Personal and Social–Micro and Macro

I perceive within the Adventist community, a tendency to focus on personal issues (micro) while paying much less attention to social issues (macro). That is, we tend to focus on the individual rather than on the wider social ramifications or context. This is my perception of a general pattern. I readily admit that my assertion is quite open for debate, but here I share three examples that I believe illustrate this pattern. All three relate to “consumption” in some way.

I don’t believe “either/or” thinking is the wisest mentality for considering these three topics, even though I’m using a “versus” approach. I believe “both/and” is more helpful with these three dichotomies; however, I speak of these dualities to demonstrate how I believe we tend to favor one aspect over the other. One day, may we hold both.

(1) Vegetarianism–personal health versus environmental stewardship.

In 2010 I wrote a series of “social justice” articles for Spectrum Magazine (list). I invited Andrew Gerard to write about vegetarianism. Instead of analyzing heart disease, cholesterol or longevity, we agreed that he should explore broader ethical issues of vegetarianism. This he did well, I felt. But the resulting comments quickly went down roads not mapped out in his post. Most respondents, it seemed, wanted to either make the issue about personal salvation or personal health, and then either honor it as such or throw it out on the same grounds. Very few expressed agreement or concern for the wider environmental issues at play. Commenters focused on the micro, while Andrew had worked to shed light on the macro level.

(2) Diet–personal health versus needs of all.

This is quite similar to the first example, but this turns from environmental concerns to the related topic of world hunger or food security. These are surely related issues, but two cookbooks demonstrate the difference in focus that I have in mind. These are two cookbooks that we own and appreciate. They are in our stack of most-used books. First, we use Give Them Something Better: America’s Longest Living Culture Shares their Family Secrets (Frain & Howard). Like most Adventist cookbooks, including one my grandmother wrote, this focuses on health. In contrast, we also use More-with-Less: Recipes and suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources (Longacre). Notice the difference–eating for personal health (SDA cookbook) or eating in ways that enable others to have what they need (Mennonite cookbook). “Live simply so others can simply live.”

To be sure, we have these macro teachings in our “red books,” but these aspects don’t get as much air-play in our subculture. Note Ellen White’s words in The Desire of Ages that connect personal habits and tastes with their impact on the wider needs of humanity:

If men today were simple in their habits, living in harmony with nature’s laws, as did Adam and Eve in the beginning, there would be an abundant supply for the needs of the human family. There would be fewer imaginary wants, and more opportunities to work in God’s ways. But selfishness and the indulgence of unnatural taste have brought sin and misery into the world, from excess on the one hand, and from want on the other. (“Give Ye Them to Eat“, p. 367; emphasis added)

Both foci are good. As I said, I hope we can embrace both a concern for the micro and the macro, the personal and the societal. We can eat well for personal health and the environment, while also eating and living simply so others can have their needs met as well. Interestingly, vegetarianism has implications for all of these dimensions.

(3) Baptismal Vow–drug trafficking versus human trafficking.

This weekend we had the pleasure of attending a baptism for two sisters. I understand that different Adventists often struggle with different aspects of the long-form vows (and I’ve never seen the shorter list used), but for me #10 is what gets under my skin:

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?

As I’ve written on this blog previously, I do greatly value the biblical teaching that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (link). But I do have a critique here: Besides the wording that sounds like a UN treaty, why are these the only specific “sins” listed in all 13 statements? Truly, temperance has been an important aspect of our faith movement, but are these sins so grievous compared to others that they alone must be delineated in legal detail–“the use, manufacture, or sale of…”? And if trafficking in narcotics is expressly forbidden, why not trafficking in persons? That is the area that I work in, and honestly, it is much more troubling to me than what is listed in this vow.

I see this baptismal criteria as focusing on the individual’s body and the specific substances that go into said body. It is true that this vow could be seen in larger terms since drugs do have larger societal implications (think of the war on drugs), but I rarely if ever hear of these broader themes referenced in the church. I see this as another instance where we focus on the micro (e.g., cigarettes and our “stop smoking” campaigns) and ignore bigger issues (e.g., human trafficking and “stop sex slavery” campaigns).

Now I understand there are larger discussions about SDA baptismal vows, but for the sake of this post which is looking at my perception of our inclination to focus on micro issues at the expense of larger societal concerns, I think Jesus has wisdom for us: “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matt. 23:23). After all, he said those words in this very context–micro (tithe on mint) and macro (justice).

Concluding Questions

What do you think? What examples can you share that argue for or against my perception? If my view is correct, how can we work to gain more of a balance in Adventist culture and values? How can we add societal concerns without losing sight of personal dimensions?

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6 Responses to Personal and Social–Micro and Macro

  1. Marciana Popescu says:

    Jeff, what a great discussion you open! Such a refreshing view on, yes, the reality in our church, and the need for a paradigm shift – moving from a very fragmented approach (either/or) towards an integrated one, in which the MICRO never gets fully realized without the MACRO. We could further think along this line – about our inner focus, versus the desperate need for an outer focus (that will promote more social action); or our future-based discourse (Salvation, for me, of course) versus living in the present, and contributing to transform the here-and-now, again as another impetus for social action.
    The environment was never a big part of our message although it is clearly part of Adventism – and definitely a great argument and respectively clear mandate under creationism. And our focus on some “sins” as opposed to others is also reflecting the tendency that I see in the church to measure behaviors, but not quite dare to address the causes for these behaviors. Interestingly enough, when discussing drugs we hardly ever look at poverty and the impact of poverty on drug trafficking and drug use. As for human trafficking – that is an issue that is never connected with the church community… hence our failure to address it, and integrate it with our message that places a great emphasis on the ways we treat others, and our responsibilities to prevent abuse in any form.
    Thank you for opening this discussion, and for giving some great examples on how, by focusing on the macro, we end up beautifully taking care of the micro, in selfless ways, praising our God.

  2. Cjb says:

    Just some thoughts. Baptism, to me, is more personal in nature of my relationship with God and not so much societal based, tho if my relationship w/God is true, many societal ills will be treated by me as God would have treated them.

    As to the baptismal tenets, do you see them needing change? I do agree that we can’t list all the things we “should do” or “should not do” to honor God in our lives I think that’s being tried with the SDA 28 (or is it a different number) beliefs

  3. Jeff Boyd says:

    Marciana, Thanks for taking the thoughts in useful directions–inner/outer focus, present/future orientation, etc. This made me pause and reflect: “our focus on some “sins” as opposed to others is also reflecting the tendency that I see in the church to measure behaviors, but not quite dare to address the causes for these behaviors.” Engaging. :)

    Cjb, I want to follow up on two things. First, I want to believe that if my relationship with God is true, then I will engage societal ills as God would. I want to believe, but I don’t see it. Instead, I see people focusing on their personal relationship with Jesus and then looking at me like I’m a nut case when I bring up topics of societal import. I heard a speaker at an SDA academy graduation tell the class not to get involved with things like Guantanamo Bay, but stay focused on what matters. I couldn’t believe it. As if “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” relates only to how I drive or to Pathfinders raking lawns for the elderly, but has nothing to do with habeas corpus.

    Second, you raise an important topic: what is the purpose of baptismal vows? What are they committing me to? Should they map out major beliefs (I promise that I believe X & Y), important values (I promise to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God), deadly sins (I promise not to smoke; why didn’t we just use the “7 deadly sins”?), or some mixture of these plus other elements? Should they relate only to my relationship with Jesus rather than with how I live my life, as if how I live isn’t related to what I believe about Jesus and what I believe is important to Jesus? Should they relate to our existence–be, do, think? Should they be general (I promise to take care of my body that is God’s temple) or specific (I promise not to smoke and drink)? These are big questions.

    Personally, I think they should encapsulate in general terms all that is central to the Christian experience of following Jesus, whether this is personal (e.g., abiding in God/a commitment to praying and reading my Bible) or social (e.g., being loving/a commitment to compassionate living).

    For me, I vote for general over specific. Once we start to list specific sins, then we either have a short list (like we do) that ignores many other sins (that are arguably more grievous) or we try to list them all and it just never ends. As it is, we can personally avoid the short list (Marlboro, Budweiser & Meth) and think we’re okay, but we’re really missing all kinds of other things that we should be doing to promote health (letter v. spirit). I say leave the official vows general and teach people how to think wisely and live the values. We can be specific about all kinds of things in teachings outside of the official vows.

    And I would add values that we want to promote. Is it more important to be loving or to not smoke? 1 Cor 13 tells me that love is above all. So why not include something about the values we are committing to pursue in the power of the spirit–faith, hope and love, for example? “Empowered by the Spirit, I promise to pursue love, compassion, peace, justice and righteousness in all I do and say.” Now that’s an honorable compass to live by. I can always grow in that. That gives me something important to wrestle. What’s more important–to live like this or to avoid a cigarette? But which one is enshrined in a public vow? Something seems off here.

  4. Jeff Boyd says:

    Here’s another way to get at some of this: Why is how I treat my body emphasized over how I treat others’ bodies? We make the health of our bodies (or a few select items of personal health) an official public vow required of everyone to join this faith community, but we don’t give the same importance to caring for the bodies of others. It’s not entirely forsaken by any means, but it doesn’t get the attention of the former. We may point to SDA hospitals, but how much interaction does the average Adventist have with a hospital? We may point to ADRA, but how much does the average SDA contribute annually to ADRA, and what percentage of ADRA International’s budget is from church donations and how much is from USAID? We just don’t focus on “the other” or on “the bigger picture” like we do “me” and “my consumption.” My opinion. :)

  5. Jeff Boyd says:

    Continued…

    So why not have a vow committing oneself to supporting the flourishing of all life in ways that are in harmony with God’s guidance? Then I could see supporting ADRA and contributing to Refugee Sabbath as honoring my vow, my commitment to God’s peace, justice, reconciliation and harmony. And creation care would fit here as well. To put creation care back into personal terms, human health depends on environmental health.

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