Allow me to begin this with a couple of insights I’ve had about baptism lately:
The first comes from Sarah Palin, who, while speaking at a NRA convention, decided to step away from the Second Amendment and gun issues and wade into the waters of torturing prisoners of war (the government calls it “enhanced interrogation techniques). I don’t know how she conflated gun ownership with approval of torture, let alone how she conflated a holy sacrament with the torture itself, but for whatever reason she said:
“If I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
After an epic facepalm episode, followed by some head shaking at the lunacy of it all, and then followed by a sick stomach as I imagined the sound clip going viral among religious extremists who will use it as justification for their violence, I began to reflect on baptism:
I was young and confused. We had met in the basement of the church rather than upstairs in the sanctuary. Our grandmother was with us–a rare treat–but even more unusual was that it was she who was sitting with us, not our parents.
The folding chairs all pointed toward the back wall, which had been folded back to reveal the “secret room”–a baptismal pool which was usually off-limits to our little curious eyes.
The pool was full today, as opposed to those times when we had taken a sneak peek when the teachers weren’t looking. Pastor Burch stepped down in the water and began talking about how we had to die in the watery grave before we could be born anew into eternal life.
All this talk of watery graves had me very nervous.
My father, not dressed in his usual Sunday clothes, stepped down into the water. Pastor Burch produced a clean white hanky and held it over my father’s nose and mouth as he dipped him backward into the water. The water swallowed him up and I got very scared.
Grandma’s protective arm wrapped around me and she whispered that Daddy was okay.
Then Dad was back on his feet, people were clapping, others were helping him out of the pool, wrapping him in a towel, handing his glasses back to him so that he could see what was about to happen next.
Mom… Mom who goes to the pool and doesn’t get in the water, Mom who hates having water splashed in her face, Mom who does not, under any circumstances, put her head under water is descending into the pool.
And I am very scared.
There’s the same talk of the watery grave. And then there is a new white hanky covering her nose and mouth and back she goes, under the water.
What happened next is not the confused memories of a very young, very frightened child which have been filtered through the years and morphed into something different. I swear to you it happened: Pastor Burch put my mother under water and began to pray.
I was crying. Mom came up out of the water looking like wet cat. Everyone was clapping. Grandma was telling me what a good thing they had just done.
Maybe, if I were still a child, I would have been one of those people who applauded Sarah Palin’s rather callous and insensitive words.
As a very young child who was, at that time, being raised in a church where baptisms were only for those able to speak for themselves (generally, people over twelve) and were always done by full immersion, I didn’t understand what was happening. When my mother, who had a fear of being under water, was pushed under water, my juvenile mind interpreted it as an act of violence and brutality. I was too young to understand the symbolism of the “grave” language used in the service. Back then, I guess I saw baptism much the same way Sarah Palin portrayed it. It was frightening. It was forceful. And it was brutal.
But I grew.
I grew physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The old juvenile me who had cowered on my grandmother’s lap while my mother and father dried off, was no longer all there was to me. I was no longer the kid people were chuckling over because I had cried during my parents’ baptisms.
Fast forward to my own baptism a few years later: I was thirteen, and we had been attending a different church for about four years. We were now United Methodists and the Methodists didn’t have a baptismal pool in their church. They had a little podium that opened up and revealed a silver bowl hiding inside. That’s all the water the Methodists apparently needed. They also baptized babies, a fact I had not thought about until I was the only on in confirmation class who didn’t raise a hand when the pastor asked who was baptized.
Suddenly, this shy, quiet thirteen year-old girl who had mastered the art of becoming invisible in social situations was going to have to stand up all by herself and be baptized. The whole thing was intimidating. My friends were standing to the side, waiting for me to get this rite out of the way so that I could join the right of passage they were about to take. My parents and siblings were there, and several folks from the church had chosen to stand with me: Sunday school teachers, Helen Smathers, and others whom I can’t recall.
The pastor had warned me to speak up–but I doubt anyone could really hear my shaky voice as I answered the standard questions and took my vows. And then I kneeled at the altar rail.
Three times Rev. Thompson dipped his hand in the bowl of water and three times he laid it on my head. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…
I’m not going to lie. I didn’t give my baptism a lot of thought going into it.
My parents and Rev. Thompson had spoken with me to determine I was ready to take that step. All assured me it would be okay to not go forward with confirmation if I didn’t want to be baptized yet. It was my choice… and I couldn’t imagine not doing what everyone else in my peer group were about to do. So I said I was ready.
I was old enough to have learned the symbolism of the watery grave. I had learned that despite the old church’s insistence there was only one way to properly baptize, that there were actually three ways: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. I had learned that baptism would not save me, but was a means of grace–the grace that was imparted to me for my salvation by Jesus Christ’s act of love and mercy on the cross.
But those were only facts that I had learned.
And I continued to grow and to mature.
Fast forward a few more years and I am a young woman with a calling to go into the ministry. Suddenly, my baptism is a question and a story I have to recount over and over again and find myself looking back with a little shame that I hadn’t taken it more seriously at the time–and yet, I knew that what had happened at baptism had been no less powerful and no less life-altering than my parents’ adult baptism had been.
A pastor would later describe it as “what God has done, God has done perfectly… even if your part was less than perfect.”
I knew that to be true because I had witnessed how in my worst moments of life, I had been able to look back and remember with clarity the warm, heavy, loving hand of Rev. Thompson touching my head three times. I could recall the weight of hands resting on my back, shoulders, neck, and head as he prayed over me afterwards. I could remember that single drop dripping down my cheek like a tear shed just for me. I could recall the lightness that followed when all those hands lifted and I was free to stand. The applause that ripped through the sanctuary was more than what the people there could have mustered–I guess the heavens were joining in.
Over the years in which I followed the path to ordained ministry (roughly ten years), I was expected to recount my baptism over and over. At first I felt sorry for those who had been baptized as babies and who had only the stories of others to tell… until the day that I realized I had been a baby in matters of spirituality when I was baptized myself. I had simply followed the crowd. I had done what I had to do in order to be like my friends. And if I had been given the chance to skip baptism in order to be confirmed, I would’ve have taken it. I took baptism because I couldn’t be confirmed without it.
I was like a baby, without a clue–but the work God was doing in me that day was being done perfectly, even if I was fumbling the ball.
Now, as a pastor who has baptized people of all ages, I lean more heavily on my own baptism now more than ever. The more I grow, the more I mature, the more important it becomes to me. It’s not a one shot deal–it’s a way of life.
So when I heard Sarah Palin turn this Holy Sacrament into a punch line for cheap applause, I was outraged.
Baptism is not a political tool. It is not a punch line. It is not a rallying point. And it is certainly not an implement of torture.
You can call waterboarding whatever you want, but to me it will always be torture–and baptism should never be a torture. Baptism makes us aware of a grace that we have not earned, but have received anyway. It washes the old self and gives us the first breath of a new life. It cleanses. It purifies. It changes.
Just as the force of water can grind a rugged boulder into a smooth pebble given enough time, the waters of baptism work continuously in our lives to transform us. We become something else as the waters of baptism continue to do their work.
As a Christian, I can’t help but be insulted by Sarah Palin’s comments. I’ve heard the “she was only joking” defense uttered over and over again… but the notion that she, a professing Christian, would take one of the most holy and amazing sacraments of her faith and turn it into a joke makes it that much more insulting.
Palin’s perversion of baptism is detrimental to our faith–When we symbolically go under the water and enter that “watery grave” we are remembering Jesus Christ’s suffering and death on the cross–the suffering and death that would eventually set us free when sin and death were defeated in the resurrection. Rising up from the waters is our reminder of the new life we have been raised into. It is a beautiful ritual in which we join Christ in suffering, death, and resurrection…
But when we use it as a means of torture against our enemies, we are no longer aligning ourselves with Christ, but with the earthly powers that sought to destroy him. We are suddenly the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin rallying the people to call for an innocent man’s crucifixion. We are the Roman soldiers driving nails through his hands and feet. We are plunging the spear into his side, casting lots for his clothes, laughing and mocking him as we shove a thorny crown on his head.
It is for this reason that it’s important we, as Christians, state loud and clear that baptism is no joking matter, that we are the people who suffer with Christ and live in his image rather than being the people who torture and oppress. Our faith is not a joke. Our sacraments are holy and grace-filled events, not punch lines.
Faithful America is currently taking a petition of Christians who would like for media outlets which report on Palin’s misguided comments about baptism to also report the level of dissension amongst Christians who do not wish for Palin’s statements to be reflective of our faith. I have signed it, and if you would like to add your name, or if you just want to read it to see what it says, you can find it here: Sarah Palin Doesn’t Speak For Christians