Re-Baptizing the Church (by Leslie Leyland Fields)

Re-Baptizing the Church

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Who says Churchgoers are stodgy and unyielding? Not the polls. A study just released last Wednesday by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution (http://bit.ly/2epW36G)

found that nearly three out of four white evangelicals (72%) believe that an elected official ““can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life.”

Just four years earlier, in 2011, only 30% agreed with that statement. In the space of a single election, white evangelicals have abandoned their historical connection between personal and public morality more than any other demographic. Even in the populace at large, only 61 percent of Americans now say that “immoral personal behavior does not preclude public officials from carrying out their public or professional duties with honesty and integrity.”

Maybe white evangelicals need to be baptized again?

I tried it myself. A few years ago, I decided to go back to Israel, and to hike around the Sea of Galilee and hang out around the Jordan River. It was research for my new book, Crossing the Waters, but more than that, I was seeking after Jesus. My faith was dry and dull. Just before I left, my husband had asked me, “Are you going to get baptized again?”

“Are you kidding?” was my response. “I’m not one of them,” I said, with measurable disgust. I knew who them was. I had been to Israel several times before, and had seen the pilgrims who gathered from all over the world, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to weep at every holy site, to fill jugs with “holy” water to take back to their churches. Not me. I was Protestant. Educated. I had been baptized at 17 in a river in New Hampshire. I was taking notes, collecting information. I wanted more of Jesus, but not like that.

But after three weeks there, I changed my mind. I spent a week walking the trail around the Sea of Galilee. I went out fishing with Galilean fishermen. I watched an entire Brazilian church go under the Jordan and rise “slain in the spirit.” I envied their swoon, their zeal, their visions. I wanted more of that Jesus.

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I would do it, then. But it was going to be a challenge. I wasn’t traveling with a church or anyone else. I had come alone. Maybe I could rent a white robe there at Yardenit, the baptism site, and join a church group and borrow their pastor? But the riverbank was deserted. The hordes of pilgrims normally there had already gone home for Christmas. So I devised another plan.

I went back to the Jordan River where I had seen canoes to rent. I was going to rent a canoe, paddle out of sight and slip out of the boat into the river. I wanted to go all the way under the waters, no matter how polluted they were. This was my last chance to experience Jesus this way. Tomorrow I flew back to my other life in Alaska.

I arrived on foot at the canoe rentals at the end of a dirt road and found myself transported onto a spaghetti western movie set complete with an Indian teepee, a hitching post, cowboy paraphernalia and my quarry, a stack of canoes. Just beyond the canoes, the river.

Screen Shot 2016-10-25 at 7.09.29 AMI stumbled a few more feet, avoiding some chickens, and found a hut with a young woman standing behind a wood counter. She looked friendly. I approached her, smiling.

“Hello! Can I rent a canoe?”

“Yes. But are you alone?” she replied in near perfect English.

“Yes, I’m alone.”

“Oh I’m sorry, we can’t rent canoes to anyone by themselves. For safety reasons.” She pointed to a large sign I didn’t see with a long list of rules, including the one I was hoping to violate: “It is not permitted to leave the canoe to swim into the river.”

I looked again at the river, which was no more than twenty-five feet across and didn’t seem to be moving at all. It was a dark green pool of sludge. “It would be pretty hard to drown in that.” I smiled, hoping I was being charming and she was persuadable.

“Yes, but that’s the rule. You have to have another person with you. Insurance requires it.”

I wasn’t giving up. “I live in Alaska. I run boats out on the ocean. In storms. Sometimes by myself.” She looks at me, blinking, unmoved. “The waves are this high sometimes.” I raise my hand over my head. “And you’re not going to let me out on that little strip of water?”

She shrugged. “Okay, let me make a call and check for you.”

“Thank you.” I had to go. Surely they would say yes. There were no other customers. I would just paddle around that bend and then I’d be free.

I heard her speak in Hebrew. Then she listened, nodded, hung up. “I’m sorry. It’s insurance. If you had one more person, even a baby, you could go.”

“I could go with a baby, but not by myself?” I repeat, eyes wide.

“That’s right. Crazy, yes?” She raised her eyebrows empathetically. “But no.” Her smile ended.

I left. It was over—but maybe not. I did have one other option. I could sneak back and steal a canoe and go out by myself after hours. I glanced behind at the waters I knew were almost irredeemably polluted, testing the thought. Then suddenly, as if a spell had been broken—No. I didn’t need to be baptized again. What was I thinking? Wasn’t Jesus’ death and resurrection more than enough?

This week, I am remembering these events from that trip. The evangelical church reminds me of me. We’re doing the same thing this election. Jesus in his death and resurrection has already won. He’s gone under the waters of death and vanquished the powers of this world—and we went with him! Both under the water and then out again and raised to new life: victorious, blameless and pure! Sin and death is conquered! The battle is won! But—maybe not? The candidates in this election threaten our power, our wealth and our safety, even possibly our freedom of religion! We evangelicals won’t have it. We hold our nose and choose between two corrupt candidates. We grab the chosen one and sneak back to the murky waters of politics to steal the canoe. And we do it. We jump into those dirty waters, and we pull our man into them as well, naming him, no matter how vile he is—clean-enough. Good enough. Christian enough.

We’ve forgotten our first and only true baptism.

And if our baptism into Christ isn’t enough to save us from this corrupt world, I can assure you that our Christian-enough candidate can’t save us either.

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