If you repeat something often enough, you can start to believe that almost anything is true. At least that’s what I learned from “The Little Engine That Could.”
One of the phrases that I hear repeated over and over again, is that Christians and social justice don’t mix. Another is that pastors should stay out of politics, but we’ll get to that later.
No matter on which side of the political aisle you may consider yourself to be, one truth remains: Adventists stink at social justice. Here are five reasons why:
1. We mistakenly conflate the idea of social justice with politics.
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The phrase “social justice” is by and large misunderstood by many Adventists. To some, the phrase is a dog-whistle for a very political connotation. For example, if I say “Adventist should be engaged in social justice,” someone might hear, “Pastor Nelson is a Bernie Sanders loving liberal who wants to bring about a socialist revolution” (none of which is true).
The word itself becomes a stumbling block because they see it as political rhetoric instead of Gospel imperative. Therefore, because we are not clear on definitions, more often than not we face existing walls of prejudice when the phrase gets mentioned.
In its basic essence, social justice is defined as “the fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, religion, etc., are to be treated equally and without prejudice.”
Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission integrated a strong social component (irrespective of politics) when he read from Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD”
We only need to read the Old Testament prophets to recognize that the idea of social justice is a Judaeo-Christian birthed Gospel imperative, not code for “here comes Robin Hood.”
2. We misunderstand the relation between faith, politics, and social justice.
Like I said earlier, “pastors should not be involved in politics” is another phrase that I hear often. While it is true that anyone, including pastors, can fall into the trap of thinking that the Kingdom of God will be built through political action, we should not underestimate the positive impact an individual spiritual leader can have on societal change.
There was a pastor named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that did some amazing things in the 20th century. He even has a day named after him, I hear.
It’s important to make a distinction regarding what kind of political engagement I’m advocating for. The Johnson Amendment (which I wholeheartedly approve of) prohibits pastors and other non-profits from endorsing a political candidate or party. It doesn’t prevent them from saying statements that might be perceived as political. Big difference.
Dr. King understood that and was extremely effective in working for social justice.
To me, this means that speaking truth to power, and advocating for causes that are born out of spiritual principles are on the table.
Take for example John the Baptist. What was he doing when he publicly confronted King Herod with the statement that it wasn’t lawful for him to take his brother’s wife, if not getting fully involved in the life of a political figure? Should he have remembered that God sets up kings and takes them down? Christians have a right, and even a duty, to speak up when moral issues are at stake, irrespective of political party.
3. Adventists historically have flipped-flopped on their engagement with social justice.
Believe it or not, early on in our history, Adventist were very engaged in social justice through cause-based community action.
The Adventist Review notes that two years after the Church was officially organized in 1863, they met for its third General Conference session in 1865. The church made one of its first official statements on voting at that time:
“Resolved, That in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper; but that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife.”1
You may be thinking, “the quote only specifies voting, it doesn’t say anything about forming groups and marching in the streets or anything like that.” We’ll get there.
Over the course of time, some Adventists were against political involvement of any kind, even for social justice. But the majority of Adventists, and especially the church leadership, supported political involvement concerning vital areas such as prohibition.
The best example of this is when Ellen White and the rest of the church publicly galvanized in support of the Eighteenth Amendment. Her support for prohibition was not just political activism, or even activism for a good cause, it was political evangelism with the goal of saving people through sobriety. Note the brazenness of her words:
“‘Shall we vote for prohibition?’ she asked. ‘Yes, to a man, everywhere,’ she replied, ‘and perhaps I shall shock some of you if I say, If necessary, vote on the Sabbath day for prohibition if you cannot at any other time.’”2
And then there’s this quote:
The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote—in favor of prohibition and total abstinence. We need not expect that God will work a miracle to bring about this reform, and thus remove the necessity for our exertion. We ourselves must grapple with this giant foe, our motto, No compromise and no cessation of our efforts till the victory is gained.”3 (emphasis added)
Obviously, the Eighteenth amendment was repealed 13 years later by the Twenty-first amendment. However, the fact remains that Adventists were extremely active in social justice during that period of activism because they saw this cause as important.
The pendulum swing came sometime during the 20th century. For reasons I have yet to understand, public engagement in social justice causes among Adventists seriously dwindled. It’s telling to note that prominent Adventist historian C. Mervin Maxwell (the son of the guy who wrote the blue Bible Story books), even seemed to “reinterpret” (selectively use) Ellen White’s original statements to advocate a completely “hands off” approach to politics and social justice. He claims that:
“Ellen White encouraged voting under certain circumstances (see Selected Messages, book 2, page 337), and she did not advise Adventists to ignore political issues entirely. But she warned them to keep their political views to themselves and not to proclaim them “by pen or voice” (ibid., pp. 336, 337).” (emphasis added)
…if Adventists stay out of politics they can be assured that the dim torch of social advancement through legislation will be carried by other men and women; but, she appears to ask, “if Adventists fail to proclaim the third angel’s message with all possible tact and energy who will perform this grand service for the world?”
The only problem is that the church suffered from the same social problems that the larger American society was facing. When faced with injustices within, Adventism usually has been forced to change by external pressure instead of making a corporate change because it was intrinsically the right thing to do. In 1962, it took physical demonstrations, written demands, and front-page news stories for the announcement to come that the church would desegregate. It took a lawsuit in 1973 for the Adventist church to begin to equalize pay for men and women doing the same job. We needed a Civil Rights reform in our own church, but…
4. We were mostly inactive during the Civil Rights movement
Because Adventism had a “hands off” approach to social justice during parts of the 20th century, some pastors were actually prohibited by their conferences from getting involved in the Civil Rights movement. For any scholars out there, further study could be done regarding the attitudes towards social justice and whether it breaks down by ethnicity and conference. I met a pastor who was told by his conference administration that if he attended the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, he could find another line of work.
It’s no surprise then that Yolanda Clarke, an Adventist who stood next to Dr. King that day was surprised to see hardly any Adventist ministers present. This led her to say that:
“…we as Adventists are too withdrawn from what’s happening around us. We must change that. Jesus was among the people — that’s where His ministry was. And so we also need to be a part of what’s going on. That’s the only way our light will shine.”
Even today, our ability to speak to issues of racial tensions is incredibly undermined by the fact that we have delayed in having race conversations as a church—conversations that we should have had years ago. We do not hold the moral high ground in this area. The rest of society integrated, our church hasn’t.
5. Our theology has highlighted escape theology instead of engagement theology.
Adventism came out of the Millerite Movement, a cross-denominational phenomenon that brought people together precisely because they didn’t believe that the world would last much longer. People of all different backgrounds quit their jobs, sold their homes, and left everything behind because they thought that Jesus’ return was imminent.
There was no need to push for any sort of social change because the entire world was literally—in their minds—about to burn. The goal was to escape the world, not to engage, much less change it. Of course, that didn’t happen and many were left holding the bag when Jesus didn’t return. It’s important to understand that this is the context that we came from.
On the surface, I get it. After all, Jesus said that my kingdom is not of this world. On the other hand, we are citizens of that Kingdom, and where do we currently find ourselves? We are to be ambassadors of Heaven here today. This doesn’t just apply to what we believe, but also how we act. We can not be so Heavenly minded that we’re of no earthy good.
In conclusion, what is the take away?
Praying for justice is easier than working for justice, but…
Both are important, only one involves your direct participation with those around you. It’s easier to give a homeless person a hot meal than to address the social structures that allowed the person to be homeless. Yet, let’s take your prayers into account for a second:
If Jesus came down and answered every prayer you prayed last week, what percentage of them would make the world a better place for others? How many prayers would only be about you?
Each person and each church can make a difference in the community they’re in.
We are largely absent from the communities we live in. Are you an Adventist that is worried you’ll have nowhere to run to when the persecution comes? Good news! Most Americans have no idea your church even exists! Get to know your civic leaders.
Be the example for civil public discourse on social issues.
There are enough people yelling and taking ad-hominem attacks at each other on TV and social media. Christians don’t need to add to the chaos. The Gospel teaches me that I can love people that persecute me and may even hate or want to kill me, while I treat and speak to them in a loving and respectful way.
Don’t engage in “whataboutism” and point to the perceived faults of everyone else. Peter tried that with Jesus and here’s his response to him and to you:
“Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow Me!” – John 21:21-22
So what kind of world does Jesus want? You can help bring a little bit of Heaven to Earth today through engaging in social justice. Practice it today.
Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 23, 1865, p. 197.
In Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years, 1876-1891 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald , 1984), vol. 3, p. 16l.
Review and Herald, October 15, 1914, par. 22