Policy not politics1
Doing nothing in the face of social evil is not neutrality, it’s complicity. Passivity in the face of human need is not faithfulness, it is sinful indifference.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has never engaged in partisan politics, an historical fact that underlines the church’s primary allegiance to a Lord whose “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Indeed, Ellen White strongly condemned those who use their church positions to support political parties or candidates.2
At the same time, the Adventist Church has always been actively engaged with critical policy issues in the public square, some of which inescapably have a political dimension to them. From our earliest days Adventists fought crucial battles to preserve religious liberty,3 led in the movement for prohibition of alcohol, advocated for the rights of the poor, firmly opposed war and not only urged the abolition of slavery, but adamantly refused to obey the US Federal Fugitive Slave Law.
Ellen White went so far as to state that if an Adventist did not oppose slavery, he should be excluded from the movement.4 This at a time when many Christians supported slavery. Not only did early Adventists oppose slavery, they supported the most radical solution to it: complete abolition.5 Ultimately over 600,000 Americans died in a civil war battling in large part over this contentious issue. How could Adventists speak with such moral clarity in the midst of such powerful conflict?
Explaining the rationale for Adventist public policy activism, Ellen White wrote: “Many deplore the wrongs which they know exist, but consider themselves free from all responsibility in the matter. This cannot be. Every individual exerts an influence in society.”6
Put another way, by our very existence as a faith community within a society, we have an influence. With that influence comes responsibility of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Doing nothing in the face of social evil is not neutrality, it’s complicity. Passivity in the face of human need is not faithfulness, it is sinful indifference.
Adventist Christians reject complicity and indifference in favour of carefully considered public action. Our work on public policy is not an extra, grafted onto the stock of who we are, but a core responsibility of all those who follow God.
We tell our children the Bible stories of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, who used their time on earth to exert an influence on the public policy of the societies in which they lived. But we should also be telling those stories to adults—drawing out the lesson that believers today must also exert a godly influence on our community.
But how do Adventist Christians do this today? How do we “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free”?7 How do we “speak up for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute”?8 How do we “defend the rights of the poor and needy”?9
I’m privileged to have been part of a team who advocated on behalf of our church during my years at the General Conference. Issues we worked on include advocating against the use of torture, speaking up for the rights of religious minorities from Nigeria to Turkmenistan, and supporting legislation to, among other things, protect prisoners from rape, provide visas for people illegally trafficked, regulate tobacco products and to protect the religious rights of workers.
Has the church always acted with moral clarity at times of crisis in society? No. But should we should aim to? Consider what Ellen White said in describing Abraham’s decisive move to free Lot and the hostages: “It was seen that righteousness is not cowardice, and that Abraham’s religion made him courageous in maintaining the right and defending the oppressed . . . Abraham regarded the claims of justice and humanity. His conduct illustrates the inspired maxim, ‘thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’”10 Let’s all aim to experience the living faith of Abraham. Let’s stand up for the oppressed. Let’s turn love into action. Let’s be courageous.
1. This editorial draws in large parts from an article I wrote that was published in the Adventist Review in 2006.
2. Ellen White, Gospel Workers, 391-396.
3. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol 5, 713, 714.
4. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol 1, 359, 360.
5. Roy Branson, Ellen White: Racist or Champion of Equity, http://www.oakwood.edu/goldmine/hdoc/blacksda/champ/
6. Ellen White, Gospel Workers, 387.
7. Isaiah 58:6 (NIV).
8. Proverbs 31:8 & 9.
10. Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 135, 136.
James Standish is editor of Adventist Record.