Friday, July 17, 2015

Study War No More, or He Taught Me How to Watch, Fight, and Pray? Bellicose Bible-Grounded Christianity As No Christianity at All

Another of those captcha-like postings designed to prove that a real human being and not a monkey is typing these meandering musings:

A few weeks back, I dream that Steve and I are in Freiburg. To be specific: we've stopped at a filling station, a Tankstelle (I use the German word, since these are something altogether more organized and carefully thought-out — in typical German fashion — than mere filling stations of the American sort) outside Freiburg.

When we stop, we discover that the Tankstelle has inside it a casino in which people are happily playing slot machines and happily gambling at gaming tables of one sort or another. There's an inn with a restaurant and rooms to let attached to the Tankstelle. All is gemütlich in a crazy dreamlike way: a casino in a filling station?! With an inn attached?

Someone tells us that the people doing the gaming are theologians. There's a conference of theologians taking place at the filling station-cum-casino. The theologians chose this place as the site of their conference because of the casino and gaming tables.

I say to Steve, "Playing and theologizing at the same time. Interesting." 

Then I think a moment and say, "Playing and playing would be more accurate, wouldn't it?"

And then I awake, thinking what a clever thing a mind can be, the sly tricks it can play, as one dreams.


Somehow related in a way I'm not quite able to explain to myself or you: after I had this dream and woke chuckling about it (Steve and I have actually been to Freiburg, near which he has family roots, and it was in no way like my dream experience of it), I began to think of my baptism. I think of my first baptism, that is.

I was first baptized as a boy, a third-grader aged 8 or 9. I don't remember the year. I had thought the date was recorded in my parents' family bible, but I have that before me as I'm typing this, and don't see this information written anywhere in the bible register. I do find my own childish handwriting, using carefully printed square letters and not cursive. I see that I filled in my parents' birthddates and places of birth (complete to the A.D.), and I see my mother has written in the date and place of my father's death. In the same child's hand, I've recorded the names of my maternal great-grandparents, but not the paternal ones. My mother has written in the names, dates of birth, and places of birth of my brothers' children, correcting the heading to read not "Children's Register," but "Grandchildren's Register." 

As I open the bible to the register section, a tiny obituary of my mother's friend Mary Waller King, cut out with pinking shears, falls out, along with a photocopy of a 1911 letter of a cousin of hers to a woman who was the letter-writer's aunt and my great-grandfather's first cousin; a prayer written by my mother's mother, asking to be useful to God, pleasing in God's sight, mindful of those less fortunate; the program of my brother's funeral. All kinds of other stuff (in the bible of my mother's parents, which I also have, the stuff includes locks of hair from the children in the family, saved when their hair was first cut, pressed flowers from the funerals of my grandmother's siblings with their obituaries pinned to them, etc.), but no record of my baptism.

I do remember the details of the baptism, vividly so. I remember being taken with other Sunday School students into the sanctuary of our Southern Baptist church one spring morning (and, since it was springtime, then this did happen in 1959, when I was 9 years old) — our parents were in their own Sunday School classes and were not told that their children had been shlepped to the church for a revival-type sermon — where an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preacher threatened us with hell. 

Where he told us we were all headed to hell and could avoid the fires only if we gave our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ. For which exchange, we'd receive eternal glory. We'd go to heaven. 

Having heard the bargain, it seemed entirely logical to me to do what I was told I must do — accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior and put hell behind me. Nothing was said in the hellfire-damnation sermon about baptism or joining the church.

When my parents found out that all of this had happened to me and the other children in the church, they were furious. They were furious that I had no notion of what was entailed in my choice to be "saved," that I did not know that this choice also meant I was to be baptized and become a church member. The very fact that I knew none of this indicated, they said, that I was not yet mature enough to understand the decision I was making.

Being the stubborn person I've always been, I persisted. Heaven and hell were at stake, for God's sake! How could they possibly not understand this?

And so one warm Sunday morning in late spring, all of us children who had been scared into salvation in that youth mini-revival a few weeks before were marched, robed in white, one by one into the church's baptistery and baptized by our minister, who stood immersed up to his shoulders in the pool, with a man to assist each baptizand and then lift him/her out of the pool once she/he had been dunked as the baptismal formula was spoken.

As all this took place, the choir sang — the words and music sound in my head right now as if it's all happening over again — "O Happy Day!":

O happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away! He taught me how to watch, fight, and pray, and live rejoicing every day. Happy day, o happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away!

Years later, whenever I replay these scenes in my head, here's what strikes me: isn't it telling that our white Southern Baptist church, born as it was out of a war to defend slavery, did not choose to use as the baptismal hymn that Sunday an African-American spiritual often used at baptisms in black Baptist churches, "Down by the Riverside"? Philip Doddridge's "O Happy Day," a hymn by a white Englishman, is now often sung in black Baptist churches as well as white ones. But in my childhood, "Down by the Riverside" was, I surmise, considered a black spiritual, and I never heard it sung in any Southern Baptist church I attended as a child:

Going to lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside. Going to lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside, ain't going to study war no more.

Two baptismal hymns, both deeply connected to Baptist churches in the American South. One with white roots, the other with black ones. One views baptism as the initiation into a life of spiritual warfare: "He taught me how to watch, fight, and pray." The other views baptism as the renunciation of swords and shields and studying war.

Both can, of course, lay claim to representing biblical texts. There are "two sides" to Christianity, after all, both sides well represented in the bible, one bellicose, the other pacifist. Bellicose religion is every bit as well-grounded in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures as is the call to renounce living by the sword that makes us die by the sword.

The history of Christianity and of Christian discipleship might well be viewed as a constant conversation between various conflicting strands of thought and practice, all of which can validly lay claim to the Jewish and Christian scriptures and to Christian tradition. Whether all of these strands of thought and practice can validly lay claim to Jesus himself, though, is a vexed question that demands careful attention, and is at the core of some of the most pressing theological conversations today, including the conversation about affirming the full humanity of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

For my part, if I were to be baptized again today, a third time (I was rebaptized when I became Catholic, since the priest accepting me into the Catholic church in 1967 doubted that any Baptist church could understand or use a correct baptismal formula — but my Southern Baptist baptism quite certainly immersed me in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost), I'd very definitely choose "Down by the Riverside" as the hymn to be sung on that occasion.

I've long since had enough of bellicose "Christianity." Though I can also recognize and appreciate that Christian discipleship involves engaging in spiritual warfare, I also just as clearly recognize and appreciate that this warfare calls at the very same time for the absolute renunciation of swords and shields, of weapons designed to wound and maim.

Doesn't it?

The video featuring Grandpa Elliott singing "Down by the Riverside" in New Orleans is from Playing for Change's Song Around the World Series at YouTube.

No comments: