Posted February 27, 2013
This article was delivered as a sermon at the Loma Linda University Church on February 16, 2013. Some elements of oral style have been maintained.--Editors
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. Hebrews 11:39, 40.
he principle of “something better,” nestled in verse 40 of our Scripture, is mentioned no less than 11 times in Hebrews’ memorable portrayal of the means whereby Christ reconciles lost humanity. Likewise, history reveals that nestled in the human heart the principle of “something better” is a true and traceable cause of humanity’s most noble and productive energies.
We see this concept of “something better” at work in the founding of our nation, whose pilgrims were drawn to these shores in search of religious and political freedom. We see it in the history of our church, whose pioneers assembled from various “post-Reformation groups” in response to new-found truth. And, as this month of African-American history reminds us, we see the hope of “something better” at work in the remarkable climb of the descendants of American slavery to present status.
My proposal this morning is that as we consider the role of Black Americans as healers
in today’s multicultural society, we also celebrate appropriately the healing they themselves have experienced by the elevating, innervating power of “something better.”
Previously Without Hope
While many of the ships that brought slaves to these shores had such suggestive names as The Liberty
, The Desire
, The Brotherhood
, and the Good Ship Jesus
, their human cargo had no such outlook. Shoved in and shackled together for weeks in the putrid bellies of rolling ships, those who survived were disgorged upon these shores besieged and bewildered, weakened and wanting. They were shoved upon auction blocks where they were poked, prodded, beaten, bartered, and delivered into the most hopeless brand of slavery known to human history.
What distinguished American slavery as so depressingly unique is that it had no “manumission,” no exit clause. From as far back as Hebrew slavery, as noted in the book of Exodus, the cruelest of slave systems had provisions whereby, ostensibly at least, slaves could gain their freedom by an accumulation of earnings or years of service.
There was no such allowance in the slave codes of America. As a result, slaves were forced to labor day after depressing day, year after weary year, decade after dreary decade, with no hope or possibility of something better.
Often fed like animals at troughs where they thrust their grimy fingers into the mush hoping to gain strength for yet another day of unrequited labor, they worked in tattered rags, slept on muddy floors, and rose each morning to function at the mercy of avaricious, often rapacious masters. Destined to live and die in this pit of misery without a sliver of hope, their brief longevity contained no rainbow of deliverance, no ray of freedom, no light at the end of the tunnel. They were a race for whom, as one poet put it, “hope unborn had died.” There was for them no hint of healing, or hint of “something better.”
A Glimmer of Hope
None, that is, until in 1671, when the Bible promise of a better life in a world to come was brought to a small number of slaves on a Virginia plantation by a group of Friends, or Quakers. They were followed in 1701 by The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, a Christian forum based in England; the Episcopal Church in 1705; the Anglican Church in 1727; the Methodist Church in 1780; and the Presbyterian Church in 1794.
These brave missionaries risked their lives when infiltrating the properties of slave owners with the news of “something better,” as did the slaves who dared connect and listen.
Nevertheless, slaves found clever means to communicate with their benefactors and spread the good news across the cotton rows in whispered excitement, and from plantation to plantation by the coded beat of their speaking drums.
The good news, rudimentary as it was, stirred in their hearts visions of freedom that gave birth to singing and a brand new genre of music, later labeled the Negro spiritual.
Knowing that their masters would not be pleased, they turned their cooking pots upside down to mute their voices and sang with soulful joy, “up above my head I hear music in the air,” “swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home,” and “steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. . . . I ain’t got long to stay here.”
Our prophet, Ellen White, affirmed the reality of many slave conversions when, in portraying the scenes of the Second Coming she wrote: “Then commenced the jubilee, when the land should rest. I saw the pious slave rise in victory and triumph, and shake off the chains that bound him, while his wicked master was in confusion and knew not what to do” (Early Writings
, p. 286).
Not surprisingly, the ennobling power of “something better” soon generated in their hearts a determination for deliverance in this life as well. The few masters who thought that teaching them Bible verses would suppress any desire for “something better” were on the wrong side of Scriptural dynamism. Those masters who sought to keep them from Scripture lest it stir them to rebellion, had it right.
Because inevitably in the sequence of godly urgings, the “Thy kingdom come” appeal for future bliss is precursor to the “give us this day our daily bread” plea for present satisfactions. It was thus preordained and predictable that the biblical principle of “something better” would drive the slaves to overt resistance. And it did so in a number of ways.
A Response Born of Desperation
The first was a spate of physical attacks spearheaded by zealous slave leaders who led their ragtag followers in violent revolution against their owners. Principal among them was Gabriel Prosser (Virginia, 1800), who, inspired by Joshua 15, saw himself as the Black Samson, commissioned to lead God’s ill-equipped people against highly superior foes.
Another was Denmark Vesey (South Carolina, 1822), who, charged by the life of Moses’ successor, proclaimed himself as the Black Joshua.
Most notable of all was Nat Turner (Virginia, 1830) who, when trapped and caught after considerable bloodshed was asked moments before he was hanged if he had any final words, replied with convicted resolution, “They hanged Jesus, didn’t they?”
A second, more practical way in which the “something better” principle generated resistance was in the conduct of the Underground Railroad that spirited thousands of slaves from the cotton fields of the south all the way north to the snowy fields of Canada. The conductors who led slaves through and around dangers were Christians; the stations where they were temporarily housed were Christian churches, homes, and barns. Hiding by day and following their starry GPS by night, they waded through mosquito-infested swamps, evading bounty hunters and baying bloodhounds, bravely trudging tirelessly on to freedom.
The third and most determinative assault upon the institution of slavery fueled by the “something better” dynamic was manifested in the aggressive approaches of the abolitionist movement (1835-1865).
Abolitionists came in two categories: Christian terrorists, such as John Brown, the fiery Puritan preacher and architect of the ill-fated Harper’s Ferry, Virginia raid in 1859. Along with his colleagues, he was captured and hanged, riding to the gallows on the coffin so soon to receive his remains.
The other category of abolitionists was Christian pacifists, chief of whom was journalist William Lloyd Garrison. These were pastors, educators, editors, and statesmen who wrote and spoke with great passion against human bondage, and who with the superior weaponry of moral sanctioning successfully pricked the country’s conscience, hastening slavery’s demise.
The influence of the Christian church with its scripturally inspired mandate of “something better” did not cease with the end of slavery. It operated with needed efficiency in the post-nineteenth century as well.
With the coming of emancipation, 4 million freed slaves (twice the number of captives that fled Pharaoh’s Egypt), 95 percent of all Blacks then in the United States, were set adrift in the land, the vast majority unlettered and unskilled. They were, for the most part, a mass of hapless, homeless, helpless wanderers.
The bitter resentment of their former masters coupled with their vulnerability made their plight (except for the psychological damage of slavery) in some ways worse than their former lot. They had been ushered into freedom under the protecting watch of the Union army. But they had no Moses to lead them, no pillar of cloud by day or pillar of fire by night.
Compounding their plight was the removal of the Federal troops from the south in 1876 by United States president Rutherford B. Hayes in fulfillment of his promise to do so if the south would vote for him. In 1896, 20 years later, the establishing of “separate but equal” in the case of Plessey vs. Ferguson further compounded the misery of former slaves and their descendants.
Early on the White church, primarily in the North, led out in the healing process; there was no Black church. However, in 1787 the first Black Christian congregation, naming itself the African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in Philadelphia. Other Black congregations followed during the next three decades. By 1918, the end of World War I, what became known as the Black Christian church, with its many branches, was fully operative.
That group, which today claims approximately 80 percent of all Black American Christians (generously aided by their White Christian counterparts) provided the primary principles and personnel for African American protest and progress during the twentieth century.
That support was direly needed not only in the south, but also in the north, which is where southern Blacks migrated in huge numbers at the time of World War I. Pushed by nature’s droughts and human cruelty on the one hand, and pulled by the promise of factory jobs and social freedom on the other, they made their way from “down south” to “down north,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. would later derisively label it, only to find themselves unprepared for the bitter cold of winter, the crowded landscape, and the ever present reality of urban crime.
Then came the 1930s and the awful depression years, followed by the 1940s, during which World War II produced more factory jobs and a second great migration of Blacks with a repeat and compounding of the woes encountered in the first. After that came the 1950s and 1960s with the bitter, bloody, riots before, during, and after the triumphs of the civil rights movement.
In the latter years of the century just ended and the early years of the twenty-first, African Americans continue to face challenges of poverty, joblessness, skills education, prenatal and elderly care, and the crippling lack of access to health care in general.
While it is accurate to say that the Christian church has through the decades been foremost among the institutions of the land in the healing of Black America, that is not to say that the church has done all that it could have or should have done. But in comparison with all other institutions, its grades are clearly superior.
A Positive Legacy
It was the Christian community that first said no to the sin of slavery and yes to its disenfranchised survivors. During the decades following slavery, when Blacks were denied attendance at the colleges and universities of the land, it was the church that founded a broad system of “faith-based” education institutions (primarily in the south). H. Richard Niebuhr, in his book The Social Sources of Denominationalism
, describes their birth as, “mushrooms springing up after a summer rain.”
It was the church in 1905 that supplied the charter members of the Niagara Movement, later to become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and supplied the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s its primary spokespersons, its transportation system, its meeting houses, and its many marchers and martyrs, Black and White.
And how did we, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, relate to the needs encountered by this people, the only minority in the land brought here against its will; the only racial group whose males were castrated for spite and lynched for sport; the cultural unit whose women were so abused by their masters as to, along with later mixing with various Indian tribes, effectively eliminate the pure African strain that was brought here resulting in the redefinition of the slave descendants from African to Colored; the group decreed by the Supreme Court in the famous Dred Scott case of 1857 as “having no constitutional rights that the White man was bound to respect”; the only group in American history whose individuals, as voted by the infamous Philadelphia compromise of July, 1787, were legally declared three-fifths a person; the group that has for most of American history been the last ones hired and the first ones fired; and who, largely because of the many boundary maintaining mechanisms (formal and informal) structured by the nation, have proven insoluble in the cultural melting pot proposed by Thomas Jefferson as America’s social ideal?
The Adventist Connection
Our church’s contribution, given the time of its origin (1863), began slavery as slavery ended, and is a matter of good news and bad good news.
The bad news is that, as is the case with most churches with a high degree of apocalyptic expectation, our theologians tended to limit the “something better” principle. First, by framing it as a strictly spiritual notion. And second, in just as crippling a concept, relegating it to the “kingdom come,” what the cynics have coined as “pie in the sky way by and by.”
The result is that we have historically functioned within the parameters of the government’s decisions regarding such issues as the fugitive slave law, separate but equal, racial quotas, miscegenation, voting rights, and the like. Change has usually come only after the government has, by changing its laws, admitted its errors.
That includes opening our institution’s doors (hospitals, churches, and schools) to all, only after the government’s overthrow of Separate but Equal in Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954. Clearly, we preachers of prophecy have, for the most part, been far less than prophetic in regard to social justice.
The consequence in the African American sector of Adventism has been much frustration and the loss of literally thousands whose understanding of God’s “something better” in the “here and now” would not allow them permanence in a structure where this was not a priority.
But there is good news as well. The good news is that many of our founders, including John Byington, our first General Conference president, were abolitionists. The Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia
states of Byington, elected to office in 1863, that in his early years “he was actively anti-slavery in his sentiment.” Also that “He regularly entertained Indians and Blacks in his home, and is said to have maintained a station of the Underground Railroad at Buck’s Ridge, New York, where he lived on a farm” (vol. 10, p. 266).
The good news is that our church prophet, Ellen White, from her earliest years of ministry, issued repeated rebukes against the slave trade, and was so adamant a crusader for justice that she advocated civil disobedience rather than conformity to evils of existing law. Her words were, “When the laws of men conflict with the word and law of God, we are too obey the latter, whatever the consequences may be. The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law” (Testimonies for the Church
, vol. 1, pp. 201, 202).
The good news is that in spite of defections from the ranks of Adventism by several notable Black leaders, we have not, as is the case with most recognized denominations, suffered major organizational schism. This is largely because of the shining examples of faithful church members such as Ruth Jeanette Temple, M.D., who was born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1892, moved to Los Angeles in 1904 as a young adult, received a five-year scholarship to the college of Medical Evangelists, and in 1918 became the first Black female to graduate from Loma Linda University. Among other accomplishments, Temple began a clinic for the underserved in southeast Los Angeles, later named after her. She died in 1984, having remained a visible, loyal Seventh-day Adventist.
The good news is that we were blessed with a succession of highly visible ministerial leaders--White and Black--whose preaching inspired unity of belief and fellowship. Evangelists Fordyce Detamore and H. M. S. Richards, Sr. and Jr. are examples of Caucasian pastors who were forthright in this regard.
Within the Black community itself, F. L. Peterson, the first Black graduate of Pacific Union College (1916) and the first Black general vice president of the world church (1962), and evangelists E. E. Cleveland and C. D. Brooks typify many whose preaching emphasis has been pivotal to the loyalty index of Black Adventism.
The good news is that at critical periods of the past century there were presidents of the world church who boldly urged the church forward in the matter of fairness.
Two who stand out were W. H. Branson (1950-1954) and Neal C. Wilson (1968-1979). Branson’s truly ground-breaking statement to the nation’s union conference presidents and chairmen of sanitarium (hospital) and college boards on December 23, 1953 reads in part, “Seventh-day Adventists should not hold back any longer in this matter, but should step into the ranks of those organizations that are declaring themselves in favor of non-segregation in our schools and sanitariums.”
The good news is that largely as a result of Branson’s boldness and Wilson’s wisdom, and that of others, six of our nation’s nine union conferences have (or have had) Black presidents. These include the Atlantic, Columbia, Lake, Mid-America, Pacific, and Southern Union Conferences.
The good news is that the North American Division elected a Black president, Charles E. Bradford, in 1979, three full decades before its territorial counterpart, the United States of America, would do so in the person of Barak Obama.
The good news is that the second female to serve as president of a Seventh-day Adventist college or university in the United States is an African American, Heather Knight, now at Pacific Union College.
The Journey Ahead
But are such evidences, including the appointment of our own Barry Black as chaplain of the United States Senate, or even the $170 million in tithe returned by African Americans in 2012 signs that the patient, so badly wounded by 250 years of slavery and 90 years of legally imposed inferiority, has sufficiently healed so as to stop treatment? Or to put it another way, that this group has achieved parity in terms of professional, political, and economic status in society and/or the church?
The answer is no, not while comprising 13 percent of the population and less than 4 percent in critical professions such as law and medicine; not with 3 percent of PhDs and 40 percent of the jail population, not while earning paychecks that are 30 percent less than the national average; not with eight years less longevity for men and seven years less for women and an infant mortality 2.3 times that of the national rate.
And as regards the matter of interracial fellowship, have we achieved or are we soon likely to achieve a state of harmony that will allow us to relax or abandon our efforts for healing?
Again, the answer is no. In fact, our prophet has warned: “The relation of the two races has been a matter hard to deal with, and I fear that it will ever remain a most perplexing problem” (The Southern Work
, p. 84).
However, in spite of that knowledge and the hard-wired social realities about us, we modern Christian Abolitionists, if you please, are all of us under gospel obligation to work for “something better.” And those efforts must involve better things than intermittent pronouncements regarding racial harmony.
They should include, first of all, honest desegregation, an open door policy for all as opposed to forced integration or contrived assimilation. We should not feel guilty because ours is a flower garden rather than a monolithic society, especially given the fact that a so-called colorless society is sociologically impractical, organizationally untenable, and theologically unsubstantiated.
Critical to that view is our comfort with the knowledge that, as with the day of Pentecost, it is still a fact that each distinct culture hears the gospel best in its own socialized idiom. It is wrong to label a group racist or segregationist because its members choose to worship in that language without restrictions toward others.
Second, we can and must, while maintaining the standards of excellence for which our institution, such as Loma Linda University are known, continue to expand our community-based services for the underprivileged. That should include not only “boots on the ground” ministries where people live, but again without diluting operational excellence, on-campus programs that address practical needs.
Third, our institutional calendars, churches, and otherwise, would do well to include year round education programming as today’s, involving all of its significant cultural components as a means of strengthening and healing relationships.
This Is Personal
Four years ago last month, on the very day of Barak Obama’s first inauguration, my mother died at age 96 here in the east campus hospital. Her mother, Etta Littlejohn, was a girl of 15 when she heard the message from the decks of the Morning Star, the boat built by our prophet’s son, Edson, which he sailed down the Mississippi River for the purpose of educating the children of recently freed slaves.
Etta was one of the original 16 students at what was then Oakwood Industrial School (the fortieth such school built by churches) when it doors opened in November 1896. She earned her nursing certificate, and later served as one of Ellen White’s chamber maids at the old Melrose sanitarium in the Boston area.
Etta married Robert L. Bradford, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, and became the mother of Eva, her fourth child (my mother); and Charles, her eighth and youngest (mentioned earlier).
When my mother was an octogenarian, I invited her to speak at the Abundant Life Church in Las Vegas where I was pastoring. When I asked her that morning about her topic, reminding her that it was a Back History Sabbath, her reply was, “Don’t worry; I am Black History.”
And she was. Born just 47 years after slavery and steeped in Adventism, she was an encyclopedia of historical information, an eyewitness to almost a century of transitional events in society and the church.
That reply also contained all the soulful pride of one whose great-grandfather’s name was changed from Weems to Bradford, that of the White family relocating from Alabama to Kansas on whose wagon his parents placed him knowing that his opportunities for “something better” would be enhanced.
It was the answer of one whose years on earth doubled those that intervened between the end of slavery and her birth, and who through those decades had witnessed her people’s climb against staggering odds from the out-house of legal discrimination to the White House of international recognition, a feat of faith and works enduringly fashioned by the call of “something better.”
It is paradoxical, absolutely stunning, and unspeakably incomprehensible; in fact, humanly inconceivable that Jesus was willing to undergo the exact reverse of that process in order to free us from the slavery of sin.
He left the health and happiness of glory, the conduct of universal affairs, the rule of interferential operations, and the praise of adoring angels to save us from the slavery of sin and the tyranny of death. He came from opulence to obscurity, from riches to rags, from sovereignty to servant hood, to bear our grief’s and carry our sorrows.
He came all-God and all-man. He was in all the right ways “separate but equal.” His divinity was separate from ours but equal with the Father’s; His sinless humanity was separate from ours but equal with unfallen Adam’s; and at the end He was separated by a cloud that engulfed Him in the final moments of His agony. But because He was equal with the law, He could and did die as our penalty for its breaking. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5, KJV).
By His precious blood Jesus signed our emancipation proclamation and opened freedom’s gates to all humanity. Then, mission accomplished, He ascended back to glory. But He did not leave us comfortless, He did not pull the troops. In fact, He sent reinforcements in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and promised never to leave us, never to leave us alone. He pledged that even as He came down to represent the Father to us when He got home, He would represent us to the Father and further, make a way that where He is there we might be also.
Because of that He is not only the courier of something better, He is something better! Hebrews affirms He is a better tabernacle, a better hope, a better resurrection, a better reward, and, most meaningfully, a better sacrifice, a better high priest; Himself the offering, Himself the offered.
It is into His nailed-pieced hands, hands that now present to the Father His faultless blood as something better than our efforts for forgiveness, that offer us His righteous robe as something better than our relative perfection, that in which we lodge our pleas and rest our hopes: our pleas for tolerance to accept difference, for boldness to confront oppression, and our hope of His soon return and the inauguration of the peaceable kingdom where the redeemed will never cease their enhancement. As we now see through the glass darkly, we will see Him face to face, ever reveling in untarnished fellowship with one another in unmarred, unmitigated, unbroken, unhindered, unwavering, unlimited, untroubled, untiring, unending communion with Him.
Will you join me in that quest?