written by Dani Gabriel
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
I am obsessed with our baptismal covenant. Really, it’s a beautiful document. I return to it again and again for guidance in ministry and find myself looking at it again this week, meditating on what it means to reply to this question with “I will, with God’s help.”
Once again a Black man has been shot by the police, this time 7 shots in the back. And once again, many people are more concerned with the character of the man who was shot than the character of the officers who shot him, or the fact that he was literally shot in the back. I have read Facebook post after Facebook post and article after article about charges, and who we believe, and whose suffering matters.
As many others have written, we do this repeatedly to Black people who are victimized by the police. Whether it’s a real charge or a false one, we transform the victim into the one to be blamed. We look for a reason to lessen their humanity and excuse the violence done to them. It is racist and it is also entirely beside the point. The baptismal covenant offers us something really crucial here. If we are compelled to “respect the dignity of every human being” that includes anyone who is accused of a crime. It also includes people who have actually committed crimes. It includes people we find it easy to empathize with and people we struggle to understand.
Two weeks ago, after the shooting, I asked in my sermon “So how will we take up our crosses and follow Jesus? How can we live differently and live into Jesus’ call? What habits and practices should we lose? It’s a never ending struggle to follow Christ in our lives. We are all Peter, wanting to avoid pain and sacrifice. This week I think I see some steps forward, in this baptismal promise.
We forget God’s response to our violence. We forget that Jesus Christ rose, and what that means for all of us. God models a response for us that does not demonize, or reject, or disown. We praise a God who handles our sin very differently than we often handle the perceived sins of our siblings.
This piece of the baptismal covenant has helped me to transform my own experience of violence. As a survivor of violence I have found, time and again, that my healing is more complete when I can see the person who has enacted violence upon me as a full human being, as more than those acts, as someone with dignity, beloved by God. This does not always include forgiveness. There are places where I am stuck on the pain and violation and can go no farther. But it includes respect and acknowledgment of who we all really are. And that is ultimately good, and does more to bring me peace than sinking into the violence as if it were the core of the truth.
We have committed ourselves, through our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of all people. These are times when that seems insurmountably difficult, as the internet and the airwaves are full of cries to do the opposite. It’s easy to make the person you fear, whether it’s the victim or the police officer, into someone not worthy of compassion or care. But our God knows us and loves us, and we respond with a commitment to keep struggling with our own biases, fears, and pain to embrace respect for all of Her children.
From Psalm 139:
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.