>My first post to this new blog sparked some good conversation both online and off. Since then, I have done some more reflecting and thought the subject of immigration deserved more attention than my flippant and sarcastic rant. In the next two posts, I would like to touch on two aspects of the issue: 1) Immigration and the Church: the politics of baptism and 2) Reflections on the “law abiding” and the “illegal.” For now, here is #1:
Immigration and the Church: the politics of baptism
Whether we realize it or not, baptism is a political as well as spiritual act. I am referring here to the more classic definition of politics that deals with all human relating, organizing, and decision making, rather than the more narrow definition that brings to mind political parties and election campaigns. When a person is baptized, they are given a new name, they are claimed by God, they are washed clean of sin, and they are incorporated into the Body of Christ. In the words of the UM liturgy: All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
In an importance sense, baptism is about identity. In baptism, the newborn Christian discovers both who and whose they are … and again, “all this is God’s gift, offered to us without price” – to which one might add – without green cards, Driver’s licenses, birth certificates, social security numbers, or other documentation. The politics of baptism are radical, subversive, and counter-cultural. It is at the font that we bind ourselves to a different pledge of allegiance that calls us to confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races. (UM Book of Worship, p.88) To enter into this community of faith, one doesn’t have to cross the Rio Grande, but one does have to pass through the waters of baptism. Once a person has come up from the grace-filled waters, they are a new creation and a part of a new family.
For the community of the baptized, qualifiers like “brother” and “sister” must always take precedence over ones like “alien,” “illegal,” and “stranger.” It is this radical and biblically faithful understanding of baptism and the community of the baptized that has led some to offer what is sometimes referred to as a “modest proposal for peace: let the Christians of the world agree not to kill one another.” Sounds simple enough, but a quick overview of violent conflicts around the world quickly reveals that there are Christians in almost every country, and this “modest proposal” would go a long way towards peace if we were to take it seriously. Taking baptism seriously – now there is a thought. Too often we have interpreted this sacrament in a “spiritualized” way that at times seems almost Gnostic. Baptism is more than a Kodak moment for children or a public addendum to adult conversion. (for a definition of gnosticism, see this “brief glossary of terms”)
If readers detect passion here, I hope you recognize it as a pastor’s passion. I currently serve a multicultural and multilingual congregation that includes all kinds of immigrants and their children: naturalized, legal, native-born, and yes, illegal. When a person comes to me seeking baptism I invite them into a process of catechesis and training. We seek to take baptism seriously. We spend some time discussing the renunciation of sin and the church’s profession of faith. We study the baptismal vows that call each person to “faithfully participate in the church’s ministries through their prayers, presence, gifts, and service.” We identify spiritual disciplines that are vital to Christian living, loving, and serving. The one thing I do not do, however, is ask them for their papers.
Please understand me. This is not my local church’s version of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on immigration. It is not a practice I avoid simply because I realize I don’t work for the I.N.S., though that is true enough. It is a theological conviction I have about baptism and identity; in the truest sense, both come only from God. This deeply held conviction does not mean that lying, falsification of documents, and other deception associated with illegal immigration should receive only a wink and a nod. Such things are not to be taken lightly on a personal, spiritual level nor on the more publicly debated institutional one. Yet throughout the debate, the Church must never assume she can enter the discussion as if the face of the “other” is someone out there. Very often the new “face” of immigration is the face of our own baptized sisters and brothers. The new face is the face of our own family.