With Twitter and other social media forms now connecting our globe in instantaneous communication, fact-checking or information verification is a much needed and growing industry. Its processes regularly surface in the presence of baseless assertions, filtered opinions, doctored statistics, alternative facts, biased propaganda, “fake news,” and an increasing insensitivity to white lies.
That last category came starkly to the public’s attention with a recent admission by Hope Hicks, then White House communication secretary. In a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee (Feb. 27, 2018), she admitted to telling such lies on behalf of the nation’s president.
That Hicks resigned the very next day generated considerable speculation regarding her “post-admission” relationship with Mr. Trump. While the White House may have regarded her statement as an unforced error, her confession was an accurate, if naive, accounts generally reported about White House operations, and more important, the public’s own penchant for tweaking information to fit desired outcomes.
Hicks’ performance, and the political stir it caused, highlight a number of pertinent considerations with respect to truth-telling. Prominent among these is the question of whether lying in any form is ever justified, even the kindly regarded white lie.
Theologians, philosophers, and social ethicists, those most likely to answer questions such as this, respond differently. Notwithstanding their varied backgrounds and approaches, their answers usually position them in one of two mutually exclusive belief patterns: those who hold that under no circumstance is a lie justified, and those who believe that there are situations in which lying is allowed. Those who believe that lying is never justified, even a “little bit,” are said to embrace “moral absolutism.” Those who hold that lying is justifiable when it is beneficial to desired ends are known to practice moral relativism.
For moral absolutists a lie is any statement or act that differs from literal facts or actual states of being. For them the truth unswervingly conforms to those realities. Moral relativism insists that right actions are properly guided, not by truth derived from absolute authority (as do absolutists), but by circumstances. For its followers, there is no final truth, and that which does exist is justifiably disposable if it is hostile to desired ends.
All of which reminds us that the tenants of both absolutism and relativism are skewed by perverse freedoms. Relativism, untethered to absolute authority, possesses unaccountable license to choose in matters of moral dilemma. And absolutism, because of its oft-repeated “God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me,” functions as an excuse for avoiding the often-painful process of decision making, absolving one from trying to understand why, when, to whom God spoke, and how those principles involved should be applied in modern settings.
Most Christians fashion their actions by the transcendent laws and principles of divine authority and strive to avoid intentional lying. Nevertheless, even committed believers are sometimes susceptible to bending and breaking the boundaries of truth as seen in their indulging in such common inconsistencies as “Come right in; I’m very happy to see you.” “That was a wonderful meal; I really enjoyed it.” “It’s been years, and you haven’t changed at all.” “I’ll be praying for you.” “I look forward to seeing you soon.” Even “I really enjoyed the sermon!”
The shades of dishonesty conveyed by verbal and nonverbal statements such as these effectively move the needle of concern from the troubled individuals seen on the evening news to our own individual struggles for truthfulness. Most Christians are absolutist in their regard for duty in “truth-telling.” But that is not to say that they are absolutely faithful in doing so.
Then there is the matter of corporate truth telling. Is a congregation telling the truth when it advertises itself as a refuge where the honest in Babylon can escape its sins, but tolerates the very lifestyles its teaching condemns, as a result of its unwillingness to discipline its members? Is it telling the truth when congregations issue membership reports that include names (sometimes hundreds of them) accumulated over years, even decades, of persons who have long since apostatized?
What about reports of a world membership of 20 million without current and rigorous membership audits? Are Adventist preachers being morally absolute in our public evangelism when, attempting to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” they present themselves as “interdenominational” or provide evasive answers in response to honest inquiries?
These and similar considerations are not the only challenges to individual and corporate truth telling in the Christian community. Even more challenging and thought-provoking is telling the truth in the face of loss, including the possible loss of someone’s life, or even one’s own life. The difficulty for absolutists is that conscious lying, even under such dire consequences as these, is never an option.
What then are our options? Surely the God of mercy who devised a way to deliver fallen humanity from the dire consequences of sin is not pleased with ethical codes resulting in moral repugnance. On the other hand, the God of justice, whose restoration effort required the life of His Son, has not left us to obey moral commands grounded in the fickle quirks of circumstance.
By what ethic, then, do Christians avoid the unseemly consequences of literalistic compliance to “turn not to the left hand nor to the right,” without drifting into the humanistic ways of unscriptural relativism?
The answer is a third and morally superior category: the ethic of restoration. By restorationism we mean morality fashioned by the seminal purpose that motivated and embodied the earthly ministry of Christ. In the words of Ellen White: “To restore in man the image His Maker, to bring him back to the perfection in which he was created,”
1 was Christ’s mantra and should be for His followers “the great object of life” itself.
Guided by this belief, we see that Christ’s actions, while informed by absolute principles, were never subjected to the tyranny of literalism. His decisions were inspired neither by implacable facts nor shifting circumstances, but rather the unshakable purpose of restoration (rehabilitation) of individual and corporate humanity.
In carrying out His mission, He worked on the Sabbath by healing the sick; He minimized and even withheld sought-after facts, as when He refused to tell His disciples the whole truth about coming events. He repeatedly departed from the absolutist script of the Pharisees in His compassionate ministry of hope and healing. It is especially enlightening to note that while He attributed murder and lust to thought, not simply overt display, He at times approved, as moral, such gaps of formalized propriety as when Mary tenderly washed His feet (Luke 7:36-50). On the other hand, at the peril of His life, He responded to feckless Pilate regarding His identity with full, factual, even self-incriminating disclosure. His actions were always consistent with the individual and corporate good of those whom He had come to save. Circumstances did not give birth to His principles; but they were critical to the manner in which He utilized them.
Most Christians are absolutist in their regard for duty in “truth-telling.” But that is not to say that they are absolutely faithful in doing so.
It is also plausible, I believe, to interpret, as well, various Old Testament incidents—Jochebed hiding Baby Moses and involving her daughter, Miriam, in the deceptive scheme (Ex. 2:1-10); Tamar’s disguising herself in order to obtain justice (Gen. 38:8-30); Jael’s destruction of Sisera (Judges 4:17-24)—as neither absolutist nor relativistic, but rather restorationist.
Restorationism as a moral ethic is superior to both absolutism and relativism in that it is tuned to the Godhead’s purposes in the warfare between good and evil. It anchors in the fact that humanity’s fall from its original status is tied to the first lie, and regards any act that is harmful to God’s purposes as perpetuating deceit, while those that are consistent with those purposes are “telling the truth.” Further, that in acting upon this ethical premise one’s question should be not simply “What did God say?” but “What was, and is, God doing?”
Restoration ethics sees the words “lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” as speaking plainly to God’s repulsion for false, life-depreciating intentions (verbal or nonverbal). It regards the second part of that statement, “but those who deal truthfully are His delight” (Prov. 12:22, NKJV),2 as emphasizing His distinct pleasure in actions calculated to lift humanity toward its original ideal in Eden.
We have to understand that examples of duty by dedicated persons in the Bible are not to be viewed as “codes” referenced and duplicated with frozen exactitude, but rather as examples or “cases” describing principles to be identified and applied in contemporary society. The question is not “What did Jesus and the other stalwarts of Scripture do?” but, given the principles that guided their actions, “What would they do in a given situation today.” Examples include Paul’s advising the return of the runaway slave (Philemon 8-13) and Ellen White’s counsel to disobey the Fugitive Slave Law.
We have to understand that principles, though absolute, frequently clash, often requiring difficult choices. A dinner guest, pressed by the host to try another dish, or more of the same, must choose between principles of temperance and common courtesy. Similarly, individuals who have promised financial aid to a needy family, then discovering that to do so would severely cripple their own family unit, must choose between principles of promise keeping and self-preservation.
When certainty seems illusive “it is better to err on the side of mercy than on the side of severity.”
We have to understand that motives, not “ends” or “means,” best qualify the morality of our actions: “Every act is judged by the motives that prompt it.”3
We have to understand that proper morality tests its motives by the twin spheres of God’s character: justice and mercy. When certainty seems illusive, “it is better to err on the side of mercy than on the side of severity.”4
We have to understand the significance of all three elements of one’s moral machinery—our “desiring appetites” (see Gal. 5:16, 17), our “deliberating reason” (see Isa. 1:18), and our “deciding will” (see Rom. 7:18, 19). All of these must be consecrated to God. Further, we must understand that while all three are critical to proper morality, the will is decision’s most critical component. In the words of Ellen White: “Everything depends on the right action of the will.”5
So how do we know whether our performance has satisfied this formula? Actually, we do not, at least we don’t always know. We have no physical Urim and Thummim to indicate divine will and regard. Our gracious Lord will soon let us know that we have done our best. Meanwhile, our greatest comfort is derived from the assurance gained by the study of God’s Word. By this means our understandings and perceptions are continuously enhanced and primed to act truthfully in the small, as well as large, decisions of life.
Calvin B. Rock has a degree in ethics and has served the church as a university president and General Conference vice president.
Reading Protest and Progress is to read an instant classic. It is a detailed, well-annotated account of the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as it relates to its African American members.
The author, Calvin B. Rock, is retired after serving as a general vice president of the General Conference, president of Oakwood University, and chair of several important boards and committees. His is a voice of credibility. Beyond that, Rock is a bridge between Adventist past and its present. His maternal grandmother, Etta Littlejohn Bradford, was among the first 16 students to enroll in Oakwood Industrial School (now Oakwood University).
With amazing (and sometimes overwhelming) detail, the author traces the positions of White Adventist pioneers—almost all of whom were abolitionists—comparing them with later administrators, most of whom practiced, though they did not publicly advocate, separation between Blacks and Whites. In the process he tells the stories of such captivating personalities as Charles Kinny, Lewis Sheafe, James Howard, and W. H. Green, who worked, with varying degrees of success, to bring the races closer together.
The story of Black inclusion in the life and leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church reflects in many ways the experience of African Americans in the wider population in the United States. Through the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, Black and White individuals in both spheres were expected to know their place and behave accordingly.
But the gospel’s imperatives of equality and inclusion permeate the book, which is divided into three parts: The Protest Movements, The Challenge Ahead, and Appendices.
The first section deals primarily with attempts by Black Adventist leaders to be represented at all levels of church administration. It details their incremental progress in what was essentially a segregated system. Particularly heartbreaking is reading the correspondence between church, school, and hospital administrators and Black constituents as to why Blacks (or Coloreds as they were then known) could not be accommodated in their respective institutions. It is a chapter in our history that we would rather forget, but dare not.
In The Challenge Ahead, the author examines the pros and cons of “regional conferences,” the accommodation the church developed in the 1940s to give Blacks more autonomy in charting their own course administratively. Arguments both for and against are presented objectively, leaving it to readers to decide the best path forward.
The appendices are remarkably comprehensive, containing letters and minutes of meetings at which relationships between the races were discussed and catalogued.
Sadly, the church has often been a step or two behind society in grappling with these issues. But current news headlines and newsfeeds remind us of society’s continued struggle with them and demonstrate that this book about the past is compellingly relevant today. Protest and Progress is a great tool for helping us learn our lessons about race.
“If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31, 32).1
It’s been asked, even with hostility: “What’s the point in chanting that Black lives matter, when all lives matter?”
I answer that in spite of its disagreeable shock to the nation of America’s social conscience, “Black Lives Matter” is, in principle and fact, gospel truth, for at least three reasons.
It is gospel truth because it reminds us that while those alive today had no part in yesterday’s degraded trade in humans, in its 246 years of merciless servitude, in its 1787 decree that Negroes be counted as three fifths of a person, or in relegating them for more than half a century, via “separate but equal,” to life’s most dangerous and undesirable places (the back of the bus, the side of the restaurants, the front of the trains, the top of the theaters, the bottom of the boats)—while America’s majority population had nothing to do with all that, they are, nevertheless, greatly advantaged by the intellectual and material wealth passed down to them by those who did.
“Black Lives Matter” is still a needed proclamation because in spite of today’s welcome laws against injustice spawned by civil rights activities, there is much that speaks of a lesser regard for Black lives: the denial of updated textbooks in Black neighborhoods; the limits of option that make Black children drink and bathe in polluted water; the wrongful arrests, unjust sentences, and more frequent execution of Blacks. And more: the grocery stores in Black communities that sell inferior produce at higher prices; legislation to depress the Black vote; absurd district gerrymandering; the hostility against affirmative action; and the delegitimizing of the nation’s Black president by angry Whites who “want their country back.”
The “Black Lives Matter”motto is truth with the potential, at least, to shame heartless politicians who resist all efforts to provide the poor better health care and education, and generally remind America that after centuries of the degradation forced upon them people at least need straps, boots denied, in order to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “Black Lives Matter” affirms that Black America’s attempt to “catch up” is too often frustrated by White America’s unwillingness to “give up.” Black youth may profit from investments that lift them toward respectability, or extract a toll of astronomical costs to combat their crime and finance the massive prisons that house their frustrated and disaffected ranks. Awkward truth is still truth.
“Black Lives Matter” is the gospel truth in that it speaks relevantly to Black Americans as well. It reminds them that change, like charity, begins at home, and that they themselves set the patterns their children will follow. Apart from religion, education holds their highest hope of progress; and Blacks don’t have to wait on the government to assist their youth in academic pursuits. It is hypocritical to decry police brutality but do little or nothing about the Black-on-Black violence that costs 8,000 to 9,000 lives each year.
And “Black Lives Matter” speaks to the sad tragedy of our failure to overcome self-hatred—the interethnic prejudice regarding so-called good hair and bad hair, light skin and dark skin, accent and no accent, all stigmas surviving from the racial rules of yesteryear. This, too, is gospel truth.
“Black Lives Matter”is a reminder to Black American youth that they destroy their individual and community’s good by bringing into the world children born out of wedlock. The 2012 report of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control records that 17 percent of Asian, 29 percent of White, 53 percent of Hispanic, and 73 percent of Black babies are born without stable homes. Neither that, nor the dietary intemperance, or lewd and violent mental entertainment established in so many Black communities, is the fault of White America. Neither is the national rate of Black high school dropouts: approximately 50 percent as compared to the general rate of 30 percent.
The “Black Lives Matter”motto is a scathing rebuke to professionally successful Blacks who function with an “I’ve got mine, now you get yours” attitude; who get lost amid the privileges their education, often aided by some set-aside, has brought them; who make no effort to reach back and help those climbing up; and who forget “the rock from which [they] were hewn, and . . . the hole of the pit from which [they] were dug” (Isa. 51:1).
“Black Lives Matter”reminds Black America that “sin is a reproach” (Prov. 14:34), and “a curse without cause shall not alight” (Prov. 26:2, NASB):2 it was divine justice upon the idolatry, the worship of beasts and stones by Ham’s gifted, prosperous, and sophisticated sons—Canaanites, Phoenicians, etc.—that dimmed their cultures and rendered them subservient to Noah’s other descendants. Sad truth, but gospel truth.
These words of truth must ever be tempered with a corollary one, one that is, in fact, the first truth of all: that our God of justice and our God of mercy are one. The God who commanded Egypt’s pharaoh to “let my Hebrew people go!” is the same God who in 1863 told America’s slaveholders, “Let my Colored people go!”
“God spoke concerning the captivity of the colored people as verily as He did the Hebrew captives,” says Ellen White, quoting Exodus 3:7-9 as God’s words in 1863. “The Lord wrought in freeing the Southern slaves . . .”3 His interposition in American slavery demonstrates that disadvantaged Blacks crying “Black lives matter!” utter no egotistic ethnocentricity. Their cry is grounded in God’s own commitment to justice.
God notes with special pity the cries of the stepped upon and beaten down, the overlooked and underserved, the misunderstood and mistreated, the helpless and hopeless, no matter their color, language, accent, or race. We learn this in all of Scripture, from Old through New Testament.
Hear Jesus in Matthew 23 roundly condemning Jewish officials for thriving at others’ expense, and functioning with laws so oppressive that there was no middle class in their society: only satiated rich and suffering poor. Hear Him further in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10) condemning those who, while not robbing or wounding others, refuse to assist in relieving their pain.
I have often wondered why the thieves in the parable go free, and always wished that the perpetrators had been caught and punished. That is, until I realized that, in this instance, Jesus is stressing the sin of withholding mercy as equal to or greater than that of inflicting harm. Those who pass by on the other side eating their meals in conspicuous consumption, marrying their children in conspicuous display, adorning their persons and possessions in conspicuous attraction, and funeralizing themselves in conspicuous waste are as guilty as the thieves themselves.
The wounding of others, the refusal of assistance upon which God passes judgment, and the failure to help those who would obstruct or overthrow oppressive systems, all receive Scripture’s reproof: “Open your mouth for the speechless. . . . Open your mouth . . . and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8, 9). “Rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17). “Break every yoke” (Isa. 58:6).
Jim Wallis is right to state in his book America’s Original Sin that “[to] benefit from oppression . . . [is to be] responsible for changing it.” This includes Americans who now live better because of the sacrifices and martyrdoms of their maligned predecessors, as well as Americans whose privileges accrue simply from being White. By the witness of the prophets and the example of our Lord, Christians Black and White are obligated to actively strive against oppression by voice and vote and other principled Christian conduct; obligated too to personal efforts to assist the poor and needy, the widows and orphans, beginning with those closest to us: “Unless there is practical self-sacrifice for the good of others, in the family circle, in the neighborhood, in the church, and wherever we may be, then whatever our profession, we are not Christians.”4
Long ago I heard the angels: Why, Master? Why leave the comforts of glory—99 sheep safe and snug—to place Yourself in jeopardy; to try to rescue one lost? If someone must go, let one of us go: we will take Your place!
And I heard His answer: You, my servants, are all creatures. Only the Creator can fix this. I must redeem them Myself. Earth lives matter!
I see Him descending here to the lowest of social circumstances: a manger birth, a single-parent mother. Serving as an itinerant preacher, He has nowhere to lay His head while birds and foxes have nests and holes. He borrows a coin for teaching, a boat for preaching, fishes and loaves for feeding thousands. He borrows a donkey for riding, but not a cross for dying: His cross was His own—because of you and me!
Because He willingly dragged our ugly sins on to His sinless self and suffered the Father’s wrath in our behalf. The plan defied all angelic imagination: but it is gospel truth!
After 4,000 years of Satan’s reign, humans “reflected the expression of the legions of evil with which they were possessed.”5 They lived without Tylenol or penicillin and died in their 30s. Physical deformity and insanity were unstoppable. Until He came.
His service platform was bringing deliverance to captives, sight to the blind, and liberty to those battered and bruised (see Isa. 61; Luke 4). He stocked His cabinet with common fishermen and campaigned among those who were poor and needy. He slept in their houses, filled their bellies, healed their diseases, and raised their dead. Having preached to them the gospel, He offered them an open invitation: “Whosoever wills, let them come!” (see Rev. 22:17).
They accepted His health-care provisions, but rejected His salvation stipulations. They grasped His groceries, but rejected His grace. They crucified Him. But He rose as He said He would. He came here all God, wrapped up in humanity, and returned to glory all humanity, wrapped up in divinity.
Now He functions as our sympathetic Savior. And because He went through hell down here, He also functions as our empathetic advocate, our Brother telling our Father what it is like to live and die down here, reminding the Father that His blood is payment for our sins, and extending to us His righteousness as our qualification for life eternal.
The mystery of His incarnation, the depths of His compassion, the horror of His suffering, we shall never fully grasp. But He did come, and bleed, and die for us doomed, diseased residents on Planet Earth. And that is glorious, marvelous, wondrous gospel truth!
It is truth—drawn upon every day in our study of His Word—that sets us free: free from the evil impulses of our nature; from the life-sapping addictions of our practice; from the weights of perversity that are our burdens; from the conceits of superiority that are our medals; from the anxieties of inferiority that we barely conceal; from the rages of violence, born of hatred, that we cannot ourselves control; from long-past-yet-still-held shaming; from destructive criticism and death-dealing slander; from fear of sharing our freedom story; and from fickle secular entanglements that stymie our devotion, skew our reasoning, and sap our spiritual energies.
It is not only from yesterday’s searing memories and today’s bewildering cacophonies that His truth liberates. Gospel truth has freed us for tomorrow. Christ’s coming some soon tomorrow will bring us unimaginable physical freedom as well when we are “caught up,” magnetized into the presence of our Lord (see 1 Thess. 4:16, 17). He comes to extricate us, unshackle us from the iron chains that have bound us to Planet Earth.
Sin will have lost its appeal; the world will have lost its charms; death will have lost its grip; the grave will have lost its grasp; gravity will have lost its hold; and we shall be “caught up”: “caught up,” not beaten up, blown up, knotted up and hung up; but freed up, dressed up, and fixed up into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. And we shall sing, as upward we wing, we shall declare as we cleave the air, and shout, in the words of a lesser but truly anointed instrument of liberation, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Calvin B. Rock, former vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, lives in retirement in Las Vegas, Nevada.