By Monte Sahlin, August 30, 2016: I have never seen as much change as is exploding all around us right now, despite the fact that I was born in the post-World War II Baby Boom and was a teenager in the 1960s. I have lived through the TV generation, the Civil Rights Movement, the turmoil over the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty, and it still leaves me unprepared for what is happening today. The unprecedented election campaign for President of the United States, the “Brexit” vote in Europe, but more specifically the changes in Christianity in America.
“The End of White Christian America” is described in a fascinating book by Robert P. Jones. He points out that 1993 was the last year that white Protestants made up the majority of the population in America. There have long been tensions between a dominant segment made up of American Protestants with a European ethnic background and the growing numbers of Catholics, Jews and ethnic minority groups. Adventists actually have a unique take on these tensions, sympathetic in many ways to the powerless. The Ellen White classic, The Great Controversy is actually more critical of Protestants than Catholics, using the papacy primarily as a way of predicting that a Protestant establishment would engage in much the same oppression of minority views as occurred in a medieval Europe where the Catholic church was dominate.
From the beginning of the Adventist movement, its leaders have been clear about the racist element in American history. We early took a stand against slavery and have long welcomed immigrants without regard to their technical status with the government. This is one reason why nearly a decade ago the Adventist membership in North America crossed the threshold into a reality still a couple of decades away for the U.S. population as a whole: the majority is a mosaic of ethnic minorities. That transition is one of the changes underway around us. Among Americans 55 years of age and older, three quarters are white. Among Americans under 18 years of age, just half are white.
A “politics of nostalgia” resulting from a “fragile white privilege” attracts many in the fading white Christian America. It comes out in an irrationally negative attitude toward the country’s first black president, the apocalyptic tone of arguments over same-sex marriage and religious liberty, and potentially dangerous views on immigration and refugees. Growing numbers of individuals feel that they cannot discuss the issues with friends anymore and the Internet has become a virtual insane asylum, which testify to the deep impact of the changes underway.
Religious change is a key part of this river of trends washing away certainties that have been in place for centuries. It is a different kind of change than Christianity has faced for at least 500 years. The most common response is to try to understand it using old categories and models, which are simply inadequate.
Church attendance across the board is down. And young adults are less and less likely to go to church, even if they were born into a faith community. The median age for white Christians is 54, meaning that half of the people in that category are over 54. The median age for the U.S. Census is currently 37.
The unaffiliated or those who say that their religious preference is “none of the above” are the fastest-growing segment of the religious profile. The median age for the unaffiliated is 36. It is important to understand that relatively few of these people are atheists. They are not against God. In fact, they are not really willing to say they are agnostic (uncertain about the question of God’s existence). Most are “spiritual, but not religious,” meaning that they understand that there is a spiritual dimension to life and have some sense of a Divine presence in the universe, but they have many questions about the traditional way in which discussions of theology and philosophy have been structured, and their experience of organized religion leaves them feeling cold.
There are some stridently religious people, including some Adventists, who reflect nothing positive or inviting about faith. They proclaim “truth,” but it does not come across as good news nor even believable. Evangelical Protestants, the segment closest to the Adventist faith and within which it is usually grouped, have often mingled a certain kind of politics with their religion. Once upon a time, Adventists were part of this, actively participating in the coalition that imposed Prohibition (a ban on alcoholic beverages) on America in 1920. It backfired and was soon seen as a disaster and reversed. Consequently the majority of Americans are unwilling to establish laws enforcing Bible norms of morality.
What Would God Have Us Do?
Does God want us to vote for lawmakers and judges who will impose what we understand to be His moral requirements through civil law and judicial decisions? Does God ask us to take sides in the great battles over morality and change that are underway in the world today? Is that truly the authentic Adventist role in these times?
Matthew 25:31-46 provides us with direct word from Jesus on these questions. The context of this passage is the question asked by the disciples in 24:3, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” That makes this an Adventist text because it is about the time of the second coming. The theme of the entire passage from 24:4 through 25:46 is how to remain faithful to Christ, how to wait for Christ’s return. In this bottom line story Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, welcome the alien, help the poor, and care for the sick and the prisoner. “Just as you did for the least … you did it to me.” (24:40)
Representing the Divine Heart of compassion and love is the most essential witness. Unless we have that truth clear, all doctrine is “sounding brass,” a pointless noise. If you are tempted to think that defending the truth and combating error are more important than Christ’s focus in this passage on practical compassion, remember that at the end of the story those who miss the point end up in the lake of fire, despite the fact that they honestly ask, “When did we see you in need Jesus?” One can battle for truth and end up on the wrong side of the final judgment.
The turmoil that is churning the world right now can try your soul. On all sides you will hear people asserting falsehoods small and large, and doing so genuinely. It becomes very difficult to keep one’s humility because so many things are so obviously wrong. Beliefs at polar opposites are deeply held by large numbers of people in large variety. But humility is required if I am a follower of Jesus. I must remind myself that no matter how strongly I believe something to be truth, I could be wrong. No matter how clearly I see a thing in Scripture, I could be wrong.
Adventist Today has a very liberal policy for writers and comments. We allow people to post comments who clearly have no sense of humility whatsoever. Some seem to think that God has appointed them the resident theological censor to point all the untrue things that others write. We tolerate them because Jesus died for them and commands us to be compassionate, and because they may be right and I may be wrong about the issues at hand. (We only remove the right to comment when an individual has created a legal problem or has generated complaints from other readers who have suffered from aggressive personal comments.)
The issues currently being debated in the world around us lead some to think that it is OK to make comments that are an insult to other readers, focusing in an overly negative way on the gender, ethnicity, faith, education, occupation, philosophy or political views of others. The problem with that kind of message is not just that it violates the guidelines for comments, but that it does not display the compassion that Jesus asks us to focus on at this point in history. According to the text mentioned above, it puts you on the wrong side of God’s divine judgment.
We no longer live in the world that I was born into. The cable TV in my community constantly reminds me of that with its ads promoting a channel with “family friendly” shows, most in black-and-white and all produced in the 1950s and early 1960s. We do live in the world that Jesus has called us to. We are called to be his witnesses, his servants, his agents of divine peace and compassion in this world, no matter how much we may detest it.
Monte Sahlin is the executive director of the Adventist Today Foundation. He is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination where he served for 44 years before retiring in 2014.