“Who is my neighbor?” is “a question that is still today at the heart of all social strife and ethnic conflict,” renowned singer and Seventh-day Adventist pastor Wintley Phipps said as he opened his Saturday (Sabbath) message at the Congress on Social Justice at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States, October 16, 2021.
“When you see people who do not look like you, should we see them as members of the family of God?” he asked.
Phipps based his message on the Bible parable of the Good Samaritan. In his message, titled “Resemble, Reflect, and Reveal the Character of God,” Phipps emphasized that “Who is my neighbor?” were the exact words that a lawyer asked Jesus to justify his lack of concern for others. As a way of a response, Jesus told the lawyer, and those who were listening, a story about a man who was assaulted by thieves and left for dead. Several religious leaders passed by, and then a Samaritan, a foreigner despised by many, stopped to help. The lawyer himself ended up acknowledging that the neighbor was the one who had “shown mercy on him,” to which Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.”
At the Center of Our Christian Commitment
Although Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan about two thousand years ago, Phipps emphasized that the simple question of determining who is our neighbor, even today, “probes the depth of our Christian profession, and seeks to uncover if our calls to Christianity are deep or shallow.” And, he added, “that question has hounded the human condition through millennia.”
Phipps reminded congress attendees and Pioneer Memorial Church members that our neighbor is not “the one who lives next door, or a racial or ethnic likeness, or proximity to culture and social class,” but anyone who needs our help. “God watches with intense interest how we treat bruised and battered strangers,” he said, “and to test our characters, God sends hurting people to us, people the world has labeled deficient or undeserving.”
For the Samaritan, Phipps said, “it didn’t matter his religion, his ethnicity, his politics. None of that was of any importance or consequence. All he saw was a man who needed his sympathy and compassion.”
God makes no distinction of nationalities or ethnicities, Phipps reminded his audience. “In heaven’s eyes, being born again is more important than where you were born…. When God sees us, He sees us; He sees men, women, and children who belong to Him.”
The Christian Church’s Sad Record
According to Phipps, Jesus told the Good Samaritan story because He wanted us to know that “to resemble, reflect, and reveal the character of God is the only way to life eternal.”
He added that the consequence of this biblical teaching is that because we are God’s children, we cannot be silent when any group of human beings is demonized and mistreated. Phipps then quoted South African cleric and human rights advocate Desmond Tutu, who once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice to your fellow men, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
He also reflected on the role of the Christian church in the systemic victimization of the vulnerable and the oppressed. “Church history is not for the faint of heart; in fact, if you have a conscience, it will break your heart,” he suggested.
Phipps shared puzzling examples from history, including internal fights between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa during the era of apartheid. He quoted “A Statement of Confession by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Africa to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” where Adventist church leaders lamented to having failed during apartheid by “sins of omission and commission … therefore misrepresenting the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Throughout history, Phipps emphasized, the world “has been plagued with the horror and barbarity … of Christians who are not Christ-like.” He quoted Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White, who wrote, “If the truth you profess does not have influence enough on you to … convert you to be kind and courteous,” then all the truth you believe will be of no value.1
A Troubling Trajectory
In the U.S., Phipps said, “the Founding Fathers were able to hold the Bible in one hand and the chains of slaves in the other.… Christianity and oppression were wedded in a religious-political nuptial,” he lamented.
Phipps said we must be concerned for the United States of America because of what he called “the anti-pluralistic, hyper-nationalistic trajectory” it appears to be on. “It is a troubled and troubling trajectory, and I believe God will hold the Christian church accountable for any complicity in this agenda,” he said. “God is not pleased when the churches embrace a polarizing, discordant, divisive rhetoric.”
What Christians Can Do
Christians in general and Seventh-day Adventists in particular, Phipps said, should know and do better. He emphasized that “until we, as a church, make becoming like the character of Christ the central theme of our theology, we as a people will never resemble, reflect, and reveal the character of God, and brotherhood for us will be a distant dream. Until Christlikeness becomes the central living focus of the church, we as a people will never resemble, reflect, and reveal the character of God to a stranger.”
He quoted White again, who wrote, “To obey the law of God means to be quick to see the necessities of our fellow beings, and quick to help them without stopping to inquire, ‘Do they believe the same doctrines that I believe?’ ”2
Thus, Phipps emphasized, our neighbor is “the suffering and destitute of all classes, of all faiths. It is our duty to relieve their suffering.” It is also the reason “God is calling us to carry those who have been broken by the inequities of race and class.”
A Personal Example
As part of his message, Phipps shared about the U.S. Dream Academy, an initiative he launched and has coordinated for the past 23 years. Phipps established the initiative after realizing that, according to statistics he quoted, “sixty percent of Black boys in the United States of America who didn’t graduate from high school will be in prison by the age of 30.”
To help reverse this trend, the U.S. Dream Academy offers tutoring, mentoring, and character building to children of incarcerated parents. “These children, though no fault of their own, are fatherless and are the most at-risk of going to prison themselves,” Phipps said. “This has been my good-Samaritan ministry, to help save thousands of children from the ravages of the criminal justice system.”
Like God’s Character
Phipps lamented that almost no Christian denomination has Bible studies on becoming like the character of God. “Almost no Christian denomination has held Christlikeness as its central teaching, preaching focus,” he said.
For Seventh-day Adventists, Phipps said, it implies not only learning or teaching about the second coming of Jesus but preparing your character to depart with Him. "What does it matter if you know the details of prophecy, but in your character you are not prepared for the fulfillment of prophecy? What sense does that make?” he asked. “The world is waiting for Christians who resemble, reflect, and reveal the character of God.”
1. See Ellen G. White, Sermons and Talks (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), 1:198.
2. Ellen G. White, “Unto One of the Least,” The Review and Herald, April 9, 1908, par. 1.