Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Being White

After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They were shouting out in a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God, to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9–10, NET)
I'm going to try to do something here that white people try to avoid: think, and think out loud, about what it means to be white. I'll get at why that can uncomfortable for us later on, but first, Why am I doing this?

"Emoji Modifier Fitzpatrick Type-1-2," Apple
I'm writing this because I've come to the conclusion, based on how John identifies the Great Multitude of the redeemed, that I'm going to be white in Heaven. Not that I'll have the phenotypical features of a Northern European in the sweet by and by; I don't know what kind(s) of skin, eyes, hair, etc. I, or anyone else, am going to have in Heaven. No, I mean that in Heaven the redeemed are able to be identified as being "from" the groups formed by their their world-historical circumstances. And one of those categories—at least, for many of us living in the modern world, as I'll explain—is race.

In other words, what I've heard God saying to me here is that if, in Heaven, he were to take away the white, he'd be taking away part of what it means for me to be David Hamstra. Just as much as if he took away the German, Luther wouldn't be Luther; or if he took away the Aramean, Jacob wouldn't be Jacob (Deuteronomy 26:5); or if he took away the Jewish, the man from Galilee wouldn't be Jesus.

So if being white here means I'm going to be white in Heaven, the question isn't whether or not I should be thinking of myself as a white person. The real question is What does it mean for me to be white? And, especially, How I am to be white together with those who are not?

Conversation Partners

To get at the answers to those questions, I'm going to bring in two authors and their two books as conversation partners. Let me introduce Linda and Tim.

Linda Martín Alcoff is a philosopher. She's of Panamanian and white American descent. Raised partly in rural Panama and with poor whites in Florida, she joined campus radicals during the American Civil Rights struggle, which involved exposing herself to life-threatening danger. Her book is The Future of Whiteness. I'll be drawing on Linda to talk about how identity works in general and how it has played out in the history of white people in particular.

Timothy J. Lensmire, for our purposes, is an ethnographer. He conducted a series of interviews with his white friends and associates in his home town in the rural northern Midwest about how they view racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States. His book is White Folks: Race and Identity in Rural America. By critically reflecting on his own past, and that of his interviewees, Tim weaves a story about how coming into contact with other peoples changed his own and his subjects' whiteness in both conventional and unexpected ways.

[Note: This isn't a book review. I'm using these them as sources, not critiquing the authors views where I disagree with them. I'm also not attempting to summarize the books by touching on their major themes or arguments. They are worth reading in their own right for other valuable insights the authors have on this topic.]


But before going into what it means to be white, let's figure out what it means to "be" anything in this way. Linda offers some philosophical guidance on what it is to have this kind of un-chosen group identity.

First, identities are not the material stuff of human existence. This can be illustrated by the difference between being a male and being a man. One could say that any male with functional genitalia can procreate, but it takes a man to raise his children to be responsible adults.

Second, identities are socially constructed. They vary across cultures. They have a story; they change over time. The habits and attitudes that make a man in America are similar to but different than those of Angola. And what we consider manly in America of 2018 is similar to, but different than, what was considered manly in 1958, or 1758. (Powdered wigs, anyone?)

Third, the fact that identities are not material and are socially constructed does not mean they are arbitrary or infinitely malleable. They are governed by cultural rules about attitudes and habits that developed as ways to help people make sense of their material circumstances by being or becoming a certain kind of person. To the degree that those rules continue to provide an explanation for what it means to be that kind of person in those circumstances, the identity expressed by those rules will be stable. So, returning to our example, whatever else masculine identity might come to involve, as long as humans sexually reproduce, attitudes and habits on the part of males who have reproduced that support family life are likely to continue to be a part of what it means to be a man, because they offer a powerful explanation for how we are to bring in the next generation.

That's all to say that being white is not fundamentally about possessing a certain set of physical characteristics. It means having inherited or been adopted into a partial but satisfactory explanation for how you arrived at your place in the world and a set of cultural rules about the habits and attitudes that make sense of how to live in light of that explanation. 

Finally, Tim's interviews suggest that identity requires some kind of Other(s) or counterpart(s), a variation (or variations) on the same kind of being as we are without whom there would be not reason to be identified as part of a group in the first place. There could be no such thing as a landlubber until the first sailor put out to sea. Whatever men are, they are not boys, or women. And whatever white people are, we are not—and we lack an elegant vocabulary for this—black, colored, something else?

The Story of White Identity

Time was when nobody thought of themselves as white. As recently as just over 100 years ago, when my great-great grandparents arrived in North Dakota, they thought of themselves primarily as Germans and Ukrainians. And, the story goes, my German great-grandparents were not to impressed that a Ukrainian boy (my grandfather) had taken a special interest in their daughter (my grandmother). But by the time I was old enough to learn about such things, those ethnic prejudices were long in the past. My grandfather was then an American, the kind who loved Western wear and proudly flew the US flag over his farm (typically, but not exclusively, white habits).

So in my family's history, white identity is something that was learned within living memory. Whiteness explained what you were in the New World, a place where the ethno-national rivalries of the Old didn't have to matter any more. And, as Linda points out, many European immigrants to these shores were forced out of their societies or otherwise had to leave under less than ideal circumstances. For these immigrants-of-necessity, whiteness afforded way of quickly shedding identities tied to shameful events of the past while simultaneously identifying with the American promise of a new start in life.

As the category of "white" in America expanded to include more and more ethnic groups (from Irish, to Italians, to Jews, to "white-Hispanics," etc.), it's power to explain trans-ethnic, and even trans-national affiliation not only increased, but was exported around the modern world. That's because the set of physical features racial categories map onto can be more or less fuzzy at the margins, changing as populations intersect or diverge across history. But the ability of whiteness to assimilate has, from the beginning, bumped up against its limit, its Other: the so-called person of color, whose phenotypical features cannot be plausibly associated with European ancestry so as to be physically indexed to white identity.

That is because the idea of a white person was invented by European elites who, following the Age of Discovery, realized that the divided, warring ethnicities crammed onto the lands north and west of the Caucasus mountains had more in common than they themselves understood. But, as Linda reminds us, the idea that these groups were all white people was part of more than just an Enlightenment quest for a rational, pan-national, European brotherhood. It also positioned these newly christened "white" people at the vanguard of history, on a disciplining mission to civilize the world according to the dictates of reason.

It doesn't take a cynical view of the intentions of those who formulated this vision of white supremacy to see how supremely susceptible it was to the depravity of the selfish human heart. Helping the locals put their resources to their best use (as if white people had the best understanding what "best" means) easily became colonial wealth extraction. Enslaving non-Christian blacks until such time as they should convert (as if that were a biblical way to evangelize) became keeping both them and their children as chattel slaves in perpetuity, because of the "curse of Ham," once too many had converted.

White Vulnerability

And that's where being white is complicated. On the one hand, the vanguard vision retains its ability to elicit pride among white people for their affiliation with a group that ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity, integration, and liberty for the peoples of the world, a project over which white people continue to preside to some extent. On the other, whiteness can equally be a source of deep shame for the abuse, exploitation, and degradation to which white people have subjected and continue to subject peoples of color, much of which was and continues to be justified as necessary to live in a modern world.

So we don't like to think or talk about ourselves as being white, because a deep part of what it explains about us is morally conflicted. When it comes to the role of whiteness in the modern world, we don't know whether to respond to our white identity with pride or shame. Not that being white is like being a Nazi, because, as Linda reminds us, being white explains a lot about me that isn't inextricably linked to attitudes and habits of oppression. If it were otherwise, white people could end the inner conflict by simply renouncing our whiteness or sublimating it into a newly constructed identity.

But neither is it exactly like being a Rotarian, because being white explains how we came to enjoy certain advantages in the modern world as direct or indirect results of white decisions to exploit of people of color because they were non-white. So we cannot speak to issues of race as white people without exposing ourselves to moral vulnerability according to our own standards of right and wrong (derived from Christian religiosity and Enlightenment rationality). And so, returning now to Tim's ethnography, we white Americans have responded to that sense of vulnerability in what I think of as a typically white way: by creating a new set of civilizing rules that manage the moral conflict of our identity so that we can get on with the rest of our lives.

The biggest rule is, don't mention race, except to denounce racism. Because, if you don't bring up race, you cannot be accused of being a racist. And being a racist means you are uncivilized and should therefore be denied the benefits of the modern world. These rules have locked white people into a competition in which status is earned by appearing anti-racist. Failure to do so gives society reason to deprive you of employment and business opportunities, political office, friendships, and other venues of power and influence.

Of course, this does not mean race goes unmentioned. Where white people are willing to be vulnerable with each other (such as during the weekly men's poker game hosted by the interviewee who lays out this dynamic for Tim) white people feel free to speak about people of color as such, and in the most bigoted of terms. But in this space there can be no challenging of such perceptions, because to do so would introduce the anti-racist status competition of civilized life and destroy the trust that allows white people to voice the vulnerable side of their identity. In Tim's telling, many white people are stuck between a "high spaces," where white racial attitudes and habits are strictly controlled but white people can't talk about race, and a "low spaces," where white racial attitudes and habits are uncontrolled, but where they can talk about race.

How to Be White

So the problem of being white, as I've developed it with the help of Linda and Tim, is one of being morally conflicted with no venue in which to resolve that conflict. The story of whiteness lays bare the sources of that conflict in the white desire to transcend the racial categories we created and usher in a new, post-racial era via civilizing disciplines that enforce "colorblind" attitudes and habits. We are gambling with our consciences on a repeat of the same move that only partially succeeded at uniting the Europeans; only this time it's for all humanity.

But that homogenizing Babel project cannot succeed. Partly because it's imposed top-down via rules that suppress the conversation necessary for the explanatory power that comes from bottom-up identity formation to emerge. And partly because because we need an Other to define ourselves.

So, if resolving the conflict of white identity in the twenty-first century does not, or rather cannot, mean sublimating it to an all consuming anti-racist project, how are we supposed to be white? What I took away from reading Linda on that question can be summarized thus: Being white isn't so special. Part of our moral problem is the we need to get over ourselves.

White people are not, and have never been, the vanguard of history. Jesus is the vanguard of history. That means we can afford to let go of power and control in society and in the church. That also means that we're not at the vanguard of an anti-racist civilizing project. God isn't waiting for his white people to be purified of all racism, as if only then could he finally save the world.

What is required of us white people is the same thing that was required of the Christian Jews when it came time for the fullness of the Gentiles to come into the Assembly. It started by giving up control of the food distribution to six Greek-speaking Jews and a Greek proselyte (Acts 6:5). We've become accustomed to a world and a church run "for us, by us," to borrow a phrase. White people who can't take their place beside, not before, all the other groups of people who have inhabited this world will find they are not suited to the worship of their Creator around the throne of Heaven.

That does not imply that there are not better or worse ways of being in the world before God. However, the fact that whiteness is just one of them means that it is not the standard by which the rest are to be judged. It also means that it does not have a privileged relationship to that standard. Whiteness is just one way, among many, by which God has lead people to make sense of their circumstances in ways that open them to knowledge of himself (Acts 17:26). To make it more or less than that is an idolatrous denial of God's uniqueness as the supreme agency in human history.

How to Be White With Others

If that is the case then how are we to go about being white with the Others. Linda points to examples of US Civil Rights era white uplift movements—movements seeking justice for poor whites—that also coordinated with movements to promote justice for black Americans as well. In other words, white identity and white concerns are not inherently bound up with the oppression of people of color. In fact, they can be very much the opposite.

But what makes the difference? Here's where I think Tim's ethnography clarifies two ways people form their identity in distinction to the Other. Tim asked his white interview subjects to recall the first time they met a black person. For those who met black people as children, the reaction of the white adults around them was crucial. All the adults recalled a childish desire to form relationships with the black people they encountered. For those who were encouraged in this impulse by their adult authority figures, their initial encounter with black people was associated with feelings of joy, wonder, and contentment. They came to view racial difference as a potential source of personal acceptance, and, as adults, had a less morally compromised relationship with race and racism as a result.

The other group had experienced the same impulse toward connection, but picked up subtle or overt signals from adults they respected that this was a transgression of boundaries, a transgression for which they felt shame. Out of a strong childish desire to please the adults in their life, they began to be racially discriminating in their associations. As adults, although often not wanting to be racist, they more often viewed people of color as sources of fear and as scapegoats.

From these identity forming experiences, in which Tim's interviewees came to understand themselves as white, they inherited one of two very different ways of being white with Others. In one, to be white is the way to be human, a way which is threatened by corrupting associations with those who are human in distinctly deficient ways. In the other, to be white is a way to be human, a way that is affirmed by validating encounters with those who are human in distinctly different ways. We white people cannot choose which way of being white was passed down to us, but we can choose which way we will pass on to our children.

A Cross-shaped Way of Being White

I suspect that the choice to embrace or to exclude will hinge on a willingness to make amends where amends are due. In my own life, I expect to maintain a measure of prudent self protection between myself and those who have proven willing and capable of harming me, intentionally or inadvertently, until such time as amends are made. I can't expect it to be otherwise for people of color, individually or as a group, when it comes to their relationships with me as a white person. For, the benefits of group identity go along with the burdens of group accountability.

Again, that doesn't mean putting white people back into the driver's seat of history. It simply means we don't get special treatment when it comes to any contemporary or historical wrongs to the extent that we are implicated in them. It means we don't assume we have the best take on what's best for race relations personally, socially, or in the church. And it means we will need to listen to the concerns of those with other racial and ethnic identities—concerns that come from ways of making sense of circumstances rather different than ours—to the same degree that we expect other groups to listen to concerns that come out of having a white identity.

I take this personally to be the racial side of what it means to hide myself behind the cross. Hiding self behind the cross doesn't mean that the components of my self-identity are annihilated by Christian conversion. It means that they are held relative to the self-sacrificing love of Christ, so that I now devote them to the purpose of laying my life down for others. I want to commit to God, for his service, those white habits and attitudes that enable me to love others in a cross-shaped way. As for those that get in the way of that love, I want them to stay hidden behind Jesus's sacrifice.
"I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another." (John 13:34–35)

I've written previously about race, social justice, and Jubilee: "The Sabbath More Fully."

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Four Adventisms

The two central tensions, as I have come see them in Anglo-American Adventism, are between immanent and transcendent goods and between justifying and sanctifying grace (or, as I will call them when referring to grace in the immanent mode, affirming and disciplining relationships).

Their historical roots are in the 1888 crisis (justifying vs. sanctifying) and the Kellogg crisis (immanent vs. transcendent).

That makes for four possible trajectories movements can take out of the center of Adventism, and I think we've got them all.
  1. Immanent/affirming = Recovery Adventism—reconciling the self to itself
  2. Transcendent/justifying = Evangelical Adventism—reconciling the self to God
  3. Immanent/disciplining = Social Justice Adventism—healing the body and society
  4. Transcendent/sanctifying = Apocalyptic Adventism—conforming the body and church to God's end-time purposes
Before I briefly develop each category, a couple of caveats: (1) I'm not going to name names because this isn't statistically validated. (2) What follows an intuitive interpretation of my faith community based on my experience of Anglo-American Adventism in relatively diverse church membership and ministry settings. I leave it to you to decide to what or whom these categories might apply and how valid they are in light of your own experience of the same.

1. The immanent/affirming option is the last trajectory to be explored and is the most marginal. It provides an answer to the question, How can I live with myself? Its deep roots are in the Wesleyan class method, which was practiced as the "social meeting" for a short time in early Adventism. It started again in the 1970s when Adventism first started to incorporate the techniques of therapy culture to treat drug addictions. Where it is associated with Twelve Step culture (Methodism for the spiritual but not religious), it can be properly called Recovery Adventism. But it can also have sources in therapy/coaching culture, chaplaincy ministry, and the spiritual formation movement. Recovery Adventism aims at reconciling the self to itself with divine help via introspective practices combined with group affirmation. It is centered on areas with large numbers of Adventists where it is highly attractive to those who have failed to reconcile an affirmative sense of self to the self-denial required to practice one or more of the varieties of transcendent or sanctifying/disciplining Adventism.

2. Transcendent/justifying Adventism views the relationship of God's grace to the self as affirming and aims at reconciling the self to God. It provides an answer to the question, How can God live with me? Its historical source in Adventism is Jones and Wagoner's recovery of the Reformation teaching that the moral law of God is powerless to bring us into a saving relationship with him. It is acceptance God's unmerited favor that enables the self to transcend its sinful condition in relationship to God. The role of the moral law is primarily to show us our defects, which God forgives when we repent. Where this movement retains the apocalyptic transcendent focused on the second coming and Adventist sectarian distinctiveness in light of that, it can be associated with the theological consensus of institutional Adventism that emerged between the Evangelical conferences (1950s) and the aftermath of the Ford crisis (1980s). Where a movement on this trajectory has a Cross-oriented transcendent vision and emphasizes Adventism as a part of the broader Christian community, it can be properly labeled evangelical Adventism. Either way, these movements often also define themselves in opposition to transcendent/sanctifying Adventism.

3. Immanent/disciplining Adventism that excludes the other Adventisms is what Kellogg advocated in The Living Temple: the discipline of self for the purpose of cooperating with God's restoration of creation. It continues to be centered around Adventist health and higher education institutions. But these are no longer organized to effect a radical reform of medical practice in accordance with natural laws of health. So the focus on God's saving work has shifted somewhat from the perfecting of the human body to perfecting of the social organism. Not that Kellogg was without his urban missions nor that social justice Adventism is devoid of alternative health practices. It's a matter of emphasis. The disciplines that were once applied to make the body whole according to laws of health have been transformed by a new set of disciplines aimed at healing the divisions of society by implementing the imperatives of justice. Either way, they provide an answer to the question, How can we live in the world? Although less radical than its predecessor in some ways, there is enough divergence from those who don't practice these disciplines, both within and without the church, to sustain a distinct Adventist identity around social justice. These movements may or may not have an affinity with other Adventist movements, depending on the consonance of their goals. But social justice Adventism encounters pushback when those committed to transcendent expressions of Adventism believe it is reducing their faith to the concerns of this world, as with Kellogg's panentheistic immanentizing of God.

4. Transcendent/sanctifying Adventism provides an answer to the question, How can we live with God? It has its historical roots in Joseph Bates's Sabbatarian conversation based on the Seventh Day Baptist interpretation of God's moral law in Reformed theology. His subsequent theological moves held other doctrines relative to the Sabbath—including salvation, which became keeping the God's moral law. For Bates, this was not exclusive to health and social justice activism, but his followers left that work to Kellogg. Their view of salvation was rejected by Ellen White in 1888, and consequently most transcendent/sanctifying Adventists are at least nominally tethered to transcendent/justifying soteriology. The sanctifying part comes in after justification, when the mode of God's relationship to the self demands discipline via empowering grace. The emphasis then switches to ordering ourselves and the body of Christ through wholistic spiritual practices to become the kind of people who can withstand the final crisis. These apocalyptic movements are the most likely to view other movements as having gone beyond the limits of Adventism and often see themselves as the church's disciplinarian.

I think individuals or movements can be more or less inclined toward the exclusive, ideal type of each trajectory. And while some could be moving away, others could be moving closer to the center.

But, because of human finitude, movements and individuals cannot deeply pursue each combination of the good and how to achieve it simultaneously. Thus, the third axis of this analysis, not represented graphically, would be time.

On this analysis, an identity crisis hits Adventism when a major moment along one or another of the trajectories can no longer be explained as Adventist on the other groups' terms. The immanent goods of Adventism can be pursued with more or less openness to transcendent goods (and vice versa). Likewise, discipline can take place in a context of affirmation, and affirmation can ground the disciplining relationships. Or they can be seen as diametrically opposed.

I believe the center of Adventism to be wherever movements and individuals maintain openness to the other goods/graces and to the other movements pursuing them. And I think you can read Ellen White herself as simultaneously correcting imbalances among these pursuits of the good and growing herself in her understanding and practice of how to relate them.

So while I do not take these four Adventisms to be inherently mutually exclusive, they do define four dimensions across which movements in Adventism have excluded each other in the following ways.

1. Immanent/affirming Adventism's self-affirming mode is perceived as directly undermining the sanctification required by transcendent/sanctifying Adventists, especially when it doesn't care to explain itself in transcendent terms. Movements within recovery Adventism can also move outside what evangelical Adventists think of as Christianity when they start to deny transcendent dimensions to our relationship with God, like divine wrath or the need to accept Jesus as savior in order to go to Heaven. They exclude social justice Adventists when they affirm those whose politics and practices are contrary to the imperatives of justice.

2. Where transcendent/justifying Adventism embraces its natural affinity with the God-and-country mode of its Evangelical cousins, prioritizing a politics of piety and personal virtue, it can no longer be seen as authentically Adventist for immanent/disciplining Adventism. Where it sees no further need for the reconciliation with oneself after one has been reconciled to God, it excludes recovery Adventism. And where it makes the center of God's saving activity on the cross exclusive, it's soteriology is no longer intelligible in terms of apocalyptic Adventism's sanctuary theology.

3. Evangelical Adventism cannot exchange the free pardon of God for a view of sin as the absence of peace and salvation as social reconciliation, and it fears this is often the upshot of immanent/disciplining Adventism, especially where it has lost the conversionist impulse. And while apocalyptic Adventists and social justice Adventists can both advocate vegetarianism, for the former it is primarily to prepare the body to receive the Holy Spirit, and the later, where it is only to heal creation, excludes the former. Recovery Adventism parts ways with social justice Adventism when the imperatives of justice are seen to require overly adversarial modes of relating to others and to the self.

4. The self-denial required by transcendent/sanctifying Adventism is even less intelligible on immanent/affirming terms than the self-denial required by immanent/disciplining Adventism because transcendent/sanctifying Adventism isn't always able to offer a this-life explanation for why the discipline is necessary. And when apocalyptic Adventism isn't willing to talk about how its disciplines are consonant with being reconciled to ourselves and the world, it comes across to recovery and social justice Adventism as more sanctimonious than sanctifying. Apocalyptic Adventism also excludes evangelical Adventism when it becomes suspicious that any emphasis on the cross is an attempt to undermine a transcendent vision focused on the second coming.

I don't at all mean to suggest that these tensions explain everything important about Adventism or everyone's Adventist experience. I do think this analysis is grounded on profound philosophical tensions inherent in Adventist teaching and practice as it relates to the self, God, the body, and the world. Therefore, it likely explains a lot of what's been going on, but that would have to be demonstrated with further research.

As to the question of whether the center of Adventism holds, it depends on whether we can maintain those tensions as generative of creative responses to challenges and opportunities. That would involve a number of other factors including our relationship to Scripture, Ellen White, spirituality, institutional intentionality, leadership capacity, etc.

In the meantime, I'm putting this half-baked thesis out here in the hopes it can at the least suggest some fundamental questions to bear in mind when you think about and live out what it means to be an Adventist in the twenty-first century.

This essay was published in The Compass Magazine.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What Religious Liberty Is

In recent weeks there has been much discussion in the American media about what religious liberty entails. What I have not seen is anyone taking a stab at the question of what religious liberty is. In this essay, I will attempt to define what religious liberty is, and then look how that might apply to a current dilemma.

I take religious liberty to be the right to withdraw from meaningful participation in an otherwise mandatory custom—whether a practice or an abstention—based on the transcendent claims of a community of believers with which one has a good faith association. This definition does not reduce religious liberty to a mere mode in which freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, property rights, etc are expressed, though it may entail those other rights. It also only kicks in when religious minorities have a different way of relating to the transcendent than the larger political community in which they live.

"Meaningful participation" is an expression intended to exclude second order involvement with other responsible parties from religious liberty exemptions. So once money changes hands, I'm no longer responsible for what happens to the good or service provided. Or, going the other way, what the business does with the money I provide them in exchange for their good or service, I'm not longer responsible for.

In concrete terms, a Jehovah's Witness can't try to stop a hospital they patronize from providing blood transfusions to other patients. A conscientious objector can't sue to stop the whole nation from going to war. A Catholic gynecologist can't object to their medical society licensing doctors who perform abortions. And so on.

Crucially, "meaningful participation" doesn't prejudge what ways of relating to the claims of the transcendent are legitimate. I only assumes the the final responsibility for the way one relates to the transcendent, as far as a free society is concerned, is personal (though typically sustained through associations of like-minded individuals). Hence, it is to be expected, for example, that some traditionalists are okay with going to same-sex weddings and others not.

But what "meaningful participation" does do is limit the extent to which exemptions for those who recognize such claims must be extended across social relationships. It does so based on the assumption that other parties are responsible for their relation (or not) to the transcendent as they best understand it. Therefore, the participation for which an exemption is granted has to be meaningful with reference to a network of relationships in which each individual is responsible for their own relationship to transcendence.

So on this definition of religious liberty, an third century Christian may withdraw from the incense offering to the Roman emperor—a mandatory practice reinforcing state solidarity that the empire takes the gods to be indifferent to—because Christians have a good faith association with a community of believers in a resurrected God who requires they not have meaningful participation idolatry.

And on this definition, an nineteenth century Seventh-day Adventist has the right to withdraw from Sunday rest—a mandatory abstention that America takes the Christian God to be in favor of—because Adventists have a good faith association with a community of believers in a God who created in six days and rested on the seventh and requires they not have meaningful participation in observing Sunday as a day of rest.

But, as with all rights, your right to religious liberty ends at my nose. To take two extreme examples, if your god demands human sacrifice, you don't get to kill me. Likewise, if your God demands race-based discrimination, you don't get to organize to broadly exclude historically discriminated against racial/ethnic minority groups from goods and services offered to the public.

Now, to briefly apply this framework to the specific case of the Colorado baker:

The assumption of American capitalism is that God (if a Supreme Being exists) doesn't hold us responsible for the transcendent moral implications of what we know people will do with the goods and services we provide to the public. The baker belongs to a community of believers who dissent from that view of the relationship between transcendence and free markets. They can't have meaningful participation in gay marriages due to the meaning they see in the institution of marriage as it relates to their God.
The Colorado baker isn't suing to stop everyone from using any of his cakes in a same-sex wedding. He isn't screening every customer based on their beliefs about same-sex weddings or asking about the intended use for every product sold. But he does object to making specific cakes that he has good reason to believe would be used to celebrate a same-sex wedding. Thus, this is a request for exemption based on meaningful participation. And the Colorado baker has also turned down business making cakes for Halloween and divorce celebrations, evidence that his appeal to a transcendent claim is in good faith.

But the custom from which he is requesting exemption provides a social good that must be weighted against his religious liberty. Sexual minorities are a historically discriminated against group that is even today targeted for violence and needs protection from being broadly excluded from goods and services offered to the public. So whether the Colorado baker can be granted an exemption does not simply turn on whether his claim of meaningful participation is in good faith and simply not cover for an anti-minority animus. The extent of the exemption he is requesting would determine whether this baker is trying to push his rights past the minority group's nose.

In this case, the Colorado baker requested a narrow exemption to the non-discrimination mandate from providing a select good and service. So it is not part of a broad attempt to exclude sexual minorities from his business dealings all together. The baker is willing to provide sexual minorities cakes in general with the exception of those that entail meaningful participation in practices his God prohibits, including, but not limited to, cakes that entail his meaningful participation in a same-sex marriage.

We have no reason to doubt the harm to dignity wrought by the experience of being discriminated against on the part of the gay couple. We should be especially sensitive to it given the high rates of suicide found among sexual minorities, and require those who claim to religiously object to meaningful participation in same-sex marriages do so without expressing of animus toward sexual minorities as a sign of good faith.

On the other hand, the Colorado baker's conscientious objection was not part of a broad social exclusion of sexual minorities from the wedding cake market. The gay couple was able to get their wedding cake from another local goods and services provider.

In a free society, while there is a right for minority groups not to be excluded from public life, including the marketplace, there is no right to be shielded from every indignity. We recognize that the rights of others, such as freedom of speech, will expose everyone, including historically discriminated against minorities, to certain indignities. We minimize our exposure to indignities through free associations, which also reinforce the sense of self by which we are able to bear those indignities we must in order to maintain our freedom.

Because the extent of the meaningful participation to which the Colorado baker objects is narrow, because his objection is good faith and not primarily motivated by animus, and because Coloradans in general disagree with the Colorado baker's understanding of what God expects of him, having enacted civil rights legislation to that effect; religious liberty requires that we allow for this narrow exposure to indignity on the part of sexual minorities in order to maintain the religious liberty on which a free society is predicated.

I have previously treated this issue in greater length: "A Framework for Balancing Competing Concerns: RFRAs and Adventists in the Public Square."

Sunday, February 05, 2017

56 Theses On Trump And Truth

1. Understanding the power of how President Trump relates to the truth requires understanding how professional wrestling and reality television, the televisual forms in which he built his popularity with the everyman, appeal to their audiences.

2. If we don't understand what the rise of Mr. Trump to the presidency reveals about the way these these televisual forms shape their audiences' relationship to the truth, we won't understand how to effectively communicate with them.

3. These audiences know that what is being presented in these televisual forms as unscripted is in fact heavily scripted, yet not entirely scripted.

4. Pointing out to these audiences that a gap between presentation and reality makes a TV show "fake" does not lessen the appeal of these televisual forms for them.

5. By asking their audiences with a "wink" to suspend disbelief on the question of whether what is presented is fiction or non-fiction the producers of these televisual forms invite the audience into an interpretive game played with an unreliable narrator.

6. The audiences that enjoy professional wrestling and reality television enjoy it, not despite the fact that they are being "lied to," but because the gap between presentation and reality invites them to account for the mechanics of scripting a spectacle that resonates emotionally.

7. This gives the audiences a powerful sense of being "in the know" about stories over which they have little to no control.

8. These audiences can then play this interprative game with the rest of the media, media that is not "winking" as they present a story as fiction or non-fiction.

9. If fiction and non-fiction are on a spectrum, how much of non-fiction media is presented by unreliable narrators as real when in fact it is scripted? Answer: All of it, to some degree.

10. In reality television and professional wrestling, good and evil are not moral absolutes but plot devices used by unreliable narrators to ask their audiences' to suspend disbelief.

11. Sensationally good characters suspend disbelief just as well as sensationally evil characters. Only boring characters are wrong.

12. If something boring happens, the interprative game is no longer fun because the gap between presentation and reality collapses as the reality of the scripting process becomes evident in its failure to deliver a spectacle that resonates emotionally.

13. For the audiences of these televisual forms, the value proposition of most media on the non-fiction end of the spectrum comes across as, Give us your time and attention (making us money) in exchange for boring stories told by unreliable narrators who never "wink". At least the unreliable narrators of fiction media tell spectacular stories, even if their interprative game is less fun.

14. These audiences cannot evaluate the truth of professional wrestling or reality television based on whether the narrator is sincere in what they present as true or false, good or evil, but on whether the (always unreliable) narrator tells a story that is emotionally compelling while inviting them to consider how they scripted reality.

15. By inviting their audience to consider how they scripted reality, the unreliable narrator allows their audience to evaluate them based on whether the narrator's self-interest in telling the story aligns with the audience's interests in investing in it.

16. For the audiences of these televisual forms, earnestly presenting truth as Truth, not-truth as Not-truth, good as Good and evil as Evil is the sign of an unreliable narrator who either doesn't realize they are scripting reality according to their own interests or knows it and is keeping their audience from playing the interprative game by being inauthentic.

17. For the audiences of these televisual forms, what counts for truth is authenticity—telling a spectacular story they can resonate with and inviting them to evaluate your motives for having done so by "winking" at your unreliable narration.

18. Of course, there are those in the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television who believe everything they see is real and none of it scripted. They intensify the sense of interprative play for the rest of the audience who is in on the game.

19. In the metanarrative constructed by the audiences of these televisual forms in their interprative play, the true believers among them are just another part of reality being scripted by the unreliable narrator, in this case, using the spectacle to script the true believers.

20. This reinforces the audiences' sense of being behind the scenes of a story over which they actually have little to no control.

21. For the true believers, truth resides at the level of spectacle, where presentation and reality appear to merge.

22. For the rest of the audience, truth resides in the gap between presentation and reality where spectacle and motive combine: Lie to me, so I can see if our self-interests are aligned.

23. Those who present truth earnestly, in the view of these audiences, are obscuring how they've scripted reality so that they can obscure their motives to themselves or their audiences.

24. Those who present truth earnestly and appear to be scripting reality the least may limit the spectacular in their presentation by breaking up their story with alternative viewpoints, caveats about their own biases, and other nuances. They are boring.

25. Boring presentations of reality are not emotionally compelling, so the audiences of these televisual forms are apt to ignore them.

26. Boring presentations of reality do not help these audiences tell themselves a story about themselves that makes their lives feel spectacular, so there is no payoff for these audiences that alignes with their self-intersets in investing time and attention in media.

27. If a presentation of reality doesn't offer a story that can be evaluated in terms of these audiences' self-interests, it cannot be evaluated by them through interprative play for its truth content.

28. For the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television, boring, non-fiction media has even less truth value than earnest, non-fiction media (Donald Trump > Hannity > Fox News > CSPAN).

29. Boring presentations of reality also imply that acting based on ones interests is less important than understanding reality in all its complexities.

30. If reality is always being scripted by all media, it is meaningless to seek an understanding of it that goes beyond the interests of powerful actors.

31. The spectacular celebrates the act taken without regard to complexities, whether for good or evil, as that which compels an audience to invest time and attention in the story of the actor and find truth in its resonances with the story they tell themselves about themselves.

32. Because the story we tell ourselves about ourselves shapes and is informed by our self-interests, it is possible to influence the interests of audiences invested in a story by shaping their story about themselves.

33. The one who produces spectacular acts can influence the interests of these audiences by shaping they story they tell themselves about themselves through the metanarrative they tell themselves about the scripting of the spectacular. (The effect also works in reverse from audience to producer.)

34. Having given up on any truthful presentation of reality, the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television are not equipped to evaluate this shaping of the stories they tell themselves by any standard other than their interests as they are being shaped.

35. Pointing that that Mr. Trump is "fake," a more pervasive scripter of reality than ordinary politicians, and that his blatant disregard for the pretense of truthful presentation disqualifies him from being taken seriously does not lessen his appeal to these audiences because they do not believe that any presentation of reality can correspond well-enough to reality to discredit the story Mr. Trump is telling.

36. For the audiences of these televisual forms, Mr. Trump is telling the truth because he tells a story through spectacular speech acts that leave gaps between reality and presentation inviting them into a interprative game in which they tell themselves a story about how his interests align with their own.

37. Politicians are simultaneously narrators of the national story and actors in it.

38. Politicians who want their audiences to participate in their decisions about how to deal with the reality of Truth and un-Truth, Good and Evil, make earnest presentations—the more boring the presentation, the more reality their audience is able to participate in deciding about.

39. Mr. Trump does not want his audience to participate in decisions about reality, but instead asks his audience to trust that his own interests in scripting reality are aligned with theirs to the degree that his unreliable narration reveals that they are.

40. The more spectacularly Mr. Trump's speech acts as an unreliable narrator signal that he is aligned with the interests of his audience, the more truly his interests can be judged by his audience through interprative play to be aligned with their own.

41. The more spectacularly Mr. Trump's speech acts as an unreliable narrator signal that he is not aligned with those opposed to the interests of his audience, the more truly his own interests can be judged by his audience through interprative play to be aligned with their own.

42. For the purposes of creating spectacle, it does not matter whether Mr. Trump presents himself as good or evil.

43. Evocative presentations of Mr. Trump as evil heighten the spectacle for his audience.

44. Earnest presentations of Mr. Trump as evil that can be plausibly denied heighten the sense of unreliable narration from both Mr. Trump and the news media for his audience.

45. Nuanced presentations of Mr. Trump as one not aligned with the interests of his audience are boring to his audience, which causes them to question the motives of the presenter.

46. Science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick was correct when he said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." (And he should know, because he had a mystical vision and then did a lot of perception altering drugs.)

47. Unfortunately, that kind of reality is so complex that by the time we realize it's not going away, it's too late to avoid trouble.

48. Those who wish to understand the reality of Mr. Trump and make decisions about it before it reaches the point where it doesn't go away are limited to the study of his actions in speech and deed.

49. As an unreliable narrator, Mr. Trump will continually create ambiguity as to how much of what he presents is Truth. You will rarely know enough about how big the gap between presentation and reality is before it's too late to respond.

50. Ask not what Mr. Trump's says but what his speech does and how it aligns with everything else he is doing.

51. When making decisions, account for how Mr. Trump's actions in speech and deed script reality for himself and his audience, shaping and responding to their mutual self-interests.

51. The study of Mr. Trump's speech as act requires detaching from the emotional resonance of his spectacular performance as national antihero.

52. To detach from Mr. Trump's spectacle, you must tell yourself a story about yourself that has more emotional resonance than the one Mr. Trump is narrating by replacing self-(interest)gratifying entertainment with spiritual practices.

53. To detach from Mr. Trump's spectacle, you must invest time and attention in boring presentations of reality by replacing 24-hour news cycles and social media with critical analysis of longform journalism and peer-reviewed research findings.

54. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience will not try to influence them with earnest appeals that require the audience to assume that the presenter is good, the presenter's opposition evil, and the presenter's self-interest, irrelevant.

55. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience know that talk is cheap and reality is expensive. They prove their good intentions with real investments in their audience that cannot be denied because they don't go away.

56. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience attempt to engage them with irony, Socratic dialogue, and illustrative stories that make nuanced presentations of reality an invitation to mutual discovery instead of a boring monologue.

Further (Boring) Reading

Monday, January 23, 2017

Polarization In American Politics: Whither Adventists?

As Americans move deeper into an era of relativistic political tribalism, where picking a team and embracing its biases increasingly counts for more than arriving at a truthful consensus, political disagreements threaten to divide American Adventists against their coreligionists. This will require the church to either retreat even further from religiously informed political engagement or renew a distinctly Adventist political theology that can withstand the forces of polarization. I will argue that we cannot afford to abandon the political formation of the Adventist soul to American political factions because the fundamental political commitments of those factions are not religiously neutral and have religious implications.

To get that religious perspective, it is important to understand that much of the spiritual energy
driving the left and right of American politics apart is derived from the Calvinist impulse to transform society through an integrated relationship of church and state. It first came to these shores with the Puritan settlers of New England and later with the largely Presbyterian Scotch-Irish settlers of Appalachia.

On the left, the Puritan "city on a hill" vision of "perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders" was secularized in mainline American Protestantism and directed toward accomplishing social equality. By the 1950s, WASPs were being told by their liberal clergy that they didn't need a particularly Christian God, or even any God at all, to accomplish that pluralistic vision. But that implies their churches weren't really needed either. So they emptied them and turned to left-wing party politics as a secular church, in which they could better organize to actualize their religiously derived vision for the ultimate good of society (the ultimate good being the highest source of meaning one has when one no longer has a sense of the transcendent). "In short, ecumenical [American] Protestants embraced modernity, advancing the cause of Enlightenment while simultaneously becoming one of its casualties.

On the right, a neo-theocratic vision exists, which revolves around rolling back the sexual revolution by re-establishing, to some degree, the state sponsorship of Christianity that existed in the thirteen colonies and early US states. For them, a degree of inequality is the price of orienting society toward sexual morality as a transcendent good; just as for the left, a degree of sexual immorality is the price of equality. The forerunners of this "religious right" faction took the fundamentalist side of the same Protestant fundamentalist/modernist controversy that secularized the mainline. And by the 1950s, many Fundamentalists were sloughing off their social quietism and joining an Evangelical movement that secularized in its own way: being politically activated, partly in response to the sexual revolution, through involvement with conservative political apparatus in search of a popular constituency.

Other Christian traditions share the goals of reforming American sexual mores and/or bringing about equality, but, crucially, differ on the question of how tightly church and state must be integrated to accomplish social reform. The recently published, Five Views on the Church and Politics, gives a good sense of the spectrum, from separationist, on one side, to integrationist, on the other: "Anabaptist (or Separationist), Lutheran (or Paradoxical), Black Church (or Prophetic), Reformed (or Transformationist), and Catholic (or Synthetic)." Calvinism—through the neo-Reformed movement—is the major intellectual force in White Evangelicalism today. However some neo-Reformed voices are resisting the spiritual energy of theocratic politics, including Russell Moore, who is trying to bring the Southern Baptists closer to their Anabaptist/separationist roots in the English Dissenters.

It is those persecuted minority, dissenting Protestant groups, as my professor, Nick Miller argues, who birthed the tradition of religiously informed politics to which Adventists properly belong. Adventists have no illusions of perfecting, much less transforming, society on this side of the Second Coming. We don't desire a privileged political position for ourselves (or any other group) to implement our conception of the transcendent good, because that will not be realized in the here and now. But we recognize that God has given us a democratic government to foster temporal goods based on consensus, including temporal goods derived from both sexual morality and social equality. While willing to work with groups motivated by very different political theologies toward reforms in these and other areas, we ought to be deeply skeptical of political agendas that sacrifice one for the sake of imposing the other.

Adventists cannot take sides in the political fight within the house of Calvinism—a secularized Yankee camp pushing equality and a religious Appalachian camp pushing sexual morality—without compromising both our commitment to the Second Coming as the only source of societal transformation and our imperative of religious liberty with respect to transcendent/ultimate goods in the meantime. And with this Washingtonian captivity of the Protestant church comes the threat of persecution for those who don't pick the winning side. Both kinds of Puritan might equally expel a later-day Roger Williams into a cold Massachusetts winter, whether for being on the wrong side of the march of progress toward sexual equality or for being the wrong side of God as they believe He ought to be worshiped.

Thankfully, the political theology of the dissenters, not the Puritans, made it's way into the First Amendment. The question is how long the promise of separationist religious liberty guaranteed on paper can last in a political environment spiritually dominated by religious and secular Calvinists.

Monday, November 07, 2016

History, Prophecy & Tomorrow's Vote

I just finished a close reading of Ellen G. White's short treatise "History and Prophecy" in Education, and I'm persuaded that is has a message that is vital for American believers of all persuasions facing tomorrow's vote.

In my interpretation, her burden in this chapter is to show how history is a medium through which God's character is revealed in the historical forces that lie behind the rise and fall of nations.

Using Nebuchadnezzar as an example, she decries his arrogance and pride in speaking and acting as if he were the source of his power and greatness. These character defects led the formerly great king to gave himself over greed, resulting in the oppression of those he was given that power to protect.

She writes:
To each the words spoken to Nebuchadnezzar of old are the lesson of life: 'Break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by showing mercy to the poor; if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquility.' Daniel 4:27.

To understand these things,—to understand that 'righteousness exalteth a nation;' that 'the throne is established by righteousness' and 'upholden by mercy' (Proverbs 14:34; 16:12; Proverbs 20:28); to recognize the outworking of these principles in the manifestation of His power who 'removeth kings, and setteth up kings' (Daniel 2:21),—this is to understand the philosophy of history.
In the word of God only is this clearly set forth. Here it is shown that the strength of nations, as of individuals, is not found in the opportunities or facilities that appear to make them invincible; it is not found in their boasted greatness. It is measured by the fidelity with which they fulfill God's purpose" (174–175).
God acted to remove the abusive king's power, and those who believe in Daniel's God can still fall into the same trap by arrogantly imagining that the outcome of tomorrow's election is up to the electorate. If it were, our "strength" would be "found in" a human source, namely, the number of people who vote like we do. Rather, our strength as a individual voters and as a nation "is measured by the fidelity with which" the choices we make in deciding the leadership of our nation, "fulfill God's purpose."

We have a role to play, but it is God who ultimately permits one candidate or the other to inhabit the White House. Thus, divine supervision of history frees us from the burden of making Machiavellian political calculations entirely within the "immanent frame," as if God were not an active agent in history.

This brings all the options political pragmatists insist we must ignore back on the table. But, it also brings an even greater burden on us who must choose whether to vote and whom to vote for, because history is not only the medium in which God's character is revealed, but also our own.
We need to study the working out of God's purpose in the history of nations and in the revelation of things to come, that we may estimate at their true value things seen and things unseen; that we may learn what is the true aim of life; that, viewing the things of time in the light of eternity, we may put them to their truest and noblest use. Thus, learning here the principles of His kingdom and becoming its subjects and citizens, we may be prepared at His coming to enter with Him into its possession (184).

Friday, July 29, 2016

"The Sabbath More Fully"

“I saw that God had children, who do not see and keep the Sabbath. They had not rejected the light on it. And at the commencement of the time of trouble, we were filled with the Holy Ghost as we went forth and proclaimed the Sabbath more fully” (Ellen White, “A Word to The Little Flock” [WLF], 19).
On April 7, 1847 a young visionary, Ellen White, wrote a landmark letter to the Advent preacher and abolition activist, Joseph Bates. Her husband, James White, published it two months later in “A Word To The Little Flock,” the broadside that first set forth the core beliefs of the coalescing movement that would become the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The letter was a straightforward account of what we now call the Sabbath Halo Vision.

The Holy Spirit had shown Ellen White the Most Holy Place of the Heavenly Sanctuary. As she looked into the Ark of the Covenant, Jesus opened the tablets of stone that contain the Ten Commandments. “…the fourth (the Sabbath commandment,) shone above them all; for the Sabbath was set apart to be kept in honor of God's holy name.…The holy Sabbath looked glorious—a halo of glory was all around it.” (WLF, 18)

Then the scene panned down on terrestrial events. She saw how the Sabbath had been changed and that just before the final crisis of earth’s history Sabbath keepers would go out and proclaim “the Sabbath more fully.” Ellen White, reflecting on the vision five years later, understood the fuller proclamation of the Sabbath as a promise that the Sabbath message would be widely propagated by more believers than the “little flock” of Adventists then honoring the seventh day Sabbath could muster.

But beyond a greater quantity of proclamation, the Sabbath Halo Vision also indicated broader qualities of the Sabbath message, not previously understood or emphasized, that must be proclaimed “more fully” before Jesus comes. By 1847, the Seventh Day Baptists had long taught that the sacredness of the seventh day was never changed and was as important for Christians to observe as the other nine commandments. But the scenes of the final crisis Ellen White was shown go farther by emphasizing how the Sabbath is not just like the other commandments, how it has a special significance prior to the second coming.

“…all we were required to do,” she wrote, “was to give up God's Sabbath, and keep the Pope's, and then we should have the mark of the Beast, and of his image” (WLF, 19). Because of their total commitment to Jesus, Ellen White saw that Sabbath keepers would be persecuted, and God would save them with supernatural power at the second coming. This implies that a full proclamation of the Sabbath includes its end-time role as a sign of our commitment to God and of God’s protection for His people.

This part of the Sabbath Halo Vision confirmed Joseph Bates’ conclusions about the heart of Revelation (chs. 12–14), and ever since Seventh-day Adventists have proclaimed the ultimate test of God’s relationship with His people as the center of the Sabbath’s end-time significance.


Next, Ellen White saw the second coming in sabbatical terms:
“Then commenced the jubilee, when the land should rest. I saw the pious slave rise in triumph and victory, and shake off the chains that bound him, while his wicked master was in confusion, and knew not what to do; for the wicked could not understand the words of the voice of God” (WLF, 20, emphasis mine).
The Year of Jubilee was the culmination of the Sabbatical year system (Lev 25). Every seven years the land was to lie fallow, allowing the people and the land to rest for the entire Sabbatical year. This would continue for seven cycles of seven years (49 years), and then the 50th year, the Jubilee year, was to be an extra Sabbatical year. During this year all debts were to be cancelled, all Israelite slaves set free, and everyone was returned to their ancestral lands.

Might the Jubilee also indicate the quality of a fuller proclamation of the Sabbath before Jesus comes? I believe the answer to that question lies in the answer to another. On which of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments does the Sabbath belong?

Recall that Ellen White saw it on the first, which along with the three preceding commandments pertain to our relationship with God. Sabbath is about loving God by respecting God’s time: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God …” (Ex 20:8–10a NKJV).

Sabbath simply acknowledges that six without seven is incomplete. The sixth day is the day on which human beings were created, and seven, the creation day on which God rested, is the biblical number of sufficiency. Thus, Sabbath keeping is a rhythmic reminder that human flourishing is not based on what we accomplish but on who we know. By resting on the seventh day we embody our dependence on our relationship with our Creator.

But notice the middle part of commandment: “… In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates” (Ex 20:10b NKJV). This aspect of Sabbath keeping deals with how we relate to other people (and animals, but that’s for another article). It teaches us that everyone is equal before God, because on Sabbath there are no socio-economic divisions. When we are all resting from our labor, we rest from our struggles within the divisions and power structures of the social order. On the seventh day, we are freed to relate to everyone as princes and princesses of the Heavenly Creator before whom we can claim nothing that sets us above another.

Complete Sabbath Keeping

Proclaiming the Sabbath more fully in the end times encompasses more than preaching Sabbath as a sign of God’s relationship with His people. Resting on the Sabbath calibrates our relationship with God; and that way of relating through rest based on God’s prior involvement in our existence must in turn recalibrate our relationship with each other. Therefore, the Sabbath is especially significant in the end-times because it functions as the bridge that unites the two great commands: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” and “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37, 39).

The Sabbatical year and Jubilee laws fleshed out the political and economic implications of Sabbath for Israelite society, and Ellen White held that the social principles encapsulated therein would be beneficial for us to follow today (PP 536, cf. Matt 5:17–18). God did not create human beings to be enslaved by endless production and consumption, globalized competition, over-regulation, indebtedness, and crony capitalism. And God did not create human beings to be inescapably oppressed by discrimination, police brutality, welfare dependency, predatory mortgages, and gang violence. God desires that earthly societies be structured such that people threatened by slavery—real or virtual—have an escape route to freedom. So while the fourth commandment primarily deals with our relationship with God, if it were possible, it could find a place on both tablets of the law, because it also relates to how we treat each other individually and in society.

Keeping the weekly Sabbath gives us the experience of Heaven as time spent with God apart from the problems of this present age. Keeping the social principles of Sabbath expressed in the Jubilee gives us a foretaste of a human race free and equal before God, which is the “great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” in worship (Rev 7:9 NKJV). Working to present that vision in concrete ways is indispensable to a full proclamation of the Sabbath.

It would be absurd for me to tell people to keep a weekly Sabbath without resting on the seventh day myself. It is just as absurd to invite people to come to Heaven with us and not demonstrate to them what Heaven will be like by our actions. Proclaiming the Sabbath more fully even involves working to insert the social principles of Sabbath into the governance of our society so that by tasting a drop of practical compassion, a world thirsty for justice can have reason to hope in the promise of its one day running down like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

Reform Movements

Though the American institution of slavery Ellen White saw being abolished at the second coming ended during her lifetime, she insisted that this change in the slaves’ legal status did not exhaust the divine mandate for privileged American Adventists to make special efforts toward racial equality:
“Are we not under even greater obligation to labor for the colored people than for those who have been more highly favored? Who is it that held these people in servitude? Who kept them in ignorance, and pursued a course to debase and brutalize them, forcing them to disregard the laws of marriage, breaking up the family relation, tearing wife from husband and husband from wife? If the race is degraded, if they are repulsive in habits and manners, who made them so? Is there not much due to them from the white people? After so great a wrong has been done them, should not an earnest effort be made to lift them up?” (“Our Duty to the Colored People,” 20).
The pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist movement saw no distinction between preaching the soon second coming and working for a better world today. They joined the social reform movements like abolition, prohibition, and health reform to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed through a combination of personal influence, organized relief, and legislative action. All were idealistic causes with little chance of success, but if you believe in Heaven, you can afford to be an idealist, because Jesus is coming to right the wrongs of this world! The founders of my church did not regard history’s trajectory toward persecution and the eventual destruction of this wicked world as an excuse with which to wash their hands of any involvement with activism and politics. Rather they took the second coming as permission to make a difference in society, knowing that their work would find its eternal value in the restoration of all things.

Today, Americans are confronted with a crisis of race and law enforcement that has its roots in a self-righteous failure of empathy and solidarity for those whose experience differs from the vulnerable group with whom we most identify, whether the already vulnerable or those who make themselves vulnerable for the sake of protecting others. Today, Adventists in America decide whether to step out of their demographic box to find a common humanity, or step into the scripted role society expects them to play. We decide whether to step in and work with those advocating solutions to this crisis, or step out and do nothing as things get worse. God has promised to use the Advent movement to proclaim His Sabbath more fully, and He promised that He has numbers waiting to join those of us who embrace a complete Sabbath message. Let us go out, and proclaim “the Sabbath more fully.”

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Top 5 Reasons Why The 2015 General Conference Was More Progressive Than You Thought

Okay, so they voted down allowing divisions to decide whether to ordain women. But that wasn't all that happened in San Antonio. Here's five progressive changes the delegates voted through.
  1. No To Eternal Subordination – It was stated from the podium that a revision to Fundamental Belief 3 rules the idea that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father out of Adventist theology. This introduction of hierarchy into the trinity's eternity past has been proposed by supporters of male headship theology, as it is used to explain how two persons can be theoretically equal and at the same time always in a hierarchical relationship (guess the gender of the persons who are always at the bottom). The revision states that "The qualities and powers exhibited in the Son and the Holy Spirit are also those of the Father," which implies that no quality that leads to subordination can be attributed to the Son or Spirit that would not also be shared by the Father and thus such a quality could not result in involuntary or necessary hierarchy within the trinity. Got it? No? Read that again, cause I'm moving on.
  2. Gender Neutral Language – A sweeping revision to the Fundamental Beliefs statement removed terms like "men", "man", and "mankind"; and replaced them with terms like "human beings", "human", and "humanity". Welcome to the 21st Century, church! Over the objections of some they also specified that at the incarnation Jesus became "truly human", instead of "truly man", clarifying that we believe Jesus didn't only identify himself with the male gender, but with all humanity.
  3. No To Non-consensual Sex – No means no, even if you're married. The Church Manual now makes it clear that forcing yourself on anyone is a reason for church discipline. When asked if that refers to spousal rape, the answer came back, Yes. It's past time we said that it's not only important who you're doing it with, it's about whether they want it.
  4. Discipleship – As per the Church Manual revisions, your local Adventist church board now has a new primary responsibility. It used to be "Spiritual nurture". Now it is the formation and execution of an "active discipleship plan". Helping people follow Jesus wherever they are in that journey—sounds like what church ought to be all about, doesn't it?
  5. Adventist Youth Ministries - First, they dropped the legacy name "Adventist Youth Society", which, as was explained, had come to refer to a meeting more than an umbrella organization. This meeting, which is still a blessing in many places, has become a ball and chain of youth ministry in some churches, tying youth programming expectations to a model developed in the mid-20th century. But more importantly, Adventist Youth Ministries has new departments that can be organized within it, and their leaders get board positions according to the new Church Manual. That means that youth and young adults have a potential to have their say in the operations of their local church like never before. So if young people don't have a voice in your church, get out there and organize a Public Campus Ministry. And when Nominating Committee rolls around, if you don't have a seat on the Board, you can say with a cheeky grin on your face, It's in the Manual.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Getting Off Time's Big Ride

Time is the big ride that nobody gets off.

But wouldn't be cool if we could?

In the recent film, Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays a soldier who suddenly gets the ability to reset the day. Think Groundhog Day, but with violence instead romance driving the plot. With each recurring day the soldier uses his increasing knowledge of what's happens next to plan his moves, enabling him to accomplish the otherwise impossible.


The film was inspired by video game storytelling, specifically the way games allow you to make mistakes that are fatal to your in-game character then bring your character back to life at an earlier point in the game and, hopefully having learned from your mistakes, try again.

This game mechanic allows video gamers to simulate what theologians call foreknowledge. Within the closed system of the game time moves in one direction, but with the ability to get off that ride and try again as often as necessary the gamer is able to gain what to her in-game character would be knowledge of what will happen before it happens. That's foreknowledge, and it is generally considered, though theologians debate exactly how it works, to be one of the attributes of God.

Godlike power is part of our attraction to video games and time travel flicks. Getting off time's ride through unlimited death and resurrection while everyone else is forced to remain means you can get a look at the destination and control how we get there. That's intoxicating because in real life we worry that our destiny is largely outside our control.

Video game storytelling speaks to our spiritual need to believe our lives are part of a greater story that calls for us to invest ourselves in a struggle for the good. But video games also exploit that need by addicting us to the sensation of wielding unstoppable power, thereby tempting us to see ourselves as a timeless beings among lesser mortals, justified in manipulating their actions to serve our goals. (The video game, Braid, explores this conceit.)

But after we've turned off the console and are laying in bed, the fact remains that our real life failures are permanent. While we may claim we regret nothing, it's hard to know what our lives are going to mean when our part in time's ride is over.

New Year's is almost here. No one's getting a do-over of 2014; no one gets to skip what happens in 2015; and no one knows what the price of oil will be by the time 2016 rolls around.

What you can do is choose where you'll look for direction on the journey. The way I see it that boils down to two options.

You can choose the video game option and leverage what power you have toward the outcome you want. Or you choose to believe there is an Author of our story who loves the characters in it and is bringing it to a conclusion that will end well for those who come to trust that love.

As they say in video games, "Choose wisely."

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (December 26, 2014).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Monster Energy Drink Is Anti-Christ: A Case Study In Occult Epistemology

First, if you haven't already, watch the video embedded above. It's blowing up on the internet today.

Second, ask yourself whether you think it might be possible that, aside from any health effects, you're putting yourself under the power of Satan if you drink Monster.

If your answer to the above question is yes, you might have an occult epistemology.

What is occult epistemology, you ask?
  1. Occult: Pertaining to hidden knowledge of supernatural power
  2. Epistemology: The philosophy of how to attain knowledge.
Occult epistemology teaches that there are two levels of knowledge. The lower level is the knowledge that can be gained by observation and reason through the normal and boring disciplines of history, science, philosophy, etc. The higher level of knowledge that leads to supernatural power is not laid open to ordinary observation and disciplined reason but is layered on top in a system of secret symbols that only the initiated can interpret.

The modern occult movement of the 19th century looked back to the ancient mystery religions for this knowledge. One of those religions was Gnosticism, a blending of mystery religion and Christianity. Gnosticism means something like "knowledgeism", because the Gnostics taught that a system of hidden spiritual knowledge through symbolism was necessary for salvation from the material world.

The word heretic as we use it today, was created to describe Gnostics. They were heretics because they preached salvation through secret knowledge instead of salvation through Jesus.

Today we not only have a modern expression of ancient mystery religions known as the occult, we also have a modern expression of Gnosticism—Christian conspiracy preachers who teach attainment of spiritual power through secret knowledge of hidden symbols. They purport to warn you against the occult, while at the same time adopting occult epistemology in order to explain its power.

When conspiracy teachers blend Christianity and occult epistemology they end up with two levels of spiritual knowledge. The first level is the knowledge you get from ordinary theology—comparing scripture with scripture, studying the original languages, thinking through the teachings of the Bible—that's open for anyone to study. That's probably enough to get you to Heaven, but you still might get fooled by the Devil if you don't know what he's secretly up to. So you need to advance to that second level of hidden knowledge that is only available through an extra-biblical system of hidden symbols, which only the initiated can understand.

Once you accept the premise that spiritual knowledge can be gained through this system of hidden symbols, you're swept up into a hidden world of mysterious powers, remarkable secrets, and high-stakes conflict. It's like being on a spiritual drug, and once the buzz wears off you want some more. None of it does anything to bring your heart closer to Jesus, and you end up trusting in your knowledge about the inner-workings supernatural power to save you from Satan.

So what can you do if realize you've fallen for occult epistemology?

  1. Recognize that true spiritual knowledge starts with Jesus, and Jesus doesn't hide this knowledge but lays it open (apokalupto) in His Word: "There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known" (Luke 12:2).
  2. Get close to Jesus. Instead of studying conspiracy theories, spend time in prayer. Not only will you get true spiritual knowledge, but you'll be protected from the Devil. No one accidentally ends up under demonic power by drinking a beverage with "666" hidden on it or watching a music video with Illuminati symbolism. The real danger is in choosing to focus my heart's desires on something other than God (1 Peter 5:8-10). In that light, conspiracy preaching holds a more subtle danger than popular entertainment, because you think your heart is close to God when the reality is far from it.
  3. Study the symbolic system of Scripture. The Bible is replete with ritual, typological, and apocalyptic symbolism. God uses it to communicate spiritual truths that are too profound for simple explanation. Nowhere in Scripture are we encouraged to look to a hidden knowledge outside the Bible to interpret the symbols in the Bible. Rather, the Bible provides its own interpretive keys, which are not hidden and available only to initiates, but open to all.
I believe occult epistemology is the Devil's counterfeit to distract us from the symbolic system of the Bible while fooling us into thinking we can have a measure of control over supernatural power. The symbolic system of scripture is deep enough to sustain a lifetime of study, but it has a simple message: God is in control, put your trust in Him.

This post was revised, expanded and posted to SSNet as a commentary for the Adventist Adult Bible Study Guide for the week of January 17-23, 2015. That version was crossposted on ADvindicate.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mrs. Jesus?

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (September 21, 2012). 

For people who study ancient documents, Egypt is what South Africa is to diamond cartels or what Nashville is to country music fans: the gift that keeps on giving. Egypt has had a thriving literary culture since the dawn of history. But it was blessed with two other gifts that have made it a treasury of ancient documents that has yet to be exhausted—papyrus, an easily produced and sturdy kind of writing material; and a dry climate in which papiri (papyrus manuscripts) can survive relatively intact for hundreds of years.

So it was no surprise when, on Tuesday, a Harvard professor announced a new papyri fragment discovery. It was not even necessarily surprising that the papyri was about Jesus and was dated to just 250-350 years after his death (assuming it isn't a forgery, a question that may never be resolved [The manuscript has been dated to between the fifth and ninth centuries AD]). Those finds happen every year. No, what revved a routine papyri discovery into a media headline was the fact that in the fragment Jesus is talking about his wife.

Most people know that Jesus isn't supposed to have a wife, which was part of the attraction to The Da Vinci Code. The curious thing is that nowhere in the Gospels (the four volumes in the New Testament that record Jesus life) is it positively stated that Jesus didn't have a wife. The gospels have Jesus interacting with other family members, such as his mother and brothers, but make no mention of Jesus having a wife or children. Thus it is generally assumed he didn't.

But to conclude on this point is to miss the larger controversy, because this most recent papyri fragment is the latest in a series of discoveries that have challenged the status of the New Testament as the exclusive source of reliable information about Jesus. For example, a series of "Gnostic Gospels" have been discovered, which chronicle events not found in the four Gospels of the Bible, and cast Jesus' life and mission in a radically different light. At issue is not so much the question of whether Jesus had a wife, but which ancient documents have a trustworthy record of his life, if any at all.

Against this slide toward agnosticism, the weight of the documentary evidence we do have about the life of Jesus speaks volumes. We have by a few orders of magnitude more ancient copies of the New Testament availabe to us today than we have for any other ancient text. That speaks to the value and validity that those who originally received those writings placed in them.

It should come as no surprise that there were competing accounts of Jesus life in circulation in the centuries following his death. But copying manuscripts by hand was both time consuming and expensive. What counts in assessing Jesus historically is the effort people who read the various accounts were willing to put into copying and spreading one version versus another.

So when a story about a single ancient manuscript saying something sensational about the life of Jesus breaks in the media, remember that single manuscript is what most people who were around and cared judged as unworthy of the effort of transmission. What counts is the boring discovery of another group of New Testament papyri, too routine to be covered in the media, because that's what more people who were in the best position to know thought was worth preserving for us.