Stories & Commentaries

The Cooper Conundrum and American Adventism

How can we relate to others as equal brothers and sisters in Christ, in an effort to present a strong witness to society?

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As the world’s attention was captured by the asphyxiation death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, another notable event transpired earlier that same day in New York City. Christian Cooper — a writer, editor, and avid birder — encountered Amy Cooper walking her unleashed dog in a section of Central Park where regulations specified that dogs must be leashed at all times.

Provoked by nothing more than Mr. Cooper’s request that she leash her dog, she called the police and told them “there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

Why would she call the police and state that a black man posed a threat to her and her dog, in spite of the fact that Ms. Cooper had to know that the video evidence would prove her claim to be false?

Herein lies the reality that blacks — and black men in particular — face on a daily basis in America. We can be jogging down the street, walking home after buying snacks, sitting at home playing video games with a nephew, or enjoying a nature walk — and still feel psychologically or physically threatened.

Mrs. Potiphar: A Cautionary Tale

In my homiletics courses, I stress the applicability of Scripture to all areas of living in an effort to demonstrate that God’s Word speaks to life today. As Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9).[1]

Joseph, a hard-working and trustworthy yet disenfranchised young man, was victimized by the false assertions of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:14). And it worked. It worked because she was the beneficiary of privilege and recipient of benefit of doubt. It worked because Joseph was deemed to be of an inferior heritage (“a Hebrew”). It worked because those to whom she lodged the accusation would believe her privileged word over the word of someone who mocked her (verses 14, 17). Mrs. Potiphar, meet Amy. Amy, meet Mrs. Potiphar.

Verse 15 speaks to planted evidence that led to Joseph’s conviction; but we’ll save that discussion for another article. Suffice it to say, Christian Cooper could well have been George Floyd if things had turned out differently.

Sea Change needed for American Adventism?

Protests in the wake of George Floyd’s suffocation death may be leading to a sea change in terms of how Americans see race relations. Only time will tell. For those who believe transformation is needed sociologically and administratively throughout American Adventism, I pose the question: How do we accomplish such in a way that we relate to others as equal brothers and sisters in Christ, in an effort to present a strong witness to society? I offer a six-step proposal.

We must open-mindedly listen to views that differ from our own. In doing so, we must sideline our stubbornly-held beliefs and give ourselves permission to alter our opinions about the subject matter at hand. We must acknowledge that we possess unconscious biases about race and the “other” that may not be accurate. The truth is there is more than one way to see some things. My understanding does not invalidate your understanding, or vice versa.

A case in point: For years, I assumed the two travelers from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24) were males until a female challenged me on that presupposition. I possessed an unconscious bias that is not explicitly supported either by Scripture or Ellen White in The Desire of Ages. My initial belief could be correct; hers could be correct. But I needed to be open-minded enough to alter my view.

Too many people base their views of race on what they were taught growing up or what they see on TV. If their views have been shaped otherwise, they have been positively shaped based on a co-worker or neighbor, or negatively on an isolated episode. Intentional, consistent, and heartfelt interactions would prove to expand the database upon which we can re-evaluate our views.

We must be willing to live in uncomfortable spaces. Shifting demographics have led to redistribution of political, administrative, and financial clout. Along with shifting demographics have come diversity of voices and demands for a larger piece of the pie; and a larger piece for one requires a smaller piece for another. This burgeoning reality causes some to hearken back to the theme song from the 1970s TV comedy All in the Family: “Those were the days.” The 21st century, however, calls us all to live in and adjust to an ever-changing landscape.

See how you may have benefited from white privilege. It is assumed that people are hired or promoted based on qualifications. Many of us know from firsthand experience that it’s not always what you know; rather, it’s who you know. Too many assume that their qualifications earned that job (and not silent discrimination) or they gained their wealth (but not generationally). They believe they earned it themselves, and that others should pull themselves up by their bootstraps just as they did. But some possess boots with frayed laces.

Don’t see one experience as the norm and the other as the anomaly. Society has created the picture that criminality is pandemic and interwoven into the black experience; but crime by whites is anomalous, an exception to the rule. Crime is endemic to all races and ethnicities — regardless of who should be arrested or ends up being convicted.

Norm versus anomaly has been applied to church life, worship and music, and other aspects of living that time and space prevent me from discussing. In short, stereotypes and opinions remain unchallenged if we don’t broaden our horizons.

Stop deflecting, no matter how true. Here are some examples: 1) “All lives matter; not just black lives.” Keep in mind that the father loved the son that stayed home as much as he loved the “prodigal” son. But the son who left home is the one who needed special attention in the parable. 2) “Only the Second Coming will fix racism.” ADRA builds wells and promotes literacy for women overseas. Shall we abandon those efforts while we wait for Jesus to return?[2]

Don’t cross over to the other side of the road (Luke 10:30-32). Ignoring the bleeding victim doesn’t address the issue. Ignoring the bleeding victim is simply another way of saying, “That’s not my problem. Let someone else deal with it!”[3]

Only through the indwelling Spirit and courageous conversations and commitment to genuine growth will we live out the prayer of Christ: “That they all may be one … that the world may believe that You sent me” (John 17:21).

Willie Edward Hucks II serves as chair of the Department of Christian Ministry and associate professor of Pastoral Theology and Homiletics, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

 

 

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all scriptural references are from the New King James Version.

[2] Other examples include: “There is no black race or white race; only the human race” (If race is a sociological construct, then the same applies to the concept of a human race.). “What about segregated conferences….?” (A convenient and sometimes innocent diversion. However, if one were to travel that road, it would be akin to my February 2015 broken wrist that needed to be reset; that is, it needed to be completely broken before it could be reset. That required severe pain before the healing could start.). “All this talk about race serves to divide. We need to heal” (Discussing race doesn’t create division. It brings to light pre-existing conditions.).

[3] In MEDITATION XVII: “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,” John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”