Some business leaders get it. Some church leaders do not. Some civic leaders get it. Some elected officials do not.
Progress is hard, if not impossible, without good will.

Interfaith Montgomery, reflecting a wholesome diversity among faith communities, has become the crucible in which good will thrives.

Without diluting religious distinctions or compromising theological convictions, participants have discovered authentic friendships over food and in conversation with each other.

As a Baptist Christian, I have learned not to speak for all Baptists. So from my viewpoint, the Montgomery area is enriched by the presence of wonderful people who are willing to transcend their differences in religion, race and culture in order to work for the common good.

In the context of trust and respect, Interfaith Montgomery affords the opportunity for learning and an occasional platform from which issues of social justice can be addressed.

More and more, our public discourse is being characterized by hateful, caustic speech.

While the political and religious rants of well-known people somehow merit media attention, it is refreshing to experience Interfaith Montgomery as an oasis of civility in a wasteland of impoliteness and discourtesy.

Robert Parham, director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, often usestheterm, “Goodwill Baptists.”

Implied is the thought that some Baptists may not be interested in generating trust, understanding and a hope for progress.

Such a perilous posture only deepens our disconnections and further shreds the fabric of community.

The truth is we need each other, not in spite of our diversity and our differences, but because of them.

This is a confusing age. We have confused religious rants with prophetic speech and political polarization with leadership.

We may have deceived ourselves into embracing a very false choice between the independent thinking of rugged individualism and the need for wholesome community. Both are valued and necessary in a free society.

I confess my awkwardness when I was first introduced to persons of faith outside the Baptist tent and beyond the boundaries of evangelical Christianity.

Would I become less Baptist or less Christian by conversations and eventual friendships with those whose religious beliefs were different? Would I disavow my Baptist distinctions if I offered respect and promoted good will with those who professed no religion at all? Only the insecure have a problem with being nice.

Interfaith Montgomery has empowered me to be more Baptist than ever. In the best of our heritage and traditions, Baptists worked hard to secure the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

We were a small, persecuted sect at the time. As strong advocates of religious freedom, we fought hard for the liberty of conscience, believing that every person was created in the image of God and that everyone should be free to engage in peaceful religious expression.

Although a Baptist for only a short period of time, Roger Williams sought to build a society in which a diversity of religions would be free to worship without persecution by the government or the established church.

In the recently published “Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty” (Viking Penguin, 2012), author John Barry chronicles how Williams founded Providence, Rhode Island Colony as a refuge for those persecuted for their “conscience.”

What good is liberty if we choose to live in isolation from those who are equally free to live by the dictates of conscience?

The noblest use of freedom occurs when we dare to be inclusive. Good will is an organizational asset.

Speech which injures good will, though often rightly protected by the First Amendment, will bring a screeching halt to progress.

At their best, Baptists are apostles of good will in a religiously diverse world.

Life is too short and the planet is too small to do otherwise. That’s the way this Baptist sees it.

GaryBurton is pastor of Pintlala Baptist Church in Hope Hull, Ala. This column first appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser and is used here with permission.

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