February 5, 2018

It Is Time

Racial harmony cannot just be a dream.

Dwight K. Nelson

It all began last February [2017] with a three-and-a-half-minute video clip posted on social media. I saw it Sunday night. By the end of the week so had 150,000 others. #ItIsTimeAU featured eight Black Andrews University students and their campus pastor issuing an earnest appeal for this Seventh-day Adventist university to apologize “for the systemic racism it has perpetuated on its campus.”

When it was announced that the university president, Andrea Luxton, would respond to that appeal at our Thursday morning chapel service, the congregation at Pioneer Memorial church was standing room only. A campus-wide day of fasting and prayer (Wednesday, 7:00 p.m., to Thursday, 7:00 p.m.) only heightened the expectancy as students and faculty streamed into the church.

There is no need to rehearse the 50 minutes of that worship service (it has been documented elsewhere). But when President Luxton in her address to the campus and alumni not only spoke the words “I apologize,” but also pledged “this ongoing journey toward reconciliation, healing, and transformation,” the ovation in response to her candor and compassion seemed an expression of both agreement and commitment. It was truly a Holy Spirit moment.

Life After

But what about life beyond that moment? What about the rest of us in the wider Seventh-day Adventist Church? What sort of next step is God waiting for
us to take in this journey toward racial reconciliation and healing in our own church, in our own country?

A day before the president’s address, I wrote a blog that began with the question: How can you
heal someone’s pain when you can’t feel someone’s pain? That our nation is fractured by the pain of racial brokenness is a given—so is our church. Yet the truth is many of us can’t feel it. How could we possibly feel it? We’re White.

Years ago a friend gave me a book I never got around to reading, until last February. It’s Paul Kivel’s exploration,
Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. One glance at the title, and I knew that this wouldn’t be for me, since I’m not a racist, since I see little if any racism around me. So why should I worry? That was more than 20 years ago. Now the book speaks volumes:

“It is not necessarily a privilege to be White, but it certainly has its benefits. . . . Privileges are economic ‘extras’ that those of us who are middle class and wealthy gain at the expense of poor and working-class people of all races. Benefits, on the other hand, are the advantages that all White people gain at the expense of people of color regardless of economic position. . . . Just because we don’t have the economic privileges of those with more money doesn’t mean we haven’t enjoyed some of the benefits of being White.”1

Kivel runs through a checklist of such privileges: (1) we’re able to count on police protection rather than harassment; (2) we’re able to choose where we want to live with safe neighborhoods and decent schools; (3) we’re “given more attention, respect and status in conversations than people of color”; (4) in news, music, history books, and media “we see people who look like us” in a positive light; (5) we have more access, credibility, and recourse with lawyers and courts; (6) “nothing that we do is qualified, limited, discredited, or acclaimed simply because of our racial background.”2

Our journey toward obedience of Christ’s eleventh commandment has to begin with you and me, with all of us sitting at the same table.
35 1 8

35 1 1 1

White privilege begins in childhood: (1) people around us have higher expectations for us as children; (2) more money will be spent on our schools; (3) we’ll get called on more times in class; (4) we will see people who look like us in our textbooks; (5) and “if we get into trouble, adults will expect us to be able to change and improve and therefore will discipline or penalize us less or differently than children of color.”3

Kivel concludes: “All else being equal, it pays to be White. We will be accepted, acknowledged, and given the benefit of the doubt. Since all else is not equal we each receive different benefits or different levels of the same benefits from being White.”4

An Ancient Problem

How can we possibly heal someone’s pain when we can’t feel someone’s pain? Ask the good Samaritan. The crime victim was a Jew, and Jews hated Samaritans. Why did the Samaritan bother at all? He couldn’t feel the victim’s pain. But as Martin Luther King, Jr., observed about Jesus’ parable: Whereas the priest and the Levite fretted, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” the Samaritan asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”5

What will happen to her, what will happen to them, if I don’t stop and pour myself into their pain? It’s the Golden Rule hammered out in the crucible of another person’s pain. The Samaritan knelt beside the victim and administered (ministered) the emotional and physical intervention the brutalized man desperately needed.

In the Samaritan’s self-sacrificial love for his “neighbor,” we see not only the truth about Christ who knelt beside us, but the truth Christ calls His radical followers to embrace: As you would have others treat you, you treat them.

My blog ended with these words: “There is a pain deep within our faith community and our nation. It may not be your pain, but until it becomes your business, the pain—plain and simple—cannot and will not be healed. In the school. In the church. In the nation. In our own hearts.”6

A friend of mine, an African American attorney, read the blog and e-mailed me a few hours after the president’s address:

“Pastor Dwight—

“I was deeply moved by your blog yesterday. What I connected with most was the genuine Spirit behind it. . . . As you prepare to minister this coming Sabbath, I feel impressed to simply say, ‘Don’t hold back.’ I don’t know what God is impressing upon you to say, but I implore you to let the Spirit lead as you help shepherd Pioneer Memorial church, the Andrews University campus, and the surrounding community through this process of transparency and healing.

“We are at a critical point in our church’s history . . . a time in which we will no longer be able to hide from these questions. . . . Regardless of how folks may feel about the method chosen by the #ItIsTimeAU team, it has brought us to this critical moment—and there is no turning back. No going back to the old, passive, nonconfrontational fairy tale of postracial harmony that we have tried to convince ourselves is true knowing all along it was a lie. It is time for us . . . all of us . . . to take a look in the mirror, and start getting unapologetically real with ourselves and each other. . . .

“We are stronger together, and we will make it through these difficult days with our eyes fixed on the promise that He will be with us, guide us, hold us, carry us, and empower us until our faith is made sight.”7

Christ’s Action Plan

So how can we pursue racial reconciliation, you and I and this faith community we love? We don’t have to ask, What would Jesus do? We already know. His “eleventh commandment” is unequivocal.

After serving as a slave to the Twelve by washing their dirty feet, Jesus rejoins them at the table and instructs us: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35, KJV).8 This “eleventh commandment” is all about racial reconciliation, don’t you think?

So how do we intersect White privilege, the eleventh commandment, and racial reconciliation? What if we took these two steps?

  1. We admit our White privilege. No one is suggesting we confess it. Truth is, we were born into it. Racial reconciliation must begin with us admitting that we have lived, profited, and flourished to a significant degree because of White privilege. Again, this is not about blame, but rather the admission of a personal fact, a reality that has inadvertently contributed to non-White others living without those privileges, those benefits.
  2. We relinquish our White privilege. How? It’s really not complicated. The most effective way to relinquish our privilege is to simply make sure everyone enjoys the same privilege. Then it is no longer a privilege; it’s a shared blessing. “Red and Yellow, Black and White, all are precious in His sight.” If it takes somebody coming to me and saying, “By the way, Dwight, I see that you enjoy a privilege I’ve never been granted,” then the right response from me would be “I didn’t realize that. Let me go to work to make sure this privilege is enjoyed by all of us.” Which would be true for women as well as Blacks, wouldn’t it?

Our journey toward obedience of Christ’s eleventh commandment has to begin with you and me. I need to hear your story, or I will never feel your pain. We need to listen to one another to really hear each other. Once I hear your story, once I feel your pain, then and only then can we together heal that pain, and open wide our doors to a fractured, wounded nation desperately needing to be healed. But I repeat, until they see us as a place of healing, why would others ever come to us?

The best way for us to step away from our White privilege is to devote our lives to making certain everyone enjoys the same privilege we do—since privileges, blessings, and benefits are never fairly defined or distributed on the basis of skin color. Never. Not even in church.

But while the church may have some undoing to do at the national level, my concern is the local congregation. Take the privilege we enjoy at Pioneer Memorial church of a very spacious sanctuary. All the while our friends at New Life Fellowship, a predominantly African American worship community on campus, are packed into the seminary chapel, spilling out to wherever they can find space. It’s the “I have two dollies and you have none” children’s Sabbath School lesson.

Ellen White wrote: “Walls of separation have been built up between the whites and the blacks. These walls of prejudice will tumble down of themselves as did the walls of Jericho, when Christians obey the Word of God, which enjoins on them supreme love to their maker and impartial love to their neighbors.”9

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this [the whole world] will know that you are[ My people], if you have love for one another.” Jesus’ command could hardly be clearer.

One of the previous century’s great Christian apologists, C. S. Lewis, received a letter from an American woman who had had a positive experience with an Adventist somewhere, and wrote Lewis to ask what he knew about us.

Here is his reply: “What you say about the VII Day Adventists interests me extremely. If they have so much charity there must be something very right about them.”10

A bright mind intrigued by an uncommon love. “If they have that much love, there must be something very right about them.”

“By this [the whole world] will know that you are [My people].”

Black and White Seventh-day Adventists. It really
is time, is it not?

  1. Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers,1996), p. 28.
  2. Ibid., pp. 28, 29. These benefits are not solely based on color, but because of increased opportunities often afforded to those who enjoy higher economic status.
  3. Ibid., p. 29.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), p. 140.
  6. www.pmchurch.tv/blog/2017/02/22/how-heal-pain-when-you-cant-feel-pain.
  7. Personal e-mail, Feb. 23, 2017.
  8. Bible texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  9. In Review and Herald, Dec. 17, 1895.
  10. C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1967), p. 109.

Dwight K. Nelson is senior pastor of Pioneer Memorial church, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.