I just finished reading a book by an author who is convinced that Christianity in the United States is facing a crisis. In the judgment of the author, the increase in violent crime, the decay of personal morality, and the absence of civility in our society pose a direct challenge to Christian beliefs. The author intends to issue a “wake-up call” to all the baptized, alerting them to an impending crisis.
I understand and concur with the author’s concerns, but I found the book’s analysis of the current social situation in this country to be a little naïve. The author portrays our country’s current social problems as recent developments; the evidence seems to contradict this judgment.
Clearly, there is a great deal of bigotry in American society. Last week, another self-righteous criminal attacked worshipers gathered for Sunday services; the attack was directed at that particular congregation because they were of a different ethnicity than the attacker. Racial bigotry, of course, did not begin recently. For centuries, various races and classes of people have been the subjects of discrimination by other races and classes of people in this country.
The Australian who murdered forty-nine people in Christchurch, New Zealand in March of last year claims that he found inspiration in the growing nationalist sentiment in the United States. Nationalism is hardly a recent development in this country. American nationalism kept us from becoming involved in the two World Wars until the time when we were forced to defend ourselves. Often, I recall Winston Churchill’s words that, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”
Americans are appropriately incensed when American military personnel are killed in armed conflict abroad. Weirdly, there is very little societal grief expressed over the nearly forty thousand Americans killed every year in traffic collisions in this country.
American vacationers are often warned about safety issues when travelling abroad, but the United States experiences approximately five times the violent crime committed in other developed nations.
The social issues facing our country are not new. In a like manner, if there are significant challenges facing Christianity today, this situation is not the result of recent developments.
Scripture scholars and theologians correctly point out that John’s baptism was a ritual unlike Christian baptism. The Gospel says that John preached repentance as a prerequisite for receiving his baptism, but he also announced that a baptism of greater effect would be brought by another. (Mt. 3:11) There are significant differences between John’s baptism and Christian baptism, but there are also two similarities worthy of attention.
The Gospel says that, “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’.” (Mt. 3:16-17, NABRE) Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan by John was both a theophany and a vocational call.
“Theophany” is a technical term that refers to an event that reveals the outpouring of God’s power. The angel’s promise of a homeland for the descendants of Abram was a theophany. (Gn. 12:7) The voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush was a theophany. (Ex. 3:2-4:17) The echo heard by Elijah during a violent storm was a theophany. (1 Kgs 19:12-13) The voice heard at the Transfiguration was a theophany. (Mt. 17:5)
Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan was an outpouring of God’s power to reconcile the world to God. Jesus’ baptism gives us an accurate understanding of Jesus’ identity, but it had implications for Jesus’ self-understanding, as well. His baptism was also a vocational call similar to the vocational calls of the Hebrew prophets.
God called Moses to rescue the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. (ex. 3:7-8) God called Samuel to initiate a renewal of faith in Israel. (1 Sam. 3:10-11) God called Isaiah to preach repentance to the faithless who relied on their political and military prowess rather than on God. (Isa. 6:8) Vocational calls weren’t limited to the ancient prophets or Jesus, the prophet John who wrote the Apocalypse in the Christian Scriptures received a vocational call, as well. (Rv. 1:11) At his baptism, God called Jesus to be the obedient Son who would redeem human nature. (Mt. 3:17)
The theophanic and vocational aspects of Jesus’ baptism are recorded in the Gospels in order to shed light on our baptism. John’s baptism and Christian baptism are not identical, but both are revelations of God’s power and responses to God’s power. At his baptism, Jesus was revealed as God’s Son, and he responded as an obedient son. In a like manner, Christian baptism is a revelation of God’s power to save, and it demands a response of obedience on the part of the person baptized.
As I said above, if Christianity in this country is facing a crisis, it is a crisis that has been developing over a long period of time. Within Catholicism, on the rare occasion that any conscious consideration is given to Baptism, this Sacrament is reduced to little more than a quaint family tradition or a contingency plan for the remote possibility of loss of eternal rewards. Jesus’ baptism by John was a revelation of God’s power and a vocational call; Christian Baptism ought to have the same effects in the lives of the baptized.
Our Baptism ought to be a publicly perceptible outpouring of God’s power that causes Divine forgiveness to bring permanent change to our lives. In the absence of perceptible evidence of the effects of forgiveness in the lives of the baptized, Baptism is made impotent. Baptism ought to be experienced by all the baptized as a call to continue Jesus’ work of obedience to God’s will and his preaching of the good news of reconciliation with God and neighbor. In the absence of public witness to Jesus’ resurrection by the baptized, Baptism is made absurd.
There are quite a number of challenges facing American society and world nations; the number and urgency of those challenges far exceed the few issues I mentioned above. The author of the book to which I referred believes that the current state of American culture poses a direct challenge to the Christian belief system. The Christian belief system, however, offers a slightly different perspective on the author’s concerns. According to our beliefs, Baptism ought to pose a direct challenge to all human societies and cultures. Baptism ought to be an experience of Divine reconciliation and a participation in Jesus’ prophetic vocation.
I wonder if the many challenges facing American society are the result of the baptized ignoring the outpouring of God’s power and their own vocational call. I wonder if the baptized will wait until they’ve exhausted all other possibilities before beginning to take seriously the vows of Baptism.
At no time in human history has there been a shortage of people who are well pleased with themselves. The murderers, bigots, and bullies who attain notoriety today seem particularly self-satisfied despite the obvious evils they inflict on others. There doesn’t seem, however, to be a commensurate number of the baptized with whom God could be legitimately well pleased; this is the only real crisis facing Christianity.