The power of baptism
We have a Love Feast coming up at the end of the month. I love Love Feasts for a few reasons: communion, new covenant members, but also because of baptism. Baptism marks the point of turning for the Christian, the point of repentance, the point of entering into new waters and new life.
In his baptism, Jesus “fulfills all righteousness.” In a sense, he repents on behalf of all of Israel and really all of the world. While John was calling for people to be repent to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven or of God, Jesus’ baptism was a way, perhaps, of ushering in the whole world into a new era of reconciliation and repentance. Jesus’ baptism, then, like his impending death, would be vicarious, embraced on behalf of others. Jesus models the kind of humility and grace by which the whole new creation participates. He fulfills all righteousness, or all justice, or all rectification in his baptism, which inaugurates his ministry, which culminates in death. The baptism begins the path to crucifixion, the ultimate act of rectification, or making all things right.
In making all things right, Jesus made our baptisms symbols of our repentance and following. This is why babies don’t need to get baptized because Jesus was baptized for them. It’s why the baptism itself is a conscious choice for believing adults to make, marking their commitment to the revealing of the Kingdom of God, their commitment to partnering with God to reveal God’s completed work—God’s fulfillment of righteousness, God’s making all things right.
Why we baptize adults
In contrast to other traditions, our baptisms don’t happen to babies or young children. Traditionally, the baptism is the way the covenant of God is given to our children (it’s the New Testament counterpart to circumcision, which is the old covenant). Catholics teach that baptism forgives sins, enters one into the new creation, incorporates them into the body, and binds them spiritually to all other Christians. It is an act of forgiveness and inclusion. I think all of that is wonderful, in fact, but I do not think a baby is at risk being unbaptized because I think the work of Jesus already fulfilled all righteousness.
On top of that, I believe that state churches in Europe abused the baptism, and coerced families into citizenship, because the very life of their baby was at stake. This is one of the reasons why the Radical Reformation occurred; and why Anabaptists re-baptized people as adults. Because while the Catholic teaching is sound, it is made better when an adult can declare, in public, that Jesus is Lord.
In resisting the coercion of entering the church before we are conscious of our choice, and also in declaring Jesus is Lord, a believer’s baptism is a protest to the powers and a declaration of allegiance to God. It is a wonderfully inclusive ceremony that creates a new humanity and a new family in the moment.
Ethnic enclaves stifle the power of baptism
But unfortunately, despite the wonderful effort, even Anabaptists fall prey to the weaknesses of those they were resisting. In case you were wondering, modern day Anabaptists are Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren (Church of the Brethren and Brethren in Christ), and there is still a tendency among them to eschew the inclusion of the baptism as the moment of inclusion. I am reminded almost every time I am in their company that I don’t belong because I wasn’t an Anabaptist, or a Mennonite, or a Brethren In Christ, when I was born.
A key conviction for Anabaptists is separatism. They resisted being included into the state church by protesting state baptism, and as a result, they created their own ethnic enclaves. Those enclaves are often monolithic, and in rural areas where Anabaptists thrive, they are also often white.
In fact, I recently wrote an article for the Brethren In Christ History and Life journal where I made this same observation in passing. I wrote about why I loved being Brethren In Christ, but added this caveat: “the denomination makes a strong distinction, perhaps unintentionally, with those born into it and those who have chosen to be in it (as does this very prompt and this publication—I’ll never be cradle BIC, but I’ll never not be reminded that I am not, it seems).”
This was my experience growing in Central PA, where the Anabaptist tendency is all over the countryside. It was made worse because I was an Egyptian, and so my brown skin definitely stuck out. I definitely wasn’t one of them. And I still feel that way at predominantly white gatherings. But it’s not just about race, either; if you’re from California you might feel the same way.
It seems to me that the radicality of Anabaptism is undone by its insistence on creating monolithic communities, ones that are easily separated from the powers that be, especially in the United States, where religious freedom and liberty abound. And so while it really did start as a resistance movement, Anabaptism is at risk of just becoming a separatist movement that doesn’t resist much except the new people trying to get in. It can actually become anti-prophetic and anti-evangelistic.
Furthermore, the pacifism that is so often a hallmark of Anabaptists, can quickly become passivity, which at best, results in passive-aggression that hurts people, and at worst, enables abusers. Anabaptist leaders are often white men, which is very convenient. There’s nothing subversive about subserviently maintaining the status quo, which is an Anabaptist problem. Their alternative communities don’t work unless they actively challenge the status quo and don’t maintain it within their ethnic enclaves. And those ethnic enclaves keep outsiders out as I mentioned.
So it really is like they still paedobaptize, isn’t it? We haven’t really fallen far from the tree it seems.
Inclusion and evangelism is the way out of our bubbles
I guess this is why I’m still an Anabaptist though, because the movement itself can be so subversive because it doesn’t entangle itself with state affairs. It can be so radical because it doesn’t require a ritual at birth for inclusion. But it can be just a whitewashed separatist movement that really makes no impact on the world. It hardly cooperates with God in revealing that all things have been made right. It stays small, and dies off.
The key for Anabaptists is inclusion. It actually is evangelism, an insistence on growing and stretching and changing. For Anabaptists leaders, it means centering women and people of color because their very lived experience challenges how the Anabaptist ethic can work in the world. I am proud of Anabaptists like Drew Hart and Melissa Florer-Bixler for their new and interesting ways they’ve challenged Anabaptists but stayed in the fold. Here’s how Drew says it:
Anabaptism at its best is an anti-Christendom radical discipleship tradition. Reducing it to the safer label of "pacifism" (in my opinion) comes from white Anabaptist descendants embracing their own forms of comfortable Christianity.
— Drew G. I. Hart, PhD (@DruHart) January 13, 2020
I am in total agreement with Drew here; the lived theology of peace is so much different than the enclaved, cloistered theology of peace that is so prevalent. The one that won’t confront wrongdoing, hardly fulfilling all righteousness at all. So we need to be shaking up beyond our bad habits by newcomers.
Evangelism and inclusion is how Anabaptists can break out of their separatist communities. That inclusion will disrupt their homeostasis, and of course will feel uncomfortable, but it won’t kill them even if it does change them. Additionally, Anabaptist leaders, especially the ones that are citizens of the ethnic enclave, should step down and allow younger, diverse leaders to take their place.
Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening. In fact, I see denominations getting co-opted by Evangelicals, who insist on saving themselves rather than the world, and the combination of the cultural relevance insisted upon by Evangelicals and the passive-aggressive ethnic enclave tendency of Anabaptists is a deadly cocktail.
We need to consider both our personal power and what it means to let go of it. If we are indeed committed to letting go of state power and resisting it, we need to discern what state power is given to us by virtue of our skin color and our gender. It’s not enough to separate from the powers, we need to think of the power we hold too and let go of it. That’s Anabaptism. It is a Christlike self-emptying of personal power granted to us by the state. It’s resisting stately power and relying on God.
The future of Anabaptism is bright when we open our doors, when we perish the thought of who is in and who is out (or who was born into the denomination), and we allow ourselves to be influenced by others and humbled by the self-emptying of Jesus. That’s the meaning of the baptism of Christ, culminating in his death. We follow a self-emptying savior who let his power go. Let’s go and do likewise.
 In case you are weirded out by the term “Love Feast,” it comes from Jude 12, agapais or ἀγάπαις.
 The word here is dikaiosynē or δικαιοσύνη, can be translated as justice or rectification.
 It is noteworthy, though, that Catholics and other churches that practice infant baptism, called paedobaptism, “confirm” those baptisms later on in life.
 That is born into the BIC.