Baptism of Christ and White Christian Nationalism
On January 2, I agreed to preach on the Baptism of Christ for January 10 for the Toronto Community of Christ congregation. I did not anticipate that I would need to respond to a major US crisis in doing so. Here is my sermon. Please note that I had to complete the sermon about 30 hours after the attacks on the Capitol Building, so that the sermon could be translated into French and Spanish in time for Sunday’s service. As a result, some of what I say about the event might not be correct now, but seemed correct at the time of writing. For example, it turns out that police did resist those who broke into the Capitol Building, but were not prepared to resist a large violent mob.
Before Christmas, I kept reading articles and watching advent-themed videos that asked me to consider “what was being born in me” today? I struggled to answer that question, but felt sadness at the increasing numbers of deaths I was seeing all around me and that touched my own family. I kept asking myself where I saw something good emerging, but that that was a hard question to answer. I could only see grief and loss and suffering related to the pandemic. I was also reminded that the birthing part of “being born” was never an easy thing, but an exhausting physical struggle to give life to something new that involved a great deal of pain, some screaming, and a lot of blood. So, what was being born? For me, the answer that emerges is complex.
This past Wednesday, armed supporters of the President broke into the US Capitol building with little resistance from the police. Their goal was to disrupt the certification process for the recent US elections as an act of terrorism. For a country that holds democracy so dear, this was devastating to watch. As a clergyperson speaking to you today and as a professor who will teach students tomorrow, it is difficult to speak to such a moment in time, where we are still learning what happened and is happening and processing our thoughts and feelings.
It happened on January 6, the day when many Christians celebrated the feast of Epiphany, where we remember the wise men who visited Jesus and Herod the tyrant, who did everything he could to fight off threats to his power. Echoes of that story seemed to play out on Wednesday. It is and was an awful story, but not a unique one.
Guided by the materials put out by the World Church during the last year, we have been asking and discussing the question “Are we moving toward Jesus, the peaceful one?” In answer to this question and in the wake of Wednesday’s events, Community of Christ social media people posted Doctrine & Covenants section 163 verse 3B, which reads “Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace.” It is in the vein of this scriptural charge that I want to speak today.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there were fears that American Christianity had been too influenced by women – that the church had become “feminized.” As a response to this, parts of the white Christian community in the United States embraced a militant and hyper-masculinized interpretation of Jesus that is not found in the Gospels. It is a false gospel of social hierarchies, of power over others, of God as an overlord ruling a harsh world of loyal despots. If you followed the news this week, you probably saw white folks breaking into the Capitol building carrying flags that read “Jesus 2020” together with confederate flags that symbolize slavery and oppression of Black people, and flags that declared lies about who won the US election. These flags are evidence of this militant brand of white nationalistic Christianity, which has thrived in recent decades.
I see many on social media surprised that violent political rhetoric of the past few years has turned into actual physical violence, together with the insistence that “this is not who we are.” These claims do not resonate with my experience, as I have seen all of these same people in my community, flying the same flags, showing up to peaceful demonstrations armed with guns and dressed in military-style fatigues. They claim they are there to defend our community from peaceful protestors, as though we must be protected from the hard truths the protestors are telling: of the difficulty of being people of color in the United States and in our community, of the experiences of police harassment and brutality.
Meanwhile, I see many voices at the margins of society reminding us that this is who we have always been. When people without power have protested at the Capitol building, they were not met with the same police welcome as those on Wednesday. Black folks have been met with police violence. Protesting nuns have been met with police violence. Native Americans have been met with police violence. Disability activists have been met with police violence. These are old truths that we have forgotten or denied: when people without power and privilege ask for their dignity and humanity to be affirmed by those with power and privilege, they will be met with violence. It is almost our unspoken national policy. Those breaking into the Capitol building on Wednesday, however, were not seeking affirmations of dignity or humanity, but rather demanding that reality should conform to the lies they had been told by a tyrant desperate to hold onto power.
I want to ask where is God in all of this? But I wonder if it might be more pressing to ask who is God in all of this?
This image of a demanding God who justifies violence is not limited to the fringes of Christian extremists, but one that is deeply familiar to me. This is the image of God I grew up with, the God I have worshipped for a good chunk of my life: a physically strong and powerful perfected man who defeats his enemies through the use of force, who blesses the loyal obedient and labels everyone else as wicked, a God who created social hierarchies of men over women, and white people over everyone else, who rejects those who are different because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. To be clear, this is not the God I believe in today, but I wonder if this image is also familiar to you?
In this version of God, God looks more like Herod, who upholds in the Roman Empire an elaborate system of oppression, than Jesus who spent so much time with the oppressed of that same empire. Does our image of God center on God’s purpose of reconciliation, or is our image of God based on something else?
At the beginning of Mark, we see that Jesus’ ministry kicks off not with a demonstration of physical power or force, but with baptism. Jesus visited a marginalized man from the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance. John the Baptist wore uncouth clothing and ate unconventional foods. He was a person on the edge of society, though many realized that the baptism he offered added meaning to their lives. Jesus also sought meaning from this man without social capital. Those who wanted baptism confessed their sins and went into the water. They told the truth about themselves, owning their self-deceit and the harm they inflicted on themselves and others.
And when Jesus came out of the water, God declared that Jesus was loved. And so his ministry began with declarations of truth and affirmations of divine love and connection. This, I think, is the peaceful Jesus that stands in opposition to the militarized version, the Jesus that recognizes the value and gifts of those at the edges of society, the Jesus who is unafraid of the truth and unafraid to speak his truth to those at the edges and hear the truths of others. This sounds like peacemaking and empathy to me. This sounds like justice and accountability.
People have interpreted the story of Jesus’ baptism in many different ways throughout Christian history. Baptism became Christianity’s initiation ritual. In fifth century Italy, baptism sometimes took place in a dedicated building called a baptistery. The ritual took place by candlelight during the night before Easter, creating a dramatic setting. In this context, baptism was seen as a contractual agreement between the person being baptized and Christ and the sculptures and mosaics that decorated baptisteries emphasized these ideas.
Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, created in fifteenth century Italy, is a work of art that is familiar to many students of art history. Jesus is represented as having a perfect youthful body, as though he was a marble statue of an ancient Greek hero. This isn’t exactly the same as the militaristic Christ, but in both versions, there is a lot of emphasis on Jesus’ masculine body and strength. This painting emphasizes order and Renaissance ideas about perfection, where baptism is part of God’s perfect and orderly kingdom.
As a Mormon kid, I was taught that baptism represented death, burial, and resurrection, and baptism was my ticket to heaven.
I’m not sure that Military Jesus, Contract Jesus, Greek Hero Jesus, or Heavenly Ticket Jesus are readings of the baptism story that offer much wisdom in this moment as we try to figure out how to follow Jesus, the peaceful one during a time of national crisis.
If we are interested in walking the Jesus way, in forming ourselves as disciples of a peaceful Jesus, perhaps what happens in the story of the baptism is a model to follow. We can begin by owning up to our own difficult truths through the practice of confession. Where have we deceived ourselves this year? Are we holding onto an image of Jesus that hurts others and ourselves? Where have we gone wrong? What needs healing? Can we find the courage to engage in this kind of reflection?
As far as my own confession goes, 2020 was not my best year. And for much of it, I was not my best self. Early last summer, I failed to reach out to a friend when she needed me and I lost that friendship. To avoid more stress, I retreated into myself and held others at a distance, which created feelings of disconnection and sadness. Someone hurt me and I let my feelings fester so that I created a grudge. I had a disagreement with a family member and I still need to have a conversation with that person to restore the relationship. I was not a good communicator with my spouse. I was not a good colleague, doing much less than I normally would to make relationships work smoothly. I held onto anger and struggled to push through it.
Though I do not wish to excuse myself, I was also not alone in this. I imagine that many of us can point to days, weeks, and months where we were not our best selves, where we were trying to survive the pandemic, deal with anxiety and depression, push life forward, and maybe eat a vegetable. I think that we should have compassion for ourselves and others in the many things we have experienced and survived during this difficult year. But naming what went wrong for us individually allows us to consider how to make things better in the present. We can hold ourselves accountable for our actions.
And at the same time, I also hope that my best self will show up a lot more in the coming months. I like being my best self. I imagine that many of us do. So how do we get back there? How do we once again grow a well of patience to draw from and find the strength and energy to reach out to others in our families and communities? How do we locate excitement and enthusiasm for moving through the world once more? How do we get there?
The story of Jesus’ baptism says that after the confession and immersion in the river, Jesus had a profound experience of the love of God. I wonder if the urgency of local and national crises and the demands of the pandemic, on top of the usual difficulties of life, have caused you, like they have caused me, to feel more at a distance from the sources of love in your life. Whether we experience the love of God through individual spiritual practice, during time with friends and family, or in worship with our church communities and others, we have probably experienced much less of it this year. Loving connection grounds us, keeps us accountable to those we love, and fortifies us against the kinds of fear and fear-mongering that can be abused by powerful people. Perhaps the story of Jesus’ baptism invites us to rekindle, repair, and reconcile relationships that have become strained or estranged this year. I am my best self when I act and speak from a place of feeling loved, valued, and like I belong. I want to get back to that place of loving belonging.
I think that the events of this past week are, in part, a culmination of what we, as a society, get when we mistake lies for the truth, loyalty for love, violence as a necessary part of peacemaking, and false images of God with the God of Reconciliation. Perhaps what is being born in us is a desire to confess what has gone wrong in the last year and to repair relationships in an effort to create more meaningful connections with others. May we also pay attention to the longing for peace and justice that emerges from so many places in our communities and be willing to hear those who are telling uncomfortable truths. May we find Jesus, the peaceful one in our work as we do.
Pray with me.
God of Reconciliation,
Help us to tell the truth about our lives and communities
and to be willing to hear others do the same.
Call is into loving connection
Remind us to love our neighbor
Even when that feels impossible.
Guide us toward reconciliation with ourselves and others
And away from false images of you, God,
that create so much harm in our world.