In case you haven’t been following, a US politician recently commented that waterboarding is “how we baptize terrorists.” Naturally, the Internet outrage machine went into full swing.
So why is this comment offensive? There is no doubt that some of the outrage is simply that this particular politician is typically polarizing: any comment draws some kind of response. But for Christians, baptism by waterboarding is blasphemous for several reasons.
1) Baptism is not violently coercive. Waterboarding is an act of violence, whether or not you view it as an act of torture. Baptism is an act of grace- a sacrament. The conflation of violence with baptism should be repugnant to every Christian.
2) The comment betrays an unhealthy relationship between evangelicalism and militaristic nationalism. The relationship between church and state has always been a complicated one in the US. With so many religious and non-religious interests involved in the founding of the US, one can find proof for just about anything in regards to the relationship between church and state. But what is incredibly clear from Scripture and history is that nothing good comes from the spread of values through violence. Especially when those values are of Christ. Baptism is the welcome of folks into Christian community- waterboarding is the advancing of a national foreign policy. Unfortunately, the Church has often benefited from a relationship with an aggressive US foreign policy. Making the world safe for democracy has often made the world safe for the Christian Church. This is to say nothing about foreign policy or views about the military. The Church should just be aware that a lot of damage has been done by drawing too close a connection between US foreign policy and the missionary nature of the Church.
3) The comment is just plain sick. On Easter Sunday, I baptized two of our young people who came to me wanting to be baptized. It was joyous. It was exciting. It was the celebration of new life in Christ. Meanwhile, there is a great sense of glee taken in the quote at waterboarding “bad guys.” Part of the militarism of the Christian faith is that kicking butt is to be celebrated, and there is something righteous about killing bad guys. While force may in fact be necessary in halting the most evil actions, it ought be done with a sense of regret… not pride. Whenever the New Testament uses battle images, it is to show how different the Christian struggle is than national struggle. Jesus is clear that living by the sword means dying by the sword. Isaiah is clear that swords are meant to be used for gardening, and that the redemptive reign of God will lead us to a place where won’t study war anymore. Even more challenging is that Jesus is clear that our attitude toward our enemies ought to be that of love.
Now, I don’t hold the secrets behind pursuing justice and how to think about war and just peace. What I do know is that a disservice to the Church has been done by taking the joyful welcome of God’s children in baptism and making it a statement of force, power and violence. So what next? Do we feed the outrage machine? Or is there a better way?
Maybe we need to recover the ministry of reconciliation. Being reconciled to God means being reconciled to others. One cannot love God without loving neighbor. Can we commit to loving our neighbor today? Can we take one action step to pray for our enemies, to pray for reconciliation and to remember our baptism in being shaped by the love of Jesus?