our Walls

2007 1505 page5 capn January this year, former Seinfeld star Michael Richards shocked Americans when his stand-up comedy routine went berserk. Heckled by two Blacks in the audience, Richards let fly a barrage of insulting profanities laced with what’s known in the U.S. as the “n” word. The customary apologies followed. And as Richards stood contrite by the side of Jesse Jackson for one of these, it was hard to believe that that was the same guy who’d uttered such foul obscenities against Jackson’s fellow Blacks less than 40 hours earlier.
Which begs the question: What are people really like in their true selves, behind closed doors, away from the cameras and microphones? The heckling blew the lid off something in Richards, but nothing could have emerged that hadn’t been there before.
This is Black History Month in the United States, a time when members of the Black community try to bring to the attention of the larger population the contributions of Black Americans to the history and life of our country. If an observer from outside the Adventist Church were to examine our speeches and our public statements, they’d say: “These people don’t need any such reminders!” Would they be right?
2007 1505 page5One of the best things the Adventist Church has going for it in this respect is the life and example of Ellen G. White. Her statements on slavery in the U.S., her concern for “the southern work” in her time, and her general counsels on race have served as a huge source of ethnic stability in the church. “The religion of the Bible recognizes no caste or color,” she said. “It ignores rank, wealth, worldly honor. God estimates men as men. With Him, character decides their worth” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 223).
But our track record has not been great. And the scary thing is that if such vitriol could reside in as funny and likable a guy as Michael Richards, who knows what demons lurk in the rest of us! We don’t. What seems evident among us, however, is a deep-seated, more respectable reality, that over the years has kept certain people in their place.
Imagine a Black youngster approaching their Adventist-worker parents with these questions: “Dad/Mom, are all positions in the church open, or are some closed to people like me? Are there glass ceilings in the church?” What would be the honest answer from an informed Adventist parent?
In George Orwell’s brilliant political satire Animal Farm, the animals come up with seven commandments, the last of which proclaimed “all animals . . . equal.” But as some of the four-legged creatures drifted closer and closer to adopting the ways of the humans they’d overthrown, one group among them secretly added a rider to the seventh injunction to make it read: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Is that a reality in our church?
We’ve been in existence now for more than 160 years; and we’ve represented ourselves as an interracial, multicultural, multiethnic global community. But what do our actions say?
That thought came to me about three or four years ago as I walked the halls of the General Conference, looking at the pictures that adorn the walls of key departments in the building—pictures of the church’s topmost officials over the years. I counted 92 leaders, 89 of them (96.7 percent) Caucasian. This one reality trumps all our professions about diversity. They tell the story of a glass ceiling beyond which certain folks cannot rise. It’s as if there’s an unwritten understanding that certain positions in the church are too sensitive for certain ethnic groups to occupy. The United Nations can afford to take that risk, but the church is much too delicate for that!
Multitudes of those affected will never notice. But the number of those paying attention is rising, and it hurts the church. People tune out. They become jaded, cynical. They see through our studied speeches, our proper, well-chosen words.
But the ultimate tragedy would be to surrender to cynicism. The better approach is to look beyond walls and ceilings to the One who stands above it all, and who has no respect for persons. Keeping ever in mind the splendid vision held out before us—the vision of “a great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . before the throne [of God]” (Rev. 7:9).
At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Roy Adams is associate editor of Adventist Review