Earlier this year I wrote about my denomination’s long track record of taking no action during critical human rights cases. So this week has stunned me twice over.
The first shock came after the non-indictment of NY police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner. As Garner’s mother Gwen Carr said at a press conference on December 3, “I don’t know what video [the grand jury] were looking at. Evidently it wasn’t the same one that the rest of us was looking at.” The family’s grief, confusion, frustration, and anger about no accountability, shared by viewers nationwide, has sustained and intensified marches, rallies, protests, boycotts, die-ins, disruptions, and blockades up and down the country.
Even among Adventists.
Last weekend, college students at Oakwood University, an HBCU in Huntsville, AL, and at Andrews University, host of the Adventist seminary in Berrien Springs, MI, pressed through the cold in their respective states to protest racism, injustice, and police brutality under the #BlackLivesMatter banner.
Within days, the Northeastern Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the regional (historically black) church administration that serves the state of New York, published a statement about the Garner case in the name of conference president Daniel J. Honoré.
“As I think of my own sons and the thousands of minority youths whose spiritual home is the Northeastern Conference,” Honoré wrote, “I cannot help but be compelled to join our voice to those crying out for a more just society… The Word of God urges us ‘Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.’ (Isaiah 1:17)”
His staff posted a photo of the statement on Facebook, it took off from there, and the president stuck around to personally respond to comments and stand by his letter. He didn’t just make a pronouncement and then dodge feedback from behind the internet curtain. I was impressed.
As reactions flowed in (the thread is still active nearly a week later), both affirming and race-naive comments were posted, but on balance it seems feedback was mostly positive. I wrote:
“Congratulations to the NEC leadership for speaking up on an issue that directly affects your constituency members… In about 50 years, maybe sooner, and just as happened with those who participated in the [Civil Rights Movement], our denomination will write hagiographic articles in the Adventist Review about the few who spoke up and took action and were visibly engaged in anti-oppression work this year despite all the pushback… and no one will admit there was any opposition at all.” —Keisha McKenzie
Daneen Akers, co-producer of the film Seventh-Gay Adventists, responded too: “The Civil Rights movement was deeply faith-based, and it’s encouraging to see a church leader recognize that these actions are part of doing justice now, loving mercy now, and walking humbly now.”
The thread quickly included people angry that the statement went out on official church letterhead and members wondering out loud whether Honoré will find himself out of a job over this letter. No, he won’t. Not even close.
Because by Tuesday morning this week, Honoré’s colleague and national supervisor chimed in with a statement of his own about the Brown and Garner non-indictments:
“The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is deeply saddened by the tragic death of Eric Garner and the heartache it has caused his family and community. We extend our deepest condolences and continue to pray for his family.
“The recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. in the death of Michael Brown and Mr. Garner in N.Y. have stirred great emotions in the hearts of many Americans who question the equity with which all of God’s children are treated. Many citizens, including Seventh-day Adventist pastors, educators, and students have participated in non-violent marches, peacefully calling for equality and asking for change. We continue to support the right, which we are afforded in this country, to peacefully speak out and call for change.
“It is time for our society to engage in open, honest, civil, and productive conversation about the rights and equality of every member of our community. We pray that the tragedy of these two deaths will bring about much needed change and address the pain that many ethnic groups are facing in this country. We pray that awareness will lead to a two-way conversation that will lead to healing.
“We pray that those on either side of this conversation will speak with peace, love, and grace.
“We pray for the day when all of God’s children treat each other without suspicion, bias, and hatred. As the Apostle Paul reminds us: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'” —North American Division president Dan Jackson
I couldn’t hold it in.
— mackenzian (@mackenzian) December 9, 2014
The NAD liked that idea so much that they retweeted my post.
Perhaps neither of these statements would have raised eyebrows in another denomination: the NAD statement isn’t an affirmation as much as it’s a commitment not to interfere. But in Adventism, it’s news. There are reasons for that.
In its formative years, the Seventh-day Adventist community was awash in benevolent racism: during the late 1800s and early 1900s, church leaders framed newly freed Black Americans as a pitiable community in “moral darkness” and special need of evangelism. The goal: that they might be won to the faith and lifted up from their spiritual and social degradation by those truths that only a White-led church could teach them.
“Instead of wondering whether they are not fitted to labor for white people, let our colored brethren and sisters devote themselves to missionary work among the colored people. There is an abundance of room for intelligent colored men and women to labor for their own people…
“Opportunities are continually presenting themselves in the Southern States, and many wise, Christian colored men will be called to the work. But for several reasons white men must be chosen as leaders. We are all members of one body and are complete only in Christ Jesus, who will uplift His people from the low level to which sin has degraded them and will place them where they shall be acknowledged in the heavenly courts as laborers together with God…
“While men are trying to settle the question of the color line, time rolls on, and souls go down into the grave, unwarned and unsaved… The work of proclaiming the truth for this time is not to be hindered by an effort to adjust the position of the Negro race.” —Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, volume 9, section 6 (1907-1908)
In the mid-20th Century, during the thick of the US Black Civil Rights Movement (CRM), Adventist administrators and theologians actively discouraged participation on the anti-segregationist, pro-civil rights protests and activism of the day. West Chester University professor Timothy J. Golden put it this way in a wonderful historical paper last year: the church refused to support members in advocating for civil rights, but to this day appeals to and benefits from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that resulted from their unauthorized advocacy.
Who will help me bake the bread? asked the CRM. And the Adventist church replied Not I.
Adventism maintains this historical ambivalence toward public engagement today. The result is a sort of selective self-interest that usually keeps the organization out of the public eye, but also usually leaves a subset of constituents out in the cold. Administrators’ statements on seeking “a more just society” and “equality,” particularly at this moment in US history, are a welcome departure from that custom.
Janelle Monae’s latest album, The Electric Lady, includes an interlude that made me chuckle the first time I heard it but makes me nod in agreement. Monae’s albums ask us to imagine a world in which she and her musicians are androids and humans rebelling against a system that represses innovation and doesn’t see them as fully human.
About halfway through the album, DJ Crash-Crash stops off in a shop to have his body chrome polished. He says to the studio, “Y’all know why we out here getting our chrome right?” Someone off-mic replies, “It don’t shine by itself.”
It don’t shine by itself. This world won’t shine by itself.
At the start of the 20th Century, White wrote, “I know that if we attempt to meet the ideas and preferences of some of the colored people, we shall find our way blocked completely.” She encouraged the church to value “the closing gospel message” above the “colored people” she believed needed that message to avoid eternal ruin. Advocating for their social equality would be a distraction, and the church should prioritize.
I learned enough to name my rage about injustice when I was about 12 years old. Over the next ten years, thanks in part to the writers I read, I began to see rage as undirected power. And in the decade since then, I’ve practiced directing my power toward living well despite the status quo. My church’s statements this week don’t convert me to passive optimism. They drive me to keep working with the willing, whatever the institution chooses at this late stage.
I keep living, despite a culture telling me lives like mine don’t matter. I keep worshiping, despite church workers who teach that my kind of human being is ineligible for its membership, clergy, and kingdom. I keep working and creating, despite an economy stacked in hiring and in business development against people with my profile. I keep on keeping on because there’s no other viable option: I will not yield to genocide or suicide; I will live and live well.
Reflecting on the speculative fiction community’s need to grow out of its racism and embrace the diversity of those who love and contribute to it, Daniel J. Older writes, “The lionizing, sugarcoating and kneejerk flurry to defend and silence uncomfortable histories has to stop if we are to move forward.” There isn’t a corner of society in which that’s not true.
But just for tonight, while we decide how we’ll move forward and welcome those just waking up, I have an original recipe for eating one’s hat:
- Remove hat from plastic packaging.
- Marinate hat in humility, cover, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
- Serve warm and chew slowly.