Associated Baptist Press
March 23, 2009 · (09-41)
David Wilkinson, Executive Director
Robert Marus, Managing Editor/Washington Bureau Chief
Bob Allen, Senior Writer
In this issue
Baptism center opens in Jordan (997 words)
Mercer conference focuses on ending modern slavery (1089 words)
Movie review: Knowing explores age-old theological conundrum (460 words)
Baptism center opens in Jordan
By Bob Allen (997 words)
AMMAN, Jordan (ABP) -- Baptist leaders and other dignitaries -- including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- took part in a ceremony March 20 dedicating a new evangelical Christian baptism center at the Jordanian spot traditionally regarded as the site of Jesus' baptism.
The afternoon celebration at the Baptism Center at Bethany beyond Jordan included more than 120 baptisms by immersion in the Jordan River. They were conducted by pastors from the Jordan Baptist Convention.
Eron Henry, associate director of communications for the Baptist World Alliance, said in a travel blog it is the first time Baptists in Jordan have received such prominent coverage in Jordan's major media outlets.
One of several new churches being built along the Jordan River at about the location Christian pilgrims have long believed Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the center is intended to cater to Christian traditions that practice believer's baptism by immersion.
BWA General Secretary Neville Callam, in the day's major address, called the center "a place where people from all parts of the world may assemble for a journey and an experience." He expressed hope that "the waters of the Jordan extinguish the crippling fires of hopelessness that burn in the hearts of those who have no knowledge of God."
Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., sent a congratulatory letter saying he could not attend the dedication ceremony, but plans to make a pilgrimage there when he next visits the Middle East in 2010.
BWA president David Coffey read greetings from former United States presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Baptists, and presented a gift on behalf of the BWA to Jordan's Prince Ghazi.
A plaque to be placed on the building upon its completion was unveiled at the ceremony. The plaque reads, "The Commission of the Site of the Baptism of Jesus Christ welcomes here visiting pilgrims from the member churches of the Baptist World Alliance."
Also participating in the event were Imad Maayah, a Baptist and former member of the Jordanian Parliament; Toma Magda and Tony Peck, president and general secretary of the European Baptist Federation; and Nabeeh Abbassi, former president of the Jordan Baptist Convention and chief organizer of the dedication and opening.
An estimated 1,700 persons attended the dedication and opening ceremony.
Blair, now a special envoy to the Middle East on behalf of the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia, said it "took courage and leadership" for Jordan to allow the baptism site in a part of the world often torn by sectarian strife. The founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation said it also modeled the spirit of compassion and justice that run through the teachings of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets and Islam's founding prophet, Muhammad.
Jordan is about 92 percent Muslim, but relations between Muslims and a Christian minority, estimated at 6 percent, are generally good. While Islam is the state religion and proselytization of Muslims and conversions from Islam are prohibited, the Jordanian Constitution promises religious freedom as long as rites do not violate public order or morality, and recognizes several Christian denominations.
Founded in 1957, the Jordan Baptist Convention consists of 20 churches with combined membership of about 2,000. It operates two schools.
The offer of a designated plot of land for a baptism center came from Jordan's King Abdullah II during a meeting he held with Coffey in September 2007. In 2008, Coffey visited the site and met with Prince Ghazi, who chairs an independent trustee board that runs the site as a national park. The board facilitated the construction.
"In our Baptist faith and order, the baptism of Jesus is of central importance to our understanding of the baptism of Christians," Coffey wrote in a 2008 letter affirming the authenticity of the baptism site. "We believe baptism rests on the command of the risen Lord and is integrated with his command to preach the good news to the world; and this command is given authority by his own example at the beginning of his messianic ministry."
Bethany beyond Jordan -- not to be confused with the village near Jerusalem the Bible says was home to Lazarus, Mary and Martha -- was on a pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the west and Mount Nebo to the east. It is regarded as one of Christianity's three holiest sites, along with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jeruslam and Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
It was a military border zone until the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan and today is regarded one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations didn't begin until 1996, and so far more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from Roman and Byzantine times have been uncovered.
Churches of various Christian denominations -- including Anglican, Catholic, Coptic and Russian Orthodox -- have been constructed or are in the process of being built nearby.
Pope John Paul II was the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit the site, making his pilgrimage there in March 2000. Pope Benedict XVI is expected to visit the holy site in May.
Bethany beyond Jordan is also sacred to Jews and Muslims. In addition to Jesus' baptism, it's said to be the spot where Joshua first led the Israelites into the Promised Land and where the prophet Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.
While in Jordan, the BWA delegation met with Islamic journalists and scholars to discuss the BWA response to A Common Word Between Us and You, a letter written by 138 Muslim scholars and leaders to Christians in October 2007.
On Sunday, March 22, Callam crossed over into Turkey to preach at the Izmir Baptist Church. Today Turkey's third-largest city, Izmir in ancient times was called Smyrna, a place mentioned in the second chapter of Revelation among seven towns and cities in the area then known as Asia Minor.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
Mercer conference focuses on ending modern slavery
By Mark Vanderhoek (1,089 words)
MACON, Ga. (ABP) -- In the face of the world's fastest-growing crime -- the enslavement of an estimated million people every year -- Lauran Bethell had some profoundly simple advice for the attendees at Mercer University's recent conference on human trafficking: "Just show up."
Bethell, an American Baptist Churches USA global-ministry consultant, said that advocates must begin with the victims, ministering to their greatest immediate need and working on that until they can work on the next, and then the next. Victims have a spark within them, she said, and the resiliency of the human spirit will help to heal them if they can be reached and given hope for the future.
"The healing process is long, it is arduous and there are often many, many, many curves along the path, but we must continue to simply show up in the lives of people, to accept them, to care for them, to listen to them no matter what," Bethell said. "For no matter how long it takes, no matter how things don't go the way that we wish. No matter what: just show up."
Bethell, recipient of the Baptist World Alliance Human Rights Award, spent the past 20 years fighting sex trafficking -- first in Thailand, then in Eastern Europe. She told the audience she had stayed sane despite working in some of the "darkest situations on Earth" by following the example of her leader, Jesus, who went to the dark places of his time because it was the right thing to do. Using the Bible's example of the "woman of ill repute," to whom Jesus ministered in Samaria and who later became one of his greatest advocates, Bethell said Jesus was the ideal example of showing up -- as was his Samaritan apostle.
"She's an example of showing up. Showing up in places where even the disciples raised their eyebrows," Bethell said. "What would Jesus' solution be in our time, in our century, of modern-day slavery? I know one thing: He's sure pleased with what you have all done today, just shown up. He's sure pleased with what we have seen today, people sacrificing time and energy to learn from each other and participate together in seeking solutions."
A diverse group of more than 800 people were following her advice in attending the conference, held March 19-20 on Mercer's Macon, Ga., campus. They came to learn about the problem of modern-day slavery and how they could help defeat it. The student-led conference, titled "STOP Sex Trafficking: A Call to End 21st Century Slavery," included presentations by anti-trafficking advocates from around the state, the country and the world.
According to the State Department, more than a million women and children are trafficked into sex slavery each year -- often forced by economic circumstances into prostitution's horrors. Nearly 20,000 are trafficked annually into the United States, and many of these victims are trafficked into the Southeast. Mercer students in STOP, the Sex Trafficking Opposition Project, organized the conference to counter the growing worldwide crisis.
Among the presenters were trafficking survivors Kika Cerpa and Joana Santos. In a pattern typical of trafficking, both were lured to the United States under false pretenses and told they owed large debts for their transportation after they arrived.
Santos, who was pregnant and had paid for most of her own trip, managed to hold off her tormentors and free herself. In the process, she brought down the ring that had enslaved other girls from her native Brazil.
Cerpa, who accrued a debt from her trip to New York from Venezuela, was not as lucky. She endured terrifying years as a sex slave in brothels around New York City -- including three convictions for prostitution -- only escaping after she got a judge to listen to her harrowing story.
"I was punished by the system and by society," Cerpa said, highlighting a major issue in trafficking, particularly in the United States: that the legal system is only beginning to recognize that women like Cerpa are being pimped to pay false debts, rather than working by choice as prostitutes.
The system needs to change its focus in regard to trafficking, said Dorchen Leidholdt, co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Sanctuary for Families, the group that helped Cerpa.
"Most states have laws against prostitution that are often used against prostituted people. That is the problem with people who are trying to access the criminal-justice system," Leidholdt said. "Most states have laws against patronizing a prostitute. Those laws are, generally, rarely enforced. All of the energy of our criminal-justice system -- all of the resources -- go to arrest prostituted people."
Addressing those disparities, particularly in the United States, is the goal of the Polaris Project. Bradley Myles, deputy director of Polaris, presented some ways to target the problem. The approach to sex trafficking is threefold, he said -- focusing on prevention by targeting the men who frequent brothels, adding protection for the victims and increasing punishment for traffickers. Myles explained that the legal definition of sex trafficking includes both transporting victims for sex and simply coercing someone into sex with others. He also highlighted some of the myths about trafficking.
"Don't get boxed into thinking it's just foreign people [who are trafficked in the United States] or that trafficking requires transportation," Myles said. "The term trafficking simply denotes trade -- buying or selling."
One of the areas that has the highest incidence of trafficking in the United States is Atlanta, and the problem there often involves American teenagers who are runaways. Girls at homeless shelters are approached by a pimp within the first 72 hours, according to city officials. Alesia Adams, who is the sexual trafficking prevention coordinator for the southern U.S. region of the Salvation Army, said it is important to realize the problem isn't just international. "This isn't a Third-World problem anymore; it's in your backyard," Adams said.
"Dropping your child off at the mall alone has become the same as dropping them off at Beirut."
The issue is also one of basic human rights, said Donna Hughes, a professor of women's studies at the University of Rhode Island, and a longtime anti-trafficking advocate. In approaching new ways to fight human trafficking, Hughes said focusing on perpetrators would be the best way to go forward, which would take the burden off the victims and stop the judgment inherent with any case of prostitution.
"We need to add a perpetrator-focused approach," Hughes said. "We need to reform our laws so that we are targeting the perpetrators' activities."
Mark Vanderhoek is director of media relations at Mercer University.
Movie review: Knowing explores age-old theological conundrum
By Bob Allen (460 words)
(ABP) -- Do our lives have a purpose, or are we products of random chance? If everything is predestined, is there anything we can do to improve our fate? If not, are we without hope?
These questions are discussed daily in seminary classrooms -- but add special effects, a lot of suspense, a love interest and reconciliation with an estranged parent and sibling, and you have the story line of Knowing, a new, big-budget Hollwood thriller starring Nicolas Cage.
The sci-fi film topped box-office receipts in its opening weekend March 20-22, taking in nearly $25 million in a period generally slow for movies due to audience competition from the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments.
Cage's character, John Koestler, is the son of a fundamentalist preacher who believes in the gift of prophecy as described in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. John, who is an MIT professor and a single parent since the tragic death of his young wife, is not so sure there is a divine plan.
When a time capsule at his son's elementary school is opened after 50 years, he finds strong evidence of foreknowledge of major catastrophic events, including the end of the world.
Baptists have been arguing about predestination versus free will for nearly 400 years. One of the first controversies dividing Baptists was between Particular Baptists, who believed God has pre-ordained who is saved and lost, and General Baptists, who believed every soul is free to determine whether to accept or reject Jesus Christ.
That debate pitted the theology of John Calvin, the Swiss reformer whose doctrines of divine providence pointed toward predestination, and Jacob Arminius, the Dutch reformed theologian who emphasized that humans have free will.
Those theories divided many Protestants into Calvinist and Arminian denominations, but in some, like Baptists, both Calvinist and Arminian strains have existed side by side. Southern Baptists traditionally have embraced some points of Calvin's doctrines -- like eternal security of the believer -- while rejecting others to affirm that "whosoever will" can come to faith in Jesus.
Still, that hasn't stopped occasional skirmishes between Calvinist Southern Baptist groups (such as Founders Ministries) committed to historic Baptist interpretations of the so-called "Doctrines of Grace" and anti-Calvinist Southern Baptist groups and leaders. For instance, last year Southern Baptist Convention president Johnny Hunt's church hosted a "John 3:16" conference that took a critical look at Calvinism.
These are ambitious questions, and Knowing takes them on in ways that may not be fully theologically (or emotionally) satisfying. But the movie -- rated PG-13 for disaster sequences and some strong language -- is overall faith-affirming, and for Bible fans there's an understated but pretty cool allusion to and depiction of the Old Testament book of Ezekiel's "wheel in a wheel" prophecy.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
See the movie's website.