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General Conference

Church Leaders Address Issues of Racism and Prejudice

Annual Council presentation focused on individual education and personal reflection towards prejudice so that leaders and members can create more inclusive environments.

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Kymberley McMurray

O n the 15th of September, 2020, the Administrative Committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (AD COM) voted One Humanity: A Human Relations Statement Addressing Racism, Casteism, Tribalism, and Ethnocentrism. The statement demonstrates the Church's commitment to adhere to biblical principles and comes after recent events compelled Church leadership to clearly outline the Church’s official stance on these important issues. 
Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the global Church, was part of a special Annual Council presentation addressing this statement. Diop shared where the seeds of racism originated. “According to the Bible, the roots of racism were sown in heaven—the pride and prejudice of Lucifer (Satan) against the Son of God,” he said. “The controversy in heaven has been brought to Planet Earth. Pride and prejudice inspire racist mindsets and behaviors. Pride and prejudice lead to violence and find a harbor in unregenerated hearts.”
The presentation was deeply focused on individual education and reflection on prejudice so that Church leaders and members can strive towards creating a more inclusive environment for all. 
Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, shared his hope that each division will “take time to reflect and discuss the best way to reach people groups that have been neglected.” 

 A Global Issue

Racism, casteism, tribalism and ethnocentrism are major issues that affect a wide majority of Church membership around the world. During the Annual Council presentation, Ella Simmons, general vice-president for the global Adventist Church, defined racism as “individual prejudice that is imprinted in the cultural artifacts, ideological discourse and institutional realities in America.” Although there has been some progress in America, research shows that, while the symptoms of racial bias are being addressed, the underlying cause is not. 

Simmons shared some statistics from a recent survey of Seventh-Day Adventist respondents from around the world. Thirty-six percent have experienced racism directly; nearly 47 percent have witnessed racism towards others; almost 46 percent witnessed trial bias directly; 63 percent witnessed tribal bias directed at others; 37 percent have experienced national prejudice directly; and 48 percent have witnessed national prejudice towards others. Racism thrives everywhere and Adventists are not immune. 

Africa

Geoffrey Mbwana, general vice president of the global Seventh-Day Adventist Church, stressed how racism has had an adverse impact on Africa. With 54 countries, a population of over 1.2 billion people and over 3,000 different tribes, Africa is a diverse continent and its people have a deep cultural heritage and systems that have been followed for generations. Africa has struggled with the effects of ethnocentrism and tribalism for many years.

Mbwana defined an ethnocentric person as one who “compares their culture to others on such elements such as religion, behavior, language, customs and norms.” Loyalty to culture is not altogether negative, however, it can become negative when it is associated with vanity, and the belief that one tribe or person is better than another. Tribalism and ethnocentrism has created division among communities and encouraged favoritism which has led to a large-scale violation of human rights and civil unrest in Africa. 

 India

Stanley Ponniah, senior accountant at the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, shared that India is rapidly growing and changing, but discrimination still exists for many who are victims of the caste system. The caste system is outlawed in India, but its underlying principles still exist and there still remains a huge economic gap between the upper caste, lower caste and the ‘untouchables.’  

The caste system is a hierarchy taken from ancient Hinduism which categorizes society into four major social classes, with a fifth category ‘untouchables,’ set aside for those with the lowest jobs in society and women. Women are labelled unclean and are often removed from schools and temples. Quotas have now been introduced to ensure that discrimination against lower caste members of society is illegal, but in many areas discrimination still exists. Ponniah indicated that much work needs to be done by the government, social media educators and intellectuals to break the cycle of racism in India.

 Australia

Bettina Krause, associate director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty and director of Government Affairs, gave deeper insight into race and multiculturalism in Australia. In the past, Australia has introduced prejudiced legislation to govern immigration and reject indigenous people. As a result of this legislation, indigenous family structures have fallen apart, and they have been pushed to the outskirts of society, labelled as ‘invisible Australians.’ 

Although Australians have now been willing to acknowledge their history, the impact of racism can still be seen in education, economic and social systems. Krause shared a quote from indigenous church leader Pastor Darren Garnett, who hopes that the “Adventist Church will lead the way in addressing racism powered by empathy and with a sense of brother and sisterhood in Christ, to build a community where racism has no place.”

Europe

Nelu Burcea, deputy secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association, explained how the Roma people, the largest ethnic minority in Europe, has been adversely impacted by racism. There are around 12-15 million Roma people, but they are not included in official census counts despite 70 percent of them living in Eastern Europe.  

The Roma people have been victim to slavery, high levels of racism and persecution. Due to lack of personal documentation, such as birth certificates, millions of Roma people live in poverty with no access to social services and education. Recently the United Nations and European Unions have begun to pay attention to the rights of the Roma population, focusing on issues such as hate speech, segregation, education and freedom of movement. Burcea asserted, “We must never forget that human beings, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or race are created by God. The value of each person is infinite, the reason for which the Son of God died.”

Asia

Linda Koh, director of Children’s Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, told how countries in South East Asia and China are marked by racial and ethnic conflicts. South East Asia and China have long struggled with issues of government mistreatment of religious groups, racial violence, restrictions on family planning and movement. A return to ethnic harmony has proved difficult for these countries. Koh said part of the solution is that “governments must be intentional to end such discrimination and provide equality for all.”

South Africa

Mark Finley, evangelist for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, confirmed the ongoing changes in South Africa. Despite legislation and social policy changes, the people in South Africa are still engaging in segregation in public places. Finley explained that only the gospel can change people. 

Seventh-day Adventists have been given a message that goes deeper than the social movements of today. The solution to racism can be found in Revelation 14:6-7. Finley ended his segment by saying, “We are sinners by nature and by choice, the ultimate solution is the transformative power of the grace of God, the ultimate solution to changing society is changing people. This can be done ultimately by the grace of God. The message of the three angels shared in the power of the Holy Spirit leads men and women to realize that each of us are created in the image of God.” 

Associate general counsel of the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, Josue Pierre agreed. While conversations around racism are uncomfortable, he said—they can trigger our defense mechanisms and even lead to anger, bitterness and resentment—, they are necessary in order to ensure that our efforts in sharing the Gospel remain relevant. 

We are called to share the Gospel, he said, but our responsibility is being “undermined by our failure to proactively confront and address racism and the other evils in our ranks.” Pierre urged members and leaders to “remove the sin of racism from our hearts and from the work of the Church. Let us humbly approach the throne of grace that God might begin to heal us.”

A Conclusion

Diop, in summarizing the presentation, shared that the underlying issue behind racism is the challenge to accept all humanity regardless of skin color, ethnicity or life circumstances. Jesus treated all humans equally and was an ambassador for love and justice around the world. He was the perfect model of what it means to be human in this world. Seventh-day Adventists should strive to be like Jesus and follow His example. The Advent message is a part of bringing people together, preparing the world for Jesus’ second coming and there is no room for racial prejudice in that commission. 

 

Beth Thomas contributed to this article.  

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