by Felisa Samarin-Meier
Many of you may have seen the YouTube video that advertises a fake product for Adventists called Adventist Alert. It is supposed to alert you to when other Adventists are in your vicinity so that you can avoid being seen doing “unacceptable” things. I had a good laugh, but the video also made me think. It seems that this joke somehow touched very deeply on a fundamental woundedness common within Adventism: we feel very guilty when we do not follow what we perceive as the rules. We don’t feel guilty because we’ve done something wrong necessarily, but instead we feel guilty because we aren’t living up to the example that we should be following.
The issue is twofold. First, most Adventists grow up with religiously-based rules, but also internalize a list of spoken and unspoken “shoulds.” For instance, it’s a really hot Sabbath day and we decide to wade up to our knees but know inside that this really isn’t the response we should be having. For many this might feel a trivial or even irrelevant example today, and yet this same kind of ethical and emotional blackmail worms its way into many areas of our lives, whether we are in touch with it or not. Alternatively, many of us do not go to the supermarket on the Sabbath “because the Bible says not to” and we do not want to violate our commitment to the message of the Sabbath and set a bad example. While these things are true and even honorable, a far more constructive approach would be to emphasize and reinforce how we choose not to go grocery shopping on Sabbath because we want to treasure our day of rest and experience all of the possibilities it has to offer us.
Second, we have internalized and transmitted our morals and values in a way that is counterproductive to adherence. Through these “shoulds” we create a moral system that no one can ever hope to live within. We would be much better served by exploring and reinforcing the reasons why the moral choices within our system bring about the best outcome, assist us in living better lives and generally promote wellness in the human experience. For instance, I am a vegetarian for many reasons. One of the least of these is that Ellen White said so, although I do appreciate and respect her commentary on the matter. Instead, I primarily choose not to eat meat because it is better for the planet and helps, even in a small way, to decrease disparity in global allocation of food and resources. Our history of vegetarianism and healthful living certainly informs my perspective and tendency towards this, but this adherence would not be sustained if tradition alone were my only reason. Ultimately, it is far better to develop personal and meaningful reasons why Adventist religious and ethical culture is individually and collectively relevant, rather than to hold these norms up as a test of holiness or devotion.
It is important to note, however, that forcing traditional elements of Adventist culture to become and/or remain relevant is equally as fruitless as adherence out of guilt or shame. The appreciation of our heritage and the ideas, movements, beliefs and experiences that have shaped and helped to create Seventh-day Adventism remain significant. Still, we need not try to insist, for example, that wearing makeup in any form is inappropriate and therefore unacceptable because we have traditionally allied ourselves with emphases on modesty and embodying Biblical ideas of highlighting the beauty within.
As a chaplain, I actively engage with defining my Adventist theology and practice on a daily basis. While I am learning to be available and responsive to the needs and questions of those of all faith traditions, I am also developing my own understanding of how I view myself within my Seventh-day Adventist faith. Primarily, I seek to answer the question, how does who I am and the religious life I have created for myself inform my work? Most people are not urged by vocation to engage in this examination, but the creation of opportunities to become in touch with how the construction of our religious and moral life shapes who we are is vital. When we aid our members in defining Adventism for themselves and making it their own, we help to positively reinforce Adventism as a life-affirming, rather than a God-given mandate to live within certain parameters… or else!
In addition, our “shoulds” serve to separate us from our sisters and brothers in Adventist community. When we rigidly construct in our minds what an Adventist ought to look like, we so often project a great deal of judgment onto people when they do not embody that. Furthermore, it creates a culture of separation where we keep our struggles and burdens from each other and present a mask to those inside our community of faith. By continuing to perpetuate these cultural norms, we inhibit our ability to embrace our unique ways of integrating and actualizing Adventism within our lives. Instead, we hold up standards that no one can live up to and isolate ourselves from those in our religious community.
We are already diverse in our reasons for adherence to Adventist practice and doctrine. To share these realities with our sisters and brothers would only serve to enrich our knowledge and experience, as well as foster personal ownership of our faith tradition. Moreover, this would allow us to aid future generations in more skillfully navigating the complex waters of creating an Adventist reality that can and will remain relevant. Rather than attempting to harken back to “traditional” Adventism in a way that can be–and usually is–destructive, through an honest engagement with the present truth that we are experiencing, we can truly make the Seventh-day Adventist faith our own.