The committee meeting was running into siesta time in Mexico City, so I was hardly prepared to have the last presenter drop a bomb that blew me away.
This choice of analogies drips with historical irony, as Michio Hamano, from the country devastated by atom bombs, shared a “Peace Declaration” to the Freedom and Justice Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
The BWA, a global network of 213 Baptist unions and conventions, is part annual revival and part bureaucratic obstacle course.
Amidst the tightrope of varying languages, vantage points and organizational assumptions, presenters from parts of the world known only to serious geography students tell stories of challenge, poverty and conflict in their effort to bear the light of God.
Most of these groups are products of 200 years of Baptist mission efforts.
In a sense, they repay their introduction to Christianity by reminding the introducers of faith’s power to transform both individuals and society.
Hamano sure did.
In a quick, heavily accented voice that rarely changed tones, Hamano shared in English the Japan Baptist Convention’s work from several years ago as a topic for BWA dialogue and action.
These Japanese Baptists take the Bible seriously. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Jesus, and these Japanese Christians actually listen to Him.
The Declaration combines the teaching of the Ten Commandments with the essential ethical teachings of Jesus to love God, neighbors and enemies.
Under the headings “We will follow the Lord Jesus,” the Declaration interprets the First Commandment, “No other gods before me,” as “we will listen to Jesus’ voice alone.”
Commandments Two through Four fall under the heading “We will not obey anyone or anything other than the Lord Jesus.” With this conviction, “no graven images” is seen as a warning against making nation, race, ideology, economy, wealth, even ourselves and loved ones, as the object of our obedience.
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” warns against falsely claiming to do God’s will while condoning violence.
“Remember the Sabbath” is a reminder of “the essential difference between worship and the world…. Worship is an act of submission to the Lord Jesus, and it requires giving up the world.”
Commandments Five through Ten are interpreted under the heading, “We who follow the Lord Jesus will not kill.”
“If we do kill we are obeying what we must not obey and are denying the grace of the Lord.” Thus, the remaining interpretations of Commandments are prefaced with, “Having been liberated and given life by the Lord Jesus….”
“Honor father and mother” calls for respecting the aged, the weak, those who are often considered worthless to war. “We reject war’s value system.”
“Don’t kill” does not equivocate between killing and murder, a frequently used loophole by Christians who struggle with the necessity of war. “Where there is killing, there is no peace. We will not kill.”
“Don’t commit adultery,” because it “insults the dignity of others because of selfish sexual passion. War justifies adultery.”
“Don’t steal” reminds that “exploitation and plundering produce some wealthy people and many poor people, and this is a primary cause of conflict…. In order to protect their interests, the wealthy wage war.”
“Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor,” because it is “a form of self-protection and a means to justify evil.” Christians seek to be reconciled with neighbors.
Finally, “don’t covet,” because “our desire to monopolize everything has hurt our neighbors, destroyed the environment, and led to war.”
The Japan Baptist Peace Declaration concludes by challenging the rationale of “just war theory.” As Hamano explained in his remarks, “Even if it justifies war from a human perspective, it does not do so from God’s perspective.”
“We acknowledge that the extreme situations, such as to protect our loved ones from an assault, may arise…. However, if violence were used even to protect our loved ones, we would fail to answer rightfully to the love of Jesus…. We can live out the Ten Commandments only when we live under the Lord’s judgment and forgiveness.”
A theological declaration against war is a political hot potato, both for religious bodies and for governments, who have always solicited religious endorsements for war.
Japanese Baptists’ bold declaration will be taken up at next year’s gathering in Africa, a continent shattered by many wars. Perhaps Hamano’s bomb, dropped on a sleepy afternoon in Mexico City, will ignite a fire of faith, hope and love among Baptists that could change the course of the world in the name of the One we follow.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and serves on the Freedom and Justice Commission of Baptist World Alliance.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.