Decolonizing Baptism

Well, we are just so delighted to celebrate this baptism with you all; we are grateful to the session and John and Pastor Louise for giving us such a warm invitation. It was a bit of an odd thing to piece together–we wanted all our family to be here, and I am a pastor of a nontraditional new worshiping community. I’m sure she appreciated being in this cozy sanctuary with people she’s come to know and love instead of being dunked in a frozen creek, more in line with a Waypoint gathering.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about baptism and its importance and meaning, and it reminded me of a story from my ordination. Eight years ago, I stood before the Los Ranchos Presbytery to be examined for ordination. For those of you who may not know what I’m talking about, a Presbytery meeting is a monthly or quarterly gathering of the Presbytery, which is a regional governing body of Presbyterian churches and ministries, where business is handled and voted on.

I had gone through the years-long process to become ordained, I completed seminary and my CPE hospital chaplaincy unit, and now I must be approved with an exam before the whole Presbytery. Now there’s a bit of tradition here–for a long time, this practice was known for being an opportunity to really grill a candidate and scrutinize their theology or statement of faith.

I read my entire statement of faith before the assembly, and as the moderator opened up the floor for questions or comments, a minister member came to the microphone and said, “This is a nice statement of faith, but I recommend that you get rid of it, don’t use this moving forward.” He then, before the Presbytery, went on to criticize my grammar, pointing out unnecessary commas, long sentences, whatever seemed to bother him really, to the point where the moderator interrupted him saying, “Pastor do you have a question for the candidate?” That’s about the equivalent of getting your hand slapped in Presbyterydom.

So he got off his grammar high horse and got to his serious question: “It is not very clear in this statement what you believe about baptism. Can you clarify for us what you believe?” Ok, now I was in the hot seat. I paused, collected my thoughts, and gave him my answer that I thought was sufficient enough for me to get voted through that night.

It was a wild experience, and thankfully I did receive quite a few kind congratulations to balance it out. But that question he finally got around to asking, that prompt to articulate what I believed about the sacrament, did challenge me in a good way. And I think it highlights how there is such a depth as well as a diversity of meaning when it comes to baptism, for we are trying to describe the mystery of sacred realities in earthly elements.

In baptism, we remember God’s loving claim over all creation; we remember Christ’s power of new life; and we celebrate the Spirit’s presence in us as well as its unifying of the Church. Baptism seals our truest identity—we are claimed in love by God. And, fortuitously enough, baptism is directly tied to the feast that much of the Church celebrates today, Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, for Baptism introduces us into the Kingdom, or Reign of God.

When we read the Gospel stories, there is perhaps no more prominent metaphor that Jesus references than the basileia theou, the kingdom of God. For a long time, biblical interpreters and theologians have attempted to understand what this metaphor means; most likely, it refers to God’s saving reign within creation, transforming all things in love and righteousness, inaugurated in Jesus, to come in fullness in his return at the last days.

In recent years, many people have wondered about a potential dissonance between that meaning and the imagery of a kingdom–doesn’t the concept of a kingdom evoke problematic realities like domination, patriarchy, conquest, and inequality–the very opposite of the reality that Jesus, the liberator of the oppressed preaches?

I’m just curious, have any of you wondered about that? I would guess Pastor Louise has, just because I’ve heard her translate that phrase as Kin-dom of God.

I had such a lovely privilege to spend the last three weeks teaching the faith formation class on Celtic Christianity. One of the themes we discussed in that class is how Celtic spirituality presents an alternative, even a critique, to the dominant stream of Western Christianity that would be institutionalized by the Roman Empire in the 4th century.

The Celtic Way had an inherent nature-affirming spirituality, perceiving a closer intertwining between the divine and earthly. All creation is filled with God’s presence, and in essence, all things possess goodness and sacredness. Yet this view became decisively marginalized in the birth of the doctrine of original sin, which says that from the moment we are born, we are inherently sinful–in essence, we and all creation are separate from and even profane in the sight of God.

It is this brand of Christianity, grounded in original sin, that would define the West as it became enshrined in the Roman Empire. It is this low vision of creation that would fuse with an imperial consciousness, cosigning the conquest of people and land, now in the name of empire and God. It’s much harder to justify the abuse and exploitation of fellow humans and the land when you see them as sacred beings.
So in this marriage with the Roman Empire, the Church began to morph from a marginalized community committed to radical love and hospitality to a powerful institution committed to spreading its message and influence, often through force. This powerful, beautiful mystery that Jesus of Nazareth spoke of, called the Kingdom of God, thus began to be seen as expressed through the expanding influence of the Church in conjunction with earthly kingdoms and empires.

There are many examples of this through the centuries, but perhaps the most glaring would be the Doctrine of Discovery and its history, which was operative as Columbus sailed the ocean blue. As European kingdoms embarked on distant lands in the Age of Exploration, monarchs appealed to the blessing of the church as they claimed rights over “undiscovered” territories and their indigenous peoples.

Here’s what Pope Nicholas V said in a public decree, addressing the King of Portugal in 1453: “subjugate the pagans and any other unbelievers”… “reduce their persons to perpetual servitude”, taking their belongings, including land, “to convert them to you, and your use.”

This ecclesial declaration would undergird the Enlightenment colonial enterprise, and a few centuries later, this Discovery Doctrine would become the legal framework for American colonialism in North America and abroad.

I’m going to assume we’re of the same mind that colonialism is, morally and theologically, to use an academic word, a trainwreck. Even though we may accept that today, it still has consequences.

Here’s the tragic truth. Not only has Christianity helped shape colonialism, but in turn, colonialism has shaped Christianity, as it has most of the world; for at least 1700 years, our understanding of who we are, our baptism, really, has been at least somewhat clouded.
There is a movement around the world called decolonization, which attempts to not only liberate nations and people from colonial control, but also to go further and analyze and undo the ways that the history of colonialism shapes our thinking and assumptions, our institutions, our cultures, and our economies.

Lauren and I are grateful for many of our friends who have come to celebrate with us today, and over the years, they’ve probably heard me say, “Don’t worry, I’m the most unreligious pastor you know.” I think many of you who know me know that I kind of struggle with Christianity, not only for the evils of our past but the evils done today in the name of Christ. Maybe you feel similarly.

So for me, decolonizing Christianity is a compelling prospect; it’s a helpful tool for clarifying who Jesus is and who we can and should be.
Our passage today gives us a helpful rubric for thinking about how we might decolonize our faith. This parable of the Last Days, God’s judgment of all people, in some ways functions the way Micah 6:8 does in the Hebrew Bible–it gives a clear and decisive picture of what God expects from humans.

Amazing grace always has the final word in judgment and salvation, but here we see God’s intent for creation. It’s rather clear–those who are considered righteous, counted among the kingdom, are those who nourish the hungry and thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those imprisoned. That is, they show compassion and solidarity with the most afflicted and oppressed.

Suspiciously, there’s no measurement of the faith in one’s heart, there’s no review of when and where one said the sinner’s prayer; there’s no evaluation of one’s belief system or personal piety.

Jesus even identifies himself with the poor and marginalized–if you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me. I think Jesus does this because, in part, he doesn’t see humanity through the prism of original sin and total depravity, but rather through the light of sacredness, that all are made in God’s image, all possess inherent goodness of the divine.

So one important focus for decolonizing our faith is rethinking how we see the world, and turning our focus from sin-management to sacredness. Perhaps because of the worldview that Augustine established, that we unavoidably inherit a nature of sin that separates us from God–Christian faith has often emphasized meticulous tracking of sins under the watchful eye of an all-powerful God who hates sin.

Of course, sin is real and is important to mitigate in our lives, but sin is not the main focus of our existence. It’s not the plotline in our story. The plotline is sacredness, the life of God imbuing us and all things–we need to reclaim an understanding of creation and ourselves that’s grounded in goodness, the intimacy of God with and within creation that we see in Genesis 1 and 2, rather than the image of cursedness from the fall in Genesis 3.

When we see that all people and all things possess sacredness, not only does that enliven our understanding of our intimate connection to God and nature, but it challenges what is always the colonial mindset of superiority, that we have a license to subdue or exploit these people or this forest or that watershed for our gain.

When we’re able to reorient ourselves to sacredness from sin management, naturally, we land at our next decolonizing strategy: compassion over control.

For much of our history, the Church has mimicked this imperial disposition towards control: we’ve emphasized believing the right things, doing the right things with your body, loving the right person, and performing the right practices of faith. In many instances, what was considered wrong was punished harshly. Jesus got into real trouble with religious elites when his ethic of compassion exceeded their religious control. He saw people for who they were and loved them.

Controlling what people think or how they live, or maybe more commonly these days, attempting to control the future–often compassion for the other comes at a price.

Yet compassion is the heartbeat of God. Compassion, seeing and loving the human dignity and needs of others, is always a challenge to any system of hierarchy and control. Yet this is the kind of community, the kingdom, into which we are baptized. One of our Celtic teachers summed it up rather simply: “It is not so much what we believe about Jesus that matters. The important thing is becoming like Jesus–becoming compassionate.”

Could you imagine what the trajectory of the world may have looked like if the church held to this maxim and fell less into the trappings of power and privilege? Could you imagine how we might impact the world today if we tried?

So friends, today we remember, we decolonize our baptism. We celebrate this seal of the Creator’s marvelous grace–Christ’s abiding love and presence in us and all things. We claim a seal of the one Kingdom to which we belong–a kingdom of humility, truth, and love that guides us in the way of boundless hospitality, compassion, and justice.

All thanks be to God.