Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

For Molly: Reflections on the Water, II

Some groups of Christians think that baptism washes away sins, or original sin.  Some, believing in “baptismal regeneration” actually think that baptism makes you a Christian.  This is why so many groups of Christians baptize babies, a practice that may have started as early as the 2nd C., but did not become the primary way that baptism was done until after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. (Even then it was common for emperors to postpone baptism until they were near death because they had come to believe that post-baptismal sin could not be forgiven!)

We Baptists, along with some other Christians, believe that one must become a Christian first, by faith, and that baptism follows.  Many in our tradition call baptism a “symbol” of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, but the term “symbol” misleads many into thinking that baptism is not important or is an optional add-on, etc.  They call it a “mere symbol.” I think this phrasing traces to a 19th C. debate that Baptists had with another group of believers’ baptizing Christians. Molly, this group calls itself the “Stone-Campbell” movement because its earliest leaders were Barton Stone, and the father-son team of Thomas and Alexander Campbell.  We Baptists often referred to this group as simply “Campbellites”–and the term was often used as a swear word, unfortunately.  Well, we don’t need to get into that, daughter.  The point is, that folks in this movement (today divided into the independant Christian Churches, the Churches of Christ, and the more liberal Christian Church/Disciples of Christ) put so much emphasis on faith and baptism together as necessary for salvation that we Baptists thought we were seeing the doctrine of “baptismal regeneration” again and reacted negatively.  Whether or not we rightly understood the Stone-Campbell people, it led us to a negative over-reaction where we downplayed baptism with terms like “mere symbol” so much that when asked why we then bothered to baptize, we had no real answer except that Jesus had commanded it.

There is nothing “mere” about symbols, Molly. We understand and shape our world through symbols.  A national flag is a symbol, but burn one and see how many people nearby think it just a “mere symbol.”  A wedding ring is a symbol of marriage, not the marriage itself, but any husband losing his wedding ring will quickly find out that his wife didn’t think it an unimportant “mere symbol!”  Maybe we can get some help from the theologian Paul Tillich.  Tillich said, I think rightly, that symbols not only point beyond themselves at realities not easily named or described non-symbolically, but that they “participate in the reality toward which they point.”  Thus, baptism participates in the reality of saving faith and by it we are enabled to participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ which baptism symbolizes (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:11-12).

Tillich also distinguished between symbols and signs.  The latter could be anything and arbitrarily related to what they signify–like stop signs. Here in the U.S., stop signs are octagonal in shape, but there is nothing about an octagon which makes it a natural symbol for stopping traffic–in most of the world stop signs are circular.  A symbol, by contrast, is organically or historically related to what it symbolizes.  Without the reality of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, for instance, the symbols of a piece of lamb, salt, unleaved bread, and wine at the Passover seder meal would be unintelligible.  The Amish use of hooks and latches in place of buttons on their clothes, similarly, is connected to their pacifism and the history of their persecution in Europe by military and police officers with big brass buttons! Similarly, baptism is not just any “rite of initiation” that could be substituted for some other symbol of faith, but is tied to Gospel story of Jesus–with Jesus’ roots in Judaism–both his connections to and separation from the movement started by John the Baptizer and, even more strongly, his suffering, death, and resurrection–his victory in the cross and empty grave.

We can also get some help from the Baptist theologian, James Wm. McClendon, Jr., whom I knew before you were born and last saw a few months before his death when your younger sister, Miriam, was not yet 2.  Using insights from “speech-act theory,” McClendon calls baptism a “performative sign”–not making the symbol/sign distinction made by Tillich.  Speech-Act Theory shows us that language doesn’t just describe things or asks questions, it also does things, makes things happen.  When a minister says, in certain settings, with proper candidates, witnesses, etc., “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the minister has not described the couple, but married them, creating a new reality, a married couple, where two singles in love stood before.

In the same way, says McClendon, baptism performs such a speech-act. With proper candidates (believers in Christ; repenters from sin), this symbol or sign incorporates the candidate into Jesus’ death, burial,and resurrection.  It also incorporates the candidate into the Church, the People of God, both scattered around the world and in a local congregation.

Baptists, like all Christians who practice believers’ baptism rather than infant baptism, do not have junior church membership for babies and small children.  Until your baptism, Molly, you were not a member of our church–or any church–just of the Sunday School, children’s ministry, youth group, etc. In our understanding not only of baptism, but of salvation and the Church, one cannot be born a Christian.  Nor can the Church be composed of Christians (Christ-followers) and their children. All the members of the church (local and universal) must be Christian–i.e., must have repented, come to saving faith, and decided personally to follow Jesus as Lord.  You, my daughter, are now a member of the Church universal, spread throughout time and space and found in many denominations (including those who disagree with us about baptizing babies), the People of God found among those of every nation, race, language-group, culture, etc–and “owned” by none of those divisions of the human family.

You are also now a member of Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, our local congregation.  You now have rights and responsibilities you didn’t have before:  You can vote in the business meetings.  You could (theoretically) be nominated as a representative of the congregation to denominational or other meetings–such as next Spring’s Convocation of the Alliance of Baptists, etc.  You could officiate at the Lord’s Supper or, in a pinch, even baptize others–that’s what we mean by “the priesthood of all believers.” Yes, you are now a believer-priest.  You have the growing responsibility as you mature in faith to take an active part in the work of the church–not just the fun activities.  The WORK of the church–from telling others about Jesus to visiting sick persons or those in jail or prison, folding church bulletins, helping clean up after church meals and much else–to working for justice for the poor.

I realize that all this is a huge amount to take in, Molly.  You can see why your mother and I didn’t want you to rush into this.  Becoming a Christian is even more serious than marriage–and the New Testament sometimes compares the two.  You pledged yourself to Jesus tonight.  As you live your life, you will figure out more and more about the meaning of your baptism.  Some of what I said here may make more sense later—you could even come to deep insights you could share with me. I am always learning more about the meaning of MY baptism. So, what you don’t grasp fully, put on hold and come back to it later.

I am very, very proud of you and love you very much, daughter.  And now, I call you not only daughter, physical child from your mother and myself, but Sister.  Now, you are not only a child of God by creation, but by faith–and thus my sister in Christ.  What joy!!!

Your mother and I took on responsibilities when we became your parents–with the help of the Holy Spirit and of the whole church, we promised to raise you in a Christian home where, we hoped, you would come to faith for yourself.  Now that you have, now that you are a baptized follower of Jesus, our work is not fully done–but this is the beginning of the end.  More and more you will become responsible for your own life, your own choices, your own discipleship.  This is both joyful and sad.  This is a beginning step down a road that, in some senses, will take your from us. But because we are not just your parents but your sister and brother in Christ, because God is OUR Parent as well as your Parent, you will never be entirely parted from us wherever God leads you.  But as our sister in faith, we must both be obedient to a different Parent.

Figure this all out in the days and weeks (and months and years) to come, beloved daughter and sister.  For now, just enjoy and rejoice–and welcome to a Family where we are all adopted!

October 2, 2007 Posted by | baptism | 8 Comments

For Molly: Reflections on the Water #1

Dear Molly:

Tonight (30 Sept. 2007), you were baptized, immersed in water and faith.  We’ve talked much about what that means:  You have expressed faith in Christ, love for God, and a desire to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior.  And this is serious stuff, girl.  The famous theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer lived in Germany, long before concerns about inclusive language–what he said was meant for the calling of women, too.  For Bonhoeffer, this became very literal:  He was hung by the Nazis in Flossenberg just days before the camp was liberated by the Allied troops–and he died praying for his enemies.

In saying “Yes” to God’s offer of salvation in Christ, we die to sin, die to living our own lives by our own rules, die to “being our own person.”  We are raised to a new life–a life in which we belong to Christ.  Because we belong to Christ, we are expected to follow after Him as active disciples.  We are to study and meditate on Christ’s teachings in the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, and we are to seek ways to live them out in our lives.  You have already begun this by refusing, back in grammar school, to say the Pledge of Allegiance as a violation of Jesus’ ban on oaths.  You were teased by your peers and pressured by school officials to change your mind, but, with the full support of your parents and church, you stayed your ground.  So, you already know that being a Christ-follower will make you different–in ways that are not always comfortable.

Unlike a Muslim girl with a headscarf or a Jewish boy with a yarmulke, this difference that being a Christian makes will not usually be visible to the naked eye.  With a few exceptions, we Christians wear the normal clothes of our particular cultures–within reason.  Because we believe in modesty and believe that the human body is not to be a constant advertisement for sex, we usually will wear more modest clothes than some others do.  But we have no Christian “uniform.”  For people to see the difference God makes in your life, they will have to watch your actions–and they will whether you want them to or not.

When you were nominated for the People to People Student Ambassador program (before we realized we couldn’t afford for you to participate), we talked about what it would mean for you to go to another country as a citizen-ambassador for America, remember?  Well, as a baptized follower of Jesus, you are now an Ambassador for Christ–all the time, for the rest of your life.  Your words and actions will reflect on Christ and the cause of Christ–for good or ill. (Remember the time we were “flipped off” by the driver of a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Follow Me to 1st _____Church of ____?”)

People will make decisions about Jesus and about Christianity based on what they see in you, if they know you are a Christian.  Are your words honest?  Do your words run people down or build them up? When you must give criticism, as we all must from time to time, is your criticism helpful or just nasty? Does your heart burn with compassion and yearn for justice?  Do you strive to make peace with your enemies? When people observe your buying habits, do they see someone obsessed with fashion, glitter, glamour and owning things–or do they see someone concerned to live simply so that they help others and the earth? 

Is all this heavy and serious? Yes, but no one is perfect at it–least of all me.  And this is also a time of joy and delight.  And your mother and I and your church family are delighted and rejoice with you.

Love, Papa.

[In part II, I reflect more on the nature of baptism itself.]

October 1, 2007 Posted by | baptism | 4 Comments

Coming Soon: Reflections on the Water

Tonight, along with 3 others, my 12 year old daughter, Molly, was baptized.  In the coming days, I shall use this happy event as an excuse for some theological reflections on baptism. If she gives permission, I shall even post images and words from her baptism–as public testimony. 

September 30, 2007 Posted by | baptism | 2 Comments