Social Justice and Adventism
by Charles Eaton
The last month and half has seen two issues in rapid succession grip the attention of the national news machine and private conversations alike. First, the Invisible Children video about the international criminal Kony took the web by storm with over 80 million hits in just a few weeks. Then, the tragic story of Trayvon Martin’s shooting sparked a fierce public debate about race, gun safety, and the morality of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
Note: These are only recent examples I am using to contextualize this blog. What I want to address is a systemic change in our culture. This isn’t about Democrats vs. Republicans nor is it about liberals vs. conservatives it’s about What Would Jesus Do in today’s society.
The emergence of these social issues has highlighted an interesting phenomenon that, while I am sure is well known to some older participants of this site, was a new discovery for me. Adventists don’t do much at all to collectively address and solve social issues. Relatively speaking, I can’t help but notice that our Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ use their sphere of influence much more actively than we do. To this day I have never seen an Adventist church organize a march, boycott, protest, or really anything that might disrupt the status quo. A huge reason for this differences lies in our denominational bureaucracies. The individual Baptist churches aren’t nearly as tethered to a centralized government as local Adventist churches are. The Baptist churches have no need to “toe the party line” for fear of reassignment or a smaller allocation of funds because they are autonomous in their authority. This results in a greater willingness to take chances because the only repercussions will come from within the four walls of the individual church. The Adventist fear of social issues is so great, that even the mistreatment of blacks before and during the civil rights era was met with collective silence. Dr. Samuel London, professor of history here at Oakwood University, and author of the book Seventh-day Adventists And the Civil Rights Movement noted to me that the church of Seventh-day Adventists was institutionally apathetic to the civil rights movement. While there were individuals who did great things for the movement, the policy of the church at large was Do Not Interfere.
I ask two simple questions: First, should our local churches be given more freedom to act influentially about the social ills that they see? Second, should the body of Adventism as a whole be more vocal about social ills in general? I want to be very clear though. Most of the major social issues that have emerged in the United States have been in the context of white-black race relations. I myself, as a black student attending an HBCU, have been affected negatively and positively because of race relations in this country, so I am clearly biased and have no qualms with my own biases. But in no way do I mean either overtly or subtly that I want Adventists as a whole to get involved in just white/black issues. These are simply the issues that have come up most often in this country.
I am a firm believer that everything I do and say will either advance or harm the cause of Christ. As Adventists, we believe that our mission is to preach the gospel and prepare the world for Christ’s second coming. Therefore, my questions absolutely must be framed by our mission. Meaning, would an increased Adventist presence in social issues harm or advance the cause of Christ? I advocate the latter. But let’s also be realistic, a greater Adventist participation in social ills would cause division among Adventists, because some would say we don’t need to get into a particular issue while others would say we should. Be this as it may, I believe that the positive social impact on the world would advance the banner of Christ more than our own internal debates would harm it.