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.
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.