Friday, November 11, 2011

The Politics of Baptism

This is the manuscript for the speech I gave last night at our parish's 4th "Christ and Culture Dinner." The topic for the evening was "A Christian Role in American Politics." The speech went quite well, better than the last one I gave (on Islam), but some people have asked for a written version. Here it is.

When meeting with the “Christ and Culture” committee, I was asked for a “young person’s” perspective on politics. I told them that I’d be a horrible person to represent “my generation” on the whole topic. I explained how warped and confused my approach to the political process is: They were discussing the problem of voter apathy, of people simply not voting because they felt like their votes were insignificant in the political process (which I think is absurd – voting is absolutely significant – the act of voting is absolutely effective – I don’t see how anyone could ever think that it’s not) – but I shared with them, I simply don’t take it for granted that because voting is effective and powerful that, therefore, Christians have a responsibility to vote in elections. That might be true. But it’s not obvious to me that it is.

Now, to be clear, I have voted before. To memory, I’ve voted in every presidential election since I’ve been legally able. I remember riding my bike up to my local voting precinct and did my part in bringing President George W. Bush into power in 2000. Last election, after having a few years of college to further distort my thinking, I started writing-in people.

I’ve long been registered as NPA – no party affiliation – but I re-registered as a Republican just long enough to vote in the primaries for my favorite candidate, Ron Paul. When he didn’t win the nomination, I changed back to NPA, and wrote him in for the general election, voting by conscience rather than following party lines. Apparently, there weren’t a lot of other people who wrote him in, so he ended up not becoming president. I don’t know if I’ll vote for him in 2012. He seems like a good man – a lot of integrity. That’s what I like about him. That’s why I’d vote for him, if I do. Who knows? But my point is I’m not overly worried about the whole thing.

I don’t get too stressed worrying about elections. This is because, to a certain extent, I’m not overly convinced there necessary. Especially for presidents. I don’t take for granted, for example, that the democratic model of government is obviously the best model. It might be, but I couldn’t prove it you without borrowing from the anti-authoritarian rhetoric against monarchy that I’ve grown up with. I understand the reasoning, of course, for constitutions and rebelling against tyranny and a government that represents the intentions of the people rather than the whims of a fallible individual. I’m duly familiar with the meaning of phrases like “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So I have some idea of why people like democracy. I certainly understand its merits. But that doesn’t sway me. Why?

What could be so wrong with me that I could be so dense about the basic assumptions of Western Civilization? What could have happened to me to make me so oblivious to what seems obvious to any run-of-the-mill American citizen? After being forced to think about it, the only thing I can think of to explain how I could have become so culturally absurd was that, in August of 1998, I underwent Christian Baptism.

“I underwent Christian Baptism.” That’s a strange thing to say, I think, for two reasons: One: It’s simply a fact that most American Christians, especially Protestants, don’t understand how important baptism is. Whereas, I believe it’s essential to our entire faith, the historic trends in the post-Reformation West have led to a devaluing of material things like sacraments, in favor of more “spiritual” things like “emotional states” or “personal relationships with Jesus.” This is so much the case that many Christians have to hold their breath at the part of the Nicene Creed (once considered the outline of genuine Christian Orthodoxy) where we altogether confess our belief in “one baptism for the remission of sins.”

Secondly, it’s strange to comment that Christian Baptism could have anything to do with separating one from American and Western Tradition since, being Christian and being Baptized are fairly commonplace in our country. It might even be weird to say that you are an American and that you have not been baptized. Maybe not anymore, but at least at one point that was true. Especially, here, in the Bible Belt.

But I stand by what I said. I can’t think of anything else that might have been more influential on my adult life than being baptized. In fact, it was not until after I was baptized that I started reading to learn. Baptism marks the beginning of education for me. I mean, obviously, I had read books before – I was in school, good schools. But it wasn’t until I was baptized that I started reading books, large amounts of books, because I wanted to learn what they had to say.

The 39 Articles describe baptism as something which we “receive” (that’s the language, “receive,” like a gift) – something we passively undergo. It is the gateway into Christ’s mystical body, the Church. For this reason our articles say that baptism is our guarantee that our sins are forgiven, and that we are made sons of God through adoption. This is remarkable. Think about it. Not only are our sins forgiven, but the upshot of this is that we are each, individually, adopted by “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all this is seen and unseen.”

Stop for a second and really think about that. Once somebody has been baptized, they can look at the wonder and majesty of the entire universe and say, “You know who made that? That’s my dad.”

Now, it’s obviously important to distinguish between the way the Father is our father and the way the Father is the father of the Eternal Son. Christ is the Son by nature. He is “eternally begotten,” “not made” – unlike us, who are created. We are made. The glory of the cross, however, is that God has made a way for us to share in the life of the Son. The Holy Spirit goes out from the Father to unite all things to Christ. The Spirit joins us to the Son, in such a way that both the Anglican Divines and the Bible describe what happens as “adoption.”

Reflect for a moment what it means to be “adopted.” When someone is adopted, they receive more than just a change of custody from, say, the State, or maybe an abusive parent. Adoption is far more than a pledge to care for someone. Adoption is to make them a part of your family, to make them your kin. An adopted son or daughter is not legally understood to be an “adopted son” or an “adopted daughter.” Rather to be adopted is to become a son or daughter in a very real and binding sense. To be adopted is to receive a new identity. Who you are actually changes.

And this is what it means to be baptized.

In being baptized we receive a new answer to the question,” Who am I?” When we are born from our mother we receive a name. We are born into a world of death and violence, covered in blood and other bodily fluids. (Being born is itself is a fairly violent act. Ask a mother. ) We live a life of a mixture of pleasures and pains, enduring losses of various sorts that remind us at the end of the day that our grandest successes are finally dust and ashes, vanity. Our naming into this world is the naming of our death as much as our life. But in baptism we receive a new name, being born into a new world.

Of course, baptism is not something so na├»ve as to ignore death and violence. Rather, in baptism, we are united to death – or specifically to one death, Christ’s death. We lose our own death and instead receive the death of Christ. Why is this special? Because sharing in Christ’s death, we also share in his endless life, the life that brought death to its end, the death that made futility futile. In sharing Christ’s death through baptism, we equally share in his Resurrection, the second birth, the birth from above, the heavenly birth, the birth of the Spirit, the birth of peace. Christ’s Resurrection signals the death of death and so it signals the death of the world of death and violence. This is the gospel: that death is dead and where it isn’t, it will be destroyed.

We, Christians, believe this. The work of the Spirit is the work of disarming the world of its fondness for death. This is why we celebrate Pentecost, right? Remember the tower of Babel – that time when men came together to build their own Holy City of Man, a city of blood. If you know the story at all, you remember that Yahweh destroyed their work by confusing their languages, causing hatred and discord and division among them (Babel, by the way, means “Confusion”). But the moment of Pentecost, Acts 2, when the Spirit is poured out on all humanity, remember what happened there? Everybody was speaking in different languages, but who was confused? It wasn’t the disciples. No, at Pentecost, God took the languages and people from all the world (I mean, Jewish people, but still Jews from all over the world), and brought them together. Instead of reaping confusion, these tongues of fire were reaping unity. A new tower of Babel was birthed at Pentecost, a new city, but this city wasn’t forged in the tradition of blood and violence. Rather, this was the city of God, a new Jerusalem from above – we call it “the Church.”

If you are baptized, then this is where you live. This is where you’re from. This is who you are. You might have been born American or Mexican – or somehow Canadian – but by the grace of God, you died in those waters. That’s no longer who you are. You have born in the womb of Mary, because you have been united to the eternal Son of God, who was himself conceived there. This is why Jesus is so dismissive, at times, of domestic concerns. “Call no man ‘father’” and “Who are my brothers and sisters?” Because he understands the radical meaning of baptism.

You’ve probably heard at some point the phrase, “Blood is thicker than water.” It’s a way to express how important family ties are. For the Christian, though, the opposite is true, “Water is thicker than blood.” The waters of baptism create a deeper bond between Christians, then, any amount of genetic relationships. This is a hard saying. It’s not one that we all necessarily believe or practice. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

On another matter, there is also power in Christ’s words “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This isn’t some ridiculous preview of future American political theory about the separation of Church and State. This is an attack on imperial cult, right? You understand that in this context in history there weren’t clean divisions between religion and politics. To be emperor was, in Rome, to be a sort of demigod. Jesus is being a “dualist” here (in the best sense of the word). God is over here, Caesar is over there. He’s looking at claims of Caesar and saying, “Nope.” You are not God, you are only Caesar. Your image might be stamped on the money, but the image of the infinite God – however skewed – is stamped on you. You are a man. You are clay. You are dirt. You are dust and ash. You serve me.

Not only do our family ties get relativized by Christ, but even the political realm gets reoriented.

Now, baptism isn’t just the joining of individuals to Christ’s death. Because people are the subjects of baptism, human culture is also the subject of baptism. As much as our old selves are drowned in those waters, the same can be said of our world, our culture. This is why it even makes sense for these “Christ and Culture” discussions to happen. We’re exploring what our baptisms mean for all of life. This particular evening is about politics, and when they asked me what I thought about politics, I said, “I wouldn’t even know how to begin to talk about politics without discussing baptism.” Hopefully, by now, it’s kind of clear why that is. Baptism is the beginning of politics because it’s the foundation of the City of God, the city to which we all belong.

Alright, now that we know what city we live in, let’s talk about how we run things here. That’s what politics is, right? Managing, ordering the city? Here’s how we do things in the Church. First of all, we require very little to become a citizen in this city. We ask that you “repent and believe” and then we get you wet. After that you’re in. That’s it. We just want faith. That’s the lifeblood of everything we do here. Once you’re baptized you’re welcome to participate in the most important thing we do. You might even say it’s the core of everything we do: the Eucharist.

This is a grave scandal. Or at least it was in Ancient Rome. To understand how baptism posed a problem for the Romans, you have to understand some things about their politics. For them, the city was, fundamentally, a religious order. Like Judaism, sanctity took the form of a duality between priest and non-priest, holy and common. At the center of political life were the “patricians.” “Patricians” were the exclusive ruling class who lived in the city proper. These people were able to worship in the temple at the top of the hill (You’ve probably heard of the “acropolis,” right? This is that). These are the “priests” of Roman civic order and that’s where they’d meet.

This priest-class literally “marginalized” those outside of the aristocracy. The people on the “outside” were “literally marginalized” because they were geographically outside the acropolis. They were in the foothills of the temple mount. They are known as “plebeians.” These are the common folk. They were not only in the margins of the landscape, but they were also excluded from cititzenship. (Remember that “citizenship” literally means being a part of a “city.”) These people were not allowed to partake in the religious worship of the national gods, so they were not allowed to partake in the political life of the city. If you compared this to the current “Occupy” movements, you might say these guys are the “99%.”

As you might expect, a good bit of tension existed between the “priestly patricians” and the “plebeian commoners.” A number of violent revolutions took place in Rome’s history. Plebeians, apparently, were dissatisfied with their exclusion and fought for a place at the center of the city. They finally got what they wanted, but at the price of a lot of bloodshed.

Now, picture Christianity showing up on this scene. Here is this world that, on one front, Rome, you have this violent city built on a conflict between an exclusive priestly citizenship and an excluded, you could call them ,“lay” population with no political voice. On the other front, you have Judaism and all it entails. And while priests and people don’t seem to have an antagonistic relationship, that tension does exist. (The antagonism could be subdued by the fact that, even for lay folk, a certain holiness is ascribed to them by virtue of their mere Jewishness. So, for the Jew, while the offerings were largely communal meals for the priests, there was still some sense in which the “common” Jew shared in those priests’ holiness.) Nonetheless, in front of this violent world of Jews and Gentiles, the apostles’ preached a gospel that said this holy-common tension doesn’t exist within the kingdom of God.

After you get baptized, you are pulled out of the violence of your old city and you are made into a priest. Everybody becomes a “patrician” you could say. What’s so great about that?

This is a hard question to answer because a lot of us have this idea that the job of priests is to do things, like slaughter animals, so that God forgives our sins. That’s only a tiny bit true. The problem with that idea is it kind of ignores that the joy of being a priest was you actually got to eat some of the sacrificed meat with God himself. The temple sacrifices, many of them, weren’t as much intended for absolution as they were intended for eating. To be a priest meant you got to share in a holy meal. This is what the Eucharist is. It’s our holy meal of Communion with God, and it’s what our baptisms entitle us to do.

The Roman “patricians” also had a communion meal with the gods of their respective city. An important part of being “politically active” in Rome was participating in these cultic meals. The Christian Church, acting in this world, understood the political impact of this act and acted against it. How did the Church act against Roman paganism? By being itself. Every celebration of the Eucharist was a treacherous slap in the face of Rome – treacherous for several reasons:
  1. It was a participation in the cultural rites of an alternate city, a rival city.
  2. It was worship of another god of a different city (Jesus).
  3. It was blasphemous worship in which patrician and pleb, Jew and Gentile, parents and children were all welcomed and considered equal in holiness before God.
These are the politics of baptism. Baptism tells us who we are. It also proclaims who we are not and to whom we no longer belong. It calls into question every political process, asking which God or gods are being served in practice. Finally, it calls us to realize that simplicity of being a Christian, of being baptized into the Church, and of celebrating the Eucharist is already the most extreme form of political activism, and calls into question the meaning of all other political processes.

Thank you.