Keeping the ‘Baptism’ in Anabaptism

 When I applied for the pastoral position at my current congregation, during one interview, I asked the Search Committee when they’d last celebrated a baptism. They thought for a moment. “Years,” they answered.

Many Anabaptist congregations are like my current one, celebrating baptisms only rarely. In five years of ministry, I’ve presided at about one baptism per year, which is more than some of my pastoral peers.

Anabaptist churches are defined by their relationship with baptism: a symbol of voluntary participation, where individuals request a ritual of commitment instead of having one thrust upon them at a mandatory age. Baptism must be a choice, and is only made once, for life. During the Radical Reformation that birthed Anabaptism, many believers made this choice, renouncing the priest’s baptism they’d received at birth and requesting, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, to be baptized by another believer.

The declining popularity of baptism is linked to the word choice, an almost sacred word in secular Western culture. Everyone wants to choose, to decide, to have control over what and how they consume. Choice is one of the highest cultural values—evident in the many advertisements appealing to customizable products that give you what you want, when you want it.

As choice meets pluralism, baptism becomes a weightier decision. Choice now means accounting for all world religions and selecting one spiritual path with total certainty. For many teenagers nearing the traditional Anabaptist age of baptism, choosing baptism feels like a fraught decision requiring absolute certainty of the nature of divine truth. Choosing baptism has become just one more consumer decision on an endless list. Framed as a once-in-a-lifetime decision that binds you to a certain relationship with God, it’s nearly impossible for anyone in our fear-of-missing-out culture to confidently request lifetime membership via baptism.

It’s not only adolescents who are wary of baptism. Many Anabaptist adults were raised with an experience of baptism as choice-but-not-a-choice. Youth of a certain age were required to take a baptismal preparation class and there was heavy social pressure to “choose” baptism. These adults, now raising children in the church, carry a deep fear of denying choice to their children. Choice has become even more important than the ritual itself. This was the church environment I was raised in, and the primary message of our baptism education was “you should never feel pressure to be baptized.” But this message implicitly suggests baptism is not important.

Anabaptist churches need a new way to talk about baptism that balances the weight of choice with the reality of choice paralysis. A way to emphasize the ritual as a symbol of a spiritual journey and not an exclusive membership in one small denomination. A way to see baptism as integrative to spiritual growth instead of a sign of full maturity.

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A Prayer during Hearings for Supreme Court Nominees Accused of Sexual Assault

The Sunday after Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony and the public re-traumatizing of all survivors of sexual assault in the U.S., my congregation, like many others, was hurting, confused, struggling, trying, wondering, searching for words. We spent some time in prayer, and this is the prayer I offered (as best I remember it):

 

Please join me in a time of silence for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

 

 

 

 

God we give thanks for the silence-breakers.
God we give thanks for the women who are survivors of sexual assault.
God we give thanks for the men who are survivors of sexual assault.
God we give thanks for the trans and gender-nonconforming people who are survivors, in so many ways.

Make our churches instruments of healing and recovery.
Teach us to lament. To listen to the laments of survivors.

We pray that we will have softer ears,
that we will become better listeners to survivors,
that we will learn to center the stories of survivors
and in doing so to create a more just world.

May we enter the public dialogue
practicing support and advocating for survivors.
May we speak healing and, when we make mistakes,
as we inevitably will in our attempts to learn justice, give us
the courage to learn from them and become better allies and better disciples.

And all God’s people said: I believe women.

Congregation: I believe women.

And all God’s people said: I believe survivors.

Congregation: I believe survivors.

Amen.

Four Things the Church should be Saying about Adultery

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The same is true of every instance of adultery. The church tends to preach that there is one formula for dealing with adultery (or, in some traditions, one formula if you’re a woman and another formula if you’re a man). But adultery can’t be “solved” by applying the right formula. It’s a more complicated and emotional conversation. Nearly all of us have firsthand or secondhand experience with adultery—in a present or previous relationship; between parents or siblings or close friends. But we rarely talk about the frameworks that allow us to move through and beyond the pain of adultery.

Here are four guideposts the church should raise on the impact and consequences of adultery.

1. Adultery is a choice.

Adultery might not begin with a choice­—it may begin with a business trip, some anger over an unresolved argument with your spouse, a stressful day that makes you feel out of step with yourself. But somewhere along the way, a person makes a choice. And that choice—to increase the intimacy of one relationship—has real consequences for other intimate relationships, not just with a lover but with children, friends, mutual acquaintances of the parties. Adultery is not something that “just happens” because of the alcohol or sleep deprivation or stress. It is a choice a person makes that is more likely to happen under these conditions (see also, “Hamilton”).

When the Bible says “Do not commit adultery” it means “be wary of making a choice that has profound consequences in other areas of your life.” The word that’s used here is also used interchangeably to mean “idolatry.” To commit adultery is to commit idolatry. The church often twists the metaphor to demonize adultery, but what it should do is spiritualize our sense of choice. The problem of idolatry is a problem of priorities. It’s de-prioritizing something you said was central to your life in order to elevate something that belongs on the margins of your life. The problem of adultery is one of distorted commitments—de-prioritizing a relationship that you chose (often in a public ceremonial confession) to place at the center of your life. It’s a problem of your choices falling out of line with your stated values.

Recognizing the element of choice helps us recognize when conditions are shifting to make that choice more likely. We can be transparent with ourselves about what increases the likelihood of choosing adultery. That might mean choosing not to consume alcohol when you’re under stress; choosing to schedule a nightly call with your spouse when traveling; or choosing to confront a person and say, “Hey, I’m feeling like there’s something between us that’s disrupting my committed relationship, I need to change the way I relate to you.”

2. Adultery is a symptom.

Adultery is about more than sex. Sexual activity is complicated and is absolutely what makes adultery so emotionally raw and severe. But adultery is more than sex (it’s also lies, vulnerability and lack thereof, control, power, and more). Sometimes, in some relationships, adultery is not the primary problem, it is the symptom of the primary problem. The primary problem is disengagement.

In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown calls disengagement the root cause of many interpersonal conflicts. She writes, “We disengage to protect ourselves from vulnerability, shame, and feeling lost… When we’re disengaged, we don’t show up, we don’t contribute, and we stop caring.”

Sometimes, adultery is a symptom of disengagement that took place years ago. Sometimes, it’s a symptom of something that needs to change in your work life, your marriage, your practices of Sabbath, your self-esteem. Adultery points toward the reason one—or both—parties disengaged from a relationship. Even if the adultery ends, the relationship will remain damaged if disengagement isn’t addressed. 

3. Adultery is about power.

Again, this is true that sex is only one element of adultery. And because adultery is a choice that eases the symptoms caused by a different problem that we are afraid to confront.

Sometimes, adultery is less about the desire for sex than it is about the desire to show power, control, domination, or perhaps affirming one’s power to attract another, when one is feeling unattractive. One is more likely to commit adultery one feels powerless. Consider Janelle Monae offers a helpful frame in the song “Screwed” from her recent album Dirty Computer: “Everything is sex/except sex, which is power/You know power is just sex.”  (This quote has been attributed to others, but Janelle Monae uses it powerfully.)

4. Because Adultery is about power, it’s about Empire and our place in Empire (and community).

Call it Empire, call it Capitalism, call it The Powers that Be. Adultery is about the way we endorse and resist systems that dehumanize others. When adultery is a means of power, it dehumanizes. If adultery is about disengagement, it conditions us to dehumanize and numb out the needs of others because we cannot confront our own needs. Adultery cultivates a mentality that encourages us to endorse hierarchies, to exercise control over others, to disregard the wellbeing of others.

Janelle Monae offers more insight here, in the same song, “Everything’s is sex/Except sex, which is power/you know power is just sex/Now ask yourself who’s screwing you.” The song is about waking up on the morning on November 9, 2016, and coping with the first waking day of knowing that a narcissist and a misogynist is now the head of government.

But it’s also a song about the way sex becomes a site of gaining or losing power. Think of the currency sex has in a high school–having it can make a teenager (particularly boys) feel more powerful; not having it can make also make a teenager feel more or less powerful. Sex is a site for negotiating, finding, losing, discovering, enjoying power. Sex can be a way to exercise power; a way to take power from someone else or, at its best, sex is about sharing power in a way that makes each party feel more powerful and empowered in their own body.

Powerful and empowered bodies are a threat to Empire. Powerful and empowered bodies are bad for the economy. Powerful and empowered bodies know their worth; they demand healthcare and paid time off; they view themselves as more than producers; they shout “Me too;” they expose CEOs and executives as misogynists and demand business leaders be held to ethical standards; they demand police be accountable for damaging the bodies they pledge to protect and serve, particularly black and brown bodies. Powerful and empowered bodies are a threat to those who make their wealth by exercising power over others.

What about adultery, then?

Healing the pain of adultery has to account for these four realities. And because every adultery is different, the way these four realities are accounted for, confronted, or unresolved by both parties in the committed relationship will determine the healing that comes or fails to come in a relationship.[i]

Healthy sexuality honors the dignity of human life. Healthy sexuality is about seeing ourselves with dignity, seeing the dignity in others, and being gentle and responsible in recognizing that dignity. Healthy sexuality is the opposite of idolatry—it helps us to align our bodies with our values, in the way that allows us to be honest about who we are and to live into a vision of flourishing.

Healthy sexuality is one piece of creating healthy relationships. And healthy relationships create a culture of abundance. Healthy relationships us to a beautiful, life-affirming Promised Land.

This post is based on a sermon I preached on the 7th Commandment: Do Not Commit Adultery on August 5, 2018.

 

[i] There’s more to be said about polyamorous or non-monogamous relationships, which are become increasingly common and/or public. The church has not done enough homework to have that conversation yet, but let’s dig into that in the next decade.

Anabaptists, Abortions, and Moral Ambivalence

Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.

Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-to arguments about why the other side is wrong.

There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?

However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views. Continue reading

When I Say Christian, It Sounds Like B*&^%

This is one thing to be grateful for in the Trump presidency: Donald Trump identifies so crassly and insincerely as Christian that when he speaks no one can pretend it has anything to do with an actual faith in a living God who could assert any sort of authority (moral or otherwise). Even the right-wing evangelicals who support Trump make no pretense of endorsing his lifestyle or faith. Instead, they speak of him as an example of “God using flawed means to accomplish noble ends.”

It’s a small blessing for the progressive Christians who read Jesus as a revolutionary peasant who condemned the extreme wealth disparity of his time and gave away free healthcare and food. Continue reading

3 Easy Things to Do if You Want to Help with Family Separation but Don’t Know How

If you want to help and you have no idea what to do–that’s okay, and it’s completely normal. It means your heart is working, and you’re trying to translate it to your voice and your hands.

When I arrived at church last Sunday, the weight of all the border issues, pushed into our faces and all at once, threatened to pull all of us down. What to do? What needs to be done? Slowly, together, we built a list of ideas that felt manageable, important, incremental. I  volunteered to work on a list of resources and actions. As I built the list, along with others, several things became clear: my church wasn’t the only one struggling with how to respond. And our response was stunted by years of being systematically under-educated about immigration issues.

The list had to be short—choice paralysis is real; manageable—despair paralysis is real; and informative—ignorance can be paralysis, too.

The result is a list that I hope is to be just long enough to offer options and just short enough to avoid overwhelming.  Continue reading

How we Keep Going When “Not Inhumane” feels like the Only Thing we Can Accomplish

Is this what we’ve come to? Defending the moral claim that families should be together and children should not be in cages? After days of denying the family separation policy and pleading helplessness to change the law, early this afternoon Donald Trump said he would suspend the Homeland Security policy of family separation at the border.

Trump offered no details on the new policy and maintained his tough-on-crime rhetoric. (BTW, almost half of all undocumented immigrants have not broken a criminal law; many immigration violations fall under civil law, which means there’s no crime against the public and should be no prison sentence attached to these violations). As with so many political moves, we’re left with the promise of justice but no evidence of it. Through popular pressure, the Trump Administration made a public promise to not be deliberately inhumane–but that’s far from a promise to treat migrants humanely. Continue reading