Profile: Barbara Green - Defying Stalemate
During some of the worst days of the Cold War, a young YDS grad was sent to East Berlin to get people to talk across the rigid ideological divide.
The year was 1977, when nuclear-tipped nervousness was high and East-West trust was low. Into this bleak climate moved Barbara Green (M.Div., 1976), deputized by the National Council of Churches to organize dialogues of European clergy and scholars with the NCC around peace and nuclear-arms reduction.
Successes there renewed her belief in the human capacity to transcend stalemate. She represented a rising generation of church leaders whose mentors encouraged ecumenical peacemaking on a global scale. They included former Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., whose campus services she regularly attended.
The experience would shape Barbara Green’s vocation for the next 30 years.
“I found it was possible to challenge the stereotypes that the world functions by,” says Green, a Presbyterian minister.“It was possible to talk across lines of tension. Reaching out across those lines was vocationally defining for me.”
After her Eastern bloc adventures, the New Jersey native returned to the U.S. in the mid-1980s. (True to form, the East German secret police kept a thick, meticulous file on her; she examined it with bemusement on a return visit years after the Iron Curtain fell.) For the next 15 years, she was a policy advocate for the Presbyterian Church (USA), working on security issues and international relations.
Today, her focus on nuclear-weapons elimination – and building partnerships against the grain – is still strong. She is a senior adviser to Faithful Security: The National Religious Partnership on the Nuclear Weapons Danger, a leading interfaith force that advocates “the permanent elimination of nuclear weapons by empowering religious communities to take action at a local level.”
Faithful Security was stirred into being by Bill Coffin shortly before he died in 2006.“Only God has the right to destroy all life on the planet,” he was fond of saying. “All we have is the power.”
Faithful Security would embody his abiding passion for nuclear disarmament.
“People might not realize that an awful lot of U.S. and Russian missiles are still pointed at each other,” Green says. “I’m convinced there is no right use for nuclear weapons. They serve no useful military purpose. What gives us the right to kill millions of people? This is not what God intends God’s creatures to do. God’s way is to be creative, not annihilating.” Faithful Security (www.faithfulsecurity.org) is funded by the Fourth Freedom Forum (based in Gos- hen, Ind.) and by the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy (based at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.). Green has been executive director of the Churches’ Center since 1998.
Her work at Faithful Security combines moral imperative and hardnosed practicality for the long-term goal of a human civilization free of nuclear weapons. The organization tracks efforts to deactivate missile systems, uphold treaties, and strengthen security regimes, while networking among religious communities, insisting on “the moral imperative at the heart of work for total nuclear disarmament.” One notable work is the Muslim-Christian Initiative on the Nuclear Weapons Danger. This effort sponsors local dialogues using Faithful Security study materials and a joint Muslim-Christian statement that spells out the nuclear threat. Participants are urged to ask their elected officials,“What is your plan to eliminate nuclear weapons?”
“The issue is more urgent than it was five years ago,” Green says. “We know there are so many urgent issues in the world that demand people’s time, but the nuclear threat needs to find its place among the panoply of challenges. We have erred badly everywhere by reaching for military violence as the solution.”
Green’s Germany experience enriched her another way. She is a recognized scholar and translator of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German minister-theologian who left the safety of the U.S. in 1939 to return to Nazi Germany and, during World War II, was executed for taking part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Before her Yale Divinity days, she spent two years studying theology at the University of Heidelberg, working in the language that would serve her ever since. (YDS has recently announced plans to enhance student exchange programs at Heidelberg and two other German universities.)
“Bonhoeffer’s life shows how seriously in a theological sense he took the events of his era,” she says. “It’s as if he said: ‘OK, God, these ghastly things are happening. What does it mean to have faith in you under these circumstances?’ He acted.”
— Ray Waddle