To Live in Peace: A Baptist’s Perspective

By Rev. Bruce A. Greer

In response to a Florida pastor’s threat to burn the Koran and the debate about building an Islamic center near Ground Zero, I write as a progressive Baptist Christian, as well as a Ground Zero veteran. In 2001, I volunteered on the Rhode Island Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and as a local fire service chaplain, serving first responders after horrific incidents. By September 11, 2001, I had already witnessed enough trauma and tragedy. Since our CISM team was experienced and so close to New York City, we were among the first teams called to Ground Zero. Our instructions on 9/12 were blunt: get ready, call your loved ones, and update your funeral arrangements. Secondary attacks and unstable buildings remained an ominous threat.

As firefighters rested at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11, I encountered many responses, from lament to outrage, from blank stares to warm smiles. Walking the periphery of the “Pile” that was once the World Trade Center, taking in the scale of death and devastation, I wondered: what would be our response to this heinous act? Will we seek justice by means of diplomacy and global collaboration? Will we build cross-cultural relationships, economic equity and thoughtful foreign policy to enhance mutual trust and understanding? Sadly, “Shock and Awe” was the answer from our government, killing tens of thousands of civilians and thousands of combatants, while leaving scars upon the minds and bodies of countless people. Such violence is endless, and timeless.

From the United States to Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, the Sudan and countless other places, we trace a trail of blood that leads to the edge of Eden where, according to ancient myth, Cain killed his brother, Abel. According to one of the brightest and best Baptists of our time, Bill Moyers, the First Murder came out of a religious dispute that led to violence and death. The pattern has since been played out through generations of conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims, let alone among others, so much so that “…a red trail of religiously spilled blood runs directly from east of Eden…to every place in the world where the compassion of brothers and believers, of sisters and seekers, turns to competition and violence.” (Many Faiths, One Nation, 55-56 in Moyers on America.)

According to America’s first Baptist, Roger Williams, who established Providence in 1636, civil society requires more than maintaining order. It also requires cultivating “…freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, mutual respect, and social solidarity – values that support… the preservation of peace and an ethos in which its citizens might flourish.” For Williams, civility and not orthodoxy was the chief virtue of a good society. (See James Calvin Davis, The Moral Theology of Roger Williams, 44-45). A Calvinist of painful proportions, Williams nevertheless presaged one of the primary tasks of our time: learning to live with competing meta-narratives, cultural and religious, economic and political. Burning someone else’s holy book in the name of orthodoxy, or protesting a faith community’s plan for peaceable assembly out of mistrust, undermines civil and democratic society, while perpetuating needless violence and senseless death.

When I met a Buddhist nun once at a conference, I told her that Baptists and Buddhists have at least four things in common. “What are they?” she asked. “The B, the I, the S and the T,” I replied. She laughed and the conversation flowed from there. Trite, perhaps; but deeper truth is there for all of us. Freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, mutual respect and social solidarity are the corner-stones of civil society, and they each rest on what may well be the deepest human desire of all: to live in peace.

Rev. Bruce A. Greer is the Interim Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Newton.

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