On October 17–19, 2019, Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, hosted Jesus & Politics. This conference sought to prompt Christians, especially Seventh-day Adventist Christians, to be reasonably aware of and active in the various goings-on within political, social, and economic realms, yet do so upon the bedrock of Christ’s character, teachings, example, and ultimate culmination of His unique kingdom. This prompting is further enhanced by the reality that our church pioneers did not keep their mouths shut or hands under their bottoms as the movement took shape amid the tragic history of slavery and the US Civil War.
Though I will initially and briefly sprinkle in some of the details of the weekend at large, this column will primarily focus on Thursday night’s opening plenary session. Nick Miller, Professor of Church History at the Andrews University Theological Seminary and Director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) for the Lake Union Conference, was the overall coordinator and emcee of the conference. Every component was captained by an impressive roster of competent, qualified, and credentialed individuals. Besides the joint plenary sessions, there were also several breakout tracks that covered a variety of specific topics in a Christ-centered way:
- Jesus and the MeToo Movement
- Jesus Among the Theologians and Political Scientists
- Jesus Among the Social Issue Activists
- Jesus Among the Migrant and Refugees
- Jesus Among the Religious Liberty Advocates (I will soon be writing a separate article on this track for the Lake Union Herald)
- Jesus Amidst the LGBT/Religious Freedom Conflict
- Jesus Among the Faith Activists
- Jesus Among the Constitutional Lawyers
- Jesus Among the Leaders
On Thursday night, Dr. Miller extended the first right hand to hundreds of eager, interested attendees, then acknowledged the sponsors that helped make the conference possible: The Seminary, Andrews as a whole, the Lake Union Conference, and the North American Division PARL Department. From there, he passed the baton to Dr. Jiri Moskala, Seminary Dean and Old Testament professor, who emphasized the importance of people of faith interfacing with issues such as religious liberty, war and military service, and social justice, and doing so from a biblical perspective.
Dr. Andrea Luxton, AU President, offered the official welcome. She also expressed her intrigue, especially within the context of having her academic background in English, in the title of the conference, which employed “and,” not “or,” “over,” or any other alternative. The point she so poignantly made was, in essence, that the spiritual and terrestrial worlds are not fully separate; a connection that we need to recognize does exist.
After Maurice Valentine, President of the Lake Union, led the audience in corporate prayer, Nick returned to succinctly elucidate the linguistic, historical, and ecclesiastical undergirding of the conference’s objectives. Then Melissa Reid, NAD PARL Associate Director, formally introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Jim Wallis, whose outstanding resume includes the following highlights:
- Well-known, globally respected social justice advocate, preacher, and teacher
- Founder, President, and Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners Magazine
- New York Times bestselling author with a dozen books to his name, including the recently released Christ in Crisis, for which he is currently on tour
- Member of President Obama’s White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships
A seeming gamut of worthwhile themes and subthemes comprised Dr. Wallis’ cogent, thought-provoking homily. I have underscored many of these themes, more or less in list form:
- He began with a quip regarding Pope Francis’ tenure as a bishop and cardinal in Argentina. He would look at the priests’ shoes, and if they were dirty, it indicated labor and service among those in need, and therefore trustworthiness.
- He unequivocally voiced his belief in the separation of church and state, but not in the segregation of moral values from public life.
- He referenced Abraham Lincoln’s statement (from his second inaugural address) that leaders should appeal to the better angels of our nature, then admitted that current politics are appealing to our worst demons, signifying a spiritual warfare.
- He questioned whether society will move forward into the future as “we” or continue the dynamic of “us vs. them”; how will we forge “we”?
- The body of Christ is globally the most diverse community on earth, but much less so domestically.
- The current crisis indicates how disconnected we have become from Jesus. Our politics are to be cultivated by biblical theology, not sociology.
Dr. Wallis was perplexed as a youth by the stark segmentation of whites and blacks in his hometown of Detroit (the “white flight” largely radiated into the suburbs). In the pursuit of answers to his questions regarding this phenomenon, he received a mix of general responses, including “Don’t ask these questions or you’ll get in trouble.” Unstifled, he resolutely and deliberately visited black churches and gained employment alongside black workers. The broad takeaway was that they were born in the same city but lived in different countries.
In striking a friendship with one of his coworkers, Jim went with this man to meet his widowed mother. Her perspective on law enforcement, in the throes of the riots in 1967, proved memorable to Jim. While retaining his own mother’s advice to “find a policeman if you’re lost or in trouble, for he’s your friend,” his coworker’s mother’s advice to all her kids stood 180 degrees away: “If you’re lost and see a policeman, find a place to hide, wait for him to leave, then find your way home.”
- One of the elders at Jim’s church told him, in ignorance and negligence, that Christianity and racism have no association—the latter is political, the former is personal. This contributed to Jim’s disenchantment with and straying from the faith.
- Wallis became involved in civil rights movements at Michigan State University.
- In trying to identify a foundation for full-fledged activism and a mission to save the world, he found the materials of Karl Marx, Ho Chi Minh, and the like unsatisfactory. In returning to Christ and the Bible, he was impacted by the Beatitudes particularly and the Sermon on Mount altogether.
- Matthew 25, specifically the final third—Jesus’ declaration that to serve humanity, no matter how “lowly,” is to serve Him—is what truly sparked Jim’s reconversion.
- At Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago, he challenged a group of fellow students to find every Bible verse that addresses the poor, afflicted, oppressed, and poverty and wealth in general, and the final tally was approximately 2,000. As an object lesson, one of them cut out all these verses with scissors, rendering a holey Bible that many American Christians are figuratively carrying.
- He alluded to the typical hesitancy of Christian musicians to discuss political issues for the sake of avoiding divisiveness, then pointed out that Jesus didn’t shy away from divisive subjects. Furthermore, he encouraged us in the audience to not go right or left, but deeper.
- He asserted that the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Who’s my neighbor?” was a Washington, D.C. lawyer, so to speak—he was interested in minimal responsibility, not maximum benevolence.
- In continuation through the ensuing Good Samaritan parable, Dr. Wallis stressed the contrasted ethnicities of the two main figures, thus deducing that one’s neighbor is one who is different, perhaps very, very different. This is radical in today’s climate because the political salvo is to push away the different, fear the different, hate the different, and attack the different.
- In losing the debate with Jesus, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” More pressing than the volume of lies espoused by most US Presidents is the systematic undermining of truth with the goal of gaining allegiance. With Jesus linking truth to freedom (see John 8:32), how can the lack thereof not lead to bondage?
- Atrocities such as slavery, race-based voters’ rights suppression, and gerrymandering convey a blatant disregard for the image of God and the equitable value He has instilled in every human being.
- In cleansing the temple, Jesus took an active stand against the social and economic injustice executed by the capital (Jerusalem) leaders.
- Romans 13 is not to sanction an abuse of power. There is a propriety to citizens being subject to civil authorities, but everyone, including these authorities, must be subject to the principles of Romans 12. All people on all levels are charged to labor for the common good.
- Wallis and other inter-denominational cohorts rallied against a bill that would provide tax breaks for the wealthy and cut programs for the less fortunate.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., one of Jim’s mentors, emphasized the importance of courageously calling out wrong according to conscience and accepting the consequences.
- White nationalism is not just racism; dehumanizing immigrants is not just a lack of compassion; demeaning women is not just sexist; they are all antichrist.
- Reclaiming Jesus is significantly predicated on His commission to us to be both salt and light—preserving truth and illuminating and exposing error.
- Instead of flashing signs that say “John 3:16” at sporting events, as is ubiquitously custom, Dr. Wallis encouraged everyone to flash “Matt. 25” signs instead.
A five-person panel discussion capped off the evening’s plenary session. Joining Dr. Wallis were:
- Teresa Reeve—Associate Professor of New Testament Contexts and Associate Dean of the Seminary
- Thomas Shepherd—Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Seminary
- Timothy Golden—Professor of Political Science and Director of the Pre-Law Program at Walla Walla University
- David Hamstra—Th.D. student at AU and pastor in the Alberta (Canada) Conference
Each of these dignitaries responded to the main presentation. Some of the elements of Dr. Reeve’s response were as follows:
- She appreciated Jim’s personal approach to sharing how he processes the current political and social landscape.
- Disagreements on particular issues notwithstanding, the Sermon on the Mount and the second great commandment (love your neighbor as yourself) make for sturdy common ground. She specifically indicated some divergence between herself and Dr. Wallis regarding immigration policy, yet convergence when it comes to showing respect to all people and treating them with dignity.
- She asked him what he found most effective in moving Christians past believing the right things and achieving personal salvation.
Wallis bluntly expressed that the elder from his adolescence held the views he held because he was white. By contrast, Jim has found, through observation and communication, that the black community tends to see faith and spirituality in a more holistic manner. He referenced the principle in 1 Corinthians 12 that when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers, and we are not reflecting this enough as a church. He also shared a disturbing statistic: about 75% of whites today do not have a meaningful bond with someone of color.
- He resonated with Wallis’ exposition of Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to help the marginalized.
- He was moved by the same city/different country motif that Jim observed in Detroit. Living overseas has assisted Tom in critiquing his own culture.
- He lamented the hyper-individualistic nature of American society.
- He revealed that when his daughter and son-in-law made their home at a black church, for at least some of those members, they were the only white friends that they had, thus indicating that the lack of social diversity can occur in any direction.
- He highlighted a book titled The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and though the author sees things through an evolutionary prism, Dr. Shepherd identified the legitimacy of his virtue-ethics framework, listing six virtue-vice counterpart pairs: care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, loyalty vs. betrayal, sanctity vs. degradation, liberty vs. oppression, and authority vs. subversion. These values guide people’s lives.
- He asked Dr. Wallis about the best ways to build bridges between people on the opposite sides of issues such as immigration and wealth distribution and how fair it really is.
Wallis addressed the question, though he used abortion as the springboard. He pointed out an interesting dichotomy that has likely gone over most of our heads: the rights focus on the baby and the lefts focus on the woman. Most women who consider or go through abortion are single and low-income; they are vulnerable. Babies are vulnerable, for obvious reasons. The Matthew 25 charge to love and serve the vulnerable must transcend wings and slants.
- He stressed Adventism’s unique perspective on history and prophecy, then segued to his own intellectual handling of what is embroiled in properly giving to Caesar and giving to God. His conclusion is that they have different expectations: Caesar just wants what is legal, while God wants what is right.
- He proposed a particular belief of Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher and theologian: Christianity is nothing like science. When exercising the scientific method, a person must do so bias-free, thus removing oneself. However, to get the best from Christianity, we must do the opposite—throw ourselves into it.
- His question to Dr. Wallis pertained to German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s anti-Nazi stance, which led to his execution, and whether we are in a “Bonhoeffer moment.”
Wallis’ reply focused on history. He stated that repentance is not feeling shameful or bad, but turning around and repairing wrongs. Then he proclaimed that America’s “original sin” was slavery. In assuaging Golden’s concern that a moment might just be something we survive before we can become comfortable again, he asserted that moments can become movements, but they need to be defined by one of Bonhoeffer’s most prominent questions: Who is Jesus Christ to us today?
- He referenced Sojourner Truth, African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and her multiple visits to the Adventist church in Battle Creek, Michigan during the denomination’s early years. Does someone like Dr. Wallis (from another faith) see a similar appeal in Adventism? If we lack it, how do we get back to the winsomeness that the pioneers manifested?
- He shared some familial history of his father’s involvement, both personal and in partnership with his church, in building connections between whites and blacks in racially tense Detroit.
- He asked Jim what he thought would be the best ways for Adventists to make a positive difference on a national level, taking into consideration our more modest size and availability of resources compared to other entities.
Labeling himself politically homeless (no affiliation with either party), Dr. Wallis repeated Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to help the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed. Though not explicitly disagreeing with Hamstra’s trepidation for enacting Matthew 25 through bureaucratic channels, he unashamedly exclaimed that healthcare should be a basic human right. Furthermore, privilege and punishment should not be a matter of skin color.
In the closing moments of the session, the panel shifted from a one-on-one format to a more standard interchange and continued the conversation of various topics, including the government’s involvement in marriage, the unjustifiably gargantuan discrepancy in white-collar salaries and common-worker wages, understanding that being pro-life means offering care and compassion for mothers and children after birth, and the wisdom in voting for individual issues instead of candidates and parties.
There is a variety of ways to attain a greater sweep of the Jesus & Politics conference. The program, with session details and contributor bios, is available at jesusandpoliticstoday.org. My three guest-journalist teammates have written on other aspects of the weekend for both The Compass Magazine and the Lake Union Herald (LUH). A representative handful of recordings are available through the LUH Facebook page.
In closing, I challenge and encourage everyone, myself included, to jointly and prayerfully seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in closing the gap between vertical faith and horizontal affairs. May He cause us to be both heavenly minded and of earthly good.