It is positively amazing: this rare blend of voices throughout the world denouncing racism in word and deed through their supportive responses to the public protests in the United States. Surely this movement is more than human. I am convinced and encouraged that God is working in supernatural ways in aligning conditions for these final days of earth’s history.
With this I am compelled to an even greater degree to address the fact that after the shock and outrage at painful atrocities, such as the heinous killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and most recently, Rayshard Brooks, some seem ready to return to an unhealthy, inhumane business and ministry as usual, only praying and hoping for that better day of change somewhere in a nebulous future. Some meekly acquiesce to a misguided inertia that forbids responsibility to address these sins in this life and relegates harmonious human relationships to heaven and the new earth.
How can this be? I ask this of all of us who consider ourselves converted and reasonably mature spiritually. How can we claim justification and sanctification in Jesus Christ and turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to racism and its ravages in any form? How can we proclaim the gospel to all the world if we will not live it properly? Has the power of systemic racism rendered us numb? Do we just try to fly under society’s radar to avoid its ire? Have we fallen into a spirit of fear?
Yes, there have been improvements in our society over time. But there have been too many setbacks, and victory over the sin of racism is still very far away. Langston Hughes captures the journey for some of us in his poem, “Mother to Son,” in which he declares through the cadence and dialect of old southern vernacular, that however difficult the journey, we must continue to climb. God is calling us to new heights:
The church as an institution must acknowledge that racism and oppression exist and that racism and oppression are sin. There must be an honest admission that we all are susceptible to its effects.
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Hughes’ poem is illustrative of Paul’s observation: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:8-10).
This unequivocal statement articulates both our firm belief and our obligatory responsibility to each other and to all humankind. Racism, classifying groups of people as either inferior or superior inclusive of its related practices, is clearly antithetical to our stated beliefs. Indeed, it violates all elements of biblical injunctions and models for human relationships. Jesus said that all people will know that we are His if we love one another as He loves us.
The converse is obvious: if we do not live this love for and with all human beings, it casts doubt on any claimed relationship with Jesus. Salvation is impossible without that relationship.
We people of the Book know the origin of racism. As with all other schemes of the enemy, we must reject it, call it out wherever it exists, and actively oppose it within the church and throughout society. We must be on guard to discern all of its cunning deceptions and must respond fearlessly in the spirit, authority, and power of Jesus, who calls us into His service “to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts” (Isa. 58:6, Message).1
We recognize racist myths and deceptions for what they are—slurs on the character of God, our common Father. Creationists by the millions have bought into Darwinian mendacity about ethnic differences ascribed to fictional stages of evolutionary development from animal to human. Even many who declare the equal value of all people act sometimes as if they believe God created different races or ethnic groups for different purposes, some for leadership or management, some for the performing arts, or athletics, or slavery, etc. Surely we people of the Book do not ascribe any credence to these.
So what is the problem? Fear, pride, desires for power and control?
I wonder about our theology: are we waiting for some supernatural power to impose a new relational order in which we as a body actually model our fundamental beliefs? While many individuals are faithful, should not a great majority of Seventh-day Adventist Christians exemplify the character of Christ? Who can say we should not lead society’s search for common justice?
We love Micah’s call to act justly, love mercy, and live humbly under God, not taking ourselves too seriously, but taking God seriously (see Micah 6:8, Message). We are called to act justly, not just think and preach about justice.
In avoiding this responsibility, many shrink behind admonitions to refrain from involvement in politics. But if secular society is pursuing and achieving constructs and dynamics congruent with God’s will and plan for human relationships, why would Christians resist their emulation? God has used secular powers repeatedly to do His will (see Isa. 45:1; Jer. 25:9; Dan. 2:21; 4:17).
Unfortunately, we have gone along with unsavory elements of public policy and the practice of oppression at times. We have held to divisive practices far beyond the need to preserve our church’s unique witness. Those postures cannot continue. A pervasive change has to come among the people of God if we truly aspire to the blessed hope.
Whether laws change hearts or not, we need to be held to correct behaviors. Moreover, correct behavior must sometimes precede the internalization and ownership of laws and values. If we take to heart our fourteenth fundamental belief, toleration and facilitation of injustice among or around us is inconceivable or a function of hypocrisy.
The United States is under the world’s magnifying glass with a focus on the inevitably explosive consequences of its racism, the knee on the neck. A writer in the current issue of National Geographic likens the killing of George Floyd to the lynchings of days gone by and “the ultimate display of power of one human being over another.”2
The words of Frederick Douglass, former Maryland slave, scholar, orator, writer, social reformer, anthropologist, statesman, and friend of his Adventist contemporaries, spoken August 1857 in Canandaigua, New York, are apropos at this point. He said, “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
When we see what the process of struggle looks like in the public arena, we wonder if the Adventist Church believes Douglass. We know that for gain there must be struggle, but ours should be one in which things are spiritually discerned and accomplished. The church as an institution must acknowledge that racism and oppression exist and that racism and oppression are sin. There must be an hones
t admission that we all are susceptible to its effects.
Humans are being born in this sin and shaped in its iniquity, and Adventism has become “so well-adjusted to [the] culture that [we] fit into it without even thinking” (Rom. 12:2, Message). Thank God this is not our unalterable fate! We can overcome by the grace and power of the Almighty, working both in and through us—and it must be both. While the slower of us try to figure it out, let us just do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
We must act. I pray that we muster the courage to return to historic Adventism when we led in the public square; when we fought against slavery, racism, and the marginalization of minorities. We need that now—in the pulpit, classroom, boardroom, hospital, mission field, private home, wherever. We as a church body need to preach and teach against racism and other oppressive structures, and in favor of healthy God-ordained human relations as much as against harmful substances and in favor of healthy eating. We need God’s Word as teacher, and Jesus, the Word made flesh, as the gold standard.
Jesus both in word and deed fought all forces of evil including racism and oppression. We see this in His deliberately orchestrated meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well to the dismay of His disciples, who demonstrated unapologetically the accepted racist practices of their day. We hear His parable of the good Samaritan, calling the church to task—not to condemn, but to grow and to save.
And for our own times He has given His special messenger. She writes, “Many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family.”3 She urges, “The last message of mercy to be given to the world is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them.”4 She encourages: “In visions of the night, representations passed before me of a great reformatory movement among God’s people. Many were praising God. The sick were healed, and other miracles were wrought.”5
This reform movement includes the eradication of racism and healing of its oppressive effects among us and the achievement of that love to which Jesus called us—that love by which the world will know we are Christians. Isaiah says: “Shout! A full-throated shout! . . . Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives. . . . To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring. They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’” (Isa. 58:1, 2, Message).
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is blessed with God’s complete message for these last days. We are a wonderful, worldwide fellowship of loving people. So this time, after the shock, the outrage, and the pain of the enemy’s atrocities, let us not return to an unhealthy, inhumane business and ministry as usual, only praying and hoping for that better day of change.
It’s time to get off our knees, like Joshua (Joshua 7:6-13); time to stop praying and move forward. So let us arise and “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).
I can feel the moving now.
Ella Smith Simmons is a general vice president, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.