The political and social events of the year 2020 have once again pushed unresolved issues around race relations in the United States to center stage in our national and international conversations. The video-recorded murder of George Floyd by a police officer on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, represented for millions a tipping point, one that elicited an outcry by leaders who highlighted historical inequity and called for social justice across a diverse range of political, commercial, academic, and ecclesiastical institutions.
On September 15, 2020, the General Conference executive committee voted the statement, “One Humanity: A Human Relations Statement Addressing Racism, Casteism, Tribalism, and Ethnocentrism,” which seeks to recognize the existence of “racial injustice, tribal conflicts, and caste system bigotry suffered by millions of persons in every society and world region.”
In reference to the GC statement (available at https://www.adventist.org) and the aforementioned event, the statement “God’s Call to Live in Healing and Harmony” as a biblical response to the issues specific to the NAD. This NAD statement contextualizes the “One Humanity” document within the North American setting.
What Is Critical Race Theory?
Such pronouncements, while aiding the church’s mission by making its positions on race relations clear, could also, however, be easily misunderstood by some of the NAD’s constituents. Because of the emotionally, politically, and socially charged perspectives on racial discussions in the territories represented in the North American Division, the NAD executive committee requested that the same writing committee, comprised of executive committee members, provide an important preamble regarding the voted NAD statement. During the gathering of data for that preamble the need for an extended look at the issues emerged.
Recent discussions of race in North America have been colored by a thread of academic conversation known as critical race theory (CRT). CRT represents a perspective that emerged from legal scholars in academic circles in the 1970s. It was an attempt to interpret and explain the slow down or reversal on racial progress in America following the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; and raise discussion of the U.S. Constitution, judicial system, and legal rulings when the system pertained to African Americans.
CRT is grounded in a Marxist critique and analysis of Western institutions that rested heavily on the deconstructive work of what is known as the Frankfurt School. For more than 40 years CRT was virtually confined to ivory-towered academic discussions. CRT assumes that all of life is structured around two social realities—oppressors and the oppressed. In CRT, individuals are either active or unwitting racists or they are conscious anti-racists (colloquially known as “woke”). CRT asserts that racism in America is normative, not aberrational, and is often called “America’s original sin.”
Clarity and Context
The North American Division statement is not CRT. It does not embrace CRT’s assumptions. The NAD statement is grounded in a radically different and higher source of authority — the witness of the Bible.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we hold and teach that “the Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative, and the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the definitive revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 30:5, 6; Isa. 8:20; John 17:17; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Heb. 4:12; 2 Peter 1:20, 21)” (Fundamental Belief No. 1). Accepting the authenticity, validity, and historicity of the Holy Scriptures, especially Genesis 1 and 2, our NAD statement holds that God established His will for the human family at Creation.
The NAD statement holds that the Fall, recorded in Genesis 3, affected and infected all human beings, individually and collectively — whether history’s oppressor or history’s oppressed. Adventists assert that “all humanity is involved in a great controversy” (Fundamental Belief No. 8). Because of the evil that arises from this controversy, human history records the sad saga of how sin has contaminated individual and group relations in the forms of racism, sexism, classism, tribalism, ethnocentrism, and a host of other distortions of God’s will for human community. Whether war, discrimination, class exploitation, human trafficking, molestation, sexual violation, or enslavement, sin individually and collectively has savaged our social order since the fall of humankind.
Unlike CRT, the redemption envisioned in our NAD statement is wholistic; its moral claims transcend politics,* its spiritual claims establish an “In Christ” identity; its mental claims transform and renew the mind; its unifying claims create culture of kingdom communities; and its social claims promote justice and equitable treatment to all God’s children.
A Critical Moment
The messenger to the remnant reminds us that race relations will worsen before the coming of Christ. Long before the rise of CRT, Ellen White wrote to Southern workers about proclaiming the truth where there’s race antagonism. She said that opposition strengthens “as time advances” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 205) and race prejudices increase. “As time advances” is one of White’s go-to formulas for the describing the approaching end of history and the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from the world. Her eschatological perspective anticipated an increase in racial animus and activity. For her, the reality of the time-advance drove home the necessity for urgency in our mission service. We believe that we are in that aforeseen end-time. For the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America to fail to witness to God’s truth during this end-time reality is to miss a critical moment of ministry opportunity. Silence on God’s will in these matters will be considered indifference or consent, either of which undermines the church’s needed witness.
The statement, voted by the North American Division church leadership, provides guidance in our witness to His coming kingdom in both the “already” and the “not yet.” It is in this spirit of kingdom witness that the statement is presented.
* Adventist pioneer J. N. Andrews reminds us, in referring to American slavery, that public immorality cannot be excused because it is labeled as politics. He wrote, “This sin is snugly stowed away in a certain package which is labeled ‘Politics.’ They deny the right of their fellow men to condemn any of the favorite sins which they have placed in this bundle; and they evidently expect that any parcel bearing this label will pass the final custom-house, i.e., the judgment of the great day—without being examined. Should the All-seeing Judge, however, inquire into their connection with this great iniquity, they suppose the following answer will be entirely satisfactory to Him: ‘I am not all the censurable for anything said or done by me in behalf of slavery; for, O Lord, Thou knowest, it was a part of my politics!’” (“Slavery,” Review and Herald, Oct. 25, 1864, p. 172).
— Leslie N. Pollard, Ph.D., D.Min., M.Div., MBA, is president of Oakwood University in Hunstville, Alabama.