Written by Andy Rose
As many of you know, my daughter Elanor was baptized last week. The fact that it happened in the midst of COVID-19 and racial turmoil is fortuitous in a way because the need for some deeper thinking on what baptism is and what it’s doing ended up coinciding with the processing I was already doing regarding the intersects of racial, partisan, and Christian identity and what that means for our church. Perhaps it seems a bit odd to connect baptism to the current conversations on race, injustice, policing, and the like, but this week I’ve come to realize that the sacrament of baptism has everything to do with how I make sense of these very topics.
What is baptism doing?
Baptism marks an individual’s entry into the community of those who have been reconciled to God in Christ, wherein baptized individuals are to “put on Christ.” We are no longer of the world, but of Christ. Entry into the covenant community through baptism represents entry into a new ετηνοs (ethnos – tribe, nation, or people group). Paul states,
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:25-28).
Christians (those who have been baptized) possess a common (ethnos) identity in Christ, an identity which is no longer bound by the traditions and categories of the world. Consider the context in which Paul wrote the Letter to the Galatians. He openly disagreed with Peter, who had unwittingly begun to acquiesce to the pressure he received from the Judaizers (Christians who thought the OT Law necessary for salvation). Peter had previously preached in Acts 10:34, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality,” yet he condoned separating Jews from Gentiles, particularly during meals. In Galatians, Paul is preaching the message of unity rooted in the truth of the Gospel; those who are baptized have “put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The church was to reject the divisive ethnic categories of Jew and Greek and live in the unity of Christ Jesus.
In other words, Paul is saying that our identity is no longer rooted in these worldly categories; rather, baptism into Christ makes those categories penultimate to the Christ identity. This message becomes all the more evident in Colossians 2:8-12:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
In baptism we put “off the body of the flesh” and are “raised with him through faith.” Paul goes on in 20-22:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?
If we have died with Christ to these elemental spirits of the world, why do we behave as if we are “still alive in the world” (having died to it) by submitting to human precepts and teachings? Why are we still subjecting ourselves to the basic principles of the world, according to ethnicity, gender, or race?
My daughter has been baptized into the community of saints. I hope and pray that she is able to, by virtue of the otherworldly nature of the church, avoid being taken captive by worldly principles. According to worldly categories, she would subject herself and treat others according to worldly constructs unsuitable for those who carry the name Christian.
What does this have to do with race?
What’s this got to do with racial identity? Racial identity, not to be confused with race, is a social construct from which one derives a sense of self on the basis of race. American Black identity developed in large part as a result of white supremacy promoting the inferiority of Black people. White identity thus developed as one superior to non-white races, a centuries-long exhibition of one variation of the sin of partiality. If you are white, you are impacted by this reality. However, we do not overcome the narrative of racial superiority/inferiority by perpetuating it. We can’t simply bind peoples’ conceptions of themselves and others to their blackness or their whiteness, though we can encourage folks to recognize how their perspective could be (and likely is) adversely impacted by these racial identities. Instead, the church is called to disrupt the narrative that race is a sufficient source of identity. Deriving meaning from racial constructs shouldn’t be normative for the Christian because Christ is the true nature of our new ethnic identity. When Paul says there is neither male nor female, he doesn’t mean this literally; he means this in terms of identity. Similarly, there is therefore neither Black nor white, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
This does not mean that we ought to ignore race or ethnicity.
It means that we, as the church, have to figure out how to move past racial identity and other social constructs. I am not suggesting we opt for “colorblindness.” Typically, the colorblind approach is promoted to overlook the offenses of [often] white men who have benefited from the subjugation of peoples. However, to act as if we have a race-less society in which we can erase the history of systemic racial oppression from the collective conscience would be to ignore the plight of oppressed peoples and the nature of trauma.
But Christ teaches us that we shouldn’t show any partiality, and should instead “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Eph. 4:32). Repentance recognizes the wrong perpetrated, and forgiveness takes into account that wrong, while at the same time relinquishing the need for implementation of the just consequences for it. The same goes for resolving racial tensions in the U.S. White people must reckon with the fact that they have continued to uphold racist social structures that go against the Gospel. They must further recognize that slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and modern-day stereotyping are all signs that white identity has tainted the American ethos and held white people captive to an unconscious assumption of superiority.
Those who are in Christ must appropriate his identity, which illuminates the worldly categories we still have to reckon with, such as race, sex, gender, nationality, etc. Recently, I heard a pastor say what I’m trying to say here perfectly. John Gray, in an interview with Steven Furtick of Elevation Church, stated the following:
“God is not colorblind. He created color and diversity to see if people would lay down their culture and pick up the kingdom.”
In our context…
How do we practically move beyond race but still give credence to its impact on how we understand ourselves and others?
First, we have to call out what’s good and what’s bad about what the world is pushing here. There’s currently a lot of pressure in our community right now to be humble but also speak out. The two seldom go hand-in-hand, which means there’s a lot of talking past each other. There are some among us who have learned a lot about how they’ve contributed to systemic racial injustices. For my part, I’ve realized that I need to do a much better job of listening to black folks, whether it’s through reconnecting with some of my black friends, reading books, or watching films and documentaries. Perhaps you mourned the recent cases of police and other brutality and want to take advantage of the semi-righteous indignation you feel by acting, whether that’s through marching, protesting, posting on Facebook, or sharing your convictions with friends. All of these are great things, and serve as proof that the Lord is humbling many of us. This is desirable.
There are many who share this aforementioned indignation, but they are also concerned about any number of other things that are worth considering, such as some causes the Black Lives Matter organization supports, the idea of defunding or abolishing the police, riots, etc. These are not irrational concerns. We need to empathize with each other so that we can move together in the right direction on these topics.
We are on the same team.
We are all one in Christ Jesus. If we care about each other, we should want our brothers and sisters to understand what’s true more than we want to demonstrate we are right. That should give us a desire to persuade, which involves being humble enough to listen to even thoughts you think are silly or flat out wrong. From what I’ve seen, we are struggling to avoid division. Our indignation often tells us that truth is more important than unity. When we believe something to be true, we too easily forsake unity. That’s where we must be humble. If you believe you know something, remember that at one point that wasn’t the case. You needed the grace of others. Pressuring those with whom you disagree pushes them away. We must come together out of love and have edifying, raw, Christian dialogue.
We show love to the world properly by loving each other well:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
I want to end by preaching peace. Most of us have been baptized into the community of people who have been reconciled to God. In the cross, Jesus has “broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility,” reconciling us to God and each other in this one body. May we love one another, and in so doing, exhibit and enact the reconciling mercy for which God has created the Church.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. Ephesians 2:13-17