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).
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?