Stereotypes of Baptist peacemakers abound. Some view them as pacifist protesters with Utopian worldviews, given to wearing “funky t-shirts and Birkenstocks.”
That’s according to Ken Sehested, a long-time leader of the Baptist peacemaking movement in the United States.
But those stereotypes don’t do justice to a ministry inspired by the words and example of Christ, and which requires thoughtful, persistent labor.
“The work of reconciliation is rooted in reality, not in fantasy,” said Sehested, a minister, writer and the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
That work will be on display during this summer’s Global Baptist Peace Conference, organized by BPFNA~Bautistas por la Paz.
Titled “Peace in our Land: Toward a World Without Violence,” its location — Cali, Colombia — was in part selected to highlight the positive impact peacemaking can have even in the most difficult of human conflicts — in this case, civil war. Baptists were among those who helped negotiate an end to Colombia’s brutal, 50-year civil war.
Sehested, who has had planning and fundraising roles for the July 15-20 conference, discussed the event and some of its themes with BNG. His comments are presented here, edited for clarity.
Is this conference primarily a Baptist event?
Yes, but there is a small but growing number of other groups. There will be a group of Presbyterians there. The Presbyterian church here has an active partnership program with Presbyterians there, and they are deeply involved in justice issues. Our Mennonite friends will also be present. We have a strong Mennonite connection here and in Colombia. I know there is one Muslim participant from Africa who has applied for funds to attend because of the interfaith work she does. She has a long resume of doing this kind of work.
But it will be primarily Baptists because our goal is to encourage Baptist institutions in the region, and we want to resource and reenergize people to be active in their ecclesial bodies.
What’s the format for the conference?
It’s a combination of workshops and actual training events in the practice of conflict resolution. There is also a lot of time set aside for music and worship.
How does the Colombian civil war figure into it?
It will be center stage. People of faith, including a few Baptists, had a key role in the behind-the-scenes mediation work that brought that civil war to a settlement. And now that the war has come to a close, our friends there are working to win the peace.
In what ways is peacemaking more than just protesting something?
There is a spirituality to peacemaking and a strategy to peacemaking. Non-violence is a strategic choice. It’s not just a tactic. It is not just an idealistic slogan. It is an actual practice that is very difficult, and one which often suffers setbacks. You are tempted to give up hope altogether, but you keep going anyway.
Where do people find the strength to carry on like that?
It’s grounded in an understanding that peacemaking is a multi-step process which has to be completed if the results will be true and lasting.
Where do peacemakers even begin attempting to resolve something as complex as a civil war?
A strategist would look at the overall situation and ask, what are the violence-reduction steps we can take? Can we separate the people who are shooting at each other? Can we cordon off zones where a truce could be called? The only lasting security is mutual security. You begin the process of negotiation at the highest level possible but at the same time you send people into local communities who can address disparities of various kinds.
Does this translate into addressing disputes among families or other small groups?
It addresses the whole range of conflicts, from the most intimate settings up to international wars. That whole range needs addressing.
I believe Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies is the heartbeat of the gospels. All of this is about our enemies and how to love them. It is our fight-or-flight response to conflict that has to be addressed. The internal work and the external work has to go on hand-in-glove.