Can my belief in the imminent return of Christ motivate me to social justice activism? This is a question I have repeatedly asked myself as I reflect on the implications of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If I had such a belief, it would seem more appropriate that I spend my time preparing myself and others for such a history ending event. This would mean focusing on preaching the gospel and persuading others to surrender their lives to Jesus so that he might prepare them for his return. That would become my exclusive focus. It would also seem to suggest that expending my energy on social causes would distract from such a focus and thereby make me less effective. Like many others my spiritual and religious development within the confines of the church was consistent with that type of thinking. I felt that to spend my time seeking to improve conditions in this world was not the best use of it. This would to be so especially in light of the fact that God would create a new heaven and a new earth where his people would live forever. Why bother to improve social conditions in a sinful world when Christ was going to create a new one anyway? It would make better sense to prepare people for the coming kingdom. In such a place, there wouldn’t be any injustice oppression, strife, anxiety, or any of the negative experiences that are so much a part of this life. Furthermore, it often seems that the struggle for human rights, social justice and equality is a fruitless one. The deeply embedded systemic forces that keep the status quo in place are also entrenched in structures of power and dominance that it leaves one with a sense of futility in the struggle against them. From time to time I have listened to others who have given their lives to such causes give up in despair of ever seen real progress in this society. Against that backdrop it is easy to surrender to the notion That there is no point in pursuing such efforts.
However Social justice is part of the mission statement of Jesus himself. One Sabbath day he stood in the synagogue and read the following from Isaiah 61:
“THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME,
BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR.
HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES,
AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND,
TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,
TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD. (Luke 4:18-19).
He then closed the book and declared; my work is the fulfillment of that scripture. To participate in the mission of Christ, therefore, means in addition to preaching the gospel, healing the brokenhearted, delivering those who are in bondage of any type, opening the eyes of those blinded by fear and hatred among other things and bring freedom those who are oppressed, downtrodden and crushed under the weight of systemic evils. As Messiah, Jesus will not give up until he leads justice to victory and this is a source of hope for all who believe on him (Matt 12: 20, 21). Small wonder that he tells the story of the Good Samaritan as an illustration of the kind of work he describes here. The work of justice is God’s work as surely as preaching the gospel.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that several of the founders of the Adventist church who believed passionately in the second advent were also just as passionately committed to social causes. They saw no separation between a commitment to prepare the world for the second advent and confronting and denouncing racism, inequality and injustice. They saw these as evils to be confronted and regarded this as a God given obligation. So, their voices and actions were raised on behalf of the enslaved and oppressed as well as against other social ills. At the same time, they proclaimed the good news of the second coming of Jesus Christ. The social ills were evidences of the power of evil abroad in the land and if the country did not deal honestly with them, they risked the judgment of God.
Ellen White, the church’s messenger, wrote passionately against the hypocrisy of declaring equality for all while profiting from the enslavement of human beings. She used her influence and authority to draw attention to this evil. Some challenge her conclusion about the fate of slaves who had never been given the chance to hear the gospel but there is no doubt about her clear denunciation of slavery.
Joseph Bates another of the founders was an avid abolitionist and outspoken advocate for justice. When the US invaded Mexico in 1846, Bates denounced the US as a “heaven-daring, soul-destroying, neighbor-murdering country.” Joshua V. Himes a leading abolitionist even before the Adventist Movement was founded continued after he joined it and was noted by no less a figure than Frederick Douglas for his commitment to the cause (O’Reggio 2006). John Byington the first General Conference President and his family were active in the abolitionist movement. Uriah Smith one of the leading voices in the Church and it’s most significant prophetic writer denounced racism and its evil manifestation slavery as America’s national sin. He believed that America’s hypocrisy of saying one thing in its constitution and doing another with regard to the enslavement of black people was a fulfillment of the lamblike beast of Revelation that had horns of lamb and spoke like a dragon. America needed repentance and reformation.
It is interesting to note that when the Antislavery Society was formed, they were labeled by both South and North as “Anarchist” (Aptheker, 1989). A label that is as popular today as it was then to apply to those who seek to challenge the prevailing structures of power in an attempt to bring about needed reform in a society greedy for the profit gained by the enslavement of black people.
A few days ago, I pulled a book from my shelf. It was a vintage SDA publication, “Heralds of the Morning” by Asa Tait, the 1906 edition published by Pacific Press. The subtitle read, “The Meaning of the social and Political problems of Today and the Significance of the Great Phenomena of Nature.” Tait engages in a forthright examination of these very issues as signaling the coming of Christ, but more than that he courageously looks at the effects of their impact on the society. In his chapter on the increase in societal violence he quotes William Taft who eventually became the only person to serve as President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court “The existence of lynching in all parts of the country is directly traceable to this lack of uniformity and thoroughness in the enforcement of our criminal laws … The inequality that exist and our present administration of justice, and that sooner or later is certain to rise and trouble us, and to call for popular condemnation and reform, is in the unequal burden Which the delays and expense of litigation under our system impose on the poor litigant.”
The author goes on to note that the statement of this leading jurist is not given to prove facts but to state facts already in existence. It is equally as well known that the situation was spreading and deepening with an alarming rapidity. This was the Jim Crow era when lynchings of black people were rampant in many parts of the country. The statement notes that this was due to the inadequate enforcement of the law against those perpetrating this evil. The Taft comment also predicts that this problem would ultimately rise and cause greater difficulty in the country and result in cries for reform. Finally, Taft’s statement highlights the fact that the expense of litigation resulted in the exclusion of poor people from access to justice. This issue is highlighted in an Adventist publication of 1906!
Today, we are unlikely to see such forthright and prophetic denunciation of racism and injustice from the church. Others have taken the mantle and are speaking courageously about America’s need to repent of its national sin. Uriah Smith wrote that although slavery had been abolished the spirit of slavery was still very present in the country and that spirit was manifested in the continued oppression of black people in other forms. In this he was a prophetic voice. The spirit of racism and slavery was seen in the brutal killing of George Floyd. We still need to cry repent or risk the judgment of God. I ask, is it a coincidence that these unprecedented protests are going on in the midst of a pandemic that the country seems unable to respond effectively to?