Former President Jimmy Carter spoke today before the Baptist World Centenary Congress, a meeting sponsored by the Baptist World Alliance. He made provocative remarks about the war in Iraq and made comments critical of the Southern Baptist Convention (which does not attend World Alliance meetings because of their belief that all the other Baptists are too liberal).
The Baptist World Alliance explains their purpose with these words:
The purpose of the Baptist World Alliance in to empower and enable national Baptist leaders to effectively witness and minister in the name of Jesus Christ and to represent and support Baptists throughout the world in defense of human rights and religious freedom.
The Baptist World Alliance is a fellowship of 211 Baptist unions and conventions comprising a membership of more than 47 million Baptized believers. This represents a community of approximately 110 million Baptist ministering in more than 200 countries. The BWA unites Baptist worldwide, leads in world evangelism, responds to people in need and defends human rights.
Uniting Baptists Worldwide for Global Impact for Christ…in fellowship, evangelism, justice, and aid.
The Goals of the BWA: To Unite Baptists Worldwide, To Respond to People in Need, To Defend Human Rights.
President Carter was there to bestow an award and to teach a Sunday school class. He also held a press conference. The AP reports:
Birmingham, England (Congress) -- There is an "intense hunger" among Christians worldwide -- and among people of all faiths -- to work for justice and oppose terrorism, despite serious differences of faith, Jimmy Carter said July 30.
"There is an intense hunger among Christians around the world for a healing of the differences that now separate us from one another," Carter, United States president from 1977 to 1981, told reporters gathered for the July 27-31 Baptist World Centenary Congress in Birmingham, England.
Those Christians "are looking for a single voice, a common understanding and friendship, and [want] to put aside the divisions that plague our faith," said Carter, a keynote speaker for the BWA congress.
Differences of belief -- even among Muslims, Jews and Christians -- are outweighed by a common commitment "to truth, to justice, to benevolence, to compassion, to generosity and to love," Carter told a roomful of reporters from around the world. Those commonalties "make it easy for us to stand united without dissention and for a common purpose."
"We need to come back together," he said emphatically.
The common cause of stopping terrorism provides people of faith a platform for unprecedented cooperation, he said, but added that finding that one voice is hampered by misunderstandings.
"One thing we lack, in this time, is an understanding of each other when we worship in different ways."
Carter, who negotiated the Camp David Peace Accords while president, said that historic agreement between predominantly Jewish Israel and predominantly Muslim Egypt was built on the belief that "the elements of life that we shared could overcome the differences that we recognize in the way we worship God."
To stop terrorism today people of all faiths should "try to identify the things that divide us and set them aside and build a common commitment" to fight terror, he noted.
The 80-year-old Carter, a lifelong Baptist and Bible teacher, conceded the historical contribution of religious people to peace in the world has been as detrimental as helpful: "It's been about equal."
While all religions can provide a foundation for healing, he said, "in practical terms" religion has "so often been a cause for schism." He pointed to Ireland as a country that has endured religious-political conflict but, in more recent days, "has seen a very wonderful and gratifying healing process" between Protestants and Catholics.
Misunderstanding about the role between Islam and terrorism has increased division in the world, Carter suggested.
"I think now there is a general feeling, particularly in my country and maybe now in more recent days here in the United Kingdom, that a person who is a Muslim may be less committed to peace and justice and truth and humility and benevolence and generosity than we [Christians] are," he said. "That arrogant attitude--to derogate others because of their faith--is a mistake."
Carter pointed out one of the most deadly terrorist attacks on American soil was committed by a radicalized American Christian, Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people with a bomb at the federal building in Oklahoma City, Okla., in 1995.
"I think the main impediment is not knowing each other, not understanding each other, not recognizing that basic truth … that every religion emphasizes truth and justice and benevolence and compassion and generosity and love. We are just divided now because of the tiny number of terrorists among us."
Carter, a member of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., said the worldwide hunger for healing offers a historic opportunity to the Baptist World Alliance -- an international fellowship of 214 Baptists unions, and the convener of the congress.
"I really see an opportunity at this moment for the Baptist World Alliance to become much greater a factor in Christian life than it has been in the past," Carter volunteered. "I think this is a time for almost explosive growth [in BWA]."
The members of the Baptist World Alliance are united in their commitment to the message of salvation, to peace and benevolence, Carter said. "And if that message comes out clearly from [incoming president] David [Coffey] and other leaders in the Baptist World Alliance, that could be the greatest thing ever," he said.
Carter said he was "very gratified" when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the American organization with which he identifies, was accepted into BWA membership last year. "I felt I was coming home to join other Baptists around the world."
He said he "felt excluded" when the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention, historically the largest BWA member, withdrew from the group last year. He said he still hopes the SBC will reverse that decision and rejoin BWA. "I don’t think we should give up on them."
He then spoke on a remarkable range of important issues that Christians should be concerned with:
-- Carter said the war in Iraq is a mistake. "I thought then, and I think now, that the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary and unjust. And I think the premises under which it was launched were false. Whether deliberately or not, I don't know." He said governments and individuals "should always be truthful" about their actions and motivations.
-- The United States should close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center for international terror suspects and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, both sites where American soldiers have mistreated prisoners. "What has gone on … is a disgrace to the United States of America" and only increases the danger of terror worldwide, he said. " Guantanamo does not represent the will of the American people or the basic elements that have made our country a great democracy and a proponent of freedom," Carter said.
-- He said he is "filled with admiration and awe" at the cooperation exhibited by British police in quickly apprehending those believed responsible for recent terror attacks in London and at the "stalwart" opposition of the British to terrorism.
-- The United States "is the stingiest nation of all," he said, based on per capita income and benevolent giving. "For every 100 dollars in income our nation receives, we give only 16 cents … for benevolent aid." Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and poor grows wider, he said. Alleviating poverty is a duty in both the religious and secular realms, he added, yet: "Most of us rich people rarely know a poor person enough to share our lives with them."
-- Many people are "too glib" in claiming the label of "Christian." If instead people define a "Christian" as "a little Christ," it would have more meaning and produce more Christ-like behavior, he said. "
- We deplore the melding of church and state," Carter said.
- Totalitarian governments pose the greatest risk to religious liberty worldwide, he said.
- And the Baptist World Alliance can play a role in advancing religious freedom in those countries.
- The tough work of interfaith dialog is not pointless but well worth the risk and investment of time, he said.
You’ll hear a lot of attacks from the religious right concerning the former president’s remarks.
What President Carter has been doing ever since leaving the White House is to build models of engagement – using Scripture as our guide – that help build reconciliation and real justice. That scares those on the far right who wish to continue using religious language as a political tool.
Let us all offer prayers for our brothers and sisters in the Baptist tradition as they conclude their gathering and are released to be evangelists for the good news.