Earlier this week I posted a reflection regarding my frustration that my denomination, the United Methodist Church, is so reticent to ameliorate its stated position on homosexuality.
Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’
Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.
Our baptismal summons.
Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.
Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,
Barth reiterated the fact:
there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.
More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.
In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.
Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.
I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.
As my sympathies with Barth’s criticisms suggest, I would caution that too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.
We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.
We baptize to build a new polis, a new society in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.
What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.
This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.
Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.
Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.
This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.
If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.
I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.
I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.
Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.
Once we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’
For, as James KA Smith says,
‘baptism smashes open our families of birth and ‘opens us up to the disruptive friendships that are the mark of the Kingdom of God.’
Perhaps this sounds sweet to you, but the early Church took it quite literally, raising children in their parents’ stead if those birth parents failed to live a faithful Christian life. Even today, if taken seriously by Christians it would bear difficult ethical implications. I’ve written elsewhere how baptism, not questions of individual rights and choices, is the proper lens through which Christians should confront an issue like abortion as Christians. If more Christians took seriously the baptismal stipulation that we are now members of one another, then there might be fewer women left vulnerable and alone in a situation where abortion seemed a necessary choice.
I remember when Ali, my wife, and I began the adoption process for the first time. In an initial interview, the social worker asked us why, when we had no known biological need to do so, we were choosing to adopt.
Our answer was quite sincere and it’s one I recall every time I preside at the font: that, as Christians, we believe in baptism and baptism suggests that adoption is just as ‘normal’ a way as biology to constitute a family.
Because of baptism, so to speak, water is thicker than blood.