One of the more difficult conversations to have in a Western context is the discussion about race.1 Despite our challenges in this area, perhaps now more than ever we need to learn to steer through these waters. The incoming generation of leaders want to engage in difficult discussions. They represent the vanguard of those who’ve had access to more information at their fingertips than any previous generation. In their cell phones they can quickly find any recipe, have a thousand reviews of a restaurant, see a picture of their destination before leaving and decide if they still want to go. So imagine the chagrin of these men and women when they hear, “We can’t talk about that. It’s too sensitive.”
According to Douglas Stone in his book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most,2 difficult conversations are actually three different conversations in one: a “what happened?” conversation, a “feelings” conversation, and an “identity” conversation. Having effective difficult conversations usually involves learning how to navigate these three different areas.
A “What Happened?” Conversation
Having difficult discussions begins with listening and researching what happened. This is not about our opinions but rather investigating what happened from as many perspectives as possible. History is elusive. Not because it can’t be known, but because there are so many perspectives on it. Yet still, the potential revisions of history shouldn’t keep us from exploring its lessons, for “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”3
Early Adventists were part of an abolitionist movement that consisted of at least three persuasions. Conservatives believed slavery was morally neutral and a secular matter, while moderates believed slavery was evil, yet were in favor of gradually emancipating slaves and were against agitation on the matter. Finally, there were radicals who believed slavery to be a sin to be repented of and forsaken. Most Adventists were radicals, though their reasoning was different from their Evangelical counterparts, most of whom were seeking to establish a millennium of peace on earth prior to Christ’s return. Instead, Adventist saw an eschatological link to the prophecies of Revelation 13; they believed the second beast from the land was the United States. Slavery was a clear indication of the characteristic “he . . . spoke like a dragon” (verse 11).
The Seventh–day Adventist Church was organized just prior to the end of the Civil War. The Southern states then offered a burgeoning mission field for a fledgling church, though strong cultural tensions existed. During the General Conference sessions of 1877 and 1885, “the question of whether or not to bow to Southern prejudices by establishing separate work and separate churches for blacks was debated. Most speakers believed that to do so would be a denial of true Christianity since God was no respecter of persons.” Eventually, in 1890, the recommendation to separate the work in the South prevailed, “but the policy was never defended on grounds other than those of expediency.”4
Enter Ellen White with what, for newly converted Blacks, may have seemed like an about-face when compared with some of her other statements. “Let as little as possible be said about the color line, and let the colored people work chiefly for those of their own race. In regard to white and colored people worshiping in the same building, this cannot be followed as a general custom with profit to either party—especially in the South. . . . Let the colored believers be provided with neat, tasteful houses of worship. Let them be shown that this is done not to exclude them from worshiping with white people, because they are black, but in order that the progress of the truth may be advanced. Let them understand that this plan is to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way.”5
This is the same Ellen White who had written, “No distinction on account of nationality, race, or caste is recognized by God. He is the Maker of all mankind. All men are of one family by creation.”6 God’s ideals, as expressed by Ellen White, had come face to face with the stubborn, unregenerate human heart. The result was the church’s first foray into contextualization. Their belief was that God was no respecter of persons. Their reality was that to live out this belief in the context of a post-Civil War America (specifically in the South) could mean the death of their missionaries, converts, and ultimately the work in the South. Period.
With the words “until the Lord shows us a better way” Ellen White all but acknowledged the tension between what she was counseling and what she believed.
A “Feelings” Conversation
We have a difficult time expressing our feelings in a nonjudgmental way. Yet if by God’s grace we could master this skill, we’d be on our way to healthy, healing conversations.
My family was preparing dinner, and I’d come late to the kitchen but was enjoying the time with them as I always did. My wife, Tamara, and I got carried away into a deep conversation while the children finished the meal prep and began to eat. I distinctly remember being irritated by my oldest son’s noodle slurping while he enjoyed the hot dish.
When Tamara and I took a breather from solving the world’s problems, she went to serve herself, only to discover there was a paltry amount of food left. Still irritated by the slurping I’d endured during my conversation with my wife, I turned to remind my son of what it means to think of others before himself. He left the room only to return with tears in his eyes. He explained that they had prepared the meal for us to spend time and enjoy together. He had gathered everyone and chosen the meal with me in mind.
My feelings were misinformed. All that slurping at the table had fueled a narrative in my mind of what was driving my son’s behavior, but I was wrong. So very wrong!
Our feelings are fueled by the slurping of conversations around the dinner table, things whispered in our homogeneous groups as though they are absolute fact. Perhaps we don’t speak about our feelings because we’re ashamed. Not ashamed to think and feel the way we do, but ashamed to have other people see us as anything less than the patient, loving, accepting, ready-for-translation Adventist Christians we all want to be. Here is the genius of Douglas Stone’s suggestion. The “what happened?” conversation informs the “feelings” conversation. By ignoring the “what happened?” we give permission for uninformed feelings to dominate the way we think about others.
In his book Weep With Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation,7 Mark Vroegop tells a story about coming to realize a different perspective. Making a case for America as the land of opportunities, he recounted the story of his Dutch grandfather to an African American pastor. “ ‘I’m sure your grandfather worked hard,’ the pastor responded. ‘But here’s the thing: your grandfather was able to get a job in the 1940s. The color of his skin didn’t create any barriers. Do you think my black grandfather could have been hired for the same job as your white grandfather in the 1940s?’ He paused, waiting for my answer. My mind quickly ran through the history of my hometown. I knew the division. I heard the jokes. I knew the mantra ‘If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.’ The answer was obvious. ‘No, sir, he would not,’ I quietly replied.”
An “Identity” Conversation
I’ll never forget visiting my family in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a child. I was always perplexed by how different we sounded, though we lived in the same state and only four hours away. Children and teens asking each other to say common words, which would incite uncontrollable laughter. “I like your accent” or “Your accent sounds funny.” What accent? Herein lies the complexity of conversations about ethnocentrism. We don’t see or hear ourselves. We’ve been living, breathing, thinking, feeling, and laughing in our own skin for so long that we are oblivious to our cultural influences. It would be wonderful if, as heavenly citizens, we were unaffected by the world we live in, but that is not the case.
For Bible-believing Christians, how do we
First, the believers’ baptism identifies them with Christ (see Rom. 6:1-3; Col. 3:1-3). Furthermore, baptism allows the believer into a union with Christ so intimate that their flesh/natural identity is surpassed by the new Christ identity (Gal. 3:27, 28). The Galatians being one in Christ superseded all the categorizations of the ancient Roman world, including male/female, free/slave, and Jew/Greek. Instead of seeing ourselves primarily in any of these categories, Christians self-identify primarily in Christ.
Let’s face it, we live in a context of division though we were created for unity in Christ. Linguistically, nationally, politically, socially, ethnically, economically, and theologically the very heartbeat of this world pushes and pulls apart while the Spirit of God draws to Himself, thus pressing us together.
What Does This Look Like?
Identifying oneself other than by one’s ethnicity may seem to some equivalent to denying what one is. Is this what Paul counsels us to do in Philippians 3:4-8? Are the Christians from Pusan or Port of Spain to forget their ethnicity? Not at all.
Paul is not arguing his Jewishness out of existence as much as he is arguing it out of a place of priority. In other words, he is saying “I used to believe my ethnicity advantaged me, but now for the sake of Christ I count it as a detriment.” Not that ethnicities are a detriment in and of themselves, but when they usurp the Christ identity with its corresponding righteousness, Paul sees them as utterly worthless. The result is a change in how Paul identifies himself. Note that he is still a Christian Jew (cf. Rom. 9:1-5; 10:1), but this no longer has preeminence in how he identifies himself. If he had to choose between Christ and his ethnicity, Paul would choose Christ. So it should be with all believers.
We need not hate our ethnicity. We simply must love God more (cf. Matt. 10:37).
We need the conversation about ethnocentrism, but the “what happened?” and the “feelings” conversations must be overshadowed by the “identity in Christ” conversation. These other conversations don’t go away when Christ takes the primacy. The history does not magically disappear and neither do the feelings change any more than the color of our skin. The fundamental identity question, however, rises to the fore. As real as is our union with Christ in death through the ordinance of baptism is the fact that Christ has broken down every wall that separated us (Eph. 2:14). Embracing our identity in Christ means we inherit a legacy of unity and broken-down walls that once separated us. We have lost much because we have not made Christ our starting point. But just think of what could be if we did!
1 The Bible doesn’t use the word “race.” Instead, we find ethnos, often translated nations or Gentiles. Many argue race is a social construct, meaning an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society. Something existing as a social construct doesn’t remove it from the reality of the societies we live in.
2 Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).
3 Some suggested reading to educate ourselves on the conversation surrounding race would include Gregory and Carol Allen, Christ Has Welcomed You: A Case for Relational Unity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church; Calvin Rock, Protest and Progress; Harold L. Lee and Benjamin Baker, C.D.: The Man Behind the Message; the website “blacksdahistory.org”; and Ellen White’s Testimonies for the Church, volumes 1, 7, and 9, and The Southern Work.
4 Richard W. Schwarz, Light Bearers to the Remnant (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1979), p. 234, quoted in Gregory and Carol Allen, Christ Has Welcomed You: A Case for Relational Unity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Kindle edition.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 9, pp. 206, 207.
6 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 386.
7 Mark Vroegop, Weep With Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2020).