Of Race and Character
None of us choose the time or place in which we are born. Neither do we get to dictate the makeup of our DNA, or have our genetic information expressed in such a way as to somehow make our lives conveniently situated.
Although the technology of medicine has made leaps and bounds in eliminating various birth defects and other genetic tendencies to health risks, one simply cannot determine the success of chromosomal influence on one’s fate. Having royalty in my bloodlines has not exempted me from toil and hardship in the here and now. Nor has it prevented the sorrow that must fall to the lot of all who have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
Thus, when I received a personal invitation to come to The Compass Magazine’s conference on the racial divide within our denomination, I decided to attend. The event, “Repairing the Breach: A Pathway to Racial Unity in the Church,” met in the Youth Chapel at the Pioneer Memorial Church on the weekend of September 23-24, 2016. The Friday night meeting was well attended by the black community. I was disappointed that so few were present from the white community.
It was challenging for me to listen to Michael Nixon expound on the negative experiences that black Seventh-day Adventists have suffered at the hands of prejudiced whites over the years since our denomination organized. Part of my difficulty included the initial appearance of the keynote to be one-sided in attendance and finger pointing (which might be considered “white fragility,” but is more likely the simple response of defensiveness experienced by anyone of any color).
It is hard to sit silently listening to the experiences of those so terribly wronged. Who can relate, without feeling bitterness, to those experiences of bitterness? I personally struggle to relate the painful experiences of others when trying to deal with injustices they have experienced.
When Nixon took the time to praise Elder Don Livesay, President of the Lake Union Conference, for his apology on behalf of white Seventh-day Adventists for the multitude of wrongs committed by the church towards our black brothers and sisters in Christ, the room erupted with applause. (You can read the transcript here.)
I could not bring myself to join in the applause for two reasons: 1) the apology was made on my behalf, and it is wrong to self-congratulate with praise for doing one’s Christian duty which, in this case, was to apologize when you’ve wronged someone; also, 2) because, in my studied opinion, the apology made did not go far enough. (More on that later.)
Let me be clear. I was not exactly impressed with a feeling of personal involvement in the church’s racial divide. I did not feel that I had committed the atrocities delineated in any educational event I have attended over the course of my life. Yet I could not ignore the potential for mistreatment or bias in my carnal nature toward those who might be body shamed for skin color, body mass index, or any other physical difference subject to criticism in one form or another.
I remember enjoying the classes Curtis Wright presented when he, as a young black man, was a Bible and History student-teacher from Pacific Union College. He deeply impressed me with his formidable knowledge of how the slaves were treated in America.
Dr. David Taylor, a black theology professor, also greatly influenced me when he taught at Pacific Union College throughout the time I spent as a student there. I loved working with Jesse Jessup, a black service representative for Christian Record Services (CRS), while at summer camp, and again when I join the CRS staff as a college student.
I believe that I respected Dr. Clarence Hodges, the only black president of CRS, to the same degree that I did Larry Pitcher, the white president who succeeded Dr. Hodges. And when James Scarborough, a black pastor, lent me his pulpit at the Modesto Central SDA Church on his first Sabbath as pastor there in 2003, my appreciation knew no bounds.
As a result of the influence exuding from these fine, godly men, I formed the opinion that it was shameful for our denomination to continue the practice of segregation via regional conferences in North America. I believe that it was wrong for them to have ever been established. Frankly, I believe that I could work in ministry alongside any God-fearing leadership regardless of skin color.
When considering attending Rio Linda Adventist Academy, I wanted my friend Steve Johnson to be my roommate. It was not to be. My parents and their friends had already determined that their son and I would be roommates. That decision was not made for me because my parents were against my rooming with a young black man. As disappointed as I was, there wasn’t any moral reason to rebel against their wishes. However, my switching roommates could have been perceived as racially motivated when it was not.
Over the course of my life, I have experienced further disappointments which were rooted in the racial tensions and divides we have experienced in both church and community. I chose not to date a young woman of color because of something my father said, in addition to others’ statements made in the workplace. I made that choice to protect her reputation, though to this day she probably doesn’t know the reasons why. She probably would have liked more input so that the decision wasn’t merely unilateral. I do know that her sister saw how deeply it hurt that I stopped seeing her. It pains me to this day that we are not the friends we could have been if only people would cease the unkind criticism that arises from racial bias and stigma.
I could expound further on slights I experienced stemming from the prejudices aimed at me by whites because I was too white. I could expound on my experiences involving false accusations of racism, by whites and blacks, aimed at me while working for the church—all of which are still painful memories to this day. But to do so would detract from the ultimate purpose for this article, which is to demonstrate that the problem of racial division in this denomination has precious little to do with the color of one’s skin.
I returned, somewhat hesitantly, to the conference the next day. Primarily, it was to spend more time with the new friend who had invited me in the first place. I arrived early. As the appointed meeting time drew near, I was disappointed that attendance was down from the previous session. More people need to be involved in understanding the basis for the problem and being a part of the solution. I was encouraged by the fact that the tone of the conference had improved. The presenters made the case that racial tensions within the church are not one-sided. (You can view the conference presentations here.)
During the breakout session, I spoke to the small group I had joined about my desire springing from the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech at the Mall on August 28 so many years ago—that we move on from focusing on color, and start comprehending what it means to judge one by the content of character. Civil Rights leader King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
This brings me back to the crux of the matter. While we must hear the stories of wrong done to our black brothers and sisters in Christ, while we must humbly acknowledge attitudes of arrogance and malice, while we must confess the wrongs we have perpetrated, to be satisfied with merely doing these things falls far too short of the glory of God! While it is right to bring to the attention of those committing the offense that which offends, while it is right to forgive those atrocities, to be satisfied with merely doing these things also falls far too short of the glory of God.
Then, what is it we must do to actually attain the glory of God? What must we acknowledge, confess, and of what must we repent of that would make us perfect in the process of reconciliation? As Michael Nixon stated in the keynote presentation, this is a gospel issue. It is a matter of eternal life or everlasting damnation. And the gospel is incomplete without the message of character transformation in our lives.
The truth is that whites and blacks, as well as Hispanics and Asians, could not stand before God’s judgment throne today and be declared one in character with Christ. The truth is, we collectively are lukewarm Laodiceans who live like we are citizens of this world, instead of living as children of light in a world of darkness.
We have not been progressing daily up the rungs of Peter’s spiritual ladder. We have not been seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. We have not been pleading for the blessings of Matthew chapter 5. We have not been begging for that enmity towards sin that only God can give us. We have not been intentionally yielding ourselves unconditionally in surrender to God. We have not purposefully cooperated with God in the transforming of our characters by being the living sacrifice for others as Christ did for us. We have not loved one another as Christ loved us, and therefore we are incapable of being the sign of wonder to the world that God intends us to be. I will personally confess and apologize for my own role in this litany of sin. Will you?
We collectively have this admonition, which, though focusing on church leaders, also applies to the laity:
There should be a thorough reformation on the part of the men who are now connected with our important institutions. They possess some valuable traits of character, while they are sadly lacking in others. Their character needs to have a different mold, one after the likeness of Christ. They must all remember that they have not yet attained unto perfection, that the work of character building is not yet finished. If they will walk in every ray of light that God has given; if they will compare themselves with Christ’s life and character, they will discern where they have failed to meet the requirements of God’s holy law and will seek to make themselves perfect in their sphere, even as God in heaven is perfect in His sphere. If these men had realized the importance of these things, they would today be far in advance of their present condition, far better qualified to fill places of trust. During these hours of probation they are to seek for perfection of character. They must learn daily of Christ. They are connected with the work of God, not because they are perfect, unerring men, without defects of character, but notwithstanding these defects. God expects them, while connected with His work, to be constantly studying and learning how to copy the Pattern. (Testimonies to the Church, vol 5, pg. 556-557)
Until we realize our true condition of spiritual poverty, until we mourn our spiritual condition and seek God’s virtue, until we in meekness seek the righteousness of God with all our undivided hearts, we will not see the gates of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, open for our entrance!
While it is right for church leaders to apologize for wrongs committed by the church toward people groups who have been mistreated or neglected, the apologies should be deeper and more thorough, so as to address more than incidents. What is of greatest importance is that church leaders apologize and repent of the neglect in disciple training with the sole purpose of Christ-like character perfection. It is this neglect that has delayed the coming of Jesus. (Read Christ’s Object Lessons pg. 69 & 415; this is not merely a suggestion.)
It is this neglect that is keeping us from the tree of life, which has edible leaves that brings healing to the nations (Revelation 22:2). However, we are not to wait until granted entrance to Heaven to partake of those leaves. Ellen White wrote,
Even as the bodily necessities must be supplied daily, so the word of God must be daily studied—eaten, and digested, and practiced. This sustains the nourishment, to keep the soul in health. The neglect of the word means starvation to the soul. The word describes the blessed man as one meditating day and night upon the truths of God’s word. We all are to feast upon the word of God. The relation of the word to the believer is a vital matter. Appropriating the word to our spiritual necessities is the eating of the leaves of the tree of life that are for the healing of the nations. Study the word, and practice the word, for it is your life. (Letter 4, 1902, emphasis added)
If we were judged by the content of our characters today, we would be lost. We are guilty of thinking we are rich toward God, increased with goods, and in need of nothing, while we have been neglecting character perfection. As such, we deserve to be lost. But there is still hope! The True Witness exhorts us to be zealous, and repent while there is yet time. Let us then understand that,
God accepts the services of those only who are partakers of the divine nature. Without Christ man can do nothing. Love for God and man alone places human beings on vantage ground with God. Obedience to the divine command enables us to become laborers together with God. Love is the fruit that is borne on the Christian tree, the fruit that is as the leaves of the tree of life for the healing of the nations. (White, Manuscript 108, 1903)
Only when we are vitally connected to Christ, as the branch grafted to the vine, can we realize the promised success in carrying the gospel message to the world. Only then can we comprehend the yearning of Jesus as He searches us for the perfect reflection of His character. And only then will the racial divides of the church be healed, and the church militant will become the church triumphant.
 This would be akin to an individual congratulating himself or herself for apologizing after beating their spouse. Self-congratulatory remarks or self-applause from the abuser would seem to me unwarranted and improper.