Now, Can We Talk?
I am a fairly typical white male American, and I want to talk about racism. I want our country to talk about it, and I want our Church to talk about it. Racism is a powerful force, and we need to take a more purposeful effort to reduce it. It’s not as if the church is avoiding the issue; there is “A Statement on Racism” that you can find online. It was written in 1985 and states clearly that racism is an “odious evil.” But it seems that it is an odious evil we have learned to live with. Twenty-four years is a long time, and the statement is very, very brief, particularly in light of the depth and length with which we have addressed other moral issues of our day.
I’ve heard more than a few white guys my age reject any responsibility for racism in America. Frankly, I think this attitude is pitiful and immature. If powerful white males are not primarily responsible for racism, then who is? Of course white males are not the only ones responsible, but we bear a greater moral burden to address the problem, in my view. We must bear the guilt and responsibility for the sins of our forefathers when it comes to racism. It is only in that clarity—it is only in the admission of this responsibility that we can find a vocabulary and an attitude to move forward.
I do take a measure of pride in the progress that America and the Church have made to halt and redress the racism of our past. But we have much more to do. And let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that there is no racism problem in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Whether here in the United States or anywhere else in the world, racism in the Church is real, and we must do something to address it. That is part of what the Church tried to do with the 1985 statement. But it didn’t go far enough. Andy Lampkin, Ph.D., one of my colleagues at LLU, said in an essay focused on the racism statement, “What it lacks is an adequate programmatic component, a complementary social policy that corresponds to its ethos" (Newsjournal of the Center for Christian Bioethics, LLU. Vol. 19, No. 3, p. 5).
The Christian ethics that underlie the “ethos” of this statement have two central concerns that cannot be set out in rank order—they are equally important. Loving God and loving neighbor establish the direction of these two central concerns. Loving our neighbors is the horizontal, day by day, demand of Christian ethics. Unconditional agape love is what God calls us to in relation with our neighbors. Loving God is the vertical, life-encompassing relationship we have with God. Both horizontal and vertical axes are absolutely essential for Christian ethics. You cannot fulfill your relationship with God if you ignore or poorly treat your neighbors. You cannot love your neighbors when you ignore your God.
Many in Adventism believe the way forward is to take every measure possible to create congregations and conferences that are completely racially diverse. Others take the opposite view, wanting instead to purposefully, voluntarily, segregate churches along ethnic lines. The best way forward may be a both/and answer rather than an either/or answer. What would God have us do? How can we love our neighbor so as to demonstrate our love of God?
Structurally, churches, conferences, unions, divisions, and the General Conference should establish working groups to take a long-range look at this issue in our Church. Personally, we each need to be honest with ourselves about our real attitude toward the other. When we feel it, see it, and hear it from our lips, we must demand accountability and change—for ourselves and for each other.