Attorney James Standish began his address by warning the audience that his presentation may be considered too controversial for some Adventists but he continued by proposing that Christianity as a faith cannot be simply lived out as “private piety” but that it must also impact the public square.
Standish then pointed out the irony of Christians choosing to disengage with public policy. He reminded the audience that all of our favorite Bible heroes were people active in the public square. Moses challenged the public policies of Pharaoh. Daniel challenged King Nebuchadnezzar and King Darius. And as an example, par excellence, Standish presented Jesus Christ himself as a public engaged figure. One of Jesus’ first actions after his baptism and wilderness temptations was to read in his home synagogue from the scroll of Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19) [emphasis added]
For Standish, the freedom Jesus referenced in the book of Isaiah was not simply a metaphysical conception of freedom but the actual liberation of oppressed individuals. Standish then reminded the audience that Jesus demonstrated this freedom by a controversial public act when Jesus cleansed the temple holding a makeshift whip. Standish, referencing Ellen White’s version of the cleansing of the temple, stated that it was when Christ saw the exploitation of the poor that he was moved to take action.
As Jesus came into the temple, He took in the whole scene. He saw the unfair transactions. He saw the distress of the poor, who thought that without shedding of blood there would be no forgiveness for their sins. He saw the outer court of His temple converted into a place of unholy traffic. The sacred enclosure had become one vast exchange. Christ saw that something must be done. DA 157.2-3
Standish remarked that we often say we want to be like Jesus, but do we consider what that means when it concerns public policy. He then stated that Christianity is not about middle class values and acting in a polite way to make everyone comfortable. Early Adventists knew this and engaged the public square and fought against evils of society including slavery and alcohol consumption.
Standish then quoted from memory Ellen White’s well-known inspirational message for Adventist youth to “aim high.”
Dear youth, what is the aim and purpose of your life? Are you ambitious for education that you may have a name and position in the world? Have you thoughts that you dare not express, that you may one day stand upon the summit of intellectual greatness; that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations. You may every one of you make your mark. You should be content with no mean attainments. Aim high, and spare no pains to reach the standard. (MYP 36.1)
Standish then lamented that there aren’t more Adventists in public service. However, he cautioned that if an Adventist does decide to engage in politics and even serve as a politician that they should be clear about their objectives. Standish stated that “We don’t need more Democratic politicians. We don’t need more Republican politicians.” Instead, Standish affirmed the need for Christian politicians—politicians who will allow their Christian morals and values to guide the policies they support and enact. Standish warned that if your ethics and morality line up perfectly with the Republican party, then you are not a Christian. Likewise, if your ethics and morality line up perfectly with the Democratic party you are not a Christian. Our ethics and morality should come from Scripture, not political parties.
Standish then presented three personal stories as springboards to highlight three different public-policy issues: (1) education, (2) abortion, and (3) immigration.
Standish related a personal story in which his wife (an educator) helped a student from a low-income home, receive much needed dental work that seem to change the child’s entire demeanor from sullenness to sunshine. Standish then encouraged the audience to visit the ADRA (Adventist Disaster Relief Agency) website and sign the petition to support the global need for basic education for underprivileged children. You can sign the petition here!
Standish proclaimed that as Christians “We are not here to simply do our jobs. We have a mission.”
In the second public policy issue, Standish addressed the issue of abortion. He started by relating his personal story, that he and his wife adopted their son from China, receiving much applause from the audience. Standish then shared the statistic that 25% of Christians think about adopting a child, but only 2% actually do. He then highlighted the One Child Nation documentary, which spotlights abortion and child abandonment in China. In the film, two figures are interviewed, one woman and one man. The woman, who worked as an abortionist for the Chinese government her whole life lamented that she didn’t know how to live with herself and effectively calling herself a child-murderer. Standish remarked that she had the courage and language to admit the reality of the situation. The second figure, an artist, happened upon some discarded yellow bags marked as medical waste, and upon inspection found that they were filled with aborted fetuses. The artist subsequently decided to paint the portraits of these babies so that they would at least have the dignity of being remembered. After related these details of the documentary, Standish then told the audience that we will all have to give an account for what we did while all of this killing went on. A fuller exposition of Standish’s thoughts on abortion can be found in his article Communists’ Confessions: What Adventists Can Learn About Abortion From China.
After relating a third personal story of when his parents took in a homeless man in while living in Malaysia, Standish highlighted his third topic, immigration. Referring to his parents generosity towards a homeless man, Standish stated that “I’ve heard thousands of sermons and I’ve forgotten all of them, but I will never forget what my mother did.” Standish went on to relate his own personal immigration story. According to Standish, it took seven years to receive a Green Card after immigrating to the United States, despite coming from a well-educated family and holding advanced degrees.
He then stated that in the United States we have a lot of people looking for a home. Many people in this country have found a home and they are making an honest living. But if you’re poor and don’t have access to lawyers you can have everything taken from you simply because you’re not a citizen. Standish informed the audience that there is a principle in law that one cannot knowingly wait until an individual has built and invested in something and then confiscate it from them on legal technicalities. This, Standish asserted, is exactly what is happening in this country. People spend years building families and a livelihood just to have it stripped from them. There is no reason for this, Standish states, except for animosity.
As a people [Adventists] we try to be polite and nice. But that is not what Christianity is about. The point of our faith is not to be liked. Standish then proclaimed boldly that “If you want to be liked, don’t follow Jesus!” He then went on to report that some of our own Adventist brothers and sisters have been deported and we need to do something to protect these vulnerable populations.
Standish then proposed and interesting idea. According to their own policy, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is not allowed to raid churches. Standish then proposed the question, “Why don’t we open up our churches as sanctuaries?” Let’s tell people, if you’re afraid, come and live in our church. We have a golden opportunity to turn our sanctuaries into real sanctuaries.
Standish concluded his message with a rousing call for Adventists to take action. He remarked that many of us look back at history and say that if we were alive during certain time periods (ante-bellum slavery in America, the holocaust, or during the Civil Rights movement) we would have been on the right side of history and done something about the atrocities being committed. But Standish asserted that we do not live in the past and if you’re silent now you shouldn’t fool yourself because you would not have been silent in the past as well. Furthermore, silence is often viewed as a safe neutral stance but in reality, it is complicity. He then remarked that Martin Luther King Jr. once said that it is not the words of our enemies that we will remember but rather the silence of friends. Standish concluded his remarks my stating that he wants to be part of a church that will stand up for what is right because one day we will have to give an account. We must move from private piety to public policy.