Illustration by Sarah Duvivier

January 2, 2020

Christian Citizenship Today

We all know that Jesus kept out of politics. Ellen White tells us that “the Savior attempted no civil reforms” and “kept aloof from earthly governments.” The cure for human woes, she said, “must regenerate the heart” (Desire of Ages, p. 510). So a generation or two of Adventists have sat outside of political activism, and focused on private efforts of evangelism, education, and health reform. 

But the picture on the cover of this month’s Heraldreminds us of an image familiar to most. Ever since early Sabbath School, we have seen pictures of Jesus wielding a whip of cords, striding into the temple, overthrowing tables, and chasing out moneychangers and priests. But this, we have mentally argued, is Christ cleansing His temple — the church, if you will — not anything to do with earthly politics.  

Yet, once one understands the combination of social, economic, spiritual and, yes, even political interests that coincided at the temple in Jesus’ day, one can see that Jesus did enter into what we today would term politics. The Greeks understood politics as anything relating to the polis, to the city, to the public space. The temple, at least the outer courtyards, was certainly a public space in Christ’s day. 

Christ’s entry and overthrow of the temple’s activity was a direct challenge to the political, economic and spiritual powers that had conspired to make this spiritual space one of great social and financial inequality. Christ, we are told, was provoked to His task by the oppression of those “who were suffering,” “in want and distress,” “the blind, the lame, the deaf” (DA157).     

Just to be clear that His actions were not some kind of accident or isolated exception, Christ again cleansed the temple at the end of His ministry. Here, Ellen White highlights the failure of the priests to care for the poor and displaced. “Cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (DA592). 

Jesus’ second cleansing of the temple was one of the direct causes of His capture and crucifixion by the Jews and Romans just a few days later. Purely private piety rarely, if ever, threatens the civil and spiritual powers. It was Christ’s taking His teachings and actions into the polis, the public space of His community, that caused Him to be perceived as a threat to the spiritual and political leadership of the Jews.

Do we take the principles of our worship, our Bible study, our Sabbath-keeping, into the public spaces of our world? Are we ever considered a threat to those that oppress the poor, marginalized and suffering? Can we not allow the principles of our religion to guide our Christian citizenship? Or would doing this be attempting an improper “civil reform?” 

Examined in context, White’s injunction against “civil reforms” and in favor of “staying aloof” from government should be understood as instructions to stay out of partisan, party politics, i.e., not lining up with or promoting one party or another. It is interesting that Ellen White herself worked on a number of civil moral reforms in her lifetime. 

Prominent among them was her advocacy on behalf of laws prohibiting the sale and use of alcohol, as well as her speaking, writing and activism on behalf of slaves, and later of freed slaves. She was strongly in favor of us both speaking to and voting on moral issues (Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, p. 387), and is reliably reported to instruct members to “vote on the Sabbath day for prohibition if you cannot at any other time” (Women of Vision, p. 203).

What would it look like if Adventists took the principles of Sabbath rest, peace, equality and justice out into the public square, making a difference in our world today? The articles in this issue aim to provide at least partial answers to that important question.

Nicholas Miller is the Lake Union Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director.