What would He say and do in our day?
Calvin Rock, veteran author, academic, and administrator, is a retired vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and one of Adventism’s most respected voices on the issues this article engages. Listeners interested in accessing the entire audio series at one-go may access it at https://soundcloud.com/adventistworld/radically-social-jesus-calvin-rock (47:28).—Editors
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18, 19, KJV).
They couldn’t believe it! Not only had He declared Himself the long-awaited Messiah, He included in His platform such radical social programs as:
- special assistance to the economically deprived,
- health care for the sight impaired, and
- correction of the criminal justice system.
Had He simply highlighted the final initiative—“preaching the acceptable year of the Lord”—that, itself, would have been provocative; but not this other social activism! Absolutely un. believ. able!
It was indeed “Messiah time,” but this unimposing, homeschooled son of Joseph was certainly not the Messiah “type.” And make no mistake, He was looking straight at them, challenging their scruples, belittling their person, and throwing them under the gospel bus. He so infuriated them, as Luke 4:28, 29 records, that they ran Him out of town and actually tried to throw Him off a cliff!
Truth is, they should not have been shocked at all. The fact that they were shocked demonstrated a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of the promised messianic kingdom. Rabid hope of deliverance from Roman oppression and return to the heady days of Davidic glory muted their attention to matters of the heart and the social concerns that Jesus later classified as justice and mercy—the superior elements of the law.
They offered prosaic prayers for their unfortunate kin but exercised no practical energies for relief of their plight. Their greed rendered them oblivious to the cries for justice voiced in the parchment writings of the very prophets to whose authority they laid claim. Their prideful vision of a Messiah appearing in trappings of greatness and glory blinded them to His true humanity; by pedigree and personage the man before them simply could not be the long-awaited Deliverer!
But they really should have known; the identifying features of His promised appearing had been clearly foretold: (1) His virgin birth, (2) the city of His nativity, (3) the time of His appearance, and (4) the name He would be given had all been predicted.
And it happened just as foretold. He entered our space in form and on time:
- Immortality veiled in mortal flesh.
- Infinite God dwelling in finite form.
- Eternity camped in temporary housing.
- Invisible Word in tangible flesh!
And we desperately needed that.
A “Boots-on-the-Ground Deity”
For 2,000 years, saintly old men in colorful robes had been communicating God’s love to us with signs and signals in tents and temples. But what we really needed was not lower-level, even saintly, human representation; our situation required a “boots-on-the-ground Deity,” a living, visible “God-level Being.”
At His appearance, 4,000 years of sin had dragged the human race to its lowest ebb. The perfection that He had created at Eden had been so marred and scarred, defaced and debased, that it was scarcely recognizable. The light of human intellect was flickering out, raw sewage ran along the streets, and disease epidemics spread on the wings of foul breezes. Poisoned insects, gross darkness—moral, intellectual, and physical—covered the populace.
Isaiah’s prediction that He would appear as a “root out of dry ground” (Isa. 53:2)1 was evidenced not only by His non-pretentious appearance but by the morally arid, scientifically void, socially decadent society into which He came. The painful political conditions of Greco-Roman society offered the Hebrews in Judea no hope of betterment. Centuries of conflict and occupation by tyrannical Rome rendered them bound, besieged, and bereft. Into this troubled world Mary’s Baby was born, with all the 219 bones and functioning organs of every male child. And our prophet reminds us: “His powers of mind and body developed gradually, in keeping with the laws of childhood.”2
There were, however, several distinguishing aspects of His personhood. During His childhood, for example, when tempted by His companions to do wrong and when responding to His parents at the end of His temple visit, divinity flashed through humanity; the human shield was unable to fully contain the God within.3
A second was His obsessive predilection for fixing things; not just broken pieces in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop, but the wings of wounded birds and the limbs of crippled creatures. His attentions for the hurt in nature that presaged His latter concern for the wounded in society are mirrored in our prophet’s words: “From His earliest years He was possessed of one purpose; He lived to bless others.”4
A third was that though His physical equipment was the same as all other humans, His spiritual inclinations were not. He was not born in sin and shaped in iniquity! His natural orientation was like that of the innocent first Adam, before He was corrupted by sin and burdened with the curse of selfishness and its tendencies of tribal pride.
He came into a world seething with ethnic hostilities, but He was not born with, nor did He acquire, the poisoned social assumptions of His environment; He did not have to overcome provincialism. To the wonder of friends and enemies, He enjoyed association with the hated Samaritans, and not just the upper-lower, but the lower-lower class of humanity.
Though He was, our prophet states, a little taller than the average man of His day, His physical structure was unremarkable in comparison to the forms of the rest of humanity.5 That was not the case with His sociality. This was seen:
- in His going about doing good, but often sending His disciples home to rest while He toiled on;
- by His eye-opening clarification of Old Testament commands—explaining that the “ye have heard’s” of old attributed guilt not only to the outward act but to internal desire;
- by His stunning counsels to love our enemies and, if asked by Roman captors to carry a burden for a mile, to carry it two;
- by His ready attendance at weddings, banquets, dinners, and funerals of the common citizenry;
- by His frontal upbraiding of Jewish aristocracy;
- by daring to call the rapacious Herod an “old fox” and adding, “Go tell him I said so!” (See Luke 13:32.)
His radical sociality, especially His championing the causes of the disadvantaged, prompted His enemies to label Him gluttonous, a wine bibber, and a friend of sinners. Nevertheless, He spent His life not in the steeple of Jewish isolationism, but down among the people in the highways and byways of Judea.
Jesus studiously avoided Roman censure by discouraging the masses from labeling Him king, but He did not shrink from healing the sick, raising the dead, and other acts that indicated a physical power clearly superior to that of boastful Rome—all the while engaging in a social code that exposed its tyranny.
He condemned the class barriers of both Jews and Romans by association with the rich and poor; He indicted their racial barriers by open converse with Jewish, Samaritan, Syrophoenician, and Roman citizens; He denounced existing sex discrimination not only by elevating women in many of His miracles and parables, but by their inclusion in His traveling troop and by His personal relations with Martha and the several Mary’s of His life.
The extreme difference between His social bent and that of the political titans of His day is that He was not only radically different in His spiritual orientation and daily associations; He also was radically unlike them in His strategic assumptions:
- Their organizational purpose was control of others; His, “wholeness of others.”
- Their primary ends were exterior manifestations; His, “interior goodness.”
- Their primary requisite for acceptance was status and appearance; His, “character and surrender.”
- Their primary incentives for obedience were fear and force; His, “love and example.”
- Their primary relation to others was kingly power; His, “servant leadership.”
The Zealots tried to better conditions by armed insurrection. The Sadducees sought to alleviate suffering by compromise of belief and negotiation with their oppressors. The Pharisees sought relief by esoteric debate and pietistic flight from common duty. Jesus’ principle of service was demonstrably different: “the work of restoration.” He came to restore both our broken relationship with God and our improper relationships with one another; and, in fact, He told us that the former was not attainable without the latter. In other words, Jesus’ objectives involved not just the individual but the social aspects of society—not simply the vertical but the horizontal outreach of the cross that lay just ahead.
The pioneer leaders of early Seventh-day Adventism closely mirrored Jesus’ activist example. This is certainly instructive. They were not only priestly in their sympathies, but their prophetic address to social issues spoke boldly regarding the political issues and parties troubling the country. A list of these social-activist souls might include:
- Millerite preacher Charles Fitch (1815-1844), whom Ellen White in vision saw in heaven.6 Fitch attacked the issue of slavery, proclaiming, “Up my friends and do your duty, to deliver the spoils out of the hands of the oppressor, lest the fire of God’s fury kindle ere long upon you.”7
- John Byington (1798-1887), first General Conference president (1863-1865), who was an active abolitionist.8
- Uriah Smith (1832-1903), first General Conference secretary and early church author and Review editor, who attacked the religious leaders of his day for their contribution to the misery of America’s indentured slaves. He castigated them for what he said was the “white-washed villainy” of the many pulpits where support of slavery gave evidence of the draconic spirit of this nation.9
- James White (1821-1881), husband of the church prophet and first editor of the Review, the official church paper, used its pages to attack those who did not endorse freedom of the slaves as “laggards.” While admitting his position to be radical, White likened President Lincoln to the Pharaoh of ancient Hebrew incarceration. In the same vein, he wrote: “For the past ten years the Review has taught that the United States of America were a subject of prophecy, and that slavery is pointed out in the prophetic word as the darkest and damaging sin upon this nation—those of our people who voted at all at the last Presidential election, to a man voted for Abraham Lincoln. . . . We know not one man among Seventh-day Adventists who has the least sympathy for secession.”10
- Joseph Bates (1792-1872), who is listed, along with James and Ellen White, as one of the three individuals who founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church, also contributed in this vein, calling America “this land of liberty, this heaven-daring, soul-destroying, slave-holding, neighbor-murdering country.”11
- Ellen White (1827-1915), whose antipathy for oppression led her to brave existing convention, stated with dramatic resolve: “I know that that which I now speak will bring me into conflict. This I do not covet, for the conflict has seemed to be contentious of late years; but I do not mean to live a coward or to die a coward. . . . I must follow in my Master’s footsteps. It has become fashionable to look down upon the poor, and upon the colored race in particular. But Jesus, the Master, was poor, and He sympathizes with the poor, discarded, the oppressed, and declares that every insult shown to them is as if shown to Himself.”12
Bold But Prudent
Freedom to speak out against social inequities in the days of our Adventist pioneers, though not as great as ours today, was much greater than in the time of the “iron-fisted” rule of the Caesars. Open opposition to Roman policy would have brought suicidal consequences, not only for Jesus’ nascent movement but for that of believers throughout history who would have followed His example.
The fact is, however, that much of the injustice in society in Jesus’ day, as is true in ours, came not from government but from “private” institutions. These Jesus did boldly attack. He did so in crying out against unjust wealth (Matt. 19:21-26), unjust authority (Luke 11:46), unjust rewards (Matt. 23:35), and unjust obstruction of justice (Luke 11:52).Burdened with hate and the desire to be great, those who practiced such things brazenly violated the lesser privileged, earning from Jesus such scathing rebukes as “fools,” “blind guides,” “vipers,” “hypocrites,” and “whited sepulchers.”
He was not a zealot whose freedom fires led Him to suicidal insurrections against Rome. Nor did He seek peace and favor with Roman authorities by silence and capitulation to social evil. That He was not socially timid is witnessed by His association patterns examined above. That He was not politically timid is seen in that He, a religious leader, was willing to critique and defy existing political structures long before the French Revolution rendered such audacity survivable. He did so in the boldest manner then possible—contrasting, with parable and performance, the existing suppositions of social inequity with the assumptions of social equality, and by doing so, extoling in place of political greed, the politics of compassion.
Inspiration for how we ought to address such issues is provided in the scriptural accounts of the government services of Joseph, Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, and others. It’s also provided in a number of our prophet’s counsels. The ew3`ssence of Ellen White’s position is (a) Jesus wisely avoided public condemnation of Roman policy; (b) by doing so He avoided premature suffering of Caesar’s wrath; (c) Christians today, unencumbered with the political realities He faced, should, for the sake of those currently crushed under the wheels of injustice, find wholesome ways to improve offending laws and remove offending persons.
Ellen White clearly saw that prevailing civic governments, the secular kingdoms, established by God to care for the daily bread and protection of citizens were functioning largely with ungodly presuppositions and therefore advised against:
- “dabbling” in politics;13
- blindly voting along party lines; and
- becoming “mixed up” in political schemes, political strife, and political alliances.14
These counsels, however, should not indicate the Christian’s categorical withdrawal from socially weighted political processes. Ellen White clarified her perspective with encouragements that we:
- vote “against” liquor laws;
- vote against candidates favoring Sunday laws;
- vote “for” prohibition as well as temperance laws; and
- vote for women’s rights and duties.15
Religion and Politics—Do They Mix?
In her time, prophet Ellen White attacked a broad list of politically charged social issues. They included the evils of slavery, intemperance, child labor, sex discrimination, economic disadvantage, family dissolution, education deprivation, and the abuses of organized capital and labor. Her clear disdain for social caste is observed in the book The Southern Work, where she appealed not just for the release of the economically deprived from disadvantage but for restitution or reparations for their stolen labor.16
The strongest evidence of her conviction that Christians can and should be helpful in the political realm, however, is given in her categorical support of youth, who aspire “to sit in . . . legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation”;17 and her observation that “many a lad of today, growing up as did Daniel in his Judean home, studying God’s word and His works, and learning the lessons of faithful service, will yet stand in legislative assemblies, in halls of justice, or in royal courts, as a witness for the King of kings.”
In the same vein, we note that her counsel against ministers combining political interests with their calling is not a directive against their educating the people and leading them in efforts of social reform.19 It’s true, as she admonishes, that Christ’s followers should “bury political questions” and “let the political questions alone.”20 But poverty and discrimination are not merely questions politicians may exploit; they are social atrocities often instituted and perpetuated by political machinations that we cannot support,21 and more than that, should actively oppose.22 Such opposition is most effective when it’s expressed in the legislative process of the political realm.
Discernable reasons for the more restricted view of many with regard to political involvement include:
- subscribing to an absolutist view on the question of obedience to civil governments (Rom. 13:1-3);
- abandoning the more difficult path of cultural submission and toleration urged by the apostle to the Gentiles, for an easier, less challenging, “one form fits all,” rather than “one faith fits all”;
- failure to understand that politics, rightly defined, is not the polluted administration of civic justice, however typically seen; not politics for politics’ sake, but the science or art of government for the common good;
- failure to accept that while the church, as a body, is not called to foster a particular political party or agenda, the justice bias of its mission demands resistance to leaders and laws that perpetuate suffering;
- failure to see in Jesus’ ministry the precise kind of against-the-grain, counter-culture radicality the gospel imperative embodies;
- failure to realize that whether we choose to or not, we all contribute to either the betterment or worsening of the common good, and, tragically, too often by silence to the latter.
The main reason for this conservative view of Adventist socio-political responsibility is that our theology or biblical interpretation has been produced almost exclusively by scholars of the advantaged class. Try as they might, the well-meaning descendants of the oppressor group cannot interpret God’s will through the grid or prism of the oppressed. The result, as is common with theologically conservative groups, is feelings of sympathy but the lack of empathy necessary to move energies from social welfare to social cure, or from simply relieving the wounded to identifying and reducing the sources of injustice. Lifting the yoke of oppression necessitates actions designed not only to ameliorate the pain of the suffering but to weaken and hopefully dissipate the tyrannies that perpetuate their plight. Executing justice (Ezek. 45:9) and setting the captives free (Luke 4:18) are not simply relieving suffering, or even extricating the unfortunate, but exposing and dispensing with the structures of injustice. Is that not a primary lesson of Jesus’ publicly “outing” the executioners of the woman found in adultery, rescuing her from the sentence of death (John 8:1-11)?
Following or Defying the Law
Executing justice involves exposing and disposing the structures of injustice. This reminds us that the seminal question for social action is not simply what did Jesus and what the prophets before Him said or did—for the purpose of “mimicking” their actions; but given the principles they employed, what would they say or do were they alive today? The answer is poignantly provided in the contrasting counsels of the apostle Paul and Ellen White regarding the treatment of runaway slaves. Paul’s counsel in the book of Philemon is that runaway Onesimus should return and that Philemon should accept him as his brother. Ellen White, on the other hand, urged firm defiance of the nation’s September 18, 1850, Fugitive Slave Law requiring all runaways to be returned if discovered. Although giving such contrasting advice, they were both right. This is a reminder that the socio-political opportunities of Ellen White’s day were quite advanced from the freedoms imagined in Paul’s time, and for that matter, even those of our day. Reinhold Niebuhr was right when he wrote: “Individuals of piety and goodwill do not function with duplication of the ‘then and there’ but rather with confidence in God’s purposes and commands for the ‘here and now.’”24
Our church performs valiantly in taking relief to those victimized by troublesome acts of nature and personal loss. I wonder what additional good we might be capable of doing if we:
- added to our Religion and Theology departments those whose minority sociological grids would allow infusion into our theology of the way things look and feel from the social “bottom up” (which was Jesus’ perspective), not the “top down,” the view of the advantaged class.
- added to our church structure a ministry with a name such as “the Department of Social Concern,” to lead us in speaking out against social evils like “gun un-control” and human trafficking, without becoming linked to any political party?
Not to be overlooked, the complaints from the Greek widows (Acts 6:1-3) changed the early church’s structural arrangement, as, in modern times, did protests from African American Adventists. These cases model the legitimacy of Spirit-led protest against inequity inside the church. Adventists boycott the liquor industry and lobby against Sunday Blue Laws. Should we not also work against gender discrimination and immigration bias?
Solomon’s counsel is particularly instructive here: “Open your mouth for the speechless. . . . Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8, 9). Isaiah also encourages this social strategy, saying: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17). And later, after condemning God’s people for failing to undo the heavy burdens of the oppressed (Isa. 58:6, 7), he plaintively laments: “No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth” (Isa. 59:4). Should there be any doubt as to the viable limits of Christian protest, in or out of the church, we only need focus on the socially radical Jesus stridently overturning money-laden tables at the temple gates and threatening the heartless oppressors of the poor with a whip.
The Bottom Line Is Love
The most revealing intersections of Jesus’ radical sociality and the political conventions of His day were evidenced at His life’s end. How ironic that the politically motivated Sanhedrin, failing to lodge their accusation of blasphemy—claiming to be God—charged and convicted Him of sedition—attempting to overthrow a man’s (Caesar’s) government. Somehow, with Pilate and other politically appointed sycophants, that one worked!
They could have called a plethora of witnesses to testify otherwise: a man born blind; Peter’s wife’s mother; a widow from Nain; healed demoniacs; resurrected Lazarus—thousands of others. Their political biases, however, blinded them to any sense of fairness.
His prosecutors wrongly identified Him as an insurrectionist against Rome, but they would have been absolutely right to identify Him as a social radical—a noncompliant, grave-robbing revolutionary; an itinerant disrupter of the status quo who went around spreading outrageous grace; fermenting excessive compassion; extoling overwhelming forgiveness; planting explosive hope; promoting revolutionary kindness; preaching radical faith; fostering public display of joyful emotion–all the while destroying age-old economies by closing down drug manufacturers, vacating hospitals, and putting morticians out of business.
He died as an enemy of Rome, a political state, but as the Savior of pitiful humanity. While they were beating Him, He was blessing them. While they were lacerating Him, He was loving them. While they were flogging Him, He was forgiving them. He died fearing He would never see His Father again. He could not see beyond the grave. But so radical an affinity did He have for us that He was resolved: were there no exit from the grave, He would make this sacrifice. For Him, surrendering His innocent life would be justified.
But He came back. He rose! Flesh that had not sinned did not sour. Death could not swallow Him: He swallowed death. By Him death was ingested but not digested. The radically mysterious thirty-three-and-a-half-year union between the Son of God and the Son of man was restored, and the radically social Jesus who came here, divinity clothed in humanity, returned to heaven, humanity clothed in divinity. He took with Him, as demonstration of His radical love for humanity, a “down payment” of the redeemed (Matt. 27:53).
There may be those who doubt His promise to return to glean the full harvest, but in view of the radical price He paid to purchase us, He will not allow such a costly investment to rot and waste on this dissipated earth. Rather, He will, indeed, return to gather the family of the redeemed, and as predicted, with joy He will sing over His own (Zeph. 3:17). They will, dare I suggest, as will the four and twenty elders who extol Him day and night, join in radical praise and fellowship, and together follow the Lamb, withersoever He shall go.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940) p. 68.
3 Ibid., p. 81. See also Herbert E. Douglas, Questions on Doctrine (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1957), p. 645.
4 White, The Desire of Ages, p. 70.
5 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1864), vol. 4, p. 119.
6 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1882), p. 17.
7 Ronald Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler, The Disappointed (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), p. 141.
8 SDA Encyclopedia, second revised edition (Hagerstown, Md.: Review & Herald Pub. Assn., 1996), vol. 10, p. 266.
9 The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 17, 1862.
10 James White, “The Nation,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, August 12, 1862.
11 SDA Encyclopedia, p. 170.
[12 Ellen G. White, The Southern Work (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 1901), p. 10.
13 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 131.
14 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), book 2, pp. 336, 337. See also, White, Gospel Workers (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1892), p. 395.
15 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1872), vol. 3, p. 565.
16 Ellen G. White, The Southern Work (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1901), p. 10.
17 Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1930), p. 36.
18 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif., 1903), p. 262.
19 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1892), p. 393.
20 Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Education (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Pub. Assn., 1923) pp. 475, 476.
21 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), pp. 332, 333.
22Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), p. 65.
23 SDA Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, Md., Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1996), vol. 1, pp. 201, 202.
24 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 42.