Is the Seventh-day Adventist Church yet ready for social justice?

Harwood Lockton

Edited extract of the Alumni Lecture delivered at Homecoming 2010. At the time of the lecture, Harwood Lockton was the Director, International Program, ADRA Australia.

Social injustice is pervasive in all societies, whether at the level of individual households, within nations or between nations. In popular usage, and often within the Adventist church, the term “social justice” is loosely used to mean acts of compassion and social involvement as in delivering food parcels to needy persons in the local community or participating in overseas fly ’n’ build missions. In its more precise meaning, social justice is about justice being applied across society and implies advocating for those who have been wronged by society. It is this more precise meaning that is used here.

There is a sense that the Adventist church does not fully embrace even social involvement and compassion as legitimate parts of its mission, let alone social justice. Evangelism is given primacy and social involvement seems to be useful more for its public relations value. Zdravko Plantak, in his 1998 book, The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics, shows that in the nineteenth century the only non-self-interest public issue that Adventist leadership was willing to engage with was slavery. During the second half of the twentieth century the issues of race relations and women’s rights challenged the corporate church but primarily from the perspective of employment issues, not the concerns of the wider society. Has the Adventist church continued to be silent on social justice since Plantak’s analysis?

The corporate church

In 2009 the General Conference released a revised mission statement of which the “Our Methodology” segment is of interest: “This calls the church beyond preaching and teaching to a ministry of serving and acting” on behalf of the poor and oppressed. This statement suggests that serving and acting are as integral and legitimate as preaching and teaching.

Periodically the General Conference issues “official statements” about social, theological and ecclesiological issues that have been approved and voted by church leadership. Of the sixty-one such statements issued since 1980, twenty-seven might be categorised as about social involvement and social justice and thirty-four categorised as ‘inward’ in orientation dealing particularly with lifestyle/behaviour and other church issues.

The comparatively limited number of social engagement statements published during Dr Jan Paulsen’s tenure must be balanced by his frequent and consistent calls for a greater engagement by the church in society. He argued in several publications, and notably the Adventist World, for the church to work for social justice for the marginalised as it is a major concern of God.

At the 2010 General Conference Session, the church issued an official statement on global poverty. Of particular note is the language that moves the discussion from social involvement to social justice and human rights, including a call for advocacy and political action:

Working to reduce poverty and hunger means more than showing sympathy for the poor.  It means advocating for public policy that offers justice and fairness to the poor, for their empowerment and human rights…

In early 2010, ADRA International and the Women’s Ministries Department of the General Conference jointly launched the “enditnow”® awareness-raising campaign to advocate for the end of violence against women and girls around the world, with the ambitious goal of presenting a petition with at least one million signatures to the UN Secretary General.  For SDAs this was an unprecedented foray into social justice not seen for over a hundred years since the Adventist anti-slavery work of the nineteenth century.

Biblical basis for social justice

There are over two thousand verses in the Bible that address poverty/wealth, oppression and exploitation. Yet until recently Christians in general, including SDAs, have missed such a large body of biblical material – Christians have been known to build whole doctrines on considerably less biblical material! Frequent attention has been given to the words translated as “righteous/ness” and “justice” in English language Bibles. In both the Old and New Testaments either word is valid though older translations with their preference for “righteous” rather than “justice” or “fairness”, have led us to miss the real intent of significant portions of Scripture. The Christian is called not only to acts of compassion but also social justice.

Adventist basis for social justice

In addition, some uniquely Adventist beliefs contribute to a theology of social justice, notably the Sabbath, which is central to SDA identity. The Sabbath commandment calls us

  • not to exploit our families, workers, migrants within our care, or our livestock,
  • to remember that all humans have been created in the image of God and hence have equality (Exodus 20:11),
  • to remember that God’s people were released from economic and social slavery and so everyone is free (Deuteronomy 5:15).

In addition to the weekly Sabbath, there were the Sabbatical Year – every seven years – and the year of Jubilee – every fiftieth year (Exodus 23: 10-12, Leviticus 25: 1-7, 8-54). These had radical social justice provisions with the land being rested or fallowed, debts being released and slaves offered their freedom. These concerns with land, capital and labour are the foundations of all economic systems. It seems that the divine principles behind the sabbatical systems were to counter the acquisitive behaviour of some that amasses wealth and power at the expense of the many.

It is not without significance that the prophets and Jesus were strongly influenced by these concepts of social justice in the sabbatical system – his inaugural sermon was couched in Jubilee language. Isaiah and Amos both railed against the unjust practices of Sabbath keepers.

Adventist ambivalence

Yet there is an ambivalence within official Adventism. References to social involvement let alone social justice are only occasional in church papers. For example Adventist World has a regular feature, Window into… which outlines a featured country’s basic history, geography, SDA presence and mission. Only rarely does mission include anything other than evangelism and baptisms, whether it be humanitarian actvities or health care. Education institutions fare a little better.

So is the Seventh-day Adventist church yet ready for social justice? It would seem from the evidence surveyed that the answer is still no, despite several and possibly increasing voices.  Even social involvement is not theologically and fully accepted as part of the church’s legitimate mission in all quarters. Until that happens, social justice will be a fringe activity championed by a few biblical idealists.

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