Articles, Essays & Sermons

Wade in the water

Baptism as political mandate (in this and every '9/11' moment in history)

by Ken Sehested

      Among the first questions I heard on the epochal date of September 11, 2001, was that of my good friend’s third-grader: “Papa, are we safe here?” Emily had just returned from school in the small East Texas town where I was visiting.

      By now the most turbulent emotions of that infamous rupture have yielded to the daily demands of groceries to buy, laundry piling up, calendars to keep. And children to attend, even more so now, according to demographers who report an upturn in birthrates, as if last September’s devastation triggered not just emotional but biological urges to connect, to repair the breach of life, tikkun olam (“repair of the world,” in Judaism’s rabbinic tradition). But the deeply affective question “are we safe?” continues to roil just beneath the surface.

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      Nothing, absolutely nothing—no religious motivation, no matter how pure; no ideological commitment, no matter how just; no scientific conclusion, no matter how convincing—can justify terrifying a single child. It’s not so hard to agree on this principle, just as it seems self-evident that we all want peace. The problem is that we also want what we cannot get without war. And children sometimes get in the way of perceived security needs.

      Our powers of empathy are truncated: We find it difficult to connect the love we feel for our own children, and for the young of those we hold dear, to little ones without faces, bearing hard-to-pronounce names in places we’ve never been. Recently our youngest enjoyed her wedding feast. Not long after, another wedding feast, in Afghanistan, was raked with fatal fire from the sky. I have no doubt it was a tragic mistake, a military miscalculation. But the connecting conclusion remains: to insure the safety for ours requires putting the others' in jeopardy.

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      The longing for safety, like the impulse to vengeance, is legitimately rooted in life’s soil—human and humus alike, pronounced good at the outset of the Judeo-Christian creation narrative. Yet both have been blighted and disfigured by forces too impervious to accurately describe or adequately name. (“Sin” is the more traditional but largely abandoned name for the culprit.) The longing for vengeance shares the same emotive DNA as the longing for justice—to make right, to reweave the moral fabric of existence—and is a welcomed alternative to nihilism, to life without consequence. In parallel fashion, the world’s logic transforms Emily’s petition for safety into ever-escalating policies and institutions devoted to voracious security needs (be they of nation, class, racial-ethnic identity, religious affiliation, etc.

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      In the book of Genesis, the narrative records this blessing given by Isaac to his son: "May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine" (27:28). This is the earthy materialism of biblical spirituality. But the promise of plenty mutates to a point almost beyond recognition, as recorded in this complaint of the Psalmist against inconsequential living: "[P]ride is the necklace [of the wicked]; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth" (73:6-9). This is the backdrop against which the contours of safety, security—salvation—are fashioned and forged. It has been so since the beginning: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight; and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). Spiritual corruption and physical violence are mirror images.

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      What then are we to do to break the determinants which transform a child’s need for safety to the existing national security apparatus? Or as the Apostle Paul agonized, Who can save us from this body of corruption?

      I don’t much believe in universal answers, which may seem odd coming from a genuine Bible-believing, baptist-flavored "follower of the Way" (the designation for the original disciples of Jesus). Few card-carrying postmodernists would salute me, however, since I also believe in consequential living and communal accords, difficult and dangerous as they may be to establish. Furthermore, I believe that the only way to puncture (and it will be a conflictive enterprise) dominant systems of the world’s disorder is via religious vision. While I understand the frequent distinction made between being religious and being spiritual, I sometimes suspect that the latter is a form of laziness, like fast-food dinner. Spiritual formation rarely happens quickly or conveniently.

      Every discipline of spiritual formation is reckoned by some form of relinquishment, is oriented to some kind of “dying.” Which makes sense, because every dominant system will claim that what is possible is limited to what is available. People of faith believe otherwise; but in order to move forward a kind of retraction is needed.

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      For many Christians, the inaugural act of this retraction exercise is signified by baptism, which involves the ritualized activity of dying (to the current ordering of values), being buried (severance from the illusion of self-centered life) and being resurrected (to a renewed configuration of safety, security, salvation). “Those who find their life will lose it,” Jesus said, “and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). And what is the “sake,” the welfare, of Jesus we are called to secure? He gave many clues, none more explicit than the dramatic scenario of Matthew 25 where, on the projected day of judgment, he assigns to heaven or to hell according to the criteria of care for marginalized people—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the diseased, the immigrant and the imprisoned—all those for whom the world’s dominant systems have little or no use. Thus, people on the Way, those immersed in the Jesus narrative—which, like most narratives, is porous and resistant to philosophical precision—are bound for trouble. I like the way Flannery O’Connor put it, paraphrasing a text from John’s Gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.”

      We are God’s odd ones. And according to the Jesus story, God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven. Connecting the purpose of Jesus with the drama of Creation is the heart of Christian confession. Everything else is footnote.

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            Paul Ricouer wrote: "If you want to change people's obedience then you must change their imagination." My overriding passion is to insist that recovery of baptismal integrity is the Christian community’s most urgent political task. By implication, this suggests that the most urgent political task of each of our respective traditions is to drink more deeply from the wells that nourish world-transforming faith.

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      At this point we must be clear: Ultimately, power does not flow from the barrel of a gun. While violence may destroy power, it can never create it. “Every war already carries within it the war which will answer it,” wrote Käthe Kollwitz, artist of torment. “Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed.” Or as the poet e.e. cummings wrote with such concise precision, “hatred bounces.”

      Such a judgment is not rooted in political calculation but theological affirmation. We believe that the power of God, the Abba of Jesus is the power to claim by relinquishing, voluntarily submitting to body broken, blood spilt, rather than by grasping, by shedding the blood of others.

      The Christian vision affirms that only this kind of power is sufficient to subvert the ruling powers of this age. It is messianic power in the manner of Jesus, whose “name” we confess as shorthand for the career to which we, too, have been called. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do,” Jesus reminded his disciples shortly before he was executed in a manner reserved by Roman rule for political subversives. The same thought is central to the Apostle Paul’s proclamation: “For [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1:29).

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      Unfortunately, the political relevance of Christian baptismal vows is little understood in the church and virtually oblivious in the larger world.

      In the featured Time magazine op-ed article for the January 1993 issue, essayist Lance Morrow wrote:

       "War is rich and vivid, with its traditions, its military academies, its ancient regiments and hero stories, its Iliads, its flash. Peace is not exciting. Its accoutrements are, almost by definition, unremarkable if they work well. It is a rare society that tells exemplary stories of peacemaking—except, say, for the Gospels of Christ, whose irenic grace may be admired from a distance, without much effect on daily behavior." [italics added]

       This same author, in the special September 11, 2001, issue of the same journal, began his commentary (“The case for rage and retribution”) on the day’s trauma with these vitriolic lines:

      "For once, let’s have no fatuous rhetoric about 'healing'. . . . Let’s have rage . . . a policy of focused brutality . . . [and] relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon called hatred."

      The relation between the two statements is not coincidental. There is an intimate link between skepticism regarding Jesus’ relevance for daily behavior and the counsel to “a policy of focused brutality.”

      In the end, the advocates of both positions—nonviolent struggle for justice versus policies of focused brutality—work from theological presuppositions, whether explicitly acknowledged or not. Both require conclusions (neither of which can be submitted to conclusive empirical testing) about the ultimate nature of power, about the road to safety, to security, to salvation.

      Meanwhile, Emily’s question, the most ancient of questions, invites the baptismal response of reoriented life. Wade in the water children . . . God’s gonna’ trouble the water.

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Originally published in the September 2002 issue of Peacework, magazine of the American Friends Service Committee.
©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org