n November 4, 2008, the United States witnessed an event of unprecedented significance: an African-American was elected the 44th president of the country.
Regardless of how you voted that day, you would have to be completely disengaged not to recognize the historical, social and political implications of that event.
As a third generation Seventh-day Adventist minister, well acquainted with our church’s culture and political practice, I was poised to see how we would respond at our church headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland—just a dozen miles from the White House.
I purposely arrived early for the scheduled meetings, hoping not to miss any valued exchange. To my disappointment, but not to my surprise, nothing was said. No formal reference was made. No statement. No observation. Only silence.
I couldn’t help but sigh in my heart.
Setting aside our political preferences, wasn’t this every bit as much of a moment to celebrate as when the much admired Ronald Reagan demanded in Berlin that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall"? Why the awful, mortuary-like silence?
This was more than a "silence of caution", I think—the kind necessitated by the regulations imposed upon registered 501 (C)(3) not‑for‑profit organizations . According to IRS regulations, a not-for profit "may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates."
This was more like the silence that Simon and Garfunkel sang about in the ‘60s:
"People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence."
How could people—Adventists--unusually attentive to the state of the world miss what was occurring? How could they not sense the magnitude of this event?
Around the world, people were devouring every scrap of information, commentary and news they could get. The name Barack Obama was being sounded upon hundreds of millions of lips from Afghanistan to China; from European capitals to tiny Asian kingdoms; from small villages in remote Zimbabwe to Inuit short‑wave radio listeners huddled in igloos.
But among those of us purporting to have a special understanding of where we are in the flow of world history, there was this awful silence.
As a student of history, I recalled what virtually every American knows, and what many living have witnessed at least part of.
I traced the line that began with the arrival of the first slave ship from Africa in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619; that passed through two centuries of race-based slavery and finally provoked a terrible Civil War; that resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; that slid backwards in the Plessey v. Ferguson “separate but equal” Supreme Court decision of 1893; that regained momentum in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954; the sparked the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955 and the integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas public schools by the “Little Rock Nine” in 1957; that struggled through the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama in 1963 in which four little girls died; that rose to a shining moment in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring evocation of a just society at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963; that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968; that grieved with King’s assassination in 1968, but rejoiced in the appointment of Colin Powell, the first African-American Secretary of State 32 years later—to the election of the first African- American president 232 years after the founding of the republic.
Almost 400 years of history--deeply seared into the consciousness of hundreds of thousands of Seventh-day Adventists across North America whose ancestors, grandparents, mothers and fathers, friends and colleagues have lived that painful but finally triumphant history.
The Wall Street Journal, traditionally the voice of America’s more conservative business community, declared that the election of Barack Obama was "a historic victory," one that "marks a historic moment in a nation that since its founding has struggled with racial division."
Now, weeks later, on the eve of a presidential inauguration like no other, we discover that, for all its faults and false starts, the United States has taken a major step in the direction of the principles it declared more than two centuries ago. Tens of millions of Americans have moved past considerations of race, color, ethnicity, family origins, and social background, squinting beyond these ultimately irrelevant factors. The hopeful among us believe that the country has donned what were once termed "seven‑league boots," fitted to take giant new strides.
As I watched the faces of so many of fellow Americans gathered at Mr. Obama’s victory celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night, I saw in all the joy and jubilation a striking element of hope--a longing for a better tomorrow. I haven’t seen a crowd like that one in my lifetime—celebratory, but reserved; unified, but diverse; youthful, yet intergenerational
Much has been written—millions of words, in fact—since Election Day about the meaning of this moment for the nation and the world. But what are the implications for the Adventist Church in North America and internationally?
We Adventists are typically conservative, apolitical, usually wary of trusting in new social movements or philosophies that attempt to fix problems we believe stem from unregenerated human nature. With but a few exceptions—notably Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding in the early 20th century—U.S. presidents haven’t graced the cover of the “good old Review.” But some of us also choose to think of this household of faith as being a progressive society, a gathering of the open-minded, a place of egalitarian spirit. Must we as a community of faith ever lag behind in matters of social justice, like the tribe of Dan, always being “hindmost” (Numbers 2:31)? Must we always follow in the wake of others who sometimes announce the principles of equality and justice more compellingly than those of us who daily pray “Thy kingdom come?”
Even as a nation of 300 million now begins a dialogue about what this political transition means to historic divisions of race and ethnicity, the Adventist Church in North America ought also to open up a conversation about the issues waiting to be voiced:
- We must break "the silence." A family is dysfunctional when there are some subjects they can’t or won’t discuss.
- We must find meaningful ways to talk through our differences if we ever hope to have Spirit-filled unity emerge from our diversity.
- We must endeavor to listen carefully to one another, especially when we disagree.
- We must neither overestimate the ability of the traditionally-privileged,nor underestimate the untapped abilities of our minorities.
- We must not change the rules and standards of qualification when faced with the leadership challenges of competing ethnic or gender candidates.
- We must fully engage our people, especially our young people, in the on‑going mission story of Adventism.
- We must refresh and revive the Adventist brand.
- We must strive as Seventh-day Adventists to connect with the people of our communities, enlarging our network.
- We must not and cannot effectively do evangelism at arm’s length.
- We must be willing to cross the divides in a collaborative effort that bridges race, culture, gender, and generation, forging new partnerships that multiply our resources.
Twenty centuries ago, the apostle Paul understood that there are inevitable connections between a community of faith and the wider society. The church is not an island to itself: it is a part of the continent. It exists and witnesses within human society, even as it lives toward the day when “kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.” Paul admonished believers then with words we do well to hear with open hearts:
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
The inauguration of a new president provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how our own community of faith will deal with change. As we pray for him, we pray also for ourselves, knowing that the days ahead will be challenging, urgent, and like nothing we have seen before.
Alvin M. Kibble is a vice president of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.