Tag Archives: community

Thanks, Twitter (2013 ed.)—Part 3

This is the third and last Twitter-compilation post for 2013 (Part 1: Seeing the Real | Part 2: Evolving Deliberately).
Changing the World includes tweets on social development, justice, activism, politics, and progress.

3. Changing the World

Long Reads and Research

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.

We are against violence in all forms, and we envision a world of communities that together embrace the diversity of the human family and live justly and peaceably with all creation. —Sarah Thompson, Christian Peacemaker Teams

Alternatives to religious force exist: Christian Peacemaker Teams is one of them and could stand a whole lot more attention and engagement. Read more about this group and their nonviolence work worldwide: Embodying Peace, Transforming Violence: An Interview with Sarah Thompson.

(via Ryan J. Bell)

Disciplines, Discipline, and the Ethics of Correction

I’ve had a few conversations this month about Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist whose research and pronouncements consistently stir controversy. Whether he’s ranking the attractiveness of Black women or analyzing the child-bearing choices of high-IQ women, Kanazawa draws criticism, rebuttal, and disavowals from other scientists as well as the general public.

One friend wrote that Kanazawa shouldn’t be cited as proof that evolutionary psychology is an inherently racist field: the field, he said, shouldn’t be judged by one member:

I agree that one controversial member can’t represent an entire field. I also disagree that a discipline’s internal debates should automatically de-legitimize its unpopular figures: just because there’s disagreement doesn’t mean anyone should be excluded. Misapplications, false positives, and failures are part of what differentiates a profession or discipline from a dogmatic inquisition: dissociating from dissidents, outliers, renegades, and spotlight hunters can’t be the measure of disciplinary status, or the definition of “discipline” would have to be “Borg collective.”

A conference presenter (seated) addresses his audience

At the 2nd Annual Responsible Conduct of Research Conference, Texas Tech University Ethics Center, 2012

So what does make a discipline? A discipline is bounded by common epistemology, common research methods, common credentialing, and common peer review. Sharing a discipline doesn’t bind members to agree on interpretation; and those 4 common areas mean that Kanazawa is still “in” with evolutionary psychology no matter how much his peers distance themselves from his work. His public statements don’t degrade the profession, and peer dissociation doesn’t bolster his field.

My friend suggested that it was nevertheless “important for others in his field to call him out.” So I asked whether he could see a difference between “calling someone out” and challenging their research assumptions, methods, or findings in commentary or further research. If disciplinary “discipline” doesn’t distinguish between the two, then it risks conflating the integrity of field boundaries with that field’s approval of individual members and their personalities.

Furthermore, disciplines are communities of common practice. They’re not personality factories. They’re about what we do, not about who we are. This is why professional codes of ethics tend to focus on activity and inaction, not belief or character. Ethics codes tenets will include reducing conflicts of interest or maintaining confidentiality as these are fundamental actions that guard professional integrity and ensure that clients, customers, patients, and the public at large can rely on whatever professionals do. But those same codes won’t sneak from action guidelines into thought regulations; they won’t police a member’s feelings about his clients or try to fix his cosmological opinions. Those opinions will rarely even become a conversation topic unless they’re perceived to undermine the quality of a professional’s client relationships and performance.

In 2012, 500 Emory students declined to host neurosurgeon Ben Carson as their graduation speaker because of his views on the moral implications of evolutionary science. He saw the controversy as an attack on his personal religious rights, but his critics challenged him “as a representative of science and medicine.” Respondents debated the merits of his position, concerned by his philosophical assertion that “relativism” and amorality or un-grounded morality were the natural consequence of affirming evolution. Other criticism focused on how Carson had represented evolution to the Seventh-day Adventist paper that published his comments (Carson later said that the paper had misrepresented him by not printing complete quotations; I’ve not been able to find any statements from the paper confirming or denying Carson’s claim.)

But even though Carson eventually stepped down as Emory’s speaker, he wasn’t cast out of medicine. The event was extra-curricular, an out-of-work event. He wasn’t sanctioned by his discipline at any point—and wouldn’t have been unless he was found to have breached medical standards of practice.

My friend and I agreed that a person doesn’t have to be a decent human being in order to become an effective professional. Of course clients and customers prefer to work with decent human beings! Professions do shape how we live out our humanity with other people because they structure the spaces in which we practice and the relationships through which we interact with others in those spaces. But while our professional training and practice is based on shared disciplinary knowledge, that training isn’t responsible for professionals’ core sense of compassion or brutality. If a discipline’s members are adults with an intact sense of morality, the discipline’s ethics will lie on top of and interact with individuals’ ethics and the various intersecting ethics of their cultures, communities, and nations.

The consequence of this is an insight shared in an influential technical communication essay (summary) and made during my conversation with my friend: unethical practice and research can still be done with good technique,” and a “good technique” doesn’t change a practice’s fundamental ethical nature. Disciplines might make a person more effective, but they can’t make them “good.”

Some Questions

During this entire conversation I was thinking not just about how disciplines police their boundaries but also how religious groups police theirs. Are you part of a religious group or a professional discipline? What have you noticed about how these groups monitor who’s in, who’s out, and how they resolve conflicts about group identity and group ideas? Do they seem to prioritize the protection of their group brand and their public reputation; how are controversial ideas dealt with? What are that group’s ethics based on? Are those ethics about actions or character?

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?

Storify: Who Is My Neighbor?

Misanthropes and philanthropists enjoy the same sunlight and we’re naturally interdependent with other living and non-living aspects of our ecosystem. Our ecosystem includes human systems too—families, governments, ethnic-cultural groups, religions, and economic models. Even when we have individual preferences about these things, the dominant models in our environment still affect us. Someone who never builds their own family is still affected by communities of families. Someone who drops out of the church loop is still touched by society’s religions. Someone who is “stateless” is still influenced by a matrix of nation-states.

I could refuse to vote when eligible. I could disavow my religion of origin. I could claim emancipation from relatives. But presence means participation; existence means participation. The only question is what kind of participation it will be.

Photo of the Pacific shore in the early evening.

View Who is my Neighbor? | You are my Neighbor on Storify.

FYI: Florida is one of several US states that, following a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, allows for 6-person juries rather than the conventional 12-person panel when the case won’t involve capital sentencing.

And W.E.B.B.I.E’s post flew across Web 2.0 when pop singer Rihanna and others reposted it without attribution.

Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is you.

Split Court, Split Future?


With this vote on the case United States vs. Windsor, a divided US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (1996) as unconstitutional and ended Edith Windsor’s six-year battle with the government. After her wife Thea Spyer’s death, the now 83-year-old Windsor was forced to pay more than $600,000 in state and federal estate taxes—a burden that the government would not have levied had her spouse been “Theo” and not “Thea.” (Read the full Windsor opinion.) The majority held that “violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” Federal agencies are already adjusting to the ruling.

The justices also ruled 5-4 in the matter of California’s Proposition 8. In Hollingsworth vs. Perry (formerly Brown vs. Perry and Schwarznegger vs. Perry), the Court found that the petitioners did not have standing to appeal the district court’s ruling of unconstitutionality. The district court had ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and the State of California didn’t appeal that decision; the Supreme Court decided that the civil society organizations who had  promoted Proposition 8 did not have the authority to appeal in the State’s place. (Check out this analysis on SCOTUSblog, and read the full Hollingsworth opinion.)

My Twitter timeline was full of joy about these rulings—yet at the same time these determinations come at the end of a wild week in governance with disappointing impacts nationwide. Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act (1965/2005) was undermined and Section 4 was struck down. The Supreme Court determined that the slavery-era percentage approach to “race” trumped the Cherokee people’s membership rules. And the Court decided that an employer is only automatically liable for workplace harassment if the harasser is a direct line supervisor. (Opinion: Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl & Case Files | Opinion: Vance vs. Ball State University & Case Files)

“Volumes of evidence supported Congress’ de­termination that the prospect of retrogression was real. Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” —Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissenting in Shelby Co. vs. Holder

So what’s next for the US? Reactions to this week’s decisions have been divided along lines of ethnicity, class, sexuality, and religion or philosophy; many of us celebrate some decisions while being sorrowful about others because we have more concerns than one.

What’s left after our groups sharply disagree, not just on beliefs or ideas, but also on the practical issues of how to treat whole segments of the population? If we sit at a common table (and there are some who, contra the Supreme Court’s Shelby Co. decision, point to sustained and entrenched contemporary discrimination and dispute that the nation’s table is commonly shared), what is it that binds us, demographic and philosophical differences and all?

Will the US hold together over the next few years? How are we One and not merely Many? Is our collective future to be as split as our Supreme Court is today? I don’t think we can afford that. I’m interested in alternatives. You?

Cheers to Steve Claborn for the Fishkin link on Shelby County, and to Carolyn Parson for the OPM statement.

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.

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.—George Eliot, Middlemarch

The Atlantic explores the links between relationships and ambition. It’s a great article; don’t miss it. The writer does something of a disservice to ambition by tying it only to conventional material success. A similar disservice accrues to relationships: only family, congregation, and the kinds of tight-knit networks that rally round and bake cookies. I see more complexity though.

My experience is not that relationships and ambition are mutually exclusive, only that certain kinds of relationships preclude certain kinds of ambition, and certain kinds of ambition preclude certain kinds of relationship. Not all family life requires a fixed address and a picket fence. Not all ambitious development requires world-ranging and nowhere to lay your head.

The core issue is the consequence of choice. Whatever you choose, however you pivot, some options will shut down. Others recede for a time. And still others will always be available if you’re creative. Perhaps it’s best that we don’t know which is which ahead of time.