Fear of an SDA Planet

February 17, 2009

I have received quite a few letters in response to a column that I wrote in the Gleaner three weeks ago.   I am posting one such response which I found particularly jarring, along with my rejoinder.  Your comments are welcome.

The response:
Greetings. I was extremely appalled and saddened by your strident defense of the Adventists in general, and of Dr. Allen’s suitability for the position of Governor General in particular.
From your letter, I can assume one of two things: either you are an Adventist who is fanatically and vehemently defending your own (as they always do), or you are simply naive about these people.
In order for me to proceed without my anger being directed at you, I will have to do so on the premise that the latter is the case: you are unaware of what those people stands for.
First, you mentioned the prejudices and misinformation that persists about the SDA’s and our highlighting Dr. Allen’s religion and is using it as a qualifier. Why not? They uses our lack of Adventism against us every day, making our lives almost unbearable. [By “our” and “we”, I refer to everyone on the planet that are not Adventists].
I’ll tell you why we’re scared shitless: If you rent a room from an Adventist, he/she is unlikely to allow you to cook pork on their premises; nor will they allow you to wash and clean on a Saturday.  If you want to marry and Adventist, you have to convert to Adventism or the pastor will not support the marriage. In fact, they will FORBID the relationship on the basis that you are “unequally yoked”.
I know of a particular case in [parish in Jamaica] where an Adventist lady would save up stale piss – and late every Friday night would throw it along the piazza of a shop she rented to an “infidel” because he refused to close his business on a Saturday.
I tell you more: When I was 11 years of age, my mother made some dresses for a lady in [district A in Kingston] and sent me with them, from our home in [district B in Kingston], to deliver and collect payment. My mother could not even afford bus fare, so I had to walk to District A. When I got to the lady’s home on [a certain avenue] in District A, it was just around dusk. I knocked on the gate and she came to the grill. I explained that I had brought the dresses for her. She responded that it was Friday evening and therefore she could not transact any business. I then asked her for a bus fare to go back home, as I had walked all the way from District B. She explained that she was sorry, but could not accommodate me because there was some restrictions about money changing hands at that time of day. I had to walk all the way back home where my mother, myself, and five siblings went to bed hungry.
The horror stories are many and varied. And you wonder why we are so apprehensive about those people being in authority?

You wonder why we never brought any other GG candidate’s religion into question before? The simple fact is that Anglicans – as is most Christian denominations – are extremely tolerant and inclusive. Not so the Adventists. They are divisive in the extreme. I attended an Anglican church in [big farrin city] London a few years ago and was engaged to an Adventist lady. I took her before my vicar. He was not only happy for us, but was very willing to perform the marriage ceremony. Next, we went to her church (which I normally visit Saturdays), and conveyed the same to her pastor. His position was immediate, straightforward, blunt, and uncompromising: I should either convert or break up. Not only that, normally after service on Saturday afternoon, the church sisters who would have meals prepared for a selective group of about a dozen or so females. Each lady would take turns to host the meal at their respective homes. My fiancée was part of that group. However, no sooner did they hear about my reluctance to convert that they excluded her from any further afternoon lunch. We eventually broke off the engagement.

Note the difference: When I was getting married to an Anglican girl here in Jamaica a few years later, we went for marriage counseling. To this blessed day [clergy person] of the [big Anglican church in Kingston] has not enquired as to my religious calling. He challenged us to love, respect and cherish each other, and how to deal with compatibility issues that might arise. SPOT THE DIFFERENCE!

So you might know, my wife and I are still together and are now in our tenth year of a loving relationship.  To go even further, I have a sister in [parish in Jamaica]. She and her husband are of different Christian denominations and attend different churches. Yet they have stayed together, built a successful life, and produced four wonderful children who are now grown into exempliary [sic] adults. They still drive out in separate cars to attend their respective churches on Sundays, and this has never been an issue in their home.

The Adventist’s equating two persons as being unequally yoked because they are of different denomination is a trick to foist their brand of Christianity on the populace. This is bordering on cultism. There is simply no need for it except to advance by force, their fringe tenets upon mainstream Christianity.
How can such an elitist and religious bigot as Dr. Patrick Allen, who forcefully indoctrinates anyone who attends the Mandeville university he heads, to accept his religion – at the financial expense of the person so being indoctrinated! – be described as a person to represent the entire country? And…is he not in violation of the Jamaican constitution which guarantees freedom of religion? Is his actions morally right? Are his actions legal? If not, then he has infringed upon the basic human right of the Jamaican people, and also broken Jamaica’s Constitution to suit himself and his followers. I intend to take up this matter with the [some legal body]. If he is found to be in breach of the Jamaican Constitution, then he is a wrong-doer, and should be barred from taking up the position of Governor General.

You also spoke of inflaming public prejudices. We don’t need to do that; the Adventists have been doing an extremely good job of deliberately and systematically isolating themselves over the decades. In other words: You brought this upon yourselves.

You mentioned Jamaicans being motivated by fear rather than actual information. My question is: Since fear must be based on some negative experience or the other, could we have just pulled this fear out of thin air? And if so, what are we not having the same antipathy towards other denominations? And if you would imply that it is just because you worship on a Saturday, I can tell you straight: nobody in Jamaica gives a hoot about the day anybody worship. In fact, there are several other Saturday worshiping denominations. Do you see us up in arms about them?
If you are an Adventist, I urge you to check yourself. If you are not, then I urge you to find out their history. You might find it to be not as savoury when seen from the inside.  Nearly every ordinary Jamaican has been touched in some negative way by Adventists. Yes; we all have our horror stories.
As you can tell, my letter is based on fear, anger, and mistrust. However, if you can enlighten me by clearing up any misconceptions I might have brought out in this letter I am open to listen. Just don’t try to dispel what everyone knows to be facts.
[very irate person]

My rejoinder

[Irate person]:

Thanks for your response.  I can see that you are quite angry at the kinds of interactions you have had with Adventists; I don’t blame you. Nonetheless,  you raise several important issues that my column also spoke to i.e. the ways in the media has not done its work in anticipating the controversy, and thus failed to provide some important contextual information that would help people parse out what is “personal” from what is “religious/institutional” with regard to the attitudes and behaviours you describe, but also what we can anticipate from Dr. Allen.

Because we in Jamaica have really not learned how to talk about religion in a way that is dispassionate and analytical, I can see how you would assume my affiliations, even though there’s absolutely nothing in that column that would suggest that I am indeed Adventist.   Interestingly, other respondents did make the same mistake, although their responses were quite different from yours: they were glad that I was speaking up for the Adventists!

Here is what I said to one person from Northern Caribbean:

“I am not SDA member, nor do I agree with much, or any, of SDA doctrine and positions, but I do know that calling Dr. Allen “pastor” and not “Rev. Dr.”, or even “Dr.” goes a long way towards undermining his credibility in this context. This is what happens when reporters do not take their jobs seriously, nor have a sophisticated understanding of what they are doing when they are writing. [Nonetheless] the accounts in the newspaper(s) have been quite biased, albeit in a problematic way […] there is little if any discussion about the systematic biases that slant reportage on religion in Jamaica.”

Here is what I said to another SDA member:

My intention was not to be “pro-SDA” (I actually disagree fairly strongly with SDA doctrine and stances on many issues) but to point to some of the ways that “commonsense” reporting often overwhelms and does more damage than good. The media houses have – in this case, and every other one – the absolute responsibility to be fair in the treatment of any issue, and to provide the information that will allow people to make up their mind and to ask questions. In this case, what they have done is essentially “try”  Dr. Allen in the court of poorly informed public opinion, and after the fact! A better approach might be to ask: what role does individual religious belief play in how political leaders do their jobs? Well, the media houses are either too lazy to ask that question, or don’t want to ask it for fear they will have to answer it, and the evidence will provoke more questions and debate than they want to deal with. The kind of divisive reporting we see in this case does a really dangerous thing of pitting SDA folks vs. others, and inflates/invigorates SDA identity in a way that is not necessarily productive or progressive.

Like you, I have a mountain of personal anecdotes about my own experiences as well as what I have witnessed, that ought to lead me down the same path that you have gone down, regarding your strong disdain for adventism.  When I was a teenager, I even decided to attend the local SDA church in order to find out exactly how the indoctrination was happening, and to account for the differences among the SDA members that I knew. Years later, I can tell you that the description that you offer of those two women  almost perfectly fit a couple of persons who I know who are Jehovah’s Witness and Church of God members.   I now know that its not SDA that makes some people nasty, spiteful, hateful vipers; that’s their personality. What does make people feel ENTITLED to be nasty, spiteful, hateful vipers is fundamentalism of any kind.  SDA is undeniably a fundamentalist sect.  When people invest their whole selves in believing that there is a black/white view of the world, you get what we have in Jamaica: a profound intolerance for difference, and a rabid desire to stamp out whatever difference is apparent, because in the fundamentalist view, only ONE answer can stand, and that answer is TRUTH, specifically, MY TRUTH. Yours has to be killed and ground into nothing.  SDA just takes it in a particular direction: not only do they share the same ridiculous loathing of human diversity, they also choose to live their lives rather strictly according to their own creed.   Your comparison of SDA to Anglican isn’t entirely fair; they are different institutions based on very different values.  SDA is closer to Orthodox Judaism than anything else.  In fact, both of these sects within major religions are based on many of the same precepts, including the rule about conversion and bans against “unequal yoking”.  So, I don’t have any particular animus towards SDA that I don’t dole out in roughly the same quantities towards other rigid belief systems as well.

Nor do I think that SDA is benign; it has never been.  I have had the privilege of reading the scholarship written about SDA belief systems in the Caribbean and in immigrant communities in US and England, and I can tell you, it is a powerful institution that is doing a lot to make itself relevant and to embed itself more fully and visibly in Caribbean societies.  Universities, hospitals, colleges, research & training centres, community centres, family support, publications, you name it, they do it. They are not wasting time or resources in making themselves a force to be reckoned with.  That’s the way all the larger organized religious bodies work; so nothing really distinct about SDA in that regard.  WE just haven’t seen them in a holistic way; we are more concerned about the pork than about the power.

For those reasons, I wrote the column.  I don’t take the appointment of Dr. Allen lightly at all.  In fact, I see it as quite a dangerous step and entirely regressive.  And the more that is disclosed about him, the secretive process by which the appointment was made, the glaring conflicts of interest (can you imagine that he was not asked to resign immediately prior to accepting the position of GG??? How stupid can the PM be?), and the ways that Jamaicans don’t really see the problem for what it really is (Martin Henry wrote a great column on this)  the more I am worried about what is to come down the road.  If we Jamaicans were sufficiently organized, we would have raised enough hell to overturn this appointment.  And we still can.  There are some serious ethical issues that, with sufficient care in constructing the argument, can force the PM to reconsider.  Chief among these is the lack of confidence that many Jamaicans have in Allen, and the overly partisan ways in which SDA leaders have embraced Allen’s new role, which undermines any possibility of him acting in a neutral fashion.  If this issue had come up in any other democratic society, the nomination would never have gone through.  Our PM is also not the brightest bulb in the pack.

But therein lies the hypocrisy.   Such a move to overturn the nomination would not be because we have problems with religious fundamentalism being placed front and center in the governance of the society; it would be because we don’t want an Adventist.  In my view, we should not allow ANY person with such clear religious views and stances to be appointed to that position.  From my point of view, Anglicans may look more liberal compared to SDA, but not when they come out of the Caribbean or Africa.   When we sit back and allow our elected prime minister to APPOINT conservative religious persons like Herro Blair and Al Miller to political office without saying a word – because we believe that somehow pastors have better judgment than others – then WE opened the door to this GG-Allen problem. You see, the problem is much bigger than Allen.  And that’s what my column was trying to point out.  But we have become too enamoured of religion to be able to see that we are mixing and feeding ourselves our own poison.  And rather than do the hard work of showing how this retreat into religion is hurting us, the mass media just keeps feeding us the poison, legitimizing it, rather than raising questions.  In other words, an Anglican is not inherently better than a SDA; I would prefer to know how that person stood on a list of issues that we agreed were important barometers.

I hope I addressed your concerns adequately.


Long Bench


9 Responses to “Fear of an SDA Planet”

  1. Why do we even continue with a Governor General?

    • longbench Says:

      Geoffrey – That indeed is the question. The quick answer is that opinion makers don’t see the political harm in having one, since 1) we have had one since independence; and 2) other countries like Canada and Australia have one, and they do not seem to be complaining or faring too badly. Of course, such a response is entirely theoretical, and does not take into account the actual nature of governance in the society, and how political actors try to jockey for power in various ways. The GG is one more position/pawn that is open to the PM, whose powers might be limited in one way, but can be readily extended through the close connection with the GG (the REAL head of state). Besides, since all left politics in Jamaica went academic and corporate, and since the political culture is so amazingly corrupt and civil society so effectively cowed, there’s no easy way to convince Jamaicans that we should change anything about the setup that we now have. Its on Bruce’s agenda though; I’m waiting for when he’s going to introduce the republic question.

  2. Thank you for sharing.

    Man, [very Irate Person] wehna chaa faiya. 🙂

    I must say though, that I was somewhat surprised when I read of the huge opposition to Dr. Allen’s appointment. It never made sense you know…a Christian society rejecting a Christian fundamentalist. But now I realize that it was purely about the man being Adventist. As you pointed out though Long Bench, the problem is bigger than that.

  3. “I’m waiting for when he’s going to introduce the republic question.”

    Me too. I can’t wait!

  4. ruthibelle Says:

    As in, why we still have GG??

  5. longbench Says:

    Ruthibelle: Yes, or more to the point, why we don’t need a GG anymore.

  6. bartandlife Says:

    “I’m waiting for when he’s going to introduce the republic question.”


    Buy Samuel Beckett’s book while u at it.

    Nothing about his actions so far have suggested that this idea was little more than strategic rhetoric

    • longbench Says:

      Yes, but just like how ‘im seh all k’in a tings an we don’t follow up, and den we act like seh we frighten when im do dem, this is one of those other questions that WE can put on the table and frame, rather than waiting for him and some other wa’been to do so.

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