This is the third of a three-part article.
By Donald Schell
Stuart Schwarz’s book, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World, digs deep into the archival records of the Spanish Inquisition to offer a what I can only read as the Holy Spirit’s relentless subversion of church efforts to guard power and insider status (whether by making state sanctioned baptism a ticket to belonging as in England or by shunning those who converted as in Spain).
As a secular historian Schwartz is tracking how Western society came to regard tolerance as a moral value (and the path he follows begins quoting church leaders declaring tolerance a serious sin). All through the records of Inquisitors’ questions and the transcribed witness of the accused on both sides of the Atlantic (major colonial centers in the Spanish colonies had their own local Inquisition), Schwarz finds the voices of ordinary faithful people who, in the name of God, of Christ, and of their understanding of Christian theology continued to protest scapegoating, condemnation, and marginalization of family members, neighbors, and friends, and strangers.
In the massive court records of the Spanish, Portuguese, and New World Inquisitions, Schwartz finds theologians, parish clergy, monks, nuns and ordinary lay people who, on trial and under oath, sometimes facing execution for heresy persisted in declaring
that God could save whom God pleased,
that Jews and Muslims could be saved according to the law they had received,
and that Christ wanted none killed in his name
(propositions most contemporary Episcopalians would readily accept).
Schwartz emphasizes that he found this witness of compassionate protest (and skeptical resistance) not just in the trial records of devout, theological trained teachers and clergy, but in literate but otherwise untrained laypeople and even in illiterate tradesmen whose experience of other people moved them to question official church teaching.
For believing scholars, new vision (and renewal of a more ancient vision) came from study of Bible and theology.
Sometimes the most ordinary Spaniard who had lived among Moors (or sailed with Anglicans or lived in the English West Indies) found God at work in the kindness and goodwill and prayers of Muslims or Protestants.
Scripture, tradition, and human experience gave people back to one another, made all sorts and conditions ask where God dwelt or simply saw fallible human grace and glory in all people. Some pioneers of open-heartedness were also agnostics or atheists who espoused tolerance from a human belief that we needed each other and from deep skepticism that a world where so many suffered could have anything to do with God. Their unstoppable, courageous witness for compassion finally closed the Inquisition.
But what does this four hundred year old argument teach us about baptism?
Everywhere we turn we find a bind -
Most Episcopal clergy that I know and most of our theologically reflective laypeople disavow the necessity of baptism to deliver people from God’s wrath or hell.
Most Episcopalians positively recoil at the idea that un-baptized babies go to hell.
But we want to claim that baptism bestows an otherwise unattainable spiritual good whether it’s “salvation” (though with classic good-mannered Anglican reserve we won’t say salvation from what) or whether it’s “initiation into the Body of Christ,” or whether it’s “becoming a child of God,” or “becoming one with the People of God,” or simply getting or doing whatever it is we “need in order to receive communion.” All these formulations leave us asking what we’re saying about the rest of humanity.
The simplicity and single-mindedness of Lynn’s joyful photo, like the daring early voices for grace that broke all bounds, prompts me to ask whether trusting desire might wash away our investment in the compulsions, necessities, and scrutinies of purity that divides us. Whether or not the girl at the font is thinking about baptism - none of the compulsions or consequences we’ve been considering haunts her moment at the waters. In this moment the font, the water, and baptism mean exactly what she sees and feels, what she has seen and felt. Seeing and feeling unleash desire. Testing waters we know are sacred, she tries out her embrace of a wider world.
As a church founder in mission to an increasingly un-baptized American population, I quit wondering who must be baptized and to what end. My experience was that when our congregation sustained a deep welcome, accepted who people as they came and listened for the Spirit’s nudging them to grow and be more, that baptism beckoned strongly to all and that most, sooner or later, would answer the question, “Do you desire to be baptized” with a simple, emphatic “yes!” And thirty years’ experience of making an unreserved invitation of all to communion, says that letting God satisfy people’s simple, immediate desire for communion will move them to desire baptism.
The baptismal rock in the photo is outdoors, wholly outside the walls of the church. That font doesn’t stand guarding the church door. Altar Table greets each visitor with its invitation to taste communion in Christ. And beyond the Table, the font waits, promising the fullness of life in Christ.
It makes Gospel sense that the font is out doors. Walls keep the weather out and make a safe place for worship. Each baptism at this rock “outside the walls” draws us out from worship to the open sky, unsheltered and in the world. And even more than Jesus’ wilderness baptism in the Jordan, baptism here outside the church recalls the baptism that Jesus’ words in Matthew, Mark and Luke keep warning and promising his disciples lies ahead for him and for them, baptism on the cross. Outside the walls of the holy city, beyond the bounds of self-consciously sanctified community, in solidarity with all humanity, even the worst of us, Jesus death embraces God’s fullest work of reconciliation, Christ living and dying in communion with even the worst of us.
Jesus’ baptism leaves the safety of the city behind to burst the gates of hell. 17th Century England and Spain give us hair-raising cautionary tales about the dangers (to people and to baptism itself) any time baptism is the gate back to insider status. Golgotha strips from us our hopes of being an insider and hanging on to power. When Jesus died outside the city walls, the sinless one made sin, dying literally cast out and ‘accursed’ for hanging on a tree, he invited the dying thief to feast with him in paradise – where in group is left behind forever. Dying between condemned criminals Jesus invites us into the fullest human communion that must include even those we’re tempted to say have ‘no place,’ those whose absence from the Table diminishes us and the Body of Christ.
As Charles Wesley wrote,
Love like death hath all destroyed,
Rendered all distinctions void.
Jesus’ example makes it clear that desire for solidarity with all humankind may cost very dearly. Some of Jesus’ followers have learned to flinch at the name ‘Christian,’ because that name, in our culture, has come to mean the exact opposite of the communion in which Jesus died. “Christian” names an in-group with membership requirements in belief and practice as strict as any other ordinary group. “Christian” voices in public routinely condemn outsiders and judge, shun and cast out members. I have gladly baptized people who were reluctant to call themselves, “Christian,” but who knew they wanted to follow Jesus learning to live “on behalf of all and for all.” If we’re to continue to call ourselves “Christian” we’ve got to live without designating ourselves insiders.
Paradoxically recalling the exclusion, exile, stigmatization, and scapegoating that Jesus embraced in his baptism on the cross, seems wholly consonant with World War II Jewish philosopher and classical scholar Simone Weil’s decision to follow Christ but NOT be baptized lest she seem to be choosing Christian insider status for herself that cost her solidarity with the rest of humankind. Weil’s rejection of baptism tells us as much about what baptism must be as it warns us of what it can no longer be.
I am grateful to have presided at many joyful baptisms of adults, children, and babies. And for myself and all those I’ve baptized, and for all my sisters and brothers in Christ, my hope and prayer is that the waters of baptism (and the life in Christ we live, falteringly from our baptisms but somehow still persevering) wash from us the presumption of ANYTHING that separates us or ‘sets us apart’ from the Love of Christ for all humanity.
In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa argued that all humankind together bore the blessing of being made in the ‘Image of God,’ and that nothing less than the whole of humanity could be the Body of Christ. Baptism in Christ, baptism into the scorned sinner’s death he suffered outside the walls, baptism into the communion he embraced with the worst outcasts gives us what Jesus’ lived and died to establish, lives that belong to all, selves we find in communion with the Other.
Jesus asks us, “Do you desire to be baptized – with me?”
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.