Letter to My Godson: On the Fourth Anniversary of Your Baptism

Dear Elijah, 

Trayvon Martin.

Eric Garner.

Botham Jean.

Michael Brown. 

Ahmaud Arbery. 

Breonna Taylor. 

George Floyd. 

Et al. 

I pray, Elijah, that by the time you’re able to read this letter and understand it, as a part of living into your baptism, you will have learned these names and the others— Lord, have mercy— that likely will follow. This fourth year of your young Christian life has not been good. Ahmaud Arbery was lynched because you live in a nation, Elijah, where black skin is a reasonable cause for suspicion. Breonna Taylor’s killers were exonerated because the perfect ideals that constitute our country and make the U.S. exceptional are still imperfectly realized. George Floyd’s killer killed him with impunity, on the street, staring at a video camera for nearly nine minutes, without any thought of being held to account, because the Power of Sin co-opts more than individual human hearts. What many today call “systemic” Christians since St. Augustine have named as original sin. 

This has not been a good year for other reasons, Elijah. You have missed school. We have missed visiting you just as your Dad has missed preaching and placing the eucharist in people’s hands. Your Mom has had to start a new job…online. Over two-hundred thousand people have died this year, Elijah. In a death-determined culture committed to the lie that we can get out life alive, we know not what to make of six figure tolls. Many this year have died alone, because of the contagion. The tragic irony, however, is that already we were a culture content for death to happen out of sight and out of mind, out-sourced to the appropriate specialists in the helping professions. The scourge though has been made calamitous because, at the very advent of it, the President chose to lie about its danger. 

He continues to do so. 

The lies are many. So much so, it often feels that we’re living the instantiation of Hannah Arendt’s observation about the nature of totalitarianism.

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses [will reach] the point,” she wrote, “where they will, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything is possible and nothing is true… The totalitarian mass leaders base their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one can make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they are given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they will take refuge in cynicism.”

The theologian who preached at your baptism, Stanley Hauerwas, once taught his young son whenever President Richard Nixon’s name was mentioned in school he was to reply, “Do you mean the liar?” I think it part of your parent’s commitment to your baptism, Elijah, that when you hear this President’s name mentioned in the future, along with the names of his enablers, you will respond likewise. 

Speaking of names, the name affirmed at your baptism, Elijah, hearkens back to the Old Testament prophet. In the course of obeying his calling from God, that Elijah discovered how false gods and political corruption go hand-in-hand, the former serving the latter’s purposes. In addition to battling the prophets of Baal, Elijah wrestled with melancholy over the people’s repeated failures to turn away from false gods and turn to the true and living God. Thus, Elijah had to learn to trust that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God is at work in the world. This, I hope you’ll learn, is the lesson of the story of Elijah and the still, small voice. 

That I cannot guarantee you will have learned this perhaps could call into question the prudence of our having baptized you when you were still so new to the world. By the time he neared the end of his voluminous Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth, a theologian important to both your Dad and me, had concluded that the Church of Jesus Christ should no longer practice the form of baptism in which Aldersgate United Methodist Church baptized you. In his final estimation, infant baptism had become “a mechanism for maintaining the continuity of the Church under Christendom.” That is, Barth believed infant baptism is a practice that allows those who render everything to Caesar to identify as Christians without rendering any substantive obedience to God. Infant baptism, in other words, produces designations like “church members” and “believers” in place of followers and disciples. In no small part, we should understand Karl Barth’s rejection of infant baptism in light of the Nazi regime he saw at close quarters, during which an entire population of self-identified Christians were complicit in a demagoguery which eventually made possible the extermination of millions of Jews. Barth acknowledged that the practice of infant baptism was the consensus of the historic Church; nonetheless, Barth’s judgement was dramatic, “This consensus needs to be demythologized. We oppose it.” 

Barth was concerned that “docetic” understandings of baptism; that is, sacramental understandings where baptism only “seemed” like a human act, had disastrous implications for discipleship and ecclesiology. For Barth, it was quite obvious from scripture and the witness of the early Church that baptism was an ethical act not a sacramental one. He even refused to use the word sacrament. Instead Barth believed that baptism is a sign that points, first, to “the work of this faithful God” and, secondarily but simultaneously, to “the individual’s life of faithfulness to this faithful God.”

Though your Dad and I had to sign on to the practice of infant baptism as part of our ordination, we both acknowledge Barth’s critique bites with not a little truth. This is the fourth anniversary of your baptism, Elijah. Just after you were baptized, our government imposed a ban on Muslims entering the country. Migrant families at the border were separated from one another and their children locked in cages. This year we learned from some whistleblowers who served in the government at the time that the cruelty of this program was itself the point. Prior to the second anniversary of your baptism, Elijah, white wing nationalists marched across my college campus with torches, shouting “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” After the mayhem, the President insisted “there were very fine people on both sides.” At all levels of engagement, the majority of those complicit in these acts self-identify as Christians. Therefore, Elijah, I’m sympathetic to Barth’s insistence that the Church retrieve a form of baptism that guards against the danger of confusing the Christian we with the American we or the Republican we or, even, the Democratic we. 

I realize that by beginning this way, I risk sounding self-righteous. However, given that we live in a time when many judge righteousness to be passe and many Christians dismiss righteousness as belonging to Christ and his work alone, I think the risk of sounding self-righteous to be worth taking. Grace, after all, should never be used to self-justify or excuse unrighteous acts. 

At your baptism, Elijah, your parents answered in your stead the question, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Notice the agency the question gives to evil, injustice, and oppression. They’re the subject of the verb. They “present themselves.” The older version of this question referred less ambiguously (and more honestly, I think) to “the Devil and all his pomp.” More is being asked of us here than simple issue advocacy. Likewise, it’s seldom noticed, Elijah, how the definitions to the terms used in this baptismal question (freedom, power, injustice, evil) are only made intelligible by the God in whose name we baptize. We do not bring with us to baptism our own conceptions of freedom, power, or justice and then, by water and the Spirit, pledge to pursue them on behalf of God. On the contrary, only God can reveal God. As Stanley says, “any knowledge of God we may have is and has been brought about the initiative of a sovereign God.” This means, Elijah, that living into your baptism is the means by which you discover the right meaning of terms like freedom and power. Baptism is the means through you learn to discern the true nature of injustice and evil, and baptism incorporates you into the only One with the power to resist them. 

Christians often disagree on the concrete definitions of justice just as they also differ over how to be “for” justice and what kind of justice they should foster. For some, “law and order” is the proper exemplification of justice. For others, justice looks like fairness and equity in the social and economic realms of our lives. In many ways this confusion is odd. For Christians, there should be no confusion about what constitutes justice for scripture is unambiguous. 

Jesus Christ is the justice of God. 

Evil, the Church Fathers said, is the “privation of the good.” Jesus makes clear that no one is good except God. But Jesus is also one with the Father. Therefore, evil is that which is incompatible with the witness of the Word of God to the One Word of God, Jesus Christ. And just as we know Jesus Christ by his benefits, we know his opposite in the world by his detriments. 

When it comes to matters of justice, Christians most often turn to the Old Testament, to the prophets or the Law. To the extent they consult the New Testament, it’s usually the Sermon on the Mount or the Letter of James. Paul, many Christians presume, is concerned with spiritual matters of salvation not justice in the here and now. 

This is not true. 

If I teach you anything as your godfather, let it be this simple fact.

For instance, if you spend some time with it— and if you read it backwards, especially— it will become clear to you, Elijah, that Paul’s Letter to the Romans is centrally about justice. Jesus in the Gospels illustrates what Paul in the Epistles articulates. And the Apostle Paul believes the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ Jesus makes all the difference in the world— for the sake of the world—- in thinking about justice. Take the word, justice. Your Dad is a good student of Greek, he knows. Paul uses the word over sixty times in Romans, more than any other place in the New Testament. Usually, Paul’s speaking of the justice of God. In Greek, it’s dikaiosyne theou. His meaning gets muted because typically dikaiosyne gets translated into English as righteousness, which we hear in terms personal piety, which then allows us to posit nonsense like “politics and religion shouldn’t mix.” Nevertheless, just as the name, Jesus, and the title, Christ, marry the personal with the political, dikaiosyne refers both to how we will stand one day before a holy God as well as the concrete act of justice in God’s world. Those who would make a distinction between “social justice” on the one hand and the Gospel on the other hand fracture and obscure Paul’s own proclamation. The Gospels make clear that both the political and the religious the authorities understood Jesus to be a threat to their incumbency, pursuing political power of his own, igniting revolutionary fervor, and fostering hope for justice for God’s People. 

They were not wrong, Elijah. 

This could not be more essential for you to rightly understand the Body into which we baptized you. So is this correlative: the religious and political authorities were wrong abut the means by which Jesus defeated his enemies and established God’s justice for God’s People. His disciples were wrong on that count too, and by and large his disciples still get it wrong. Today, many Christians insist on distinguishing between religion and politics or between grace and law. Through God’s ongoing and gracious care to provide for the presence of the Jews in our world, Christians are perpetually reminded that the Old Testament will not abide such a distinction. Neither does Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “Private Christianity,” Karl Barth said, “is not Christianity at all.”

In Romans 5, Paul speaks of the two regimes that rule all of human life: the Powers of Sin, Death, and the Law versus Justice, Life, and Grace. Through the obedience and dikaiosyne of the one man, Jesus Christ, Paul writes, all of humankind, enslaved under Adam’s disobedience and injustice, is graciously liberated for dikaiosyne and life. In Christ’s crucified body, Paul writes, God has destroyed the history of injustice that started with Adam’s unjust gambit to be like God, and in Christ’s crucified body, Paul goes on, God has delivered us into a different form of bondage. 

By the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are now “slaves to dikaiosyne.” 

Bondservants of justice. 

This is what I meant, Elijah, by saying that living into your baptism is the means by which you discover the definition of terms like freedom and power. Freedom, for example, is not freedom from constraint, as many Christians who have resisted mask mandates during the pandemic contend. Freedom, Paul says quite clearly in Romans 6, is perfect obedience to God, obedience for the sake of God’s justice, the God who became our neighbor and loved us as himself. “The source of man’s freedom,” Barth writes, “is also its yardstick.” Barth goes on:

“Trying to escape from being in accord with God’s own freedom is not human freedom…Human freedom as a gift of God does not allow for any vague choices between various possibilities, for the giver of man’s freedom is the Lord.

The sovereign God alone saved man from the alienation and depravity of which he was and still is guilty. There is no need whatsoever for this divine act to be re-enacted by man in order to be efficacious. This is not to say, however, that man is confined to the role of an approving spectator. Human freedom is the God-given freedom to obey.”

Freedom is freedom to obey Christ the Lord. 

That freedom is freedom to obey Christ the Lord means we can never seek a good end by evil means. I believe this is exactly the mistaken transaction many of our fellow Christians have made in the months and years since your baptism. We must also have little patience, then, for those who would suggest that the Christian life should be little more than the exemplification of the golden rule. While the world in 2020 certainly could use an infusion of kindness, Barth and Paul make clear that Christianity demands a good deal more of us than that we be nice. It’s precisely when we think Christianity is about being nice or, worse, friendly that we are left without any basis to draw the sorts of distinctions to which our baptism commits us. Where we think we must be “nice” to both sides, resistance to injustice is not possible. Indeed, the freedom to obey the justice that is Jesus and resist its opposites will often risk that we appear not to be nice— as much of this letter, I’m sure, will strike many as not very nice. 

More important than niceness, God calls us to bear witness to the truth. “Do you mean the liar?” then is not an idiosyncratic way to be subversive, it’s an expression of the freedom that is obedience. The obligation for Christians is not simply to care for others. The obligation for Christian care is that we care for others in the manner of Christ. 

If you take seriously the life your parents pledged for you, Elijah, if you bear witness to these convictions, you’ll no doubt encounter those Christians who will tell you that the justice which looks like Jesus is not how “the real world” works. Ironically, such Christians usually think they love Paul. So watch their shit-eating grin disappear when you tell them that their “realistic logic” is but an example of what the Apostle Paul laments as living in, with, and under the Regime of Sin rather than, as Christ has made possible, as a slave of dikaiosyne. The suffering love of the crucified Christ is not simply the means by which God in Christ has delivered us into a new regime, Elijah. Suffering love is the means by which God reigns and contends against the Powers of the Old Regime. Grace is a power that the Living God wields in the world, and the member of Christ’s Body, Paul says, are God’s weapons of dikaiosyne.

“What’s that look like, being a weapon of dikaiosyne?” you’d be wise to be wondering.

The difficulty, Elijah, is that the weapons of dikaiosyne look a lot different than Luke’s light saber or the Mandalorian’s pulse rifle.  

Every morning of the pandemic, Elijah, my church has gathered online for Morning Prayer. Much of the liturgy we take from the Book of Common Prayer. One of the prayers, the Great Litany, includes this petition,

“That it may please you to rule the hearts of your servant Donald J. Trump, the President, and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and show mercy, and walk humbly before you, We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.”

In no small part, Elijah, what it means to live by faith is to trust that by praying this prayer, a prayer that runs counter to my every impulse and desire, I somehow become a participant in the Living God’s campaign against the Powers of the Old Regime. By water and the Spirit, you have been conscripted to be formed as a weapon of the dikaiosyne that is Jesus. I’ll be honest— it’s not easy, kid. It’s not a strategy for success, and, if taken seriously, it’s certainly not a recipe to win friends and influence others. The upside, as Stanley writes, is that through baptism we have been given “a way of life that frees us from the kind of endemic narcissism that would otherwise possess our lives.” 

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