Fellow Passengers: Today’s Pastoral Passage (Revelation 21:22-22:6) from John the Revelator transports me back to March 1984. Beige Baptists from north and south gathered in Louisville, Kentucky, to consider merging two tiny “peace” organizations. By and large, we didn’t know each other. The effect of our denominational fracture more than a century before—over the protocol of missionary-owned slaves (full abolitionist convictions were rare even among Unionists)—still shaped our perceptions. The Northerners, now named American Baptists, had formed a Baptist Peace Fellowship in 1940 when a group of pacifist pastors realized the previous generation’s “war to end all wars” would likely be repeated, on an even larger scale, and thus create enormous pressure to suppress any frivolous talk from the pulpit about loving enemies. The Southerners’ peacewaging focus took shape in the late ‘70s with special attention to the threat of nuclear war. Spurred primarily by students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with the support of two professors and one local pastor, the group began publishing Baptist Peacemaker in 1980. Long story short, by the end of our joint meeting the group agreed to collaborate under the name Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (BPFNA), the suffix phrase announcing our hope to attract fellow travelers from across the racial and sectarian divides among in Baptist-flavored traditions not only in the U.S. but also from Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
In the months that followed, additional language was adopted to shape our mission. Of the several distinctives named, one stands out: “If Baptists had saints, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be the patron saint of the BPFNA.” Precisely because he understood the connection between domestic oppression (the racial legacy of slavery and Jim Crow) and international oppression (the U.S. war in Vietnam, which King denounced in no-uncertain terms, alienating him from significant parts of his liberal constituency). For Dr. King, violence bore many fruits—“racism, materialism and militarism” was his favorite summary phrase—but grew from a single root. The invitation to the Beloved Community required redemptive initiatives along a multi-front struggle. “Peace,” Dr. King insisted, “is more than the absence of conflict but is the presence of justice.” As a sarcastic bumper sticker of the day put it, “If you want peace, work for justice. Any silly goose can honk.”
Even more significant, the BPFNA’s motto came from today’s summary chapters of John’s evocative “unveiling” (the root meaning of “apocalypse”) of the coming new heaven and new earth. Through the midst of the redeemed City of God was the river of life, supporting trees of sustenance whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations.” Strikingly, there is no church-house in this Land of Promise, no need of sun nor moon, for the light of jubilation is ever present. This is no disembodied, ethereal existence; here the “kings of the nations” will process through streets no longer needing the protection of city gates. The scattered bits of glory and honor throughout the earth will be assembled and assigned their proper orientation. The figure of the conquering Lion of Judah, identified earlier (chapter 5) as the only figure capable of opening the scroll of life, is transposed, without warning or explanation, into the slain Lamb of God. It is by such power—might manifest as mercy—that “the God of the spirit of the prophets” shall redeem and prepare, as was said of old, for the day when spears are molded into plowshares, when nations will study war no more.
Ken Sehested, author of In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public and founding director of the BPFNA, is co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC.