Why Baptism Matters for the Work of Dismantling Racism
Claudia Aguilar Rubalcava
Claudia Aguilar Rubalcava is serving as interim pastor at Park Hill Congregational Church in Denver, Colorado.
Like the water
of a deep stream,
love is always too much.1
Perhaps my favorite definition of the word sacrament is “the visible sign of an invisible grace.”2 Coined during the Council of Trent by Augustine of Hippo, the North African theologian on whose theology much of Western Christianity laid its foundations, it remains one of the most used definitions in both the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant traditions. God’s grace was poured out in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but like Thomas, we need sensorial evidence to seal it in our bones. With elements common to every person—fermented grain, fermented fruit, and water—Jesus makes this grace tangible to all.
“I Am A Man” detail, Marcellous (with BLK75) Lovelace, 2014, mural in Memphis, Tennessee, photo by Joshua J. Cotten
Witnesses of the same event can interpret it very differently. The same piece of art may elicit a myriad of interpretations. Furthermore, one object can carry various meanings for the same person at different times in their life. This is why we can read our favorite book over and over again and still find new meaning. Baptism works in a similar way. The “Baptism and Reaffirmation” section of the Book of Common Worship of the PC(USA) tells us that baptism “holds a deep reservoir of theological meaning, including dying and rising with Jesus Christ; pardon, cleansing, and renewal; the gift of the Holy Spirit; incorporation into the body of Christ; and a sign of the realm of God.”3 Depending on our individual contexts and perspectives, these meanings can function in different ways throughout our lives. We may also find new meanings to add to the list as we explore the theological breadth of baptism. In this article I add the following to the Book of Common Worship’s list: baptism as invitation to a life of chaos, remembrance, and renunciation of sin and evil.
As we explore the relationship between baptism and racism, we will dive into the well of theological meanings associated with baptism and see how each of them compels us to dismantle racism.
Baptism as Pardon, Cleansing, and Renewal
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Jewish first-century culture understood baptism as cleansing, so it is logical that this was one of the first meanings attached to baptism by early Christians. The etymological meaning of the word sin in both Hebrew and Greek means something like “missing the mark” in archery. Racism misses the mark of loving our neighbors. American society missed the mark in the genocide of First Nations peoples, in the institution of slavery as a source of labor and the main force behind economic prosperity, in the illegal settlement of lands that belonged to other people, in the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, in the prohibition to speak Spanish in public schools, and much more. We continue to miss the mark: Black and Brown siblings are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, the public school system behaves similarly to a caste system where people are assigned a place in society at birth, access to healthcare and nutritious food is limited in communities of color, and the people in Flint, Michigan, still don’t have access to clean water.
To be pardoned is to be invited to choose a different path, not as a precondition for receiving forgiveness, but a response to it. Pardon frees us from the burdens we carry that keep us immobilized and charges us to “go and sin no more.” In baptism, we are forgiven not only from our racism, but also from the racism of our ancestors and the institutions that have nurtured us, including the church. As the heavy load of ancestral sin is removed from us, our hands and feet move freely again in the direction of liberation for all people. It is this forgiveness, unearned grace, that enabled both the apostle Paul and Archbishop Oscar Romero to work tirelessly for the people they once persecuted or ignored. Paul, who once persecuted and killed Christians, became a missionary, spreading the good news in Asia Minor and Europe. Oscar Romero used his position as archbishop to advocate for people living in poverty in El Salvador, rebuking the state-sponsored violence that kept Salvadorans living in fear for decades.
Baptism as Incorporation into the Body of Christ
I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.4
For those of us who affirm infant baptism, there is much to say about this particular meaning associated with baptism. Before we can utter a word, grace and love are already there. Not just the grace and love of God, but of the whole community who pledges to care for the baptized and nurture their faith until they can confirm this covenant on their own.
The community claims that from that moment forward, no one can separate us from the love of God, and that in our baptism, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28), for all are one in Christ Jesus. This passage does not intend to erase our differences but to remind us that our differences should not be an obstacle for us to gain full citizenship in the kingdom of God. Because we have been claimed as children of the Divine Creator, we are worthy of a life in which our existence is not threatened because of the color of our skin or our place of birth. I imagine that is what our siblings who participated in the civil rights movement meant with the picket signs that read “I am a man.”
Every time we administer the sacrament of baptism, we claim that the baptized become children of God, members of the family of God. We are also vowing to care for each person in our midst as our own. Racism breaks the sacred family ties we share with our fellow humans. When we participate in racist systems or act out of bias, we fail to live into the promises we’ve made to each other. It is as though we are adding exclusive clauses in tiny print at the bottom of our “All Are Welcome” signs.
I wonder how policies and budgets might change if every time we recognized our implicit bias, when we suddenly became afraid of walking by a Black man or caught ourselves suspecting the Latina browsing the supermarket aisles was shoplifting, we remembered the congregational promises we make to every child who comes to the baptismal font. I wonder what would happen if we considered a child crossing the border or a mother applying for food stamps not as strangers or issues but as members of our community, part of the great family of God. I wonder what would happen if we thought of every person as a sibling in Christ.
Baptism as the Gift of the Holy Spirit
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Early Christians sought to resist and disrupt the status quo imposed by imperial Rome. They were regularly accused of being drunk. They were persecuted and often put to death. I can imagine that such individuals may have been loud, joyful, fiery, and defiant, since few are put to death for being quiet or polite. It turns out that disruptive joy and defiant resistance can be gifts of the Holy Spirit. John, in the book of Revelation, wrote to the church in Laodicea: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15–16). He called for early Christians to be hot—fierce and bold in defending and living out their faith. Heat was deemed a positive attribute by early Christians. This heat manifested in sharing all their possessions; practicing radical welcome, even against their personal preferences; and celebrating the Eucharist by feeding the hungry. They learned the languages of their neighboring communities to share the good news with them. When the uncircumcised Gentiles like Cornelius wanted to join the community, they fought their own biases, following the voice of the Spirit that told them “not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12b). The practices of the early church reflect their transformation by the Holy Spirit. They lived their prayers with abandon: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
I can imagine that lukewarmness spread when Christianity became the state religion in 323. This marked the beginning of Christianity as mainstream and state sponsored, which meant it became easier for the church to forget its once boisterous and countercultural way of existing in the world as it assimilated to dominant politics and culture. The Christianity of empires and kingdoms prefers homogeneity over diversity, because it is easier to control those who act the same and think the same. Without diversity, people learn to seek individual well-being over communal well-being. Empires “divide and conquer” because many individuals seeking their own well-being are not as strong as a diverse, united community working for one another, however small it may be.
Baptism unites us with the first believers, the ones who learned one another’s languages, confronted their biases, and shared table kinship with the unpopular and unlikely. When we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism, we remember the charge to early Christians to be hot, not lukewarm, because that is God’s will. The Holy Spirit compels us to seek the well-being of our community even when the members of the community do not look like us, think like us, or believe like us.
Baptism as Death and Resurrection with Christ
willing to die,
into the commonwealth of its joy.5
I was baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic tradition. It was a significant event, though I cannot remember it. As an adolescent, I decided that I did not want to commit to a life in a faith tradition that had not convinced me quite yet. As a young adult, I became increasingly involved in a campus ministry. I was struck by love—love that was like the water of a deep stream—and needed to do something about it, the same way two lovers decide to scream to the world they want to be together for the rest of their lives in marriage. I decided to be baptized again—in my defense, I made this decision years before listening to the copious lectures that made me feel guilty about this decision.
My (second) baptism took place in the Gulf of Mexico, in waters disturbed by a tropical storm that had hit a few days before our arrival. I am not a great swimmer; I do not even like the ocean. But the waters of baptism called me. I was dunked by my campus minister. And in both literal and metaphorical ways, it felt like death: for a second, I felt the current was taking me away, but I also died to myself as the sole source of trust. Someone else, my campus minister, was holding my life in her hands.
If we die to ourselves and trust our lives into the hands of our community, then we, as members of the community, can make sure that we live lives that our siblings can trust. We are holding in our hands the lives of our siblings, which means we are responsible for protecting their lives when they are threatened by the police, by the neighborhood watch, by dictatorships, by walls in the desert, by polluted water, by oil spills and nuclear waste.
Poet and activist Julia Esquivel once wrote:
“I am afraid rather of that life
Which does not come out of death,
Which cramps our hands
And slows our march.”6
Resurrection is a muscle. It must be exercised or it suffers atrophy. When we have lived a life of comfort, we are afraid of losing status, of being judged, of losing our country to strangers, and of seeing our traditions and language and food disappear. We are afraid of picking up our protest signs and singing for justice. We are afraid of joining the march. When we die to ourselves, we are free from fear of being judged by others and free from fear of repercussions. We remember that the march is led by the cloud of witnesses who marched before us. We remember, like Julia Esquivel, that life is worth living because we do not fear death anymore.
Baptism as a Renunciation of Sin and Evil
The sacraments call us to reject and resist evil whenever we encounter it. As instituted in the Book of Worship, the person administering the sacrament of baptism in the United Methodist Church asks the candidates for baptism or their parents: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”7 Similarly, Presbyterians ask: “Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?”8 Our baptismal vows call us to resist evil. When taken seriously, this call shapes our whole lives and defines our priorities, allegiances, and actions.
Racism is one of the evils we witness and engage in day after day. It is all-pervading as it infuses with its sting every sphere of our lives: education, politics, economics, the arts, and our relationships. It is individual and systemic, and much like sin, racism is expressed in word, thought, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone.
In baptism, we are renouncing the sin and evil that surround us in our individual lives and in the world. We are called to resist injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, not just when they affect us directly and not just when they come from individuals we can identify.
This means that we are called to confront and unlearn the prejudices and phobias we have inherited from our ancestors in order to resist racism at a societal and cultural level. We are compelled to resist with our ballots, to advocate for those on the margins, and to engage in political action with our purchases, social media posts, and artistic expressions. We are to name and renounce the evil from which we benefit day in and day out, the evil on whose shoulders our society was built.
Baptism as a Sign of the Realm of God
The vision of the realm of God for the first believers, as expressed in the books of Acts and Revelation, included people from every nation joining the feast of the Lamb. This vision was not imperialistic, as it was not seeking to impose the faith of the first believers on other peoples, but rather, it emerged from a desire to share good news—the news of God-with-us—with those who had been living under bad news for so long.
As Christianity became politically and socially mainstream, these messages fizzled out: grace became something to be earned, the love of the three persons of the Trinity became the love of the male parent, and the vision of people from every nation coming to the feast of the Lamb morphed into an excuse for conquest. Baptism became a tool to “civilize the savages” that ignored the personhood of the baptized, stripping them of their own faith traditions. Baptismal vows were used to keep people in their place, obedient to their masters. Baptism became a tool of white supremacy and colonialism.
We have made a relic out of the sacraments, which have become old-fashioned rituals meant to fill time during worship or serve as an excuse for enjoying some hors d’oeuvres and cake after the joyous occasion. I find it fascinating that many of us Protestants spend more time making sure marriages and confirmations—which are not sacraments to us—take place under careful consideration, with regard to the profound consequences of engaging in such activity. But we do not spend much time exploring the profound, life-changing consequences of engaging in communion and baptism with those who want to partake.
Every time persons come willingly, with their whole selves, to the waters to be baptized, a new crack appears in the ceiling racism makes because in the sacraments, we are covered in grace and invited to live into grace. In baptism, we see glimpses of the life our Heavenly Parent intended for the whole creation. The love of the triune God is modeled for us, teaching us a new way of living in a never-ending dance that respects the uniqueness of each person and in unity that embraces the distinctiveness of each person. That includes every aspect of one’s identity: race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, cultural expressions, and language. In baptism, we hear: “This is my beloved child in whom I rejoice.”
We are enough. Our neighbors are enough. In baptism, we recognize that shalom, the flourishing of all creation, is possible. We recognize that shalom is not just a promise but a charge. Justice, then, becomes more than an item in a liberal agenda, but something we pursue as we try to live into the reign of God that our ancestors tasted on the day of Pentecost.
Baptism as Invitation to a Life of Chaos
Every Sunday at Mercy Community Church, an Atlanta congregation made up mostly of people experiencing homelessness, pastor Maggie walks towards the center of the room with a plastic pitcher full of water and dumps it violently into a cheap salad bowl that sits on a stool. Water spills everywhere, splashing everyone and making a mess as Maggie says the words, “Remember your baptism.” Despite the chaos, I always notice people sitting deliberately near the makeshift baptismal font, as if holy chaos invites them.
The Christian journey is not a walk in a pumpkin patch. Jesus never promised that life would be easy for the early believers, but he did promise he would be with them until the very end. I would dare to say that life is more chaotic for those who choose to follow Jesus: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, releasing the prisoners, visiting the sick—all are counterintuitive and countercultural, but irresistible, as if holy chaos is inviting us.
Dismantling racism involves those very same actions, but on a large scale: making sure everyone has access to healthy food, paying fair wages so that people can afford clothing and shelter, questioning policies that disproportionately keep Black and Brown men in prison, advocating for equitable access to healthcare. Holy chaos invites us again to live into the baptismal tides that may require us to do what we would never imagine possible.
Baptism as Remembrance
Wade in the water
Wade in the water children
Wade in the water
Don’t you know that
God’s gonna trouble the water
Don’t you know that
God’s gonna trouble the water9
In the movie series Frozen, the character Olaf is a wise theologian of a snowman. In the sequel of the movie, he declares that water has memory. Some scientists agree with this claim. The waters of baptism contain the stories of our ancestors, the waters of freedom, and the waters of their tears of oppression.
We remember Jesus in the sacraments. In baptism, we remember how his ministry started, and in the Eucharist we remember the end of his ministry. In baptism, we also remember God’s creative, redeeming, and sustaining work throughout history: the separation of the waters from the dry lands during creation, the splitting of the sea to create a path for liberation from oppression, the streams of nourishing water that came from rocks as the Israelites braved the wilderness, the water that becomes wine, the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal. We remember that God has been pouring God’s love on us time and time again, making a channel of grace with life-giving water.
But we also remember the destructive power of water in biblical narratives. We remember the flood that nearly wiped out all life on earth, the waters that fell on the Egyptian soldiers and killed them. Water, like grace and love, is mysterious and awe-inspiring, but also powerful and capable of destruction. We remember that yes, water is life-giving, but also life-taking. The waters of baptism instill love and grace in our souls, but they can also destroy systems of oppression, no matter how ancient they are. The waters of liberation are as ancient as the universe.
In baptism we remember both the creative and the destructive power of God’s grace. We remember Harriet Tubman singing “Wade in the Water” as she instructed slaves into freedom, for those held captive would rather be swallowed by the ocean than to live in slavery. We remember that our call is to build up bridges and tear down walls, to build up honest education and tear down rose-colored views of history.
In the vastness of space
your words disappear
and you feel like swimming in an ocean of love,
and the current is strong.10
Baptism is the joyful celebration of grace poured on us. Grace that transforms us, invites us to a life of fullness, and changes our lives to the point of no return. Cesar Chavez, Roman Catholic activist, said:
Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.11
Once grace is poured on us, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-love the person in whom God delights. You cannot hate the person who has been formed by the Creator. You cannot oppress people who are your siblings. You cannot take oppression because you know your worth. Once we have been touched by grace, nothing is the same, for we have seen glimpses of the reign of God.
“Theologian Karl Barth said that it’s not the wrath of God we should fear, but rather the love of God, . . . because ‘the love of God will strip away everything that stands between us and God.’”12 Racism separates us from God, creation, and each other. Racism destroys everything it touches, including the people and institutions that perpetuate it. Racism keeps us from loving each other completely, which keeps us from loving God completely. We can guilt-trip each other for eternity. We can threaten each other with the fires of hell for either resisting or being complicit with racism. But this is no way to achieve the oneness promised to the first believers, because wrath will not take us there. Only love can do that. The water of baptism is a symbol of that love, inviting us to swim, play, drink, and get carried away by an ocean of grace.
- Wendell Berry, “Like the Water,” Famous Poets and Poems website, accessed April 29, 2022, https://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/wendell_berry/poems/134.html.
- James Donovan, Catechism of the Council of Trent (Dublin: Duffy, 1829), 100.
- “Baptism and Reaffirmation,” in Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 403.
- John Ylvisaker, “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 488.
- Berry, “Like the Water,” https://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/wendell_berry/poems/134.html/.
- Julia Esquivel, “I Am Not Afraid of Death,” in Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1994), 67.
- “The Baptismal Covenant I,” Book of Worship, accessed April 29, 2022, www.umcdiscipleship.org/book-of-worship/the-baptismal-covenant-i/.
- Book of Common Worship, 409.
- “Wade in the Water,” Spotify, track 3 on The Blind Boys of Alabama, Higher Ground, Omnivore Recordings, 2002.
- “The Afterlife,” Spotify, track 2 on Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What, Legacy Recordings, 2011.
- “PBS Newshour Classroom,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, March 30, 2022), last modified March 30, 2022, accessed April 13, 2022, www.pbs.org/newshour/classroom/.
- Mike Ferguson, “A New Suit and an Act of Contrition,” Presbyterian Mission Agency, last modified February 25, 2019, accessed April 22, 2022, https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/a-new-suit-and-an-act-of-contrition/.