Black SDA preaching

Black SDA preaching: Balanced and binding or betwixt and between?

Analysis of dilemmas facing Black preaching in North America

Calvin B. Rock, Ph.D., is a recently retired general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Black American preaching is an identifiable reality. Its energy and imagery make it unique to gospel proclamation. It's an art form born of faith, rooted in love, driven by hope, shaped in trial, nurtured by pain, mentored in suffering, and authenticated by time.

While Black preaching deserves our in-depth investigation, we shall concentrate here on Black "Adventist" preaching. The critical questions that arise are: (1) Is it really possible to do truly Black preaching when we are structurally re moved from all the rest of Black Christianity and bred almost exclusively on Anglo emphasis of Scripture? (2) If so, how has our social separation from Black believers in society and our cultural distance from Anglo believers impacted our preaching personality? (3) Are African- American preachers preachers with an Adventist doctrine? or are they Adventist preachers with an African-American emphasis? Or a hybrid of sorts betwixt and between too theologically Anglicized for authentic Black preaching and too authentically ethnic to fit the Adventist prototype?

Not just style, but content

Black preaching is more than a form of rhetorical style; it is a function of content with its fervent embrace of the justice aspects of Scripture. 1 Black preaching values the social elements of salvation. It affirms the political dimensions of the gospel. It exalts the last six commandments as faithfully as it does the first four. It leads the people not only to the patching of wounds caused by injustice but also to oppose oppressive laws and systems. It is concerned more with the plight of the slaves than with the might of their masters. Therefore, it is possible to say not only that Black preaching is substance as well as style, but that its substance determines its style. Indeed, its distinctive concerns are parent to its unique expression.

Proclamation that simulates the sounds of Black preaching (that is, preaching that utilizes its imagery and cadence but without its substance) is not the genuine article. No matter how popular the preacher may be, it is a distortion of the true enterprise, a false manifestation, and a betrayal of our worthy predecessors in this noble endeavor.

Adventist preaching is even more "content-focused" than Black preaching. Its essence is clearly one of reform Sabbath reform, health re form, dress reform, education reform, family reform, stewardship reform, etc. Preaching that does not ring with the certainties of Daniel and Revelation; that is not flavored with the symbols of the sanctuary; that does not uphold the law of God; that does not honor the prophetic gift of Ellen White; that does not extol justification by faith is not Adventist preaching.2 It may be truth, but it is not Present Truth; it may constitute an engaging performance, but it does not constitute the remnant proclamation.

On one occasion, when Napoleon's soldiers, trapped and tired, shouted with joy at the sound of French pipes approaching in the distance, he commanded them to silence and placed his ear to the ground. When he arose, he quickly ordered his troops to cover.

When his officers asked why, since help was obviously on the way, he pointed in the direction of the sounds and tersely replied, "French music, but English marching!"

That verdict aptly describes the polar pitfalls of claiming Blackness but failing to articulate its justice concerns and professing Adventism but preaching without its prophetic essence. We need to do Black preaching because it resonates with our cultural past and present in ways that maximize the impact of truth. We must do Adventist preaching because that is our unique commission. Anything less is a denial of one's oath, a tragedy for the people and a disappointment to God.

But is it really possible to accomplish this harmony of heritages, both grounded in Scripture, one shaped very pervasively by centuries of trial and trust in the God of deliverance, and the other influenced by the Puritan ethic and the imminence of Millerism; one known for echoing the justice sighs of Amos and Micah, the other echoing the antiphonal scenes of Ezekiel and Zechariah; one responding to a people's need to defend their dignity everyday, the other the Church's need to defend the 2300 days?

The answer is yes, but the effort must begin with the realization that both processes have weaknesses created by their human proprietors. A primary problem with traditional Adventist preaching is its socially conservative interpretation of Scripture, and that of Black preaching is its acceptance of raw excitement as the definition of success and the use of arbitrary stimulation as a means of attaining that acclaim.

The conservative stance

There are several reasons why doctrinally conservative churches such as ours spawn socially conservative preachers and people. One is the minimalist view of New Testament sociality provided by most Anglo theologians. They read, in Jesus' refusal to strike out against Rome and Paul's insistence that Onesimus go back and be a good slave, a divine directive to passive acceptance of injustice. In reality, however, given what Yoder terms "the absence of alternatives," both Jesus and Paul should be seen as pushing the cause of justice as far as their times would permit. 3 This included Christ's calling Herod "that fox" (Luke 13:32) and Paul's imploring Philemon to receive Onesimus, not simply as a slave, but as a brother. These acts, along with Christ's many social "sit-ins" (e.g. the woman at the well, John 4:6,7) and the equalitarian content of Paul's message (Gal. 3:28), give their ministries a decidedly radical flavor. Ellen White's instruction, 2000 years later, that Christians disobey the Fugitive Slave Law is far different from what either could then say. 4 But, given the circumstances (the increase of alternatives), her category of "civil disobedience" is no more brave or socially advanced a posture than was theirs.

Another highly effective variable is what is known as the "miracle motif" or the view of those who say that since the only hope of overcoming societal evil is the conversion of the populace and since that prospect, by orders of magnitude, is a mission impossible, all attempts at social change are futile; it is enough to hope and pray for the coming of the Lord and the eradication of injustice. This is what Gilbert Murray calls "the sad philosophy of those who, knowing how short time is, do not undertake to build that which they cannot finish or to employ materials fit for use in a structure expected to stand the test of time."5

Yet another effective determinative is the penchant of religious conservatives to interpret wrongfully the Scriptures' insistence upon choosing the spiritual above the physical as justification for privatism in response to social evil. For them it is not a matter of valuing Jericho by Jerusalem, or the secular by the sacred, it is the mandate to regard social issues as the province of Caesar not the purview of the Church; to address them individually, perhaps, but not as a part of what we call "finishing of the work."6

Since all of the above is denied by the ethos of Black preaching, proclamation that accommodates these and kindred slants on Scripture is not true to its ideal. It may utilize Black sound effects (employ African-American music), but it is in fact Anglo conservative marching, not the call to social as well as spiritual freedom Black preaching entails.

But then the greater fault for us is not preaching Adventist without preaching Black, but preaching Black and not Adventist, especially when that preaching is given to rhetorical absurdities. While the bane of standard Adventist proclamation is social insensitivity, the weakness of much Black Adventist preaching is doctrinal neutrality camouflaged in verbal vehemence. What should we do to resolve this tension?

Arouse social conscience

Doctrinal neutrality is often the consequence of disenchantment with the Church's underdeveloped social conscience. "Hanging in there" and collecting a paycheck is one thing but being an enthusiastic apologist for a system viewed as weak, or at times even negative to one's socio-political interests, re quires an unusual measure of optimism and patience. If, of course, one buys into the concept of a desocialized gospel, such tensions do not exist, but if one does, in fact, link righteousness with justice, the loyalty struggle is very real. The tragedy for those who do not find resolution to this dilemma (who do not discover that "social" reform is also a scriptural mandate) is loss of enthusiasm for remnant proclamation and capitulation to nominal Protestant preaching.

Similarly, rhetorical vehemence of ten occurs when one concludes that since standard Caucasian delivery does not fit, "anything goes"—that shrillness is Blackness, that loudness is laudable, and that emotionalism is more important than intellectualism. In other words, while God is not dead, He is somewhat deaf and the people intellectual dwarfs who come each Sabbath for another dose of "feel good" religion. Such preaching is neither African-American music nor Anglo marching; it is a retreat to mediocrity accomplished to the beat of lesser drummers; it is resignation in the face of frustration.7

Embrace categories of freedom

But the realization that both processes suffer from weaknesses derived from their proprietors is not the only key to holding these two enterprises in dynamic tension. Another is the recognition that African-Americans are virtually "nonplayers" in the theological processing of Church doctrine. It is not disloyal for us to admit that the Scriptural emphasis resulting from revelation that funnels through the sociological grid of the advantaged is very different from that which processes through that of the disadvantaged.8 And we need not call that racism. It is simply the way it is. While it is clear that racism is largely responsible for the demographics that produce differing cultural grids, it is not so clear that it is racist to know God sincerely, if in completely, through one's cultural apparatus. Understanding that reality not only frees us from animosity toward those whose theology lacks social sensitivity but also allows us to appropriate conscientiously categories of liberation not usually heard in Adventist preaching.

Apply Present Truth

A third means of mating the two processes is being intentional and deter mined about applying Present Truth to our everyday situation. In other words, to establish, not just the furniture, but the freedoms of the sanctuary above. The Commandments, the state of the dead, the Second Coming and all of the other 27 Fundamentals can and should be related to the Black experience. It requires creativity and persistence, but it is most rewarding to show Africa's descendants of the global diaspora as the "people" John saw hearing the angels of Revelation 14; to market the material benefits of keeping the Sabbath and returning tithe; and to remind one and all that be fore Isaiah saw a "remnant repairing the breach and restoring the paths to dwell in," he declared the real fast of God as loosening the bands of wickedness, undoing the heavy burdens, freeing the oppressed, breaking every yoke, dealing our bread to the hungry, bringing the poor and cast out into our homes, covering the naked, and satisfying the afflicted soul (Isa. 58:5-10). By such emphasis we can, and must, make the case that justice is not, at best, a companion element of righteousness and, at worst, an alien category but that it is in fact its defining core.

Refuse to be entertainers

Fourth, we are aided in this endeavor by refusing to accede to the people's predisposition for show and entertainment. That, of course, is not a Black phenomenon. But since nobody can do it better than we can, it is a peculiar temptation and distortion of our task. "Somebody ought to say Amen," "Let me hear you say Amen," "Come on, say Amen," "Walls, lights, pews—say Amen!"—discretely used are legitimate pulpit devices. But dependence upon these to gain attention and applause is a cheap, crippling substitute for eye-opening exegesis of the Word. True Black preaching does not have to beg for "Amens" and is not dependent upon theatrical devices. It utilizes imaginative language and vocal inflection to tell the story, but always in ways that make the text, not the mechanics and charisma of the speaker, the center of attention. 9 Black preaching is instructive, not exhibitionist; celebratory, not carnivalistic; animated, not theatrical; vibrant, not vehement. It is socially conscious, but not a social gospel; it is concerned with the proximate, but rooted in the ultimate.

Interpret the remnant categories

Fifth, we must produce as rapidly as possible, theologians who can interpret through the axiological grid of African-Americans the remnant categories of the Word of God. While leading the nation in evangelism, we have fallen behind in scholarship. We need and must have content theologians, systematic, New Testament, Old Testament scholars—the Ph.D. and Th.D. kind— people who can read the Word in its original languages and tell us in our categories of thought and experience what "saith the Lord!" Only then will we be freed from the bondage of alien theological concerns and provided the most accurate insights for preaching and praxis.

Rally around the cross

Sixth, we must make the cross of Christ our rallying point. The Cross is the nexus where Black suffering and Apocalyptic expectation meet in dynamic tension; where "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" jibes with "Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates," and "Order My Steps" mates with "I Will Follow Thee My Savior"; where the courage of Richard Alien fuses with the faith of William Miller; where the determined conviction of Sojourner Truth complements the delicate candor of Rachel Dates; where the mission of the underground railroad mirrors the mandate of the orbiting an gels; where the bruised hands of those hanged because of their skin grasp the nailed palms of Him crucified because of our sins; where the blood of the "many thousands gone" cry out "How long, O Lord, how long," and the exuberance of our four million ancestors released from the most binding slavery of modern history anticipates the shout of the finally redeemed—"Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we're free at last!" 10

The new millennium

How does our grade card read as we begin this new millennium? We have survived and done well largely because of Oakwood College and the Moseley, Richards, Rogers, Warren, Reaves, Alien Religion Department leadership; a department that had a major hand in shaping the ministries of C. E. Bradford and E. E. Cleveland.

An unsung achievement of these two men requiring special notice is their contribution to Church unity. They stand in the distinguished tradition of G. E. Peters, E L. Peterson, W. W. Fordham, and other notables whose preaching, in the middle third of the last century, proved a major deterrent to schisms like those led by L. C. Sheaf, the Manns brothers (John and Charles), and J. K. Humphrey in the first several decades.

These celebrated defections, sparked by institutional racism, might well have multiplied and eventuated in irreconcilable division had it not been for the balanced and binding preaching of our honorees and their courageous col leagues during the last decades of the twentieth century. They have, by both pen and voice, been used by God as special heralds of doctrine and loyalty.

But past is not always prologue! The new and additional challenges now facing us are as rife with danger as was the overt racism of yesteryear. Primary among these challenges are the destructive forces of Pentecostalism, secularism, Congregationalism, and, more recently, an assimilationist appeal to "color blindness" that, taken to fruition, would render to archival status this present dialogue and any other attempt at enhancement of our socio-religious heritage.

If we are to maintain our position as a vibrant wheel within the larger wheel of the Church; if, given the lengthening of our earthly pilgrimage, we will deliver to our successors Black Seventh-day "Adventism" as opposed to Black Seventh-day "Congregationalism" or Black Seventh-day "Pentecostalism," we must, with determined vigilance, address these issues with resolve.

I challenge African-American preachers to this high resolve. I urge that we proceed with the premise that Black preaching and Adventist preaching are indeed complementary events and not mutually exclusive; that we can enjoy the best of both worlds; that we can avoid both the Charybdis of uninformed con servatism and the Scylla of virtual capitulation; that we can with informed awareness, stern discipline, broad charity, and relentless devotion provide for our membership and the society beyond a product more relevant and exciting than either by itself; that we can employ music that is consistent with our march ing—which is to say, preaching that is faithful to both the "cultural heritage" we did not choose and cannot escape and the "remnant heritage" we have solemnly chosen and must never deny.

1. Cain Felder, Stony the Road We Trod, "The Hermeneutical Dilemma of the African American Biblical Student" William H. Myers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 40-56.

2. Daniells, 64.

3. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Midi.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1972), 178.

4. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. L, (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1944), 201,202.

5. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1963), 90.

6 E. E. Cleveland, The Middle Wall (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1969), 55, 56.

7. Calvin B. Rock, Institutional Loyalty vs. Racial Freedom: The Dilemma of Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1984), 159, 160.

8. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 92.

9. Charles E. Bradford, Preaching to the Times (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1975), 109-113.

10. Coretta Scott King, The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have A Dream," excerpts from the speech given at Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963 (New York: Newmarket Press, 1987), 97.

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Calvin B. Rock, Ph.D., is a recently retired general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

September 2000

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