Theologian and pastor Allan Boesak, who worked with Nelson Mandela to defeat apartheid in South Africa, preaches forgiveness and reconciliation at the CBF General Assembly in Atlanta on Thursday. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews/Herald)
Theologian and pastor Allan Boesak, who worked with Nelson Mandela to defeat apartheid in South Africa, preaches forgiveness and reconciliation at the CBF General Assembly in Atlanta on Thursday. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews/Herald)

New Baptist Covenant pitches reconciliation at CBF assembly

Churches urged to enter 'covenants of action' with other Baptists to transform themselves and their communities. Anti-apartheid activist and Suzii Paynter among voices backing the NBC approach to reconcilation and forgiveness.

By Jeff Brumley

The New Baptist Covenant has tapped powerful allies to help push the movement from what one of its leaders described as its “dream phase” into one of bold action.

The organization went high profile with that effort Thursday in Atlanta, where powerful supporters of the movement backed its “covenants of action” initiative during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Atlanta.

CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter urged nearly 600 gathered at the NBC luncheon to courageously embrace the initiative, in which churches from separate Baptist denominations forge alliances of service and ministry in their communities.

“There’s only one way to make a road and that is to walk it,” Paynter said. “I challenge our CBF churches to consider ‘covenants of action.’”

suzii paynterFormer President Jimmy Carter, who founded the movement in 2008 to heal divisions between Baptists, joined yet more prominent leaders in a video describing the effort.

But a powerful set up to those pitches for the program came from keynote speaker Allan Boesak, a theologian, Reformed Church pastor and colleague of Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

While never mentioning the pan-Baptist pacts in his address, he preached about the difficulties, dangers and necessities of forgiveness and reconciliation – all of which the covenants seek for participating churches and their communities.

‘A biblical demand’

Boesak, the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, reminded his audience they do not follow the Jesus whose name was invoked to bring slaves to America or to rationalize apartheid, but the one presented by the gospels as a challenger of authority. He is a savior who never allowed his followers to get comfortable in their ministries, who preached the good news to the oppressed and outcast.

He is “the Jesus that will not let us rest and the Jesus who demands costly discipleship,” he said.

Christ lived what he preached and the church today must do the same. And one of the principles Jesus lived, Boesak said, was reconciliation.

boesakcbf2That’s an easy word to say but one that’s difficult to live into, he said. Christians should not speak of reconciliation without being prepared to confront the opposition that always rises against it.

But the catch is that Christians are required to accept that challenge, Boesak said.

“Reconciliation is not a bookkeeping term, it is a biblical demand.”

‘Soul affirming’

It’s also constantly uncomfortable as shifts occur in the balance of power and equality in existing and new relationships, Boesak said.

Much of that discomfort comes with the forgiveness required in reconciliation movements. Forgiveness is not a buzzword but a process that leads to personal and social transformation.

The process helped avoid violence after the defeat of apartheid in South Africa as some former oppressors sought and received forgiveness, he said.

While some great inequalities remain and reconciliation is incomplete, “retribution, bloodshed and revenge” were prevented, he said.

“God has turned that country around.”

It’s needed now to heal the wounds experienced by women and the GLBT community.

“Forgiveness is never sentimental” but “life giving and soul affirming,” Boesak said.

As in South Africa, there will be strong challenges to genuine efforts of reconciliation and forgiveness. But Boesak urged Fellowship Baptists to boldly embrace those difficulties.

“If you go on this road there will be some hard moments – don’t run away from it,” he said. “Don’t run away from evil.”

Embarking on that journey, he added, will be transformative for all involved.

“The Holy Spirit will change your life, and then the church will change and then the world will change.”

‘Transformational agent’

NBC National Coordinator Hannah McMahan followed Boesak’s address with a plea for Baptists to overcome the differences that divide them. In part, that can be accomplished by recognizing those differences as strengths that “allow us to more fully know God.”

But action also is needed so that the Baptist family can become a “transformational agent in this world,” she said. “It is time to take action, now.”

McMahan said the covenants represent transformation for NBC, too, moving it into a “new chapter” from inspiration to action. Modeled on Jesus' ministry described in Luke 4, they will do the same for churches who participate in the process, she said.

GriffinMcMahan

That theme was picked up in a video that opened with President Carter reminding viewers that the organization was founded to overcome theological differences between Baptists.

Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, and Paynter appear in the video promoting the covenants as ways to bridge gaps between Baptists of different theologies and race.

Four strategic pacts were highlighted, each of them including congregations with CBF ties: Park Avenue Baptist in Atlanta, Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Wilshire Baptist in Dallas and Kirkwood Baptist in St. Louis.

Challenging assumptions

In Atlanta, the partnership with covenant partners Ebenezer and Greater Piney Grove Baptist churches is focused on childhood literacy, said Trey Lyon, a CBF missionary working at Park Avenue Baptist.

The partnership is meant to help children and to deal with other aspects of poverty that affect them. But it’s also provided “classical moments of reconciliation” between the congregations – and for Lyon himself.

That means there is a lot of unpredictability, he told ABPnews/Herald after the luncheon.

Lyon

“The covenant is an open playbook” that provides “classical moments of reconciliation,” he said.

Working and sharing a vision with other Baptists  with is also personally energizing, Lyon added.

“The New Baptist Covenant is giving us a chance at a reunion – it’s a chance to meet the family you didn’t know you had.”

The “covenants of action” can be tailored to the interests of the churches involved and to the needs of their communities. That provides congregations with new ways to live into their callings, said Wendell Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark.

After the NBC luncheon, Griffen said he’s interested in seeing his church use the covenants model.

“It requires all of us to question our old assumptions about ministry and reminds us the Holy Spirit confronts our assumptions,” Griffen said.