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South African theologian Allan Boesak calls Baptists to task of radical reconciliation

By Aaron Weaver and Emily Holladay

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Allan Boesak

“For Christians, reconciliation is not an option,” South African theologian Allan Boesak told a packed crowd at the New Baptist Covenant luncheon held as part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Atlanta.

Boesak, who serves as the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Ind., shared about his search for reconciliation during and in the aftermath of the South African apartheid.

“We chose reconciliation as a way to a shared future,” Boesak said. “It was a choice between chaos and community. In the process, we discovered how easy it is for reconciliation to become not the foundation for transformation that it is meant to be, but instead the handmaiden of some kind of political pietism.

“We also discovered that reconciliation is not so much an art as a call to costly discipleship.”

Reconciliation is a biblical demand straight from the gospel, said Boesak.

“It is an obligation. It is a calling. For we have been given the ministry of reconciliation by God and we have been given that ministry through the ministry and life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ who reconciled the world with God and has given us the message of reconciliation and has entrusted us with a work of reconciliation in the world.”

Boesak said that if reconciliation is not radical and costly, it is not reconciliation. For many, reconciliation and forgiveness have become easy terms that just slip off the tongues of Christians, he said.

“Reconciliation is not a bookkeeping term,” Boesak said. “It is a biblical demand. Reconciliation is not a tool for political experience, but a call to conversation and transformation.”

He added that reconciliation necessarily requires confrontation with evil — evil in the past and evil in the present.

“Reconciliation is not possible without confrontation of the past, confrontation of the evil of the ongoing injustices of the present and confrontation of the evil that is within us and the evil of benefitting of ongoing injustices.”

This radical reconciliation requires remorse, equality, respect for human dignity and hope, he added.

“Reconciliation is not possible without equality,” Boesak said. “Reconciliation is not possible without the restoration of human dignity and the restoration of hope. Reconciliation is not possible without genuine remorse and contrition.

“Reconciliation and forgiveness demands so much of us that are costly realities that we must deal with. So we must remember that it’s not just a buzzword. It has to be our deepest conviction. It is not just a word that we use to be made available as an instrument for political expedience, but is a call for radical conversation. It is much more than an excuse for the covering up of ongoing injustices. It is a demand for inclusive justice.”

Covenants of Action

At the luncheon, the NBC leadership team named Jimmy Allen as New Baptist Covenant Coordinator Emeritus. Together, President Jimmy Carter and Allen co-founded in 2008 the informal alliance of more than 30 Baptist organizations from throughout North America.

Hannah McMahan (L) and Jimmy Allen (R)

Hannah McMahan (L) and Jimmy Allen (R)

During the past year, the NBC has been creating plans for cooperative ministry projects called Covenants of Action to meet the specific needs of a community. These covenants allow churches to intentionally collaborate to fight injustices in their neighborhoods and build bridges of reconciliation across racial, theological and geographical lines which have previously divided Baptists.

President Jimmy Carter shared through a video presentation that “the idea [of Covenants of Action] is to heal the wounds that have divided Baptists along all theological lines.”

NBC National Coordinator Hannah McMahan emphasized the importance of the concept of “covenant” to the movement.

“Baptists know that it’s our differences that allow us to know God more fully,” McMahan said. “Covenant is not just a pretty word. Covenant is about action. In this new phase of the New Baptist Covenant, we are asking people to do just that. To put covenant to action.”

Churches from four cities have joined together to create Covenants of Action through the NBC. In Birmingham, Ala., Baptist Church of the Covenant, Tabernacle Baptist Church and Vestavia Hills Baptist Church are collaborating to address childhood hunger by providing food to children who may not have access otherwise, and educating others in their area about the need for action.

McMahan and NBC Leadership Team

McMahan and NBC Leadership Team

Other Covenants of Action include those between Kirkwood Baptist, St. Luke Memorial Baptist Church and Harrison Avenue Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, Mo. to confront poverty; Ebenezer Baptist Church, Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church and Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta to improve literacy rates among youth; and Friendship-West Baptist Church and Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, to combat the problem of predatory lending in their community.

CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter issued a call for more CBF churches to join in Covenants of Action with other Baptist churches in their area.

“There’s only one way to make a road, and that is to walk it,” Paynter said. “I challenge our CBF churches to join and to consider these Covenants of Action with congregations within your city. We do a lot of things. They’re big. But are they important? They fill our calendars. They take our worries. We feel a nick and we call it a wound. But is it important? Is it the reconciliatory work of Jesus Christ? And is it a true witness to the world?

“I challenge us to lay down the big and the urgent for the important work of reconciling.”

The New Baptist Covenant is an informal alliance of more than 30 racially, geographically, and theologically diverse Baptist organizations from throughout North America that claim more than 20 million members. Representatives of these Baptist organizations have reaffirmed traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality, as well as their obligations as Christians to fulfill the biblical mandate to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.

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