OST PEOPLE HAVE NEVER HEARD of it, much less visited it. When asked about its location, even Washington, D.C.-area residents scrunch their noses and wag their heads. “Sorry,” they say, “can’t help you.”
One sweltering July day (even the trees seemed to be sweating) our family boarded the Metro blue/orange line in Washington, D.C., for the Rosslyn exit in Arlington, Virginia. Directions to our final destination appeared obscure; I vaguely recall wandering through a parking garage and down a long fluorescent-lit hallway. Definitely no tourist buses here. Passing the former Newseum, we paused at the Journalists Memorial.
And then, suddenly, we were there: Freedom Park.
Much like freedom herself, it isn’t easily found--this jewel sits far from the typical tourist sites--but the payoff is well worth the trip. The park follows a curving, grassy swath tucked behind skyscrapers. As we walk, we encounter eloquent symbols of liberation in the form of replicas and actual relics:
A. The Statue of Freedom, which stands atop the Capitol Dome.
B. Women’s suffrage banners--carried before women’s voting rights were granted in 1920 through the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.1
C. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s jail cell door. It stands on a concrete pad approximating the area in which he wrote the magnificent “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
D. A small homemade boat used by refugees, found on the Florida Keys in 1966.
E. A ballot box from the election of Nelson Mandela in postapartheid South Africa.
F. Cobblestones removed from the Warsaw Jewish ghetto.
G. A toppled, headless stone statue of Vladimir Lenin.
• The Goddess of Democracy from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (foreground, front cover).
• Nine sections of the original Berlin Wall beside an East German guard tower. A backdrop mural depicts celebrations when the wall fell (not shown).
I find myself marveling at the risky courage of the people who breathed meaning into these icons. And I wonder, How many
Seventh-day Adventists were at those historic events? How many
Adventists publicly championed voting rights for women? Marched for civil rights at Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery? Faced tanks in Tiananmen Square?2
Oh, no. Is this another liberal rant on social activism? Let’s just stick to spreading the gospel.
Precisely my thoughts.
I’m willing to let other people stand up for freedom and justice. I can’t see myself ever chanting slogans on the Capitol steps, and frankly (perhaps because I missed out on Pathfinders) I don’t like marching. I prefer to make a more practical impact than “raising awareness.” While I may be willing to die for a cause, I’m not willing to be misled and embarrassed for one. And causes these days are often complicated.
But then, once again, I am caught up short, stumbling over my excuses, by the one person who loves me too much to let me shuck and duck and rationalize my life away.
Social Justice: A Spiritual Discipline
I see Him clearly, announcing His public ministry by standing up in the place where He had worshipped all His life, and reading in a strong voice from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV).
He closes Isaiah, hands it to an attendant, and sits down. As the congregation stares at Him, He concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). And everyone murmurs, “That was nice.”
But Jesus never leaves it at nice. He always seems to “agitate, agitate, agitate,” in the urgent words of Ellen White.3 I can imagine His mother, who had “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51, after she and Joseph found their 12-year-old in the Temple) for 18 years, thinking about then, Oh-oh, here it comes. By the time Jesus is finished instructing and admonishing the very people He used to play games and cut wood with, they are so filled with wrath that they want to kill Him.
They will have to wait.
The more I study Jesus’ words from Isaiah, the more troubled I become. Surely He’s speaking metaphorically--setting captives, such as the poor, free in a
spiritual sense. Or liberating the oppressed
medically. We have doctors for that. (Go, Loma Linda!)
Anyway, this is the Lord talking. He can do anything.
Looking through the Bible, however, I find more troubling words. Jesus explains the final judgment with a tale of sheep and goats, but the speech isn’t really about separating livestock. It’s about hunger, drinkable water, homelessness, health care, and prison ministry. Apparently, God insists that we must respond personally to these issues (Matt. 25:31-46).
Jesus goes out of His way to bring healing on Sabbath, explaining, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt. 12:7). Sabbath observance restores human dignity.
Encountering systemic corruption, Jesus responds by fashioning a whip-broom and driving from the Temple courtyard all the corporate business “thieves.” When He returns years later and finds the same oppressive conditions, He sweeps the crooks out again! (John 2:13-16; Matt. 21:12, 13).
When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replies that our neighbor is anyone in need--even if they don’t look, sound, or think as we do (Luke 10:29-37).
I turn to Isaiah, where my Master turned. The opening chapter informs me that God will not listen to my prayers until I “seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17).
Later, in exquisite chapter 58, God comments on fasting, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (Isa. 58:6, KJV).
After studying Scripture, I reach an inescapable conclusion: Working for justice, peace, and dignity (by fighting oppression, poverty, and corruption) is a spiritual discipline just as much as prayer and fasting. Perhaps more.
Meet the UDHR
In 1998, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Seventh-day Adventist Church released an official statement:
“Coming from the best and highest part of the human heart, the Universal Declaration is a fundamental document standing firmly for human dignity, liberty, equality, and non-discrimination of minorities. Article 18, which upholds unconditionally religious liberty in belief and practice, is of special importance. . . . Politicians, trade union leaders, teachers, employers, media representatives, and all opinion leaders should give strong support to human rights.”4
Do Adventist teachers, administrators, media specialists, and opinion leaders (such as pastors) give “strong support to human rights”? It’s true that when we see Article 18 violated, we head for it faster than a greased bobsled down a glacier. It could also be argued that a tinge of self-preservation triggers our rush.
What of all the other fundamental rights of God’s children? Are we--as our official church statement suggests--strongly supporting these from Adventist pulpits and in Adventist classrooms, TV programs, and magazines?
Ellen White declares to pastors, “Ye will not give your voice or influence to any policy to enrich a few, to bring oppression and suffering to the poorer class of humanity.”6
Though early Adventist pioneers were far from silent on social issues, in the past century the Adventist voice--in pulpits, classrooms, programs, and papers--on social ethics and human rights has largely been muted. We may well ask, “Why?”
Four Sins of I
Let’s admit that in recent decades most Adventists have tended to elude, ignore, and distrust human rights issues. I have been guilty of this neglect as much as the next person. How could we become so content with the existence of large-scale evils? Four chief reasons emerge--the sins of I.
Isolation. The dominant mind-set of North America, where the Adventist Church began, is individualism. By contrast, today we all live in a world community. Global issues have morphed to personal issues. How a pharmaceutical factory is treated in Muslim Sudan affects how a Christian mother is treated as she flies in a plane over Pennsylvania.
Adventists want to help people on an individual basis--medically, educationally, evangelistically. Yet, shouldn’t we help to fix the economic and social structures that cause poverty, disease, ignorance, and hopelessness? The principalities and powers that work to lead one person to lose eternal life are the very ones that lead a community, a nation, and a culture down the path of darkness. Their dividends pay off in millions.
We also recognize that political solutions are not final. Our noble stance on separation of church and state has bred an isolationist posture--we back way off sociopolitical issues. Unfortunately, we have failed to see that these are sometimes ethical issues.
Moreover, as peculiar members of the remnant, we may believe that the world’s concerns do not apply to us. “Not of this world” mistranslates to indifference. Environmental ravaging? Child prostitution? Pandemic poverty? Discriminatory practices? Don’t bother me; I’m on God’s business. Communities, nations, and cultures are God’s business, too. All of us are connected--our umbilical cords wind back to God.
Inevitability. Whom can we believe? Politics breeds deceit and money favors. Corporations sell their souls for profit. News networks are slanted.
I once asked a group of Adventist college students, “Why don’t you get more involved?”
“Because we don’t trust anybody,” a junior explained. “We really can’t do anything anyway.”
Inevitability results in a diminution of compassion, a dearth of hope, a death of promise. Jesus’ words “The poor you shall have with you always” can come to mean, “Don’t be too concerned about them--they probably deserve it.”
As Thucydides observes, “Fatalism tends to produce what it dreads.”
Seventh-day Adventists are generally hard workers, but there is an industry that is intemperate and imbalanced.
We become too busy to care. Too tired to get involved. Too overwhelmed to add one . . . more . . . thing. We’re just trying to survive, after all, and this added guilt about human rights doesn’t help one bit.
If we are sacrificing and working too hard to get involved in the freedom of others, to care about equality and peacemaking, God says, “You are working too hard.”
Imminence. “Jesus is coming soon.” Good news! Liberating news! And potentially disempowering news. In peering continually through the telescope, we become carelessly farsighted. If we focus only on the “Bridge Out Ahead” sign, we never stop to rotate the tires or bother to check the oil. We remain on constant, breathless, emergency alert.
So we take emergency shortcuts. We concentrate on counting decisions at the expense of creating disciples. We erect poorly constructed buildings (“We won’t need them long”) and sell acreage at dirt-cheap prices. Raising educational endowments is viewed as faithlessness, though had we begun them early enough every Adventist young person today and thousands more could afford a well-equipped Adventist education.
On the world’s stage, we let people’s rights erode and their poisoned environment collapse. We ignore materialism’s dreadful grip. Anticipating a future time of trouble, we overlook times of opportunity.
The sinful side of imminence focuses purely on escape: Get . . . us . . . out. It’s a selfish, petulant child’s approach to planetary discomfort. Samuele Bacchiocchi describes some Christians: “They regard any attempt to improve social conditions as futile and unnecessary, since Christ at His Coming will destroy the present sinful world-order.”7 When we flee from the world’s woes, we lose our witness.
Jesus wrestled with imminence in an olive grove called Gethsemane. He felt isolated. Betrayal and loss were inevitable; all of His industry had come to naught that night. God’s Son wanted out, and He wanted it deeply and sincerely and passionately enough to ask for it three times.
You and I were saved by one word: nevertheless.
Jesus will return for us. Nevertheless, we will live in the present, for the present is the only time we can serve God.
Adventist Freedom Park
Suppose we chose to exhibit Adventist symbols of social justice and freedom. What historical images might we place there? A few come immediately to mind.
• The steering wheel from Edson White’s steamboat Morning Star, for opening the work to Black people in the segregated South.
• Desmond Doss’s medical kit and Medal of Honor, symbolizing commitment to mending relationships through noncombatancy. Around the kit are copies of Peace Messenger from the recently established Adventist Peace Fellowship (www.adventistpeace.org).
• Ana and Fernando Stahl, wearing their altiplano hats while riding burros, for their visionary and revolutionary missionary work among the peoples of the Andes and the Amazon.
Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 14 (1): Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from
Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 23 (2): Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
Article 25 (1): Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.
Article 26 (1): Everyone has the right to education.5
• An Underground Railroad station, run by Adventist activists such as John Byington (later the first General Conference president).
• A mosaic of Liberty magazine covers, proclaiming the wisdom of church and state separation.
• A tablet of Ten Commandments highlighting the fourth commandment. The Sabbath makes all people equal before God, and liberates the planet in rejuvenating and jubilee ways. God’s genius is evident: Time is universal, so no person stands in a place of advantage.
• A Maranatha Ultimate Workout church door, along with the Golden Cords sculpture from Union College, signifying the work of student missionaries around the world.
• An ADRA-dug well. Next to it, a large container filled with The Original Really Useful Gift Catalogs (www.adra.org).
• A bullet-riddled Jeep, symbolizing the martyrdom of Adventists who bravely worked and died for others.
What a park! Wouldn’t you proudly bring your children here?
Best for Last
But something is missing. The ultimate symbol of freedom:
• The cross of Jesus. Through the cross the grace of the Son, the love of the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14) create an antidote to the sins of I. Through the cross we experience freedom from sin’s guilt, freedom from sin’s power, and eventual freedom from sin’s presence. The cross exposes our violent world for what it is, extends God’s love to the violated, and opens a hopeful future of creative reconciliation.8
Most people have never heard of Adventists, much less visited an Adventist church. They can, however, locate us by our love. We can be discerning and courageous enough to seek ways to protect and uphold all human rights, and so fulfill our Master’s mandate--the same one He announced long ago in a Nazareth synagogue. This is historic Adventism at its best.
And it’s well worth the trip.
1 Two placards read: “Objection: Women are too pure for the dirty pool of politics.” “Answer: If the pool is dirty, the time has come to clean it. Women have had long experience cleaning up after men.”
2 See Adventist Review articles “Writing Against Wrongs” in the February 28, 2002, issue; “Drying Up the Stream” in the January 22, 2004, issue; and “A Journey and a March” in the May 26, 2005, issue, for treatments of the role of Adventists in historical events such as the ones listed here.
3 See, for example, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 708.
4 This statement was voted by the General Conference Administrative Committee, November 17, 1998, and released by the General Conference Office of Public Affairs.
5 The full text of the 30 articles may be accessed by searching for “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
6 Testimonies to Ministers, p. 333.
7 Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Advent Hope for Human Hopelessness: A Theological Study of the Meaning of the Second Advent for Today (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Biblical Perspectives, 1986), p. 399.
8 See Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 190, 191.
Chris Blake is associate professor of English and communications at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and is the sponsor for the Union College chapter of Amnesty International and cosponsor of the Peace and Social Justice Club.