Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Politics of Baptism

(This is a reflection of mine from a few years ago)

In December 2011 David Cameron gave a speech in Oxford commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. In that speech he said very clearly “we are a Christian country.” What he meant by that, he said, was, “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”[1]

It was a pretty reasonably speech, its tone was not extreme, but David Cameron was nevertheless, wrong. I don’t think this country has ever been a Christian country, in the sense that it has never been run according to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, of any true spiritual teacher.

To understand this we have to understand a bit more history than David Cameron does. When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the favoured religion of the Roman Empire Christianity lost any chance of remaining true to its radical roots. Christianity became more and more defined by creeds, and less and less as a radical way of life. Once persecuted, soon it became the persecutor of pagans and heretics, abandoning any Christian sense of forgiveness, compassion and non-violence. Once the religion of peasants and those on the margins, now it became the religion of Emperors, kings and armies. Once preaching that the last shall be first, now it modelled its own organisation on the hierarchical Roman Empire.

As Christianity moved north the story was much the same. Take Clovis, the king of the Franks. In the midst of a battle he decided to call upon the Christian god to help his victory. He did win the battle, and so converted to Christianity. He was baptised, along with 3000 of his soldiers in one mass baptism in 496. [2] The Christian god was now simply a totem to call upon for a barbarian king who murdered his rivals. The Franks became a “Christian nation” in name, but it has to be asked what part of this has anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth? Europe was certainly “Christianised” but was it ever really converted? Was it converted to the values we find in the Sermon on the Mount?

In the centuries that followed it was simple assumed that if you were born in Europe you were a Christian. And so we see the practice of baptising babies, declaring babies to be Christians, not because they had any understanding of Christianity, but because they lived in a “Christian country.” Christianity had become a national and ethnic identity, and very little else. It was in only in monasticism that the idea of Christianity as a radical way of life was kept alive.

But this understanding began to fall apart in the Reformation. For the first time the masses had the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions about what they found there. And many came to the conclusion that what was passing as Christianity had very little to do with what Jesus was actually about. The most radical came to the conclusion that the Trinity was not in the Bible, and people like Michael Servetus were persecuted and martyred for holding this opinion. But that wasn’t the only issue. Some radicals came to the conclusion that it was only now that they really understood Jesus, it was only now that they were truly becoming Christians, and so to mark this as adults they were baptised again. These groups came to be labelled as Anabaptist, simply meaning they were baptised again.

This was both theological and politically radical. By being baptised again they were making a radical political statement. They were saying they were not Christian by virtue of being born in a “Christian country” – they were only Christian when they themselves committed to the way of Jesus. They were undermining the idea of a “Christian nation” that had existed since Constantine and Clovis. And that was very dangerous, because it suggested their loyalty was not ultimately to the state, but to a higher cause.

What we call Anabaptists were a diverse group of radicals across Europe, but one particular movement is part of our story as Unitarians. In Poland in the sixteenth century a movement arose that is sometimes called Socinianism after Faustus Socinus – although the movement actually existed before Socinus joined it, and it was officially called the Minor Reformed Church, or simply the Polish Brethren. These were radical Anabaptist Unitarians.

To understand these Anabaptist Unitarians I want to tell the story of one man whose name was Jan Niemojewski. Jan Niemojewksi was a Polish nobleman and district judge. He studied in Germany and while there caught the spirit of the reformation. When he returned to Poland he met Martin Czechowicz, a radical preacher, and he began to take on Czechowicz’s teaching. Niemojewski was baptised and committed to living a life based on the Sermon on the Mount. He used his considerable riches to found a Unitarian church; he freed all his serfs; he resigned his office as a judge as it might have involved him using the death penalty; he took Jesus’ words seriously and sold his property and gave the money to the poor. When a meeting of noblemen was called he appeared, not dressed finely with a sword as all other nobles were, but dressed plainly and with no sword. Soon after he and others relocated to the town of Raków, which became the centre for Polish Unitarianism, and he was active in the movement for all his life. [3]

Sadly, the Polish Unitarian movement was persecuted out of existence. And I can’t help wondering if we lost something absolutely vital in losing them. You see, we always talk about Unitarian history, and Unitarianism, as if it’s all about the doctrines – even in a negative sense: we don’t believe in the Trinity; we don’t have creeds; or that old phrase “whatever you want to believe, you can believe it.” And we talk about this as if that’s what matters. That’s not what matters! That’s just the process of getting some things out of the way. If a belief truly gets in the way of your spiritual progress, then put it aside. But that process of putting beliefs aside is not what Unitarianism is all about. We put these things aside to a get a clearer picture of what really matters. And what really matters is that faith is a life-transforming experience.

Jesus’ ministry began with a transforming spiritual experience at his baptism, where he saw a dove and heard a voice saying “you are my beloved.” He then went into retreat in the desert. And when he appeared and began to preach, what is it that he said? His first message was this: repent! [4] Now we Unitarians can be quite uncomfortable with a word like “repent.” It feels like a word connected with shame and guilt. We can think it means to feel sorry for the things we’ve done wrong. But repentance is much more than that. It means turn around, the Greek word used means “turn-about” like a soldier, it means transform, it means free yourself. We’re talking about that transformation that Jesus lived after his baptism, that transformation that Jan Niemojewski lived after his baptism.

James Luther Adams, the greatest Unitarian thinker of the twentieth century said, “The element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people. Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius. We need conversion within ourselves.” [5]

I’ve told the story of the conversion Jan Niemojewski because I think that’s what Unitarian stories should look like: not just a story of finding a spiritual home, but a story of turning around and living radically different values. We need to re-discover than dynamism of our spiritual ancestors. We need that emphasis on conversion, that emphasis on living radically that we find in the Polish Unitarians. We need conversion – a conversion rooted in direct experience of the Holy. It’s not a matter of do-gooding out of a sense of guilt, it’s a matter of finding freedom in a spiritual path that makes us realise what’s really important, and what isn’t. And it begins in that experience of knowing our own belovedness, our own divinity, as Jesus realised at his baptism. When we are converted, to knowing our own belovedness, we begin to find that freedom, that dynamism. And we find a new faith. Not faith as a set of beliefs, but faith as a radical spiritual way of life.

So when David Cameron is talking about us as a Christian country he is talking about the Christianity of Constantine and Clovis – a Christianity that endorses war, a Christianity that endorses the agendas of the elite. He is not talking about the Christianity of Mary’s song in the Gospel of Luke (known as the Magnificat) that says that God lifts up the poor and sends the rich away empty. Rather, our country lifts up the rich and sends the poor away empty; our country sees the richest continuing unscathed, as David Cameron has rejected the Robin Hood Tax to tax banking transactions and yet the poorest are suffering the harshest cutbacks. David Cameron is not talking about the Christianity of the Beatitudes that says “blessed are the peacemakers” – when this country continues to promote arms sales to regimes who continue to oppress their people, [6] and when this country continues to spend billions and billions on its own weapons of mass destruction.

Our country stands in need of baptism, of deeper conversion to the way of justice, compassion, love. As do we, we stand in need of baptism. Maybe not literally (although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the practice of adult baptism) and maybe not once and for all; maybe every day we need that baptism – that spirit descending on us – telling us that we are loved and challenging us to live as if everyone else is too.

May that spirit of love and spirit of challenge guide us each day.

[2] Kee et al, Christianity: A Social and Cultural History (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998), 165.
[3] Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism, Vol. I: Socinianism and its Antecedents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947) 336-337.
[4] Mark 1:9-15
[5] Stephen Lingwood, The Unitarian Life (London: Lindsey Press, 2008) 167


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