Sitting with the Sages: Justice, Ethics, and Adventism (Part 1)

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Sitting with the Sages: Justice, Ethics, and Adventism (Part 1)

The Greek philosopher Socrates was known as the gadfly of the state because he attempted to “sting” his Athenian contemporaries into consideration of the justice and rightness of their actions. In his book Socrates Meets Jesus: History’s Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ, Peter Kreeft addresses the gadfly phenomenon by exploring Jesus’ claims in a relativistic or at least diverse Christian society. What would happen if Socrates suddenly showed up on the campus of a major university and enrolled in its divinity school? How would he react to our values? To our culture? And what would he think of Jesus? Furthermore, what would that type of quest make of the multitude of Christian denominations in America and the varied ethical stances it produces?

In the Christian’s vocation it is unnecessary to engage in the Socratic Method either to discover Christianity’s universal message or identity markers or to give privilege of thought to non-Christians. Adventism’s definition of its identity rests not on critical inquiries from the observable world but on the worldview Scripture expresses in an eschatological context. This theological foundation has been its raison d’être for thinking, lifestyle, and mission outreach. What is not always clear is how that worldview should influence activities in the public arena. (Public action must be distinguished from private when the systemic activities of social groups are being analyzed.)

Recently there has arisen a stream of postmodern and more secular humanistic influences that have challenged the notion of how the church defines itself and operates its mission. This is typically seen in the bumper sticker “coexist” mentality. In times of ideological pluralism, clear and cogent identity markers with goals and purposes developed from Scripture are needed to meet what may seem to be an innocuous tip of the relativistic iceberg. But the rumblings of an unbiblical worldview below threaten to undercut the clear word of God to this present generation and in some minds make the voice of the church irrelevant because it fails to address what many non-Adventists see as “real-life issues.”

On the other end of the spectrum there are voices that would dismiss any attempt to engage a larger field of Christian responsibility in the world in favor of solely engaging in an “evangelistic” focus where the methods show little interest in the material life of those we minister to. The three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 must never lose their centrality in Adventist thought and mission.

What is needed is an approach, a pathway where Adventists’ eschatological mission can engage the very issues that secular or at least non-fundamentalist faith groups are addressing. We need to approach these issues from Scriptural truths as a source of help to “the least of these” as well as a bridge for dialogue. The Word of God not only speaks to people in buildings with steeples but deals with the fundamental issues of life that all people wrestle with. While the church’s main mission is evangelism to a world dying for lack of a Savior, it may be unclear to non-Adventists how that Savior is Lord of all creation if Adventists make it seem that theological orthodoxy is God’s sole concern for people or that His Word has nothing to say about the material needs and sociological crises we live with in society.

Adventists: A People of Justice?

I would argue that being an Adventist means living a life of mental, moral, and missional responsibility in light of the Lord and His truth that we hold dear in every theater of living. It is a message ultimately of the gospel, as Paul says, wherein the righteousness of God is revealed (Rom 1). This word “righteousness” traces back into about ten different words in the Old Testament, showing that the range of definition covers a variety of virtues, values, and situations addressed in life. Because he was thoroughly immersed in biblical thought, Paul’s understanding of the word “righteousness” included the notion of justice.

These two nouns, righteousness and justice, are not usually seen as mutually inclusive. Though Adventist thinking has shown the relationship between its eschatological message and the gospel, specifically in Revelation 12–14, justice has not been a big part of Adventist vernacular as of late. The deeper implication is the import of character formation not solely in the isolation of a privatized religion, but in shared relational care of others through the gospel’s transformative message. The paraenetic value (of or relating to moral and ethical instruction) of Adventist identity has been overlooked in terms of being a people of justice. What that looks like in everyday life is a wholistic gospel perspective that takes into account the entire canon of Scripture.

Though no one biblical book or genre can encapsulate the totality of a biblical worldview about justice, a good starting place to address the myriad of current concerns and critical inquiries into defining a solid ethical and active identity resides in the voice of the biblical sages. The Wisdom literature of the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) has much to say about the moral quality of human nature in relation to a range of issues. This message is applicable to every generation that faces a set of diverse matters in the ebb and flow of the changing tides of culture. The voice of the church has something to say in the public marketplace of ideas and praxis. Indeed, “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice” (Proverbs 1:20).

We are dealing with foundational beliefs from a divinely inspired revelation that ought to play the primary and pivotal role in our thinking and affect our practice as a community. This rupture between religious activity and social movement and mobility is a modern phenomenon, though more churches are becoming socially aware and engaged in ministry to the least of these.

Before the revolutions (social, political, industrial, etc.) of the latter 18th and 19th centuries, Christianity stood at the center of Western culture and life. Churches ran schools and hospitals, provided social services and education, and actively engaged the political process. Today this thinking is foreign to modern sensibilities where the state operates almost in dichotomous fashion with faith-based initiatives, which have privatized their operations for the most part. I say “for the most part” because of progressive social justice institutions spearheaded by schools like Union Theological Seminary, with its history of education in the lines of civic responsibility and action. Its faculty included Gladden, Rauschenbusch, Tillich, Cone, West, and Reinhold Niebuhr, who influenced many generations of students and thinkers, including the German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There is a long tradition of Christian social justice activists (see the works by Gary Dorrien like Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition).

The question that needs to be addressed for Adventist mission and theology is how we as a people with eschatological sensibilities should engage in civic responsibilities. Admittedly, our more recent tradition is not as robust and engaged as was our earlier history as a movement. Understandably the main objection to social action is our understanding of how church and state will integrate in the end of time. However, those feelings need to be balanced with what the Bible says of our duty to serve humanity in humanitarian ways (cf. Proverbs 19:17; Deuteronomy 15:10-11; Isaiah 58:10). Especially important is how Jesus’ words about care for poor are couched in terms of His soon return (Matthew 25:31-46).

Biblical sages address both the practical and intellectual person in terms of character development on the one hand and eternal destiny on the other. The fundamental differences between Christian action and humanistic action are the motives, goals, modus operandi, and outcomes each represent (Job 28:28; Ps 111:10; Eccl 12:13). A biblical stance resists quick emotive responses to inequities. A biblical worldview defines the kind of community the person of faith belongs to and the type of person that faith creates. The trajectory of that person and their faith is long-term and cultivates a sustained sensitivity to and activity for people in need irrespective of color, class, culture, creed, gender, etc. Much could be said about that community, yet for space limitations one area pertinent to issues of the day will hopefully show how a biblical worldview can define Adventists’ approach to social issues.

Poverty: A Biblical View

An important topic confronting the life of faith is social welfare. This is just one among many, but it was chosen because it interrelates on many levels with much of the world’s woe and is pertinent to Adventist identity.

In terms of social welfare, we should not limit our understanding to statistics and paradigm shifts within the politics of the day. Of the many aspects of social welfare, poverty is an issue that impacts the majority of our world for various reasons. How ought the Adventist relate to that reality? The Psalmist points out the welfare of the poor and socially maligned and brings forth pleas to those who have the capacity and charge over the social welfare of the people. “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3).

Should we therefore give money to every panhandler? Keep in mind that attitudes we carry today were not in the mind of the Biblical author. There was no idea of American exceptionalism or a “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” mentality. In fact, the Bible says much more about care for the poor than it says about growing personal fortunes. Contrary to common notions of the poor being greedy or lazy, the sages tell us that though there are results for hard work and laziness (Prov 13:4; 12:27), correlation between laziness and poverty does not mean causation.

A starting point needs to be a change in thinking about poverty in general. An understanding of issues like economic, political, and social structures; population flux; educational factors; industrialization capacity and productivity; privilege; cultural mores; etc., can help modern minds to understand that simplistic mindsets about poverty are unwarranted. How then does a responsible interpreter of the Word of God deal with this complex issue? Historically, in society the politics of language has been efficient in maintaining social orders. However, the interests of the biblical sages focused on wealth in terms of the quality of character (Ps 112:3; Prov 3:9; Eccl 5:19) held in tension with the profusion of poverty by making distinctions between being a foolish and a wise person. That distinction is grounded in ethics (Prov 13:18; 23:21). In short, wealth or the lack thereof is not a matter simply of hard work versus laziness, but is spoken of in terms of character that is part and parcel of structural forces that typically do not benefit the maligned and disenfranchised.

The biblical sage supports an agenda that seeks to assuage the disparities resident in society (Job 24:5). We can agree that not all wealthy people are hardworking and some fit into the negative categories defined in the Word of God: those who take bribes (Ps 15:5; Prov 15:27; Eccl 7:7), oppress the less fortunate (Job 35:9; Prov 22:16), or cheat their neighbor (Ps 12:2; Prov 26:18, 19).

The counsel to the person of faith many times has nothing to do with one’s socio-economic status, but is an issue of character. Contrary to the name-it-claim-it gospel, it is irresponsible to believe that today accumulated wealth is due to following the wise counsel of the Bible despite one’s moral center. So what should the Christian response be? God is on the side of the oppressed (Ps 103:6; 146:7), not because they are better people, but because He is a God of justice.

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.