June 2, 2017
In my role as a promoter, trying to get Baptist folk to join the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, this concern (in variant forms) occasionally surfaces:
- Why a Baptist Peace Fellowship?
- Shouldn't we be ecumenical in our justice and peace involvements?
- Doesn't the existence of a Baptist peace fellowship perpetuate our legacy of religious exclusivity and bigotry?
Unfortunately, our reputation as an arrogant, sectarian people is mostly deserved. Therefore it is with good reason that some question the need for an explicitly Baptist peace fellowship.
My response to such questions always focuses on a key strategic rationale:
- Social change does not happen in general; it always occurs in particular. As A. N. Whitehead noted, "We think in generalities, we live in detail."
- Particular change means change within the context of particular institutions, which means, if we're to be effective in our work, we must tend to the details of particular institutions and communicate within the framework of particular cultures.
- Collectively, Baptist institutions in North America are massive, claiming a combined membership of some 30 million people (not counting unbaptized children).
- With some exceptions, progressive movements--those dealing with justice and peace issues--have few entry points into the subculture of Baptist institutions. By and large their voices simply are not heard; or, if heard, not heeded, primarily because the vocabulary and appeals to authority are so different from our traditional language of faith.
- What more valuable task could be done than organizing a largely unorganized constituency?
There is also a theological component to the rationale for our work. I do believe that our Anabaptist heritage has insights especially significant for our modern crisis. But I'll hold that discussion for another occasion.
Suffice it to say that I consider it crucial that our Fellowship join in common voice with any and every chorus which shares components of our vision--a vision which we as Christians name as the Kingdom or Reign of God, a vision which declares that the day is coming when "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb" (Isaiah 11), when a "new heaven and a new earth" will be revealed (Isaiah 65, Revelation 21), when the "bows of the mighty are broken" and when "justice and peace will embrace" (Psalm 85), when spears are hammered into pruning hooks (Micah 3), when captives are set free (Luke 4) and when "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay." (Romans 8)
Applying the weight of our conviction and energies with others in common work is important. We support and encourage it. And it is already going on in many places. But the romance and glamor of distant "mission fields" often cause us to forsake one much nearer to home: our own Baptist institutions.
Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote:
"Our most powerful nonviolent weapon is, as would be expected, also our most demanding, that is organization. To produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power."
A key reason for having a Baptist Peace Fellowship is to influence the program and budget priorities of our various conventions--our particular institutions and constituencies--from the central offices of elected national leaders all the way down to the tens of thousands of local congregations they represent.
If we are to be effective in shaping the public witness of these bodies, we must work together, we must join and coordinate our efforts. And in doing so, we must be attentive to the particular customs and traditions of our people; we must speak with a language which shares common meaning and history; we must appeal to dialogue; we must engage in the patient process of establishing a consistent, credible presence; and we must undertake the time-consuming task of building a network of friends, contacts and co-workers.
Can you imagine this: One day, when the general public hears the word Baptist,they will think immediately of Gospel-inspired justice and peace work? Instead of associating the name with the follies of TV evangelists, wouldn't it be nice if they thought: Oh, those are the folks who care for the poor . . . who resist racial discrimination . . . who speak out against gun barrel diplomacy . . . who care for the environment. . . ? Imagine that!
Ken Sehested is Founding Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.