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The Progressive Adventist and the Surveilled Mind

“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”—Walter Cronkite cited by former U.S. Ambassador Charles A. Ray, 2010

“What is to save our schools from control of this kind [religious control]? Will constitutional provisions do it? They are at the mercy of the people. Nothing will do it but the belief in the minds of the American people that the State has no concern with things spiritual, and when they do believe that, there is no danger. There is no safety except in an enlightened public opinion, based on individual intelligence. When we have that, we have all we ever can get.” —George Hoadly in Minor et al. vs Board of Education of Cincinnati et al. (1870), cited by Alonzo T. Jones,1889

This year’s news has included several stories on political surveillance including two United States surveillance programs (the National Security Agency’s PRISM and X-Keyscore) and the US’ sponsorship of the United Kingdom’s signal intelligence agency, Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). Inspired by these stories and the recurring conundrum of academic freedom in faith-based institutions, I’ve been thinking a lot about privacy, secrecy, censorship, contemporary or retrospective surveillance, and how each of these operate in interpersonal relationships, religious and professional organizations, and the national security conversation.

One of my current reads is Janna Malamud Smith’s Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (2003). First released in 1997, five years before the US’ domestic terrorism watershed, Private Matters explores the evolution of the personal realm and Western concepts of privacy; the still-shifting impacts of talk, tabloid, and reality television on our expectations of privacy, and how privacy violations affect people psychologically and relationally in the moment and over time.

Four States of Privacy

Citing Alan Westin’s Privacy and Freedom, Malamud Smith describes privacy’s four constituent states: solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy (pp. 37-55). Solitude, she says, permits complete relaxation and self-exploration apart from others. It’s a state in which one can engage one’s own body and psyche without translating either into forms that others can apprehend or evaluate.

Anonymity creates a bubble of free expression in the context of a group—such as “a walker in a city, a member in a crowd.” Thanks to internet comments and the modern phenomenon of trolling, we have come to associate anonymity with “expression without consequence” or sociopathic efforts to goad or control others in a given space. However, as Westin and Malamud Smith describe it, anonymity allows people to temporarily retreat from conventional norms and the restrictions and/or shame that may be linked to them. Anonymity can thus shelter the abused as well as their abusers: while an anonymous abuser may be free to cause others pain, an anonymous survivor may use their invisibility to vent anger or grief that their community would otherwise discourage.

Reserve is a state of restraint that a person exercises when around others who know him or her. It creates some distance between who people are, what they perceive of each other, and what they mutually consent to discuss: “Our state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience. We set aside our immediate perceptions, sometimes our frankest opinions—preserving them (and often us) for the future. Reserve is a house with glass walls, but no one mentions it” (p. 47, emphasis supplied). Examples of reserve include retiring to one’s den or using headphones or reading materials to block out other passengers on public transportation. What counts as “reserve” varies by culture and era, and in excess it can lead to isolation and uncertainty. Malamud Smith describes reserve as a necessary field for the ground of intimacy, the fourth privacy state.

Photo: Two male lions lie next to each other. Their foreheads touch.Intimacy provides for relaxation and mutual knowing with others. It is a state of engagement, interaction, and explicit revelation: “The heart of intimacy, its essence, is that in it one comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person… [This] expression is inevitably limited and incomplete” (p. 53). Malamud Smith argues that this “chosen closeness” is also lessened by publicity.

Writing Beyond the Private

The productive acts of teaching, presenting, and writing all push communicators out from private spaces, through an intimate zone in which peers speak only to peers, and into the public arena. Public communication and less private communication thus expand the reach and potential influence of new ideas and emerging conversations: they allow people who would otherwise be separated from each other to connect and access mutual conversation. Creating and participating in less private or public communication spaces is especially valuable for demographics that can’t easily find each other through pre-existing networks offline or face-to-face.

For example, I was once a member of a large public internet forum aimed at Black Seventh-day Adventists. (The site closed about 4 years ago.) Most active members were African-American or Latin@, some were Black and from the Caribbean or United Kingdom, and a few members were White and from North America or Europe. We ranged in age from early 20s through late 50s, and spanned the full family life spectrum during our time together. Most of us were also still active in local Adventist congregations but had found them cool or hostile to questions and stifling of curiosity. Even though the majority of members only knew each other through the forum, we co-created a space of respectful free association and bonded over conversations about our families, faith, beliefs, church life, current affairs, and experiences with the denomination. Eventually, some members also met up offline, during vacations, at regional conferences, or at General Conference sessions.

The forum I shared with my friends was an indeterminate, semi-public space beyond Westin and Malamud Smith’s intimate zone. Such a space might take shape around people who know each other enough to reveal and invite conversation about their inner thoughts—more conversation, certainly, than they would invite in an average Sabbath School class. So a less private space has features of intimacy’s “chosen closeness.” But it is also public in that it takes place in physical or virtual territory that anyone could access, monitor, bookmark, or lurk in. In that kind of space, the four states of privacy may be intermingled or absent. In addition, content consumers often assume a public-sphere level of entitlement to respond whether they’ve established a relationship with the writer or demonstrated understanding of what’s been shared. It’s an odd admixture of norms and expectations.

I wouldn’t have found or entered that Adventist forum at all had it not been publicly accessible. Other members have since said that they wouldn’t have shared so freely had the site required them to use their legal names rather than pseudonyms. By insisting on a censure-free space and allowing for the reserve of a pseudonym, we built a zone in which members could thoroughly dialogue about beliefs and religio-socio-political concerns, building trust through conversation and debate until their pseudonyms became nicknames or were no longer needed. By contrast, on other sites where people are required to use their legal names and mix their social and professional circles in artificially flat ways, I’ve heard users cite two feelings as reasons for speaking a certain way or not speaking at all: surveillance and inhibition.

Surveillance Culture Explored

The internet and our information/revelation culture combine to make more content more public, and once-private-now-publicized content exposes creators to personal or professional consequences that private content never would have. I’ve wondered how these shifts impact how people know themselves, how they evaluate their relationships with others, and how they determine how they’ll participate in public conversation, and how they cope with the fact that increasing visibility means increasing the possibility of others watching and taking action against them.

That possibility has significant effects. Neuroscientists and psychologists note that mass surveillance heightens stress and anxiety; reduces mental well-being, productivity/performance, and creativity; promotes distrust between an “us” that’s distinguished from “them”; and undermines authority influence. If these impacts scale from individual monitoring up through institutional and social surveillance, what does a climate that surveils members and punishes non-conformity cost our religious community?

As an Adventist, I reflected on some of the major church community stories I’ve seen unfold in just the last four years: Science teachers coming under conference observation and armchair review because constituency members complain about their curriculum… University professors and administrators being fired after a recording of their off-duty socializing is distributed to supervisors without their knowledge or consent… A minister losing his church membership and credentials when named as a sexual abuser on another continent, his local congregation and conference struggle to manage the spotlight and expectations about new information for a year afterwards… Another pastor asked to resign because of his interfaith community work and service to sexual minorities… School and college teachers being told not to patronize a documentary screening after hours while at a national conference… Church administrators discouraged from attending a different screening near denominational headquarters—and the palpable repression among those who did quietly attend generated the weirdest “question, answer, awkward silence” post-screening session I’ve ever participated in.

As I recalled these recent stories, I was reluctant to characterize surveillance and threatened punishment as native to or consistent with Adventism. Yet there they are in our recent community record. Some of Ellen White’s “I was shown” material from the late 19th and early 20th Century features references to “Brother ____,” “Sister ____,” and “Elder ______”; comments on individuals’ thoughts, lifestyle habits, relationships, and conversations publicized in White’s letters are now part of the 9-volume Testimonies to the Church series and other compiled White books. Tales told about dominant leaders and doctrinal dissenters during the church messenger’s lifetime were folded into her council and presented as evidence for or against the perspectives under discussion.

At the same time, Ellen White grasped how surveillance could harm the Adventist movement and wrote about that too. In 1888, for instance, a US Senator tried and failed to pass a federal Sunday sacredness law; Adventists, of course, were concerned and sent a conference president to testify against the bill. A few years later, White advised then-GC president O.A. Olsen to tell Adventists in the Southern states not to work on Sundays. White hoped to minimize social opposition to Adventism: were Adventists to be seen working on Sundays, she wrote, “the colored people [sic] everywhere would be placed in a position of surveillance and under cruel treatment to the white people that would be no less than slavery… If the colored people are in any way educated to work on Sunday, there will be unsparing, merciless oppression brought upon them.”

White and the church leaders she wrote to could see how societal surveillance and suspicion of Adventists would degrade relationships between local believers and their neighbors: it would focus an intense disapproval and disproportionate harm on those deemed “outsiders.” Well, at least church leaders had this sensitivity when the church’s external reputation was at stake: their record of relating to individuals within the church was not so clean.

Surveillance Culture and Intellectual Freedom

Xkcd cartoon of 6 views of privacy: philosopher, crypto nut, conspiracist, nihilist, exhibitionist, sage.

“Privacy Opinions” (c) xkcd.com

Where does this leave a progressive Adventist today? What kind of spiritual, political, and intellectual context does she have to work in? How can a progressive think, write, and explore freely in an culture that accommodates top-down monitoring, suspicion, restriction, informants, and backlash for unpopular or contrarian material, all in the name of preserving church unity?

The Adventist statement on Theological and Academic Freedom and Accountability (1987) governs staff at denominational schools and influences the academic freedom statements that institutions develop for themselves.1 The statement defines academic freedom as “freedom to pursue knowledge and truth in the area of the individuals [sic] specialty” and states that “the right to private opinion is a part of the human heritage as creatures of God” (emphasis supplied). It further establishes “certain limits” on public expression, and makes clear that freedom of conscience is (a) to be subjected to denominational loyalty and “the harmony of the church community,” and (b) to be judged by denominational consensus. According to the statement, those who vary from “the historic doctrinal position of the Church [defined by the General Conference in session]” are expected to “exercise discretion in presenting concepts which might threaten church unity and the effectiveness of church action.” Researchers are required to conduct their work with reference to their “faith” and “Christian ethics,” and teachers must advance “the worldview described in the opening paragraph of this document.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church isn’t the only religious group to operate a private educational system. Nor is it the only academic system that has to negotiate responsibilities to enrolled students, professional staff, denominational sponsors, private donors, and occasionally disgruntled petition-signing stakeholders. Like its peer religions, Adventism holds the right to organize its system exactly as it pleases, and United States religious liberty law recognizes that right.

Stipulating these institutional rights, I question whether the church’s Theological and Academic Freedom statement provides a context that supports the range of information-developing and knowledge-making that progressive members are motivated to do. How can a progressive Adventist expend energy on pushing beyond the known if his environment is designed to bottleneck new ideas, judge them by their potential to be controversial, and accept them (only?) if consonant with the administrative “unity” of an international faith group?

In such a climate, progressives may feel compelled to withdraw from the public spaces of writing, teaching, and speaking, and to exercise a great deal of prudence, reserve, and caution when they venture out at all. As noted earlier, prudence, reserve, and caution are traits native to the third state of privacy that Malamud Smith described in Private Matters. But they aren’t traits naturally paired with progressive energy: they don’t advance a spirit of curiosity or discovery. Again, I’m not arguing that progressive individuals can’t work or teach in a conservative context; of course they can and do and have. I’m only wondering if that context is ideal for them or allows them to fully exercise the progressive gift.

I’d love to hear more from self-identified progressives about the contexts they feel would elicit their best work. I expect some disagreement within this community on how to move ahead, but I don’t believe that freedom to agree with what has already been decided is worth setting off the firecrackers for: as Cronkite said, “There is no such thing as a little freedom.”

Increasing Support for Progressive Minds

A Harvard Business Review column recently argued that it’s the context around an individual that catalyzes or represses his or her baseline abilities: plucking successful people out of environments that helped them thrive doesn’t mean transplanting the successes they were able to create there.

In this article I’ve suggested that Adventism’s knowledge-making culture isn’t a supportive environment for progressives. Given the denomination’s belief structure and history, we might say this is a reasonable conclusion, but the big question for young progressives deciding how to serve their church or if they’ll stay with their church is whether the current context of surveillance and inhibition is inevitable. After all, what’s especially Adventist about introducing private conversations as evidence against members in church or university board meetings? What’s Adventist about reading and evaluating writers in terms of their apparent orthodoxy or supposed satanic deception? Such responses to conversation or scholarship may be authentic expressions of who we are, but I don’t think they’re essential to who we are.

In the last decade, I’ve gone beyond Adventism to learn how to approach progressive thought and scholarship because I didn’t find strong models at work within the borders of the denomination. I found models among Friends (Quakers) so committed to “the light that enlightens every man” and “that of God in everyone” that their bible studies invite participants to assess our personal experience of the bible’s stories and the insights they inspire in us. I also found other models among post-Adventists and never-been-Adventists who were practiced in listening, not merely hearing to formulate rebuttal, and who could therefore create powerfully supportive growth and innovation spaces for me and others like me. These approaches may not be Adventist, but I am still Adventist because of them.

Riffing on the now-clichéd “Be the change you want to see,” director Vikram Gandhi (in character as Sri Kumaré) has said, “Be the strange you want to see.” Progressive Adventism’s strange is not only in the structural or interpretive changes that progressives suggest to the mainstream church. 2 The strange of Progressive Adventism also lies in the fact that progressivism really is foreign to the reactive fundamentalism that has dominated Adventism in 30-year cycles since the 1920s (1920s-1950s, 1980s-present). 3 Many of us like to say “I don’t worship the book; I worship the God of the book!” In practice, however, we are slow to explore territory that the book has not mapped and did not anticipate. An inhibited progressivism cannot teach us how to explore well, and perhaps exploring is something that we progressives need to relearn before we can teach it or share it with others. I don’t know for sure that it’s possible for us to expand the Adventist status quo meaningfully across those boundaries where it’s now constricted. But I am willing to experiment with other progressive minds so we can find out.

1. The statement does not apply to lay members or non-employees as such, but because much Adventist scholarship is tied to denominations paid ministers, teachers, ministry departments, colleges, and universities, this statement and its companion “affirmation” at the Adventist Theological Society both influence the denomination’s scholarship culture.

2. Progressive initiatives may include substantively reviewing all of the contemporary church’s spiritual gifts, how we recognize them through ordination, and how we deploy them in congregations and other local contexts; developing a fact-based and humane approach to sex, gender, sexuality, marriage, and family; generating new epistemologies, modes of inquiry, and wisdom-building tools; resuming and extending Richard Rice’s 1980s work on open theism; evaluating how our bias toward literacy and linear argument influence both how we read the ancients’ oral narratives and render our own; and exploring what Adventism might learn from integral or holist philosophy as we re-associate science and faith and restore coherence to our emphasis on individual health and piety, our contributions to the societies we’re members of, and our stewardship of Earth.

3. I broadly agree with Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart’s reading of this timeline; see their 2006 study of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Seeking a Sanctuary.

From Vows to Action Part II: A New Commitment

This series was originally published on the Journey Fellowship website. In Part 1 of the series, we explored the vows that Seventh-day Adventists assent to as part of their baptismal ceremony. The vows shape members’ sense of place within the denomination and the wider Christian Church; they also serve valid institutional functions. What definitions lie beneath these vows? What lies beyond them?

Defining the Church and Building the Gate

How a tradition defines itself and situates itself on the religious landscape matters: ecclesiology hammered out in seminaries has real, relational implications off-campus. Perhaps the Adventist covenant focus on the denomination’s distinctive beliefs is rooted in the fact that unlike the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal, and mainline denominations, Seventh-day Adventism doesn’t represent itself as a facet of the universal church. Instead it represents itself as “the remnant church of bible prophecy”—the part of the whole that emerged after multi-millennial apostasy.

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz's Painting "The Outsider"

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz’s Painting “The Outsider”

The “remnant” model surfaces explicitly in 3 of the 13 Adventist vows (8, 9a, and 13), suggesting that within the Adventist doctrinal context, one of the most important things new believers could adopt is an identity distinct from their peers beyond the walls. The individual lifestyle vows (6, 7, 9b, and 10) further highlight the differences between people inside the church and those outside it: the remnant church is a micro-community and has its own norms.

Whereas the 11th vow is a catch-all for any belief or lifestyle practice that the remnant church may teach, the 12th points to the baptism ritual itself. The final vow references “people of every nation, race, and language,” but only indicates that many kinds of people may be represented in the remnant. It doesn’t assume that the entire world is part of the Garden of God. [2] So it makes sense that the church’s vows are inward-focused. It also makes sense that as church members glimpse a world beyond these limits, this 13-vow covenant won’t adequately support them.

Eric Moon participates in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a tradition that distrusts creedal religion in the same way that the first few generations of Seventh-day Adventists did. In a June-July article for the Friends Journal, he and other Quakers explore their community’s collected experiential wisdom and how it varies from fixed formulations.

“Human beings need words to communicate. But when we codify, make creeds, and canonize a few words, we limit our vision, as well as the possibility of God’s work through us. Walking away from such deified virtues, where might we go instead? What if we were to start with fresh, personal experiences and then shared them in a manner that was as mediated as little as possible by advance expectations?” —Eric Moon

Living Life in the Garden of God

Close-up photo of pine tree conesI talked with 12 people recently about their baptismal vow experiences. I’m still drawn to the concept of developing covenants in community that help move individuals and groups towards action and not just towards static opinions. (I’ll admit: in the last 17 years, I’ve developed some fixed beliefs and would not join in covenant with a congregation that did not share them. Fortunately, said beliefs are few!)

Several of the people I spoke with did not find their once-vowed covenants relevant to their spirituality today. So I reflected on which commitments I could agree to that would support my active journey now:

  1. I’m grateful for this body. As an expression of gratitude, I will learn what supports my whole-soul health, and I will choose each day with respect for my life.
  2. I accept that I have an irrevocable connection to the rest of the human family regardless of sex or gender, ethnicity, social class, nationality, politics, or religion. Because of this common bond, I won’t be silent in the face of dehumanization or participate in the dehumanization of others. I will uphold relationships and ethics that advance peace, justice, and grace.
  3. I share the planet with my neighbors and will not escape our common ecological fate. For our sake and our descendants’ sake, I’ll consider the sustainability of my lifestyle and shape my daily actions with respect for our collective well-being.
  4. I expect to grow in grace and knowledge—just as the early believers did. I take responsibility for my spiritual development and agree to continue to study, learn, and grow as long as I have the opportunity and the means.
  5. Accepting the principle of the Vine and the branches, I understand that I’ll grow in relationship with others and not in isolation. I will guard and honor the relationships I develop in this congregation, and, if called to a different community in the future, I’ll offer this one ample notice to adjust and fill in the gaps where I served. I value the work we do together and the joy we share together, and will not casually abandon them.
  6. I’ve studied this community’s intentions for relationship and service, and I support them. I will work with my peers and volunteer leaders to identify and use my unique gifts to advance this community’s work and improve our contributions to this world.
  7. I make this agreement freely, in faith, and without compulsion or fear.

I also drafted some more explicitly theistic comments, but began to wonder what it could mean for a faith community to be able to thrive with members who are no longer engaged in a religious life. The Unitarian Universalist tradition is one that has come to include both religious and non-religious people; Quaker meetings also sometimes include non-religious people, and I’m learning from adherents how that works in practice.

John Spong writes in his latest book on the gospel of John that “While God may not be subject to change, the human perception of God is… God cannot be possessed, nor can the ‘word’ of God ever be reduced to propositional statements.” As I read accounts of the life of Christ and the early believers in Acts and the epistles, I notice how much a living faith can vary from official religious channels, at times extending their teachings and at others overruling them to support the healing of the people. I see that when believers practice not “quenching the Spirit,” wisdom draws us beyond the walls of the familiarly systematic and helps us to grow. Perhaps we need new commitments for such a life.

Tell me in the comments: If you were to write “vows” for where you are in your journey today, what would they include? And what would they inspire in you?

“To learn from our testimonies, to make them our own, we perhaps can meet them again, not quickly via a short list but as John Woolman did: in human faces, on foot, walking.” —Eric Moon

[1] I asked my network about their baptismal covenants and whether these covenants had shaped their faith journeys. Read what they told me.
[2] Seventh-day Adventist General Conference sessions are held every five years. At the end of the session, church members from every nation-state that has an Adventist presence march into the stadium in national garb and holding their country’s flag. The Parade of Nations is an incredibly powerful visual that highlights the 13th vow’s reference to people of every nation, race, and language participating in the church. It also generates some friendly national pride among church members and builds a sense of community for those within the denominational fold.

From Vows to Action Part I: The Agreements We Make

This series was originally published on the Journey Fellowship website. Thanks, Kymone Hinds, for the opportunity to write!

Is it possible to geek out over church liturgy? It is, and I did it a few weeks ago. Early in June, I came across this vow from the baptismal covenant reading in the Book of Common Prayer:

"Will you strive for justice & peace among all people, & respect the dignity of every human being?" —Book of Common Prayer #baptism

I loved it, and not just because of what it said but also because it was so unlike any of the vows I was invited to assent to when I was baptized.

Vowing Adherence the Seventh-day Adventist Way

Although I was raised participating in a Seventh-day Adventist congregation, I joined the denomination officially when I was 13 years old, after 9 months of weekly home study with my church’s senior minister. During this study process, I incrementally read and reported to the minister on a thin white book that outlined the church’s then-27 fundamental beliefs. The outlines included biblical references and paragraph explanations, and paired the explanations with quotes from church founder Ellen G. White and from the SDA Bible commentary. At the back of the book, and read back to us in an “examination” on baptism day, was the following list of 13 vows:

  1. Do you believe in God the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit?
  2. Do you accept the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of men, and believe that through faith in His shed blood men are saved from sin and its penalty?
  3. Renouncing the world and its sinful ways, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour, and do you believe that God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven your sins and given you a new heart?
  4. Do you accept by faith the righteousness of Christ, recognizing Him as your Intercessor in the heavenly sanctuary, and do you claim His promise to strengthen you by His indwelling Spirit, so that you may receive power to do His will?
  5. Do you believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, and that it constitutes the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian?
  6. Do you accept the Ten Commandments as still binding upon Christians; and is it your purpose, by the power of the indwelling Christ, to keep this law, including the fourth commandment, which requires the observance of the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath of the Lord?
  7. Is the soon coming of Jesus the blessed hope in your heart, and are you determined to be personally ready to meet the Lord, and to do all in your power to witness to His loving salvation, and by life and word to help others to be ready for His glorious appearing?
  8. Do you accept the Biblical teaching of spiritual gifts, and do you believe that the gift of prophecy in the remnant church is one of the identifying marks of that church?
  9. Do you believe in God’s Remnant Church, and is it your purpose to support the church by your tithes and offerings, your personal effort, and influence?
  10. Do you believe that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that you are to honor God by caring for your body, avoiding the use of that which is harmful, abstaining from all unclean foods, from the use, manufacture, or sale of alcoholic beverages, the use, manufacture, or sale of tobacco in any of its forms for human consumption, and from the misuse of, or trafficking in, narcotics or other drugs?
  11. Knowing and understanding the fundamental Bible principles as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is it your purpose, by the grace of God, to order your life in harmony with these principles?
  12. Do you accept the New Testament teaching of baptism by immersion, and do you desire to be so baptized as a public expression of your faith in Christ and in the forgiveness of your sins?
  13. Do you believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church of Bible prophecy, Rev. 12:17, and that people of every nation, race, and language are invited and accepted into its fellowship? Do you desire membership into this church?

Understand that the only “institutionally correct” answer to these thirteen questions is “yes”! But I haven’t heard the full list used at baptisms for several years now. The congregations I’ve worshiped with seem to prefer a shorter version that focuses less on consensus dogma and more on individuals’ belief in Jesus and intent to support the church.

Glimpsing a World Beyond the Walls

Line drawing of 8 human figures of varying ages: communityWhen I looked up the other covenantal vows in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), I found that they include consensus dogma about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, evangelism, and church life like the dogma in the Adventist list. The BCP vow on striving for justice and peace is one of two that shifts the focus of the celebrant beyond the walls of the church or frames other people as more than potential church members: the other vow invites the celebrant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” Not one of the Adventist church’s 13 vows challenges baptismal candidates to do this.

“In my opinion the church is far more enamored with knowing doctrines than with knowing Jesus. The church therefore uses this approach in its ‘evangelism’—if it can get people to assent to 28 creedal statements, they’re ready for baptism and membership.” —Ken McFarland

These new-member covenants are ubiquitous across Christendom, so they clearly serve a purpose; McFarland describes them as a creed-support tool; I’ve described them above as a gate-keeping device. For me, this is not a slur: organizations legitimately use entry initiations to monitor their membership. I only wonder if the vows could become more than that.

What if the Seventh-day Adventist church’s baptismal vows weren’t designed to secure belief compliance or encourage members’ avoidance of certain behaviors? What if they were about more than doctrinal boundary-setting, if they went beyond intellectual constructs by offering candidates a new frame for life? What if they inspired new ways for us to act and live in the world? Could they be more relevant to believers 10, 20, 30, and 40 years post-baptism if they did?

Tell me in the comments: If you experienced adult baptism, did your ceremony include vows? If so, did those vows shape your spirituality? How?

Going Places

Dr. Seuss' Oh The Places You'll Go Cover

(c) USA Today | via WikiCommons

“Oh, the places you’ll go!”

The person who introduced me to this story was one of my biggest adult advocates. It’s the kind of “Go and be!” tale that encourages many of us to leave our nests and move out into the rest of the world to do whatever good we can.

But I didn’t know then that having “places you’ll go!” doesn’t always mean being able to take those you love with you. So while I’ve shared a lot of new places with people I love, going and doing has also involved loss as well as triumph: loss and release have been just as much part of my growth, change, and transformation as have gain and harvest.

Growth is disruptive. Sometimes it’s disruptive in fantastic ways, yielding greater intimacy with others and greater knowledge of ourselves than we thought possible. Sometimes it’s horrifically disruptive, breaking open fearsome nightmares and shadowy neuroses, inspiring us to pull back from the open road and hunker down in the familiar. There’s no way to know outcomes ahead of time.

Along with several other relatives, my mother has missed the guts and beauty of the last four years of my life because her beliefs and assumptions block her from fully entering in. She’s remained my mother and I’ll never close my life to her; she just hasn’t always been able to mother me. She’ll always be my noun yet can’t wholly verb me while unreconciled to who I am and where I’m going.

It hasn’t been my orientation or partners who’ve disrupted my family relationships. It’s not mere difference that sparks conflict but how we render difference, what we label neutral or good and what we label dangerous. Heterosexism has hobbled relationships that I’ve prized and whose deterioration I’ve mourned. Heterosexism: the assumption that only heterosexual people represent the human ideal; that only heterosocial and heterosexual relationships are natural, good, right, or holy; that gay and bi people are broken, disordered, perverted, and abominable, that they’re worthy of pity and prayer as if addicts, adulterers, drug dealers, or murderers.

I exaggerate none of this. My mother once sat on my couch to tell me that she’d have preferred me to be a prostitute than bisexual and would mourn over me as if I were in jail as long as she lived. She meant the words she spoke; she said them as part of her process and because of her religious concern. She didn’t say them to wound me. But intention doesn’t trump impact, and we can’t now recover the years we’ve lost. We can only improve our future together.

Purple-striped jellies at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Purple-striped Jellies at Monterey Bay Aquarium

It’s been more than a year since my mother has verbally or spiritually attacked me, She has not undermined me, my ethics, or my identity in my hearing. She joined the rest of my family and support network in celebrating my doctoral graduation last spring, and I know she’s never stopped caring for me. Still, she struggles to celebrate the me that I am. She lives at the outer limits of the love and embrace that heterosexism and other religious beliefs permit her, and I can’t imagine the conflict that has brought her whenever she’s thought of me or spoken of me with others.

My denomination’s leadership has also been smashing against the outer bounds of its limits in the last few years: General Conference senior leaders sustained their rejection of LGBTI members, wordsmithing a 1996 statement on homosexuality without changing its substance; the British Union Conference formally opposed civil marriage in England, Wales, and Scotland even though proposed legal changes would have no impact on the church’s teachings or practice; and the North American Division president and a prominent Adventist televangelist both pronounced June Supreme Court decisions as perversions not merely of doctrine but also of US legal tradition—as if tradition means automatic validity. Each of these are players in the drama.

It’s the sincerity I perceive in most of these players that keeps me holding my end of our relationship’s rope. I don’t spend much effort on reacting to performed prejudice—discrimination and demonization heightened for an audience, and perfected by Fox News, satellite radio shock jocks, Westboro, and too much public evangelism. That’s not the kind of theater I enjoy sitting through. But sincere souls, I can understand. I can trace their full humanity though they sometimes deny mine. And thanks to my family and denomination, I know not to seek whole-soul nurturing from those who cannot offer it. I know not to beg bread from a quarry or probe for figs out of season. It’s not the season for figs from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and so I don’t expect to harvest any from it. Yet this doesn’t condemn me to starve.

Hundreds of thousands of LGBTI current and former Adventists around the world have been taught that they’re broken; community affirmation depends on their complying with mandatory celibacy or forming heterosocial relationships. What about them? If the sanctuary is not a sanctuary, where can they turn? Should they seek another sanctuary? Create other sanctuaries with and for other people? If we can’t change the chick’s shell, how do we support the chick so that when its shell breaks, the chick is strong enough to bear the break and deal with the world outside? If your mother can’t mother you, who will mother you and how can you mother yourself?

A kitten strains to hold a rope in its mouth.

A kitten that’s unlikely to give up that string. (c) Calculus Jones

When I lost some nurturers, my library gave me others: when authorities disparaged certain sources, I deliberately sought them out and read them myself. This wasn’t about being contrary (contrariness is no more automatically valid than tradition). It was about learning to evaluate sources for myself. As some of my older sanctuaries proved unsafe, I reassessed the limits they had set for me. When those limits failed to support, challenge, and protect me, I established new ones. When they did serve me, I kept them.

I borrowed, bought, and read shelves of new books that I hadn’t known existed, entered conversations I hadn’t known were happening, and joined communities of thought and practice I’d never had access to before. This was how I gained worlds beyond my inherited shell, worlds that supported me when my native land fractured. Without those worlds or the people I met through them, I wouldn’t have made progress. I might not be here. And I wouldn’t still have places to go.

My mother mothered me well until she discovered more of who I was, until I complicated her hetero-centered view of me and her vision of the life I’d live as an adult. Until I varied from her dreams, she held a very powerful grounding space for me and she’s doing her best to do so again. She cared for me materially when I was well and physically when I was sick. She nurtured me educationally and intellectually; she prayed and modeled for me a sense of God and Spirit. She gave me and my siblings the best of what she had—and still does. I’ve made sure to express my appreciation to her for her effort and bequests, and I’ll always care about improving on her legacies of leadership, poetry, industry, nurturing, service, and strength.

I’m not yet able to mother her materially, but I can recognize when she has hit her emotional and spiritual outer limits, when “the places I’ll go” aren’t places she can join me. I don’t know how her limits might change in the future, and I’m not sure it makes any difference to what I can offer her. My mother has gifted me so many amazing things—what more could I ask of her? I’ll take the unconditionality baton from here.

Thanks, Mum, for everything.

Round-up: Responses to Exodus Closure

“And away he goes, precious. Gone! Gone! Gone! Smeagol is free!”

Several organizations have responded to last week’s announcement that Florida-based ex-gay/sexual orientation change ministry Exodus International will close.

  • The National Religious Leadership Roundtable includes representatives of Christian affinity and interest groups including the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the Unity Fellowship Church, the Metropolitan Community Churches, and DignityUSA.
  • Cindi Love is the executive director of Soulforce, a non-profit that sponsors nonviolent student Equality Rides to Christian colleges across the country.
  • Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International is a support and advocacy organization that has served current and former Seventh-day Adventists for nearly 40 years. It formed in California in 1976, the same year that Exodus International incorporated in Orlando.

Individuals have shared some powerful responses in the last week as well:

  • Sean Sala is a US veteran who participated in Lisa Ling’s special God and Gays last Thursday.  
  • Shay Kearns is an Old Catholic Church priest who grew up in churches that promoted Exodus International’s change dogma as the solution for non-heterosexuality and “deviant” gender expression.
  • Rachel Held Evans is a Christian writer whose blog community responded to the Exodus announcement by sharing their experiences with Exodus and other ex-gay organizations.
  • Brent Walsh is a minister in Indiana who educates congregations on gender and trans awareness. He describes the deep impacts of Exodus’ residential program Love In Action on his life.
  • Jane Brazell is a member of an online group of ex-gay survivors and is based in Washington state.

On May 28 this year, Exodus International quietly withdrew from the Exodus Global Alliance, a confederation from ex-gay groups (the Florida nonprofit only reported this on June 12). Exodus Global has branches in Asia, the Pacific, Central and South America, and Africa, all regions where anti-LGBT sentiment has particularly violent legal and social consequences for LGBT people and their families. On June 21, the Exodus Global Alliance dissociated itself from Alan Chambers’ apology issued on Exodus International’s behalf, and pledged to continue and promote reparative “ministry” and orientation suppression.

Exodus International may now be defunct, but its legacy continues.

The Exodus of Exodus International

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Seventh-day Adventist church’s early history with the sexual orientation change effort industry (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Quest Learning Center and Homosexuals Anonymous both formed during the same era as Exodus International, a sprawling evangelical organization that taught LGBT people, their families, and their churches that “change is possible.” SOCE groups like these continue today despite advances in science and psychology, law, theology, and social acceptance, and not all of them have responded to these advances by becoming kinder, gentler, or more accurate about their claims.

Exodus "True Story" graphic from their conference website.Exodus itself, however, held its final conference this week. Yesterday its director Alan Chambers apologized to the LGBT community and their parents. He also announced that Exodus International will close and a new ministry will emerge in its place. The website for the new ministry is not yet live and I see no substantive information about it anywhere yet. Even if Reduce Fear’s work with churches is conciliatory, based on Chambers’ comments in his apology yesterday, I expect the new ministry to maintain his core beliefs that LGBT sexuality is morally deficient and that unconditional LGBT acceptance contradicts Christianity.

I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

…I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection.  I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives…I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.  I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself. —Alan Chambers

Last night I scanned Twitter to get a sense of the reactions to Chambers’ apology and have discussed it briefly with friends. While some from the LGBT-hostile quadrant of the church immediately raised the “gay agenda” specter or smeared Exodus as “sellouts”, the majority of early comments ranged from cautious surprise to outright celebration. I didn’t see much anger or cutting cynicism from LGBT-supportive people—though it may be much too soon to expect people to have passed all the way through the grief/loss process. Questions about and closer readings of Chamber’s statements are now trickling out and SDA Kinship will be sharing some of these responses to Exodus’ closure from their Twitter feed today.

I looked at Exodus’ closure statement myself, and this paragraph jumped out at me:

Chambers continued: “From a Judeo-Christian perspective, gay, straight or otherwise, we’re all prodigal sons and daughters. Exodus International is the prodigal’s older brother, trying to impose its will on God’s promises, and make judgments on who’s worthy of His Kingdom. God is calling us to be the Father – to welcome everyone, to love unhindered.”

Return of the Prodigal Son (Murillo,

Return of the Prodigal Son, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1667-1670) | via the Web Gallery of Art

For most Western evangelicals, Chambers’ claim that “we’re all prodigal sons and daughters” will be uncontroversial. The majority of the evangelical community’s doctrines assume that humans are sin-depraved and experience separation from God if not in conscious relationship with Christ. The parable of the lost boy, a story of grace and embrace in family despite error and failure, is an old cultural favorite. So when Chambers identifies Exodus as that “elder brother,” this rings true for many of those harmed by SOCE organizations, and I can only imagine how difficult it has been for him to acknowledge that role.

But the final turn—from being the older brother to “being the Father”—does not fit. I know that as an evangelical, Chambers does not believe in apotheosis. So “LGBT or not, we’re all God’s children; this is our created and redeemed nature; and our lives will be about being or becoming more like God” cannot be what he means here.

In the bible story, the younger brother returns his father planning to play the servant. His father rejects that effort and claims him as the son he is: this is part of his restoration: that he be the son he is. The older brother resents his brother and their father’s open-armed reception of him, and the story closes with the older brother still outside the party, not yet accepting or extending family grace. I’ve often rewritten this ending in my head, supplying an addendum in which the brother crosses the threshold quietly to thaw over fruit punch. My epilogue reads something like “It took time, but both brothers healed. Realizing what their father had been trying to teach them, the brothers worked on their relationship and the family home became known as a house of love.”

Wouldn’t that the best resolution? That the older brother re-enter the party as a brother, not an overlord? That he restore his relationship, not craft a new superior or inferior one for himself, nor impose a false superior or inferior role on his younger sibling?

So why does Alan Chambers represent Exodus’ role changing from brother and peer to “being God”? If Exodus has already lorded over LGBT people for more than 30 years, why, even now, isn’t it enough to simply be equal? The hardest thing for beneficiaries of artificial hierarchies may be to lay their status down and stop grasping for new and improved ways to pick it back up. For those trodden by hierarchies, the hardest thing may be to shed  temptations to inferiority or counter-supremacy, and to accept that we too are our Father’s children.

Should Chambers choose this path, with others who abandoned him long ago because he wasn’t harsh or separatist enough for them, he and they’ll find me by the fruit punch. I promise to save them a cup.

Filling In the Gaps: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church III

In Part 1 of this series, I reflected on the Seventh-day Adventist denomination’s influence on the sexual orientation change effort (SOCE) movement since the 1970s and its lobbying against civil initiatives for LGBT people to the present day. Then, in Part 2, I suggested that the limits of our church “mother” can inspire us to grow, that this growth is part of our ethical and moral maturity process, and that extending the conversation about sexuality and gender beyond what the denomination has offered to date is an important way for us to care for ourselves while caring for the community that shaped us.

I would like to make it clear… that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” —J.K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008

Part of my process growing into adulthood has been acknowledging my responsibility. I don’t assume responsibility for the premises and limits that others taught me, but I do assume it for how I frame gifts as I become conscious of them, and how I write them into the life and experiences I share with others. As Rowling told Harvard’s Class of 2008, there’s an expiry date on blaming one’s parents, so if there ever was a time when I might have considered blaming my family, church, or cultures for what they passed down to me, that time has long gone. I accept responsibility for my life.

Photo of South London landscape, 30 St. Mary Axe in centerI grew up as the last child of Jamaican parents in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and 1990s. While most of the events described in Part 1 were unfolding in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, I was 3,600 miles away in a part of the Adventist community that included Caribbean immigrants, West African immigrants, a smattering of Filipinos, and a small minority of White English and native European people in congregations outside of London.

My 500-member congregation had a very strong lay leadership tradition, and during the early 1990s my mother was one of four women called to the role of elder. From these and other lay leaders before and after my baptism, I learned a great deal about how to teach, share, and support an active congregation. I learned how, under the church’s wings and the wings of my Caribbean immigrant network, to live distinctly from the wider society: we were trained to be Daniels who lived impeccably in both friendly and hostile circumstances, dared to vary from our peers if the cause was honorable, and never brought embarrassment to our faith or Afro-Caribbean culture.

Despite that training, I don’t recall learning how to examine myself as an individual, to situate myself in my several communities and negotiate their competing claims on me. I don’t recall seeing my full reflection in the faces of the elders who surrounded me: I saw partial reflections in this speaker, that artist, this teacher, but never felt wholly mirrored. I knew that I was a member of my immediate family and community family; I didn’t fear being abandoned by them. I saw that I was loved by each of these circles (if not understood) and that my community’s achievement expectations for me were high (they still are!). I thrived academically and otherwise, but did so while not fully recognizing myself in the lives or experiences of any one I knew.

Photo of the hills, Manchester, JamaicaI was about 17 years old and studying at an Adventist college in Jamaica before I met someone who knew he was gay. We became close friends, siblings-but-not-by-blood, and yet our closeness didn’t include his identity or relationships until five years later. We spent our time discussing culture, politics, regional differences, spirituality; we talked in generalities about attractive people and the life lessons we were learning. But in our first five years as friends it never occurred to me to inquire about his orientation or relational life. He didn’t inquire much about mine—and there was little to tell. As much of my own sexuality was still in shadow, I did not see his; I just didn’t ask.

I know now that at least two boys from my English high school were gay; while we were schoolmates, their bullies had tormented them for not being athletic or “manly” enough. But at the time I never made the leap from their gender expression to their sexuality, and I don’t know when they made that connection for themselves. I have no comparable stories about English or Caribbean women to share.

Like many Adventist youth, I’d received the Ellen White compilation Messages to Young People as a baptismal gift and read it; I’d also been given John F. Knight’s books for teenagers, What a Young Woman Should Know About Sex and What a Young Man Should Know About Sex. These church-approved sources were supplemented by classes at school and my parents’ direct contributions at home. My mother and father, a registered nurse and social worker respectively, may not have been comfortable with all of my questions, but they usually responded by being frank and clear, dismissing baseless myths and scare stories, and suggesting that we research what we didn’t know. I’ve kept this model as an adult: it still helps me to fill in the gaps I’ve discovered along the way.

I cannot explain why, despite the parents, books, and cultural and congregational influences that I had, I still came into my 20s with no hook to hang my growing awareness of myself on. Yet that is how I found myself in 2008—hook-less—and so I began to build from scratch. I spent the next 4 years studying classic materials and contemporary research on Christian history and theology, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, working with credentialed counselors, and rebuilding my inner relationship circle. It was an amazing period—equal parts insight and horror, with much of the latter channeling through some of my religious relatives and my denomination. I do not blame them for the role they played during those years. I also had many angels, guardians, and friends, and was not alone.

On this side of the process, though, I sometimes imagine the SDA community being so committed to realism about sex, gender, and relationships that our scholars led the wider Church’s conversation. It saddens me when I see us trailing the rest of the Church with groundless 20-year-old talking points, or expelling leaders for being current or compassionate. It’s possible I’d be writing a different story today if my imaginary denomination were real.

At the same time, I’ve met hundreds of LGBT Adventists in the last several years, all shaped by the sources I’ve mentioned or others similar to them. Some of these people were caught up in Quest Learning Center and survived to share their stories. Others passed through other orientation change ministries and are grateful today to have made it out alive. Perhaps it’s been to our collective benefit that our church hasn’t led the pack: as things stand, the teaching we’ve received has tended toward suppression, occlusion, fear, and the dysfunctions that naturally flow from them. More of that is not what we’ve needed. By filling in the gaps beyond the church, we’ve instead worked to build personal and collective awareness that this life is an opportunity to develop loyalty, joy, care, pleasure, faithfulness, patience, understanding, and love.

Close-up photo of broad green leaves in sunlight.Rowling’s metaphor for adult living is “taking the wheel,” but I’ve experienced it as something less mechanical and fraught than highway driving can be. For me, shaping an adult life is more like tending a garden, noting how seeds and plants grow, which kinds of nurture and resources they need, how good they are as neighbors to other plants, what outcomes they produce, and how each plant is its own kind of beautiful. It’s about development and learning in place, harvesting and stopping to smell the flowers; sometimes, too, it’s about sneezing from the pollen and uprooting plants that don’t fit. I’m still in the midst of the tending process as I write this article, and I expect to keep tending and enjoying this garden for the rest of my life.