The Politics of Baptism

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>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.

Related links:
Chuck Colson: “Defending the strangers in our midst: The demonizing of immigrants.”

Chuck Colson: “A ‘no truth’ zone?”

4 comments

  1. >I viewed the link to the Methodist Discipleship web page on Gnostics. They brushed Gnostics off in an offhand manner. I put more stock in the carefully researched information in the book on The Gospel of Thomas, Beyond Belief, by Elaine Pagels. She presents views that leave the orthodoxy looking rather poor, demanding belief in a set of doctrines compared to the Gnostics, allowing a wide variety of ways to follow Jesus based on personal experience.

  2. >Bill,I am not sure what you mean by “brushed off,” but you are right if you meant that Gnostism has various expressions that make it difficult to define.As far as the first to fifth century expressions of it, however, I think the majority of scholars (secular and Christian) would agree that all the Gnostic sects held matter to be a deterioration of the spirit and the whole universe as a depravation of Deity. This quickly leads to the kind of dualism between body and spirit that is a radical departure from Judaism and Christianity.For a different reading of orthodoxy than you allude to here, I would recommend “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chersterton and “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian D. McLaren.As for Pagels, I am less convinced of the “careful research.” The book does not actually deal with the text of the Gospel of Thomas very much at all, and seems to be a very contemporary/intuitive take on things that often tells the reader more about her own spiritual journey than it does about history. As someone once pointed out “there is something very American in this cult of experience.”Peace,Kevin

  3. >Pastor Baker wrote that baptism is about identity. In the years following my own baptism, as an adolescent, I struggled with my own identity. “Who am I really?” I challenged myself. I kept rearranging my choices: female, African American Christian, or African American female Christian, or Christian, female, African American, or Christian African American female. I decided that by accepting that my Creator knew me before I was born into my present female, Black- African American- Negro- Colored (clearly subject to debate) form, I believe that I existed before I was any of these things. Thus, they must be either false or sub identities. So, as a Child of God above all other identities, I would pledge my allegiance to Him and whatever He says. From that point on, my opinions about everything would need to be informed by the teachings of Christ, not by my concerns as a woman or as a Black African American Negro Colored U.S. citizen. I discovered who I am through my baptism into the Christian faith. I also discovered how I should see others- including new immigrants to this country. “I was a stranger and you took me in…,” Matthew 25:35. In the view of one who follows Christ, divisive terms such as “minority,” “alien,” “foreigner,” etc. destroy unity, hinder reconciliation and is therefore anti-Christ in effect. Furthermore, the love of Christ puts us all on the same plane- not one of us is greater than another when we stand before God. The “other,” when categorized in terms of inferiority, derive from attitudes that run counter to agape love. People who claim to follow Christ need to understand that racist attitudes toward others are not what Christ taught. In accepting Christ you accept a love for humanity that should eliminate the separatist tradition of American culture. The truth is, it hasn’t. The reason is not that love fails, but is because lots of church going people have not truly accepted Christ, so segregated “churches” remain a part of American landscape, as does the rejection of “others.” Even within a purposefully multi-cultural and multi-racial congregation, these anti-Christ attitudes persist. The words “them” need to become “us,” and “they” is really “we.” Until so called “Christians” understand and accept the teachings of Christ, they will fail to realize who they are and Whose we all are. ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’…. 40 ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ Matthew 25:31-40 (New King James Version)

  4. >Anonymous said… Pastor Baker wrote that baptism is about identity. In the years following my own baptism, as an adolescent, I struggled with my own identity. “Who am I really?” I challenged myself. I kept rearranging my choices: female, African American Christian, or African American female Christian, or Christian, female, African American, or Christian African American female. I decided that by accepting that my Creator knew me before I was born into my present female, Black- African American- Negro- Colored (clearly subject to debate) form, I believe that I existed before I was any of these things. Thus, they must be either false or sub identities. So, as a Child of God above all other identities, I would pledge my allegiance to Him and whatever He says. From that point on, my opinions about everything would need to be informed by the teachings of Christ, not by my concerns as a woman or as a Black African American Negro Colored U.S. citizen. I discovered who I am through my baptism into the Christian faith. I also discovered how I should see others- including new immigrants to this country. “I was a stranger and you took me in…,” Matthew 25:35. In the view of one who follows Christ, divisive terms such as “minority,” “alien,” “foreigner,” etc. destroy unity, hinder reconciliation and is therefore anti-Christ in effect. Furthermore, the love of Christ puts us all on the same plane- not one of us is greater than another when we stand before God. The “other,” when categorized in terms of inferiority, derive from attitudes that run counter to agape love. People who claim to follow Christ need to understand that racist attitudes toward others are not what Christ taught. In accepting Christ you accept a love for humanity that should eliminate the separatist tradition of American culture. The truth is, it hasn’t. The reason is not that love fails, but is because lots of church going people have not truly accepted Christ, so segregated “churches” remain a part of American landscape, as does the rejection of “others.” Even within a purposefully multi-cultural and multi-racial congregation, these anti-Christ attitudes persist. The words “them” need to become “us,” and “they” is really “we.” Until so called “Christians” understand and accept the teachings of Christ, they will fail to realize who they are and Whose we all are. ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’…. 40 ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ Matthew 25:31-40 (New King James Version)

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