By Zack Payne | 5 June 2020 |
Four years ago I wrote an article for another publication entitled, “An Appeal To Fellow White American Adventists.” Across the nation we had just experienced a handful of painful reminders that we cannot ignore racial issues as though they were a thing of the past. Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Dallas: tragedies seemingly piling up the emotional anxiety of our nation, and it seemed as if we were collectively reaching our breaking point as Americans. The piece was equally loved and hated and ultimately stirred up much heated discussion on the matter of race relations in the United States.
I spent hours as an armchair activist, arguing with fellow white folks about the validity of the Black Lives Matter movement. It discouraged me to find out how many there are among us who believe that there are no differences between how white people and black people are treated in our country. I went to race-relations events on the campus of Andrews University to hear the pain and the fear firsthand from my classmates. I talked with my friends who are people of color to get their perspective on current events. I took a class from Dr. Trevor O’Reggio on the history of Christianity in North America, in which Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics was required reading (an eye-opening work that I highly recommend, if you haven’t read it).
Yes, in mid-2016 I was enlightened, emboldened, empowered to make the biggest difference in the world, and to be the most woke white pastor, as I prepared to exit university and re-enter full-time ministry.
A lot has happened since then. I’m not going to say much more than. It’s been a rough four years for America (and I don’t care where you land on the political spectrum; we’ve all felt it). As much as the first half of 2020 has been a complete catastrophe, these last couple of weeks have reminded me of the way I felt in 2016.
My context is different now: While back then I was a new father getting my masters degree and living in quiet, exurban Southwestern Michigan, these days I abide in the aggressively urban Southeastern corner of Wisconsin as a father of three children and pastor of three small churches.
However, the facts of the world are still the same: America smiles on some, stomps on others, and doesn’t ever want anyone to talk about it.
America the Beast
Since 2016, I’ve been trying to bring an awareness of these issues from a biblical perspective. A couple of years ago, I preached a month-long series about America in Bible Prophecy, in which I talked about how America is the Beast of the Earth (a la Revelation 13), and that it is congruent with the textual evidence as well as the testimony of early Adventists that America has always been the dragon dressed like a lamb—as opposed to the thought that America will one day, in the distant future become this dragon.
By the way: the two specific factors that contributed to this idea, in the minds of early Adventists, are two topics that are presently very, very hot: race relations and religious liberty. The Haystack produced a series on the history of race relations in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and I used that series during Black History Month last year as an opportunity to talk about things such as white privilege, segregation in the church, white flight, and how racism affects our worship. I preached a series on the Sabbath in which I make the historical connection that it’s not actually governmental decrees that changed the Christian day of worship from Sabbath to Sunday, but it was actually the prejudice of early Christians—and in the same way prejudice and racism throw us off the track toward truth today.
Live and Local
In many ways, the events of 2016 prepared me for life as a pastor of some very diverse congregations, and I’ve been blessed to have some wonderful (and sometimes wonderfully difficult) discussions over the past few years as a result of these efforts. But as much as I’ve preached about it, and as much as I’ve kept up with the news, it still hurt to watch George Floyd killed on a live stream for the world to see.
It reminded me of how many people I’ve seen die on television or the internet over the past four years. Even now, I find myself reflecting on how commonplace it is for someone’s death to be caught on camera here in America. It’s crazy, because that’s not the kind of country I grew up thinking I lived in. But it is our present reality.
I’m not the only one to feel a raw indignation over this phenomenon, and although a string of very public race-related travesties preceded him, George Floyd seems to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve watched how, in the wake of his death, America has come together to demand justice in powerful and palpable ways, while simultaneously tearing ourselves apart in violence and self-destruction.
In my local context of Racine, Wisconsin, I’ve watched with pride as our citizens have come together to make meaningful pleas for change, while also observing in disgust as shops are looted, police are provoked by bricks and fireworks to the point of tear-gassing crowds, buildings are burned down, and lives are taken in public shootings. Of course, similar things are happening in nearby Milwaukee and Chicago as well, but there’s a difference between knowing it was an hour away and knowing it was less than five minutes away. There’s a difference between reading about the gunshots and hearing them through the night. There’s a difference between feeling distant empathy for affected business owners and actively working to help keep businesses safe from an impending riot.
Getting It Right
That brings me to the reason I’m writing this all down: I’m in a very complicated place with my feelings at the moment. I want change so badly, but after educating myself and passing along what I know to others, I still feel so poorly equipped to actually effect change. I want to cheer on protestors as they seek justice, but then I also see how sociopaths, common criminals, and confused young people alike take advantage of large public gatherings and are turning them into nightmare scenarios for communities across our nation. I’m encouraged by how many people who missed the point of the statement “black lives matter” at its inception seem to have a better understanding this time around.
However I’m also watching as white folks continue to obtusely antagonize, and as black folks express the growing sentiment that just leaving the country is probably the best option for them.
What will become of us here in the good ol’ U. S. of A? If it’s anything like early Adventists have predicted, in accordance with their prophetic interpretations of Revelation 13: America is and always has been a sinking ship due to its struggles with race relations and religious liberty issues. We see these things playing out in an impossible-to-ignore manner all over every media outlet today. This means we can choose to leave it or to evangelize it, but one thing is certain: America is ground zero for the wrathful dragon of Revelation 12 who seeks to make war with the remnant of God’s true believers. Personally, I feel called as a missionary to this place.
Human Fail, God’s Success
Will we ever get it right? Of course not, because we’re humans and humans are sinful. We have the book of Daniel (and pretty much the rest of scripture too) for showing us how, over and over, the kingdoms of mankind fail. And that’s kind of one of the biggest points that the Bible ever wants to make: left to our own devices, we fail. Consistently. Ongoingly. Eternally. However, we look forward to the day when the stone cut out without human hands (read: we have nothing to do with it) breaks into our present reality to shatter all of the utter nonsense that mankind has built, and fills the earth with a new kingdom: one of peace, love, goodness, mercy, justice, etc. We look forward to the day that Jesus rolls back the sky and invites us into a new reality: one in which there is no pain, no suffering, no separation from truth and righteousness.
However, I am resolved to keep on fighting the good fight, running the race, and keeping the faith. I may not have all the answers or even get things right most of the time, but I want people to know about this God who promises to fix all of this mess. I want to model his character to a world that knows nothing about him–though it cries out to him “Lord, Lord” as it commits injustices. And I want to invite folks to wrestle with the reality of scripture, which is that we are all (in God’s ideals) equal and equally adored in the eyes of God, even in the midst of our depravity. So I’ll keep on keeping on, and I invite you with me to look at the evils around us and yet strive to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.
Zack Payne is a district pastor in Wisconsin, where he and his wife, Allison, are raising three young children. Zack is passionate about bringing the church into the 21st century, and creating healthy, sustainable congregations.