December 2, 2008

More Than Politics

Read former Adventist Review editor William Johnsson's analysis of what Barack Obama's election means for Seventh-day Adventists.

2008 1533 page32 caphe election of Barack Obama as forty-fourth President of the United States of America is more than politics—much more. It is a phenomenon that Adventists, regardless of party preference, cannot fail to notice.

When Obama announced his candidacy in February, 2007, almost no one gave him any chance of winning the Democratic party nomination, let alone the presidency. Only one hint of possible success might be discerned: from the outset he attracted large crowds, many of them made up of young people. As the months unfolded and the crowds continued to build, another plus emerged—his ability to raise large sums of money for the campaign. Eventually, with millions of supporters donating amounts large and small, his coffers swelled to unprecedented proportions.
As Obama went from strength to strength, the world began to pay attention. The long, hard-fought contest with John McCain was covered in detail by the media everywhere. And on election night, when the young man of mixed race was declared the winner, the outpouring of emotion in America spilled out around the world.
As I write, much of the United States is gripped by euphoria. The expectations raised by Obama’s election are huge—scarily so. Civic leaders in the nation’s capital are preparing for possibly the largest crowd in the city’s history for his inauguration on January 20, 2009—3 million visitors are expected to pour into Washington.
2008 1533 page32I think that it will take years for the impact of Obama’s election to be fully grasped. Many people have a vague sense of something big happening before their eyes, that they are living through a kairos, a moment when the wheel of history has turned sharply. They lined up several blocks to snatch up major newspapers, which had to go back to the press time and again. They wanted to have a record for their children and grandchildren (Blackberry didn’t cut it).
Responses from Adventists to Obama’s election run the gamut from speculations about End-time scenarios to moving to Washington to work for the new government. I have met people from both ends—those from the latter being bright, White young adults. To them I would caution that euphoria is short-lived and popularity fickle. And to those at the other end, I would give a reminder that every time a new President has been elected during the past 30 years that I have lived in the United States, similar dire warnings have surfaced among some Adventists.
Yes, we need to keep our eyes wide open, but even more we need to devote ourselves to the mission that lies at our doorstep and trust in the Lord who holds the future. Yes, it is good to throw one’s energies behind a high ideal, but we should never forget that Jesus, our Lord, must be permitted to shape our highest ideals.
What, then, can Adventists contemplating the Obama phenomenon agree on, regardless of their political leanings? Three things at least, I think:
First, and biblically, on the duty to respect Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States. We Adventists believe that “the authorities that exist have been established by God” and that we should “give everyone what [we] owe him. If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, the revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Rom. 13:1, 7)
Further, we should pray for the President and the leaders of his government. “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority [read: the President]. . .” (1 Tim. 2:1, 2). The times are dangerous, the future uncertain. President Obama needs our prayers.
Some elements in society have reacted in alarming ways to Obama’s election. Seventh-day Adventists must express their abhorrence of all manifestations of hatred: the upswing in cross burnings, media figures who spew out disrespect for the new president, defacing of others’ property, children in buses chanting “Assassinate Obama,” and so on.
Second, on the lift the election has given to African Americans. I was deeply moved to see the reaction of Black leaders as it became clear that Obama had bested his opponent. Tears flowed freely down the faces of champions of the civil rights movement; disbelief that this could happen slowly gave way to the reality of the numbers playing on the TV screens.
Those of us who do not share that history of horse-whips, lynchings, segregated water fountains, slights, insults and denial of the right to vote can never enter fully the experience of Black Americans. At last—at long last—the magnificent words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . .” have become living truth for them. No, we cannot enter, but we can watch from outside, and rejoice in their rejoicing, whether we voted Democrat or Republican.
2008 1533 page32African Americans constitute a large segment of the Adventist Church in the North American Division. Since the fateful night of November 4, I discern a difference: they stand a little taller, their eyes shine brighter. As a lover of freedom for all people, I thank God for this change.
Third, on the implications of the Obama phenomenon for Seventh-day Adventists. Barack Obama’s basic message, articulated in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, had two strings—hope and unity. He proclaimed an upbeat vision where people from all backgrounds—rich and poor, Black, White, and Hispanic—come together to build a better America. It was a message that resonated with the times, propelling him from relative obscurity to the White House.
While the details are different, that message is strikingly similar to our message as Adventists. We are about hope; we are a people of hope. We are about hope for a better life here and now, and hope for a future beyond this earth. And we are about a new humanity made one through the Cross of Jesus Christ, a humanity drawn from “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, 7) to meet the returning Lord Jesus.
Obama’s message brought great success; ours too, under the blessing the Lord, is reaping a rich harvest. Adventists are everywhere; we are a global phenomenon. Leaders of society, of other churches and of other religions, are noticing, are seeking to know more about us, who we are and what makes us a dynamic force in the world.
But we can learn from the Obama phenomenon. Obama’s team stayed on message; too often we do not. We let a host of private agendas move in and crowd out the message we have for the world. And all too often the new humanity that Christ came to establish becomes fractured by considerations of race, caste, prejudice and other factors that have no place in God’s kingdom.
As a world church, we have a long way to go to demonstrate the new humanity in Christ.
In North America, we have a long way to go to demonstrate that the ugliness of racism, particularly racism that involves Whites and Blacks, no longer finds a home among Seventh-day Adventists.
May the Lord Jesus, He who is Himself our Blessed Hope, lead us out of the darkness of the past and into the fullness of His light.