It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1 NIV
Born in New Zealand, but spending most of my childhood in Pakistan and the United States, I have always lacked any semblance of narrow-minded nationalism. I am used to being an “outsider” no matter where I am. As a small child in Pakistan, strangers would reach out to touch my hair…so blond and ethereal compared to the raven-haired locals. I had the “right” skin colour in America but the wrong kind of accent. Even after forty years of living in Australia, I still get asked where I am from.
Studying American history as a newly “immigrated” 13-year-old, I was oblivious of any continuing ramifications of slavery and the civil war. It seemed like ancient history. After a childhood surrounded by skin hues mostly darker than my own, it wasn’t something that I noticed. My naive colour-blindness meant that I didn’t realise that even now, there can still be freedoms lost because of your forebear’s country of origin.
As a teenager in the mid-west of the United States, I would happily join in with my fellow Pathfinders in reciting the pledge of allegiance, the words “with liberty and justice for all” resounding majestically around me. Freedom was the reason why America even existed.
Many early Americans fled their homeland for religious liberty– the freedom to worship as their conscience saw fit. The war of Independence from Britain resulted in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness being legislated in the Bill of Rights.
But already, there were enslaved people in America. A nation born out of a desire for freedom of religion and self-governance was a nation that enslaved her fellow man. Because they were from a different country with a different skin colour seemed to make this reasonable and rational rather than oppressive and controlling.
Almost one hundred years later, there was another war. Again, it was a battle for freedom, this time the freedom of the negro slaves dwelling in bondage in the southern states of America. The Seventh-day Adventist church, named in 1863, was bought into being in the midst of the American Civil War.
For the new church, this, in turn, created intense internal conflict. How were they to act with love when their country was in the process of tearing itself apart? Should they carry weapons and fight for the inalienable rights of others? Or should they refuse to fight because of their reticence to break the sixth commandment by causing the death of their fellow man? James White said that each was free to decide for themselves. The church wouldn’t force people to make the ultimate sacrifice – either their lives because they fought, or their freedom because they refused to fight.
When the fighting ceased, the church then became involved with taking both education and the gospel message to the disenfranchised of the southern states. Again, this sounds logical and loving, not edgy and dangerous. But prejudice was not something that would disappear overnight, and those Seventh-day Adventist missionaries were excluded and ostracised for not adhering to the social norms of the time.
After World War One, the Adventist church was sadly slower to respond to changing social norms than was the society as a whole. Black Seventh-day Adventists were eventually given a pro-rata representation in their respective conferences, but their small numbers meant that meaningful participation remained low.
How could a church that was looking forward to the second coming of Christ keep a large percentage of its members from fulfilling their full potential? It wasn’t until 1943 that a committee of dedicated black Adventist laypeople got together to push for the change that was undoubtedly overdue. They produced a pamphlet entitled: “Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among Seventh-day Adventists?”
The end result was the formation of black conferences. These gave leadership positions to the minority black members and resources to fund schools, build churches, run camp meetings, and expand the medical work. All the church members, regardless of where they lived or the colour of their skin, needed access to education and health care. They all needed the resources to fulfil God’s plan for their lives.
As a white Australian, I may think that slavery is a thing of the past. But the experiences of others show that it is not. There are other ways to enslave than just owning them as objects to perform menial labour. It is limiting education and work opportunities. It is bullying and harassment. It is shunning and shame instead of connection and compassion.
While reading about the early beginnings of my church, I wondered how the past shaped the way I deal with the issues facing me today. What is freedom, and what is love? Is political expediency overriding my apocalyptic end-time vision of the future? Or is that vision supplanting what social justice issues should be garnering my attention?
In 1845 James Russell Lowell wrote a poem that he titled: The Present Crisis. The United States was waging war with Mexico, keen to extend its boundaries. Lowell determined to speak out.
Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.
As a life-long Seventh-day Adventist, I grew up watching and waiting for the second coming. But instead of hoping and praying that I knew enough (or had done enough) to be saved, maybe my focus should have been on the practical. Who are the disenfranchised I may not even see in my narrow-minded insular blindness?
There are arguments between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, each fighting for personal freedom by different means. Skin colour is visible, but the prejudices it invokes may not be. Then there is the role of women in the church – does the fact that women are not formally “ordained” as pastors hold back their opportunities to be leaders and bring a clearer picture of who God is? Lastly, there is sexual identity. Are we more prone to censure than connect, shame rather than support?
Some people are like me, and others are not like me. Some I know and see for who they are, and others I do not know and have difficulty seeing who they really are. Some I understand where they are coming from, and others just confuse me. How can I show them all the love of Jesus despite my own inadequacies and blindness, both to my own sins and also to who Jesus really is and how He truly loves?
We daily make choices, and all our choices have consequences. As we make our choices, our choices change us, and we become different people because of those choices. The battle cry of freedom can be done either from the point of view of self-interest or from altruism. The first is trying to defend our own rights and interests. The second is more focused on social justice.
Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.
Everyone wants the freedom to be themselves. This is a desire that God put into each of our hearts. God did not make us all the same. He loves each one of us for our differences, and it is only when we are letting Him act in our lives that we become the person that we were meant to be, a person that is different to every other person that has ever been born.
Freedom is also the overarching theme of the three angel’s messages. As a church, we are immersed in the future hope of our deliverance from the evils of this world. But for this hope to mean something, it has to change us. It can’t be something we just dream about. It has to be something we actively work towards.
The word crisis comes from the Greek krisis, which means a decision or a choice, especially concerning justice or injustice, right or wrong. The fact that this decision or judgement happens at the end of time is evident in the First Angel’s Message – “Fear God, and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgement (His Krisis) has come: and worship Him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the fountains of waters.” Revelation 14:7
Nothing Jesus ever wants from us is forced. He draws us to Him. As we see who He is, we are willing to give up our own will for His. We see His love, His mercy, and His goodness. We see our own sinfulness. But what freedoms did Jesus come to give us? He came to provide us with freedom from the slavery of sin. Because of that freedom, we love Him, and because of the love that He has for us, we, in turn show that same love to others.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever, with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Truth is something that we, as Adventists, know a lot about. In the first angel’s message, we have the everlasting gospel. This gospel is obviously the truth. But what are the truths that matter? The everlasting gospel can be seen in two halves, neither of which can survive without the other. The first is our love for God. This love comes when we see His love for us. That love is then lived out in our lives, in how we treat every person around us.
It is easy to judge those we do not know personally. But when we get to know people, we see that no matter how different they may look on the outside, they are really just like us. They need love, and they need to give love. They need the freedom to be themselves, and they need to be loved for who they are. Censure and restriction can never change a person’s behaviour or heart. It can only be changed by love and acceptance.
The second angel’s message is about Babylon. It is easy to be simplistic and say that the Roman Catholic Church is Babylon. In the past, she has persecuted countless numbers for their faith, refusing to give them the freedom to choose how they will worship. I may think that as long as I am not a member of the Catholic church, then I have rejected Babylon.
But when you look at how “Babylon” functions, it can be seen that it is not a church. Instead, it is a state of mind. It judges and manipulates. Controlled by selfishness, it is a grab for our own freedoms, riding roughshod over the rights and freedoms of others. Its underlying principle completely denies the love and character of God.
Martin Luther saw that this danger is inherent in each of us when he said, “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope: Self.” Whenever we think that we can save ourselves by our good works, we become Babylon. Our salvation has nothing to do with what I do and everything to do with what Jesus has done.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
But what about the third angel’s message? At first glance, this is not a message about freedom and justice. Instead, it seems to be about anger and wrath, fire and burning. It ends with torment going on forever and ever. As a Seventh-day Adventist, this rings a jarring note. We have no belief in never-ending burning in the fires of hell.
But the angel is actually speaking out boldly against those trying to force the beliefs of others instead of letting everyone choose for themselves. It is speaking out against using force to create compliance rather than letting each individual decide according to their own conscience. The foundation of the third angel’s message is actually freedom. It shows that God is love, and God lets everyone choose. There is no force involved. Fear can only provoke outward compliance. Only love results in compliance from the heart.
God helps us see our own sin and selfishness, but He doesn’t leave us there. He then changes us so we can see ourselves as He sees us. He looks at us and sees us as we would be if we had never sinned. It is only then we can grow. We can only love others when we see how we have been loved. Without God, we are nothing. With Him, we are everything. God gives us freedom from the penalty of sin, so we can extend that same freedom to others. The only way we can know our own hearts is to see ourselves through the love of God
Ty Gibson summed up this relation between worship and love when he said, “My vertical love is only as authentic as my horizontal love. The moment I turn my devotion heavenward to God, God points me earthward to my fellow human beings. Our good Father says, “Show your love for Me by loving My children.”” Truth means nothing if it doesn’t result in love. Love for God means nothing if I then don’t have the desire for others to see God as He really is. Freedom and justice for myself mean nothing if it doesn’t result in fighting for freedom and justice for others.
13 For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14 NIV
|Quote from Ty Gibson: Kingdom Manifesto Part 3 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zm4pble2qwg|
For more about how we can all fight for justice and freedom in our churches and communities, read: Change Agents: The Lay Movement that Challenged the System and Turned Adventism Toward Racial Justice – by Douglas Morgan