On October 17-19, Andrews University will host a conference entitled Jesus and Politics: Christians, Liberty, and Justice Today, “featuring experts in church history, theology and activism, seeking to translate biblical teachings to our day through careful study, thought, and dialogue.” The following is an interview with Dr. Nicholas Miller, professor of Church History at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Lake Union Conference, in which he speaks about the background of the conference, its purpose and projected outcome, as well as some key concepts related to the Christians’ involvement in public policy matters. For more information about the conference and to register please visit https://www.jesusandpoliticstoday.org.
Question 1: How did the idea for this conference come about and who is behind the planning?
Answer: About two years ago the dean of the Seminary asked me to spearhead a conference on the church and state and religious liberty. I looked around for institutions to partner with to bring resources and help plan it. The Lake Union Conference is participating, along with Andrews University and the Seminary. The North-American Division has provided leadership and resources for it as well. So, representatives from those four groups have been on planning committees over the course of last year and have organized it.
Question 2: How would you state the purpose of the conference?
Answer: The purpose of the conference is to reawaken the Adventist Church to its heritage of prophetic engagement in public policy matters.
Question 3: What do you mean by “prophetic engagement in public policy matters”? That is not how we typically understand prophetic engagement…
Answer: No, exactly, that is why we need to relearn it. Adventism comes in good part from the Radical Reformation, which is well known for its strong belief in the separation of church and state, of spiritual from civil matters. But the same tradition also developed a healthy robust view of the Christians’ role as citizens in promoting morality in public policy. And probably the two primary examples from the pioneers of our church are: involvement in the anti-slavery movement (we had members who were involved in the Underground Railroad movement, we had a prophet who said we have a duty to disobey federal laws on the topic, we worked for the equality of black Americans (primarily through educational means) after slavery was made illegal, and the problem of alcohol use and its impact on women and children, where we used political means. Those were two topics where we saw a public policy issue and we felt we had a moral perspective that went beyond purely spiritual concern to involve temporal safety and protection for black people or for women and children. And we, as a church, realized that we should be involved in passing laws or disobeying laws regarding these topics.
Question 4: So, in the past, our church was proactive about addressing issues related to historically vulnerable groups. So is the purpose of this conference partially to address issues primarily related to vulnerable groups, or not necessarily?
Answer: Well, I think that if you look at the Bible and ask the question “What is prophetic public policy engagement, you will find consistently throughout both testaments (especially the Old, but also echoed in the New Testament), Christian members speaking out on behalf of those being abused by the powerful. Today we think of prophecy as predicting something that will happen in the future, but in the Old Testament the prophetic voices were usually those who were criticizing the powerful for their misuses and abuse of the weak, so that is a far more common usage of that term in the Old Testament.
Question 5: Is the conference going to address the relation of church and state mostly from the perspective of institutional involvement, individual involvement, or both?
Answer: Both to some degree, but we are wanting individual Christians to feel their sense of responsibility as not just church members, but as citizens of a country. So, I do think that there is a lot of scope of opportunity for the church members to get involved in things where the church itself may be not be directly involved. Just because you can live in prophetic public policy engagement doesn’t mean that we should turn all our churches into political action centers. We need to preach the Gospel, worship, and convert people—that is the first duty of the church. But that conversion should involve the awakening of church members to biblical principles of social fairness and equality, and as individual citizens they can go on and speak on behalf of those who are treated unfairly or have less power or ability to speak for themselves.
Question 6: Is this conference scholarly in nature, or are the papers accessible to a broader audience? Are you targeting any group in particular?
Answer: It is a combination. Some panels will be more scholarly, while others are focused on activism and practical involvement. Some panels, such as “Jesus and the Constitutional Lawyers,” will probably be more technical, while others like “Jesus Among the Religious Liberty Advocates,” “Jesus among the Social Issue Activists,” “Jesus and the MeToo Movement,” and “Jesus Among the Interfaith Activists,” will talk about how church members can involve themselves in practical ways as Christians in matters of public concern. As far as our target, we are looking to impact the leaders in our church, ministers and future ministers, as well as the Andrews University population. We are making it free for all Andrews students to attend and many will get credit or extra-credit for classes for attending. The Seminary students will receive MDiv colloquium credit for attending up for four hours and half of the conference. We’ve also advertised it more broadly in the Lake Union Conference and we’ve shared it with as our Christian friends in Southwest Michigan who are part of a Christian social activist network, so we anticipate having some non-Adventist Christians in attendance.
Question 7: A couple more technical questions before going more in-depth on the topic: is the conference going to live-streamed or recorded, and will there be participation from the audience in some form?
Answer: We have seven plenary sessions, and after the two keynote presentations, Thursday night and Friday night, a panel will respond to and dialogue with the speakers. We will have an opportunity for people in the audience to ask questions via text messages, too. For the breakout sessions we will have six different kinds of panels, and those will involve questions live from the floor. We do plan to live-stream and record the plenary sessions and post on the conference website.
Question 8: Tell us a little about the keynote speakers and how you met them.
Answer: Jim Wallis is probably the most well-known speaker on what we call the evangelical left, that is, conservative Christians who take the Bible seriously but are more progressive on issues of social justice, immigration, discrimination, racial fairness. He doesn’t identify as left or right, rather He views himself as taking a Biblical position and agrees with either left or right based on his biblical reading on a given issue. Ronald Sider was identified by Christianity Today as one of the top 100 most influential authors of the twentieth century for his book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.” He has also written a book more recently, originally called “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics,” now called “Just Politics,” about how the teachings of the Bible should inform out political thinking. We are giving a copy of that book to every person who attends the conference. How I met them… I used Dr. Sider’s book in a class and thought he was as close to an Adventist view on this as I could find, so I just wrote him out of the blue and invited him. Dr. Wallis was approached about participating by an NAD employee, Melissa Reed, who took a class from him in Washington DC.
Question 9: Could you speak a little about the projected outcome and how you might be able to measure it?
Answer: I don’t know if we can directly measure these kinds of conferences, but for the breakout panels we are not asking for formal papers, rather we are asking them to put together some information on activist materials, so people that attend can have some information about how they can get involved, whether it is a letter to support a piece of legislation, or help support an advocacy group, or visit immigrant children who are being held in custody and read to them. These are all things that can be done here in our local area. So, I think with a conference like this we are looking to help shift the church paradigm, and that is hard to measure statistically. So far in the last seventy-five years most mainstream Adventists understood separation of church and state to mean that church members should stay out of all politics. What we are trying to get people to see is that, as people and as a church we should stay out of partisan politics, that is, joining up with political parties and signing on for their full statement of views and supporting candidates because they are Republican or Democrat. But Jesus did deal with public matters that concerned his day and He went out of his way to tell stories and interact with people who were considered marginalized and outsiders. In doing miracles for the Syro-Phoenician woman, or Roman soldiers, or in applauding Samaritans, He was directly addressing what were political concerns and views and activities that marginalized these people in the Jewish community. So, in a sense He was speaking to political matters. And even more directly, when He was before Pilate, Jesus objected to His treatment and reminded Pilate that there was a higher power that Pilate was accounted to; He was calling the civil state to accountability in terms of the stewardship of the power given. And the most obvious example Dr. Wallis gives is the forcible cleansing of the Temple. We tend to view this as a purely spiritual matter, but the Temple was an economic, social, and even political power in Christ’s day and His highly symbolic protest actions disrupted all those power brokers. In fact, it was probably what most immediately led to His crucifixion.
Question 10: As you noted, many Adventists feel strongly against being involved in politics. What factors contributed to the instillment of this feeling among our members?
Answer: I think two reasons. First, Ellen White and the pioneers did speak very strongly against involvement in partisan politics, and we focus on those quotations but ignore all their involvement in moral politics, such as Ellen White speaking to a large audience, 50,000 people in Europe, advocating for the passage of laws forbidding the sale and use of alcohol. This is not not being involved in politics. The problem is that we only take seriously some quotes but neglect the other side. The second reason, and what causes us to focus this way, was the split during the early 1920s between fundamentalists and liberals. Fundamentals took the Bible, miracles, and personal piety very seriously but tended to reject social justice issues as part of the liberal social gospel. The liberals, on the other hand, rejected miracles and direct inspiration and embraced the Gospel only as a means of making the world a better place. The fundamentalist movement was largely centered in the southern United States, which was very anti-abolitionism and pro-segregation, and in order to keep the church from critiquing the morality and justice of segregation, they insisted that this had to do with the state and therefore they should stay out of it. So, rather than the separation between church and state, it became separation of state and morality. Because Adventists were more closely aligned with the fundamentalists on the view of Scripture and miracles and piety, we also took on that understanding of politics and began to insist against any involvement in racial justice or opposing discrimination—somehow the church being involved in politics. This outlook really came from this fundamentalist southern states’ attempt to keep segregation in place.
Question 11: What do you see as the relation between morality and social justice, is there some overlap?
Answer: Social justice is a very contested term these days. You have the social justice warriors, and that is considered part of the far-left political agenda. Some things that have been done with social justice go far beyond where Christians would want to go. I think that there is a biblically-based social justice that we should care about, and we shouldn’t be scared away by the fact that certain secular political people take social justice to mean the triumph of egalitarianism over any sexual gender barriers and everything should be flattened out, and this principle of equality should override everything else, including religious beliefs and freedom. So, there is a social justice movement that we would not involve ourselves in, but I think there is a biblically-based one that is very important for Christians to understand.
Question 12: Can you elaborate on the biblical concept of social justice, and do you think Christians/Adventists have a moral imperative to participate in this, or is it a discretionary stance?
Answer: Well, Christ seemed to go as far as to say that those Christians that go to heaven will actually have participated in this. The separation of sheep and goats isn’t based on whether you’ve taken the name of Christ but on whether you’ve actually done the works of mercy for the people in need, clothing the poor, defending the widow and the fatherless. Of course, this isn’t salvation by works, but it is it is an expression of what salvation should look like. We don’t do this to be saved, but if we are saved, as Christ said, we will do these things for others as we would do them unto Him. As Adventists we tend to be very good at restorative justice where if somebody had something stolen, it should be restored to them. And we strive to keep high standards and be honest and fair in the marketplace and in our jobs. But there is another kind of justice called distributive justice, which doesn’t ask if something was taken from you wrongly or unfairly but asks if all the property in a society is fairly distributed. Most Adventists would view distributive justice as a form of communism or socialism, implying taking money from the very wealthy and have the very poor benefit from it. The Bible recognizes the difference between restorative justice and distributive justice and has things to say about both, but it tends to say a lot more about distributive justice. The Old Testament is full of economic laws that helped the poor and the foreigner. As an example, the seven-year Sabbatical allowed the poor to harvest whatever they wished on top of the gleaning, and every forty-nine years all the land returned to its original owner, which is like resetting society every generation, so that each generation has a fresh start and the opportunity to use the resources that their parents might have lost or squandered or given away. Of course, through ability and behavior and work, society always becomes more unequal over time, but in the Jewish economy you have that kind of reset. In America, we think that property rights are the most sacred rights of all, and that everyone should be able to pass on, with very little taxation, what they’ve earned to the next generation, and this is profoundly unbiblical.
Question 13: Thank you for clarifying this difference between restorative and distributive justice. As a follow-up, would it be fair to say that America is a capitalist country, and if yes, how does this outlook square with the biblical principles of distributive justice?
Answer: Yes, maybe a mix. We do have Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid assistance. There is hardly any pure capitalist country in the world, but we are certainly much more towards that end of the spectrum than all the European countries, for example. Capitalism is quite at odds with distributive justice. I think most Christians don’t understand what the Old Testament says about the economic system. Of course, even in the Old Testament it wasn’t a purely communist system, because you didn’t get handouts, you still had to glean and yes, there was help for women and the orphans, but if you got the land back you had to work it. It was a beautiful combination of keeping equality but also keeping an incentive in place for people to work hard. It is a nice mixture of a capitalist system where there is private property where people can glean the benefits of private property, but it also recognized that private property is not some sort of an absolute, multi-generation right and once you have it you can give it to whomever you want. It recognized that the state can organize it in a way for the fairness of the communities and individuals. Most Christian Americans today have bought into a dedicated capitalist private-ownership system that is on equal terms with the most basic terms of Christian beliefs, if not higher.
Question 14: To what extent and in what ways can our current society model this biblical example, though?
Answer: One of the most common objections I get from my students is that this was a theocracy, that God could do this because He was in charge. But the fact is that this wasn’t implemented in a way that required God’s continued intervention; it was set-up as a system to continue to function, and it didn’t seem to have any particularly ritualistic concern, it had a lot to do with concerns about the poor. And for those who find Ellen White authoritative on these matters, she talks about this whole economic system and says that it was meant to prevent gaps between rich and poor, stating that if these principles were still followed today, we’d have less suffering and division and conflict. Of course, we can’t implement them directly, that was an agricultural state, we live in an informational and industrial society. But we can take the principles and apply them. What this could mean, for example, is having higher state taxation and put it into equal access to education for all—education being the equivalent of land today. Why should some, just for being born have a billion dollars, and others get five cents from their parents? As it stands, in America, education is handled by county rather than the state. If you are in a poor county you get poorly-funded education, and if you are in a rich county you get well-funded education. It perpetuates poverty in some groups.
Question 15: In the end, this whole topic rests on how much we truly care about others, and while information and knowledge are very important, I wonder if there is something deeper that can open people’s hearts such genuine care.
Answer: I think that is the job of the Gospel. If you really understand the Gospel, these things will naturally follow. We have professors here at the university who teach Biology or English, not heavily involved with issues of immigration and such, yet sufficiently moved that they go every week to Bethany house to read to the orphan refugees who don’t have parents nearby. I am hoping that these stories and the experiences people will share on the panels during the conference will motivate people to see the importance of caring for others—the abused, the prisoners, the immigrants. At the end of the day it’s all about people who care for the vulnerable, and that in itself is a kind of argument, right? It’s not a rational or a propositional one, it is one based on compassion, on seeing and responding to those in need.
Question 16: Any final thoughts or hopes?
Answer: We live in a very polarized society right now, politically. We haven’t seen this much polarization probably since the 1970s with the culture conflict, or maybe even back to the civil war since people have been so exercised in outrage with each other. The same divide is in our church, and when these divides come along, what better thing can we do than say, let’s look at the words and teachings of Christ about these topics. We may be able to find common ground, or we may be able to find things that are non-negotiable. Not everything is solved through compromise, sometimes it is solved through understanding more clearly what God requires and then sticking to it. I am sure that we will have some extremes in the church who will never be persuaded to get along, but we are trying to find the moderate 60% who can say, “Yes, this view of approaching public issues fits in with our prophetic and moral heritage.” That is what we are hoping for.