2 December 2022 |
A House on Fire: How Adventist Faith Responds to Race and Racism; Maury D. Jackson and Nathan Brown, editors; Signs Publishing, Warburton, Victoria, Australia, 2022; 244 pages, US$21.99. Reviewed by Stephen Chavez
Racism in North America is nothing new. It’s been part of the fabric of the United States since the first colonists landed on its shores. But it rested dormant and barely noticeable by most White people for centuries. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal,” only applied to White male property owners (not servants, not women, certainly not African American slaves or Native Americans). Not until the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor did most of us realize that Black people, particularly unarmed Black men, are killed by police officers in much higher percentages than those of the general population; that people of color make up 60 percent of the prison population in the United States, with Blacks accounting for five times the population of Whites, in some states 10 times.
The history of racism in North America is so entrenched that it affects virtually every aspect of the lives of marginalized people: education, housing, healthcare, employment, entertainment, and certainly quality of life. The facts of racism here in the United States and around the world are indisputable. The histories of exploration and colonization are the histories of racism, often encouraged and justified by a misinterpretation of Scripture by White, European “Christians” who were motivated by greed and the desire to conquer. Sure, they often practiced it under the guise of evangelism, but the effects were the very antithesis of the teachings of Christ. Even now, those most at risk of environmental degradation are people of color who live near industrial sites that release hazardous and toxic materials into the land, water, and air.
Nearly 600 years after the first Europeans landed in North America, people of privilege (those with stable jobs, who live in “safe” communities) don’t realize how much racism is a cancer on society, making nearly everyone either complicit in its continuance or victims of its effects. It’s ironic that nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some of the rights won by its passage are under attack. With the help of many state legislatures (and the tacit approval of the United States Supreme Court) legislative districts have been gerrymandered and voting rights limited, thereby guaranteeing the presence of “White Privilege” for decades to come.
A House on Fire
The book A House on Fire couldn’t come at a more important moment. The book’s 20 contributors, all Seventh-day Adventist scholars—theologians, sociologists, historians—trace the history and development of racism in society, reveal how it infected the Adventist Church, and address how it must be confronted in our present and future. For those afraid of reading some version of the “blame game,” which casts all minorities as victims and all Whites as oppressors, they won’t find it in this book. Instead, they will find an honest, balanced, frank, and scholarly treatment of a problem that can no longer be ignored. Nathan Brown writes in his introduction: “Some ideas will be applauded and appreciated; others must be confronting, uncomfortable, and difficult, challenging our assumptions and lives, our faith and our beliefs, our denomination and the Christian church.”
First, a word about the title. Author James Baldwin appropriated the words of an African-American spiritual—“God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, fire next time”—for the title of one of his most-read books. The inaugural essay of A House on Fire, “Burning Bethel: the De(con)struction of Injustice,” uses the prophetic words of the prophet Amos to reveal the risks faced when God’s people substitute religious ritual for acts of justice. The word “Bethel” means “house of God” in Hebrew. But the prophet warns: “The fire will burn up Bethel, with no one to put it out” (Amos 5:6, CEB). The essay’s author, Janice P. De-Whyte, concludes by observing: “Theology and liturgy do not delight God when they are divorced from justice.”
Most readers of A House on Fire will come to it knowing that racism is bad, something that must be resisted and rooted out. What many will not realize is how much Seventh-day Adventists engaged racism in their history as a movement. Those acquainted with Adventist history will be familiar with the fact that early Adventists, most notably Joseph Bates, were ardent abolitionists. Some operated stations on the underground railroad that delivered slaves to freedom in Northern states before and during the U.S. Civil War. In the 1880s and 1890s Ellen White was a staunch proponent of equality between the races.
But as Michael Campbell points out in his essay, “Seventh-day Adventism, Fundamentalism, and Race,” as the church lurched toward fundamentalism in the first two decades of the twentieth century, segregation, not integration, became the watchword of the church. Policies evolved that saw White evangelists receiving more financial support than Black evangelists. A racially integrated Adventist congregation in Washington, D.C., eventually became segregated. Administrative structures likewise became more segregated at the insistence of White (not Black) administrators. The final step in that progression was the establishment of Regional (African American) Conferences, a reality still part of Adventist organizational structure.
The essay “Preaching a Black Christ” will doubtless give Adventists the most food for thought. In it, Matthew J. Korpman cites authors who connect the stories of innocent Blacks who were lynched during the Jim Crow South (until the 1950s) with Jesus, an innocent man crucified and hung on a “tree” on bogus charges. Korpman goes on to catalogue some of Ellen White’s statements in support of racial equality and the obligation White Adventists owe to Blacks. She wrote: “The same price was paid for the salvation of the colored man as for that of the white man. . . . Those who slight a brother because of his color are slighting Christ.” Then Ellen White goes a step further: “The American nation owes a debt of love to the colored race, and God has ordained that they should make restitution for the wrong they have done them in the past. Those who have taken no active part in enforcing slavery upon the colored people are not relieved from the responsibility of making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result of their enslavement.” Reparations? For slavery?
One of the most insightful and valuable chapters in the book is “Afterward: Confession?” Its author, John W. Webster, lived in South Africa as apartheid was being dismantled. When Nelson Mandela was elected president, he was instrumental in establishing its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He had the foresight to name Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chair. Webster writes: “The TRC traded heavily in spiritual, theological, even explicitly Christian content and symbolism. Its major concepts—memory, conscience, truth, reconciliation, confession, forgiveness, restitution, and hope—read like entries in a dictionary of Christian theology.” Webster goes on to describe how the Adventist Church in South Africa joined the process grudgingly, that a process supposed to result in racial integration and reconciliation initially resulted in neither. Webster includes the church’s “Statement of Confession,” a “document submitted to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.” The statement, developed over time with the input of several South African theologians and administrators, is a masterful interpretation of the three angels’ messages viewed through the lens of racial harmony. It concludes with the sentence: “As members of Christ’s body, we can do no other than love unconditionally, care compassionately, and live prophetically in joyful expectation of the coming God.”
Readers of A House of Fire will find much that challenges and inspires a thoughtful, measured response to race and racism in the United States and in other parts of the world. It is not a book someone can read and say, “That doesn’t apply to me.” Not all the essays are created equal, however. A few are too academic, too laden with jargon and philosophical concepts difficult to translate into reality. But a debt of gratitude is owed to the editors for collecting such a distinguished panel of authors, and for providing a book that is not only long overdue, but one that will set the standard for discussions about race in the Adventist Church for years to come. If our house is on fire, may it be because the Holy Spirit is helping us wrestle with the evil to which we have grown accustomed for way too long.
Stephen Chavez, retired after a career as a parish pastor and writer/editor, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.