Baptism and Identity Politics
Who are we as individuals, as well as a country? Baptism and baptismal vows have answers for us.
We talk a lot about identity nowadays. We are currently wrestling as a country over the identity of our national character. We struggle to understand who we are in terms of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and occupation. Our resumes and social media profiles also portray a certain identity: what degrees do we have? Where are we from? What have we done with our lives?
The story of baptism speaks deeply to identity politics. Not only the baptism of Christ, but also stories of baptized people today respond to the foundational question, “who are you?” Let’s start with a contemporary story (mine! :) and then work backward and outward. Apologies in advance, y’all: this ride is gonna be bumpy.
Imagine you’re in a softly lit Methodist chapel in Georgia, about to witness an infant baptism. On that September Sunday a few decades ago, the pastor asked my parents the following question on my behalf: “do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” After my parents said “I do,” the pastor then asked a second question: “do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” My parents then replied again by saying, “I do.” The pastor then asked a third question, “do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” My parents then replied a third time saying, “I do.” At my confirmation when I was 13, another pastor then asked me to confirm these same vows and to make them my own.
“Do YOU?” the pastor asked three times. Yet WHO is the “YOU?” that the pastor was addressing? Once we move past the obvious answers, we encounter the deep identity shift that baptism represents. Romans 6:4 says, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Baptism represents the death of an old self, and the rebirth of someone new. WHO is this new person? What is our new identity in baptism?
Three times a year at the nondenominational church in Shanghai where I was a pastor, we baptized between 20–30 adults in a three-foot deep pool through full immersion. The Hong Kong banker and the student from Malaysia learned that their public immersion was a ritual of death and new life. They were proud to claim a new identity through baptism.
For much of my life, I understood my own identity as a pastor. When I was 12 years old, I chose “Protestant pastor” in a middle school job exploratory class. When I started seminary in 2007, my family and friends knew I had found my tribe. And in autumn of 2012, when my new boss in Shanghai offered me the job of “Assistant Pastor,” I had arrived at my life’s calling. Being a pastor was my identity.
I quickly adapted to the church’s practice of calling me, “Pastor Melanie.” This new supervisor, the Senior Pastor at a nondenominational church for immigrants, went to great lengths to distinguish the two of us from the rest of the staff. My colleagues were only directors, my boss David said. They of course were doing good work, but they were not PASTORS. There were only two of us who had this prestigious title: David, and myself. I loved that others recognized me for who I was: a pastor.
18 months later, however, I learned a painful lesson. Just as prestigious titles can be given, they can also be taken away. David and I clashed over the vision and values of the church. He spiritually abused me as I became more vocal against widespread sexism and racism in the congregation. Finally, in April of 2014, David told me there was no longer any need for an Assistant Pastor. If I wanted to stay on staff, and keep the salary and the visa that were allowing my husband and me to stay in China, then I must accept the demotion to “Director.” My identity as pastor went up in flames.
I had an identity crisis at David’s church. The title “pastor” no longer fit me. After the abuse and injustice I suffered, David forced a new identity onto me. I now understood myself as a “victim.” As a victim, I hated David. All of my thoughts and conversations quickly turned to this grave offense against me. All I could do was focus on how I had been wronged. How dare the church demote me? I had sought excellence as a pastor, and my reward was public humiliation and rejection.
The oppression of a victim identity can have many layers. I was a white woman in China, with much privilege as well as a US passport. And yet all I could think about was how I’d been wronged. Many powerful people nowadays, even our own President, quickly call themselves “victim” whenever they encounter the slightest offense.
As I wore the ill-fitting identity of victim, I quickly discovered that my heart was broken. Hatred and pain left no room for love, even for those closest to me like my husband. Though I forgave seventy times seven, I knew my emotions were still sick. Rage simmered just beneath the surface, and I had to acknowledge that the identity of “victim” was destroying me.
God journeyed with me during several hidden months as I lamented and grieved. God was grieved too, and God cried with me. When I was ready to hear it, God gently revealed that I had actually been sick even before my demotion. Turns out, when I put my identity in being a pastor, I was putting my pride in a title that could be taken from me. The title of “pastor” as my identity was a garment that I was never meant to wear. Only when David ripped it off did I realize that God had a better garment for me.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
23 Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli…37 son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, 38 son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” — Luke 3: 21–23, 37–38; 4: 1–4.
Today’s Scripture reading also offers us a lesson in identity. Jesus was a Jewish worker from the backwaters of the Roman Empire, born to commoner parents under scandalous conditions. Yet that was not the identity spoken over him at his baptism. We read in Luke chapter 3, verses 21–22 that at the baptism of Jesus, a voice from heaven affirmed Christ’s identity as “the Son, the Beloved.” The baptism of Jesus marked a public declaration of who Jesus was: the Son of God.
Interestingly, Luke then sticks a lengthy genealogy immediately after this brief recounting of Christ’s baptism. Unlike the Gospel of Matthew, where Christ’s genealogy opens the entire Gospel and New Testament, Luke waits until chapter 3 to offer his version of the lineage of Jesus. Why does Luke place the genealogy relatively late in the game? Because Luke wants to highlight Christ’s identity as Son of God. Luke begins with Christ’s adoptive father Joseph in verse 23, then works backward all the way to Adam to say Jesus is “Son of God” in verse 38. Not only does a voice from heaven affirm the identity of Jesus as God’s Son, but so does the lineage through the generations.
Christ’s baptismal identity also confronted trial. The same Spirit that fell on Jesus as a dove at his baptism then ushers Jesus into the desert for 40 days of fasting. As we read in Luke chapter 4, the devil tempted Christ in this time of trial. And how did the devil tempt him? By challenging his identity. “IF you are the Son of God,” the devil taunts Christ in Luke chapter 4, verse 3, then “command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” “IF you are the son of God,” the devil taunts again in verse 9, then “throw yourself down from here.” What is Satan doing? Satan is tempting Jesus to seek his glory as Son of God on his own terms. Yet Christ prevails over the devil because he trusts his divine Parent.
When I was in my own spiritual desert, I felt exposed and alone. False identities had been stripped off of me, and I didn’t know what was left. In that desert, God offered me a better garment: “Melanie,” God said to me during some of the lowest moments of my life, “you are my beloved child.” When I heard those shocking words, I realized I had never actually believed them in my heart. I had grown up in the church, I’d been a Christian for years, and I had even served in church leadership! How many times have I heard these words from Romans 8:38–39: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Yet had I really TRUSTED those verses before? In that moment, when it felt like I had nothing, God gave me a choice: would I BELIEVE that I was indeed a child of God? Did I trust that God loved me unconditionally, even with no job or title?
God was inviting me to radical new liberation: I didn’t have to DO anything to earn God’s love! God loved me just as I was, which at the time was not much: I was severely overweight from months of stress eating, burned out from overwork, and unemployed. I had pulled my left achilles tendon and gauged out my right knee, which didn’t help my weight or self-esteem. Yet God called me, even broken and ashamed me, “daughter.” God invited me to abide in the identity of child first and foremost. Only when I KNEW I was a child of God, and trusted that identity, would the other identities make sense.
To live fully into my child identity, I had to surrender identities that did not fit me as well. God first asked me to surrender “pastor,” for I could not be one if I didn’t first know how to be a daughter. God then asked me to surrender the identity of “victim,” which meant I had to surrender my hatred, self-pity, and self-righteousness.
Besides surrendering the garments of “pastor” and “victim,” I eventually learned I had to surrender another false identity: “perpetrator.” My husband had started a very difficult job at this time, but he didn’t feel comfortable telling me about it. I was so fragile and angry about my own maltreatment that I could not support him — I only talked about myself, and I ignored my partner’s pain. Only later could we have an honest conversation about this, where I asked him to forgive me for my selfishness at the time.
Believing that I was God’s child was a deeply personal experience. At this time, God spoke to me through the words of Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Only at that moment, many years after both my baptism and my confirmation, was I fully living into the identity that baptism represented. Only after God healed my heart could I live into my identity as a child of God.
Claiming our baptismal identity is something very intimate between each person and God. Yet that identity is not just for ourselves. After we trust in God’s unconditional love, and know that we are God’s children, then can we learn more about what divine family looks like. In God’s family, children have siblings. In God’s family, children have a loving parent who is our perfect Mother and Father. Once we believe we are children of God who belong to God’s family, then we can better notice the pain and suffering of others.
Jesus says we must enter the Reign of God like a little child, which means we have childlike trust in the Lord. In Matthew 11:25, Jesus even makes this audacious statement: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, and have revealed them to infants.” When students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took action after the shooting in Parkland, Florida last year, some leaders said that we should not listen to children because they are too young to vote. But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus tells us that it is not only hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but also for adults. We must claim our identity as children of God if we want to know what God is doing in the world.
John Wesley emphasizes Christ’s teaching on children in one of his most famous sermons, called “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” In this sermon, Wesley declares, “a [person] cannot have a childlike confidence in God til [she] or he knows [they are] a child of God.”
On a similar note, Galatians chapter 3 verses 25–29 makes a radical promise: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Paul promises the Galatians that as children of God, baptized into Christ and clothed with their identity as God’s children, they are part of God’s family.
Many of us are painfully aware that demographics still have much sway over our lives. We have inherited an unjust system where some of us have more privilege than others. The Good News of baptism, though, is that the demographics that have been used to create ungodly divisions will not ultimately define us. God promised Christ that he was the Son of God, and God promises US adoption as children into God’s family. We can be offspring and rightful heirs of the promise of Abraham. We can inherit all of the riches and graces of God’s Reign. No matter our social status, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, Paul says our identity as a child of God is foundational.
The Holy Spirit empowers us as God’s children to love our brothers and sisters as equals. If we seek to love through our own efforts, then our hearts of stone will quickly fail us. Yet children who delight in the unconditional love of God are easily able to share that love with their brothers and sisters. As God’s children, we hunger and thirst for a just society so that we can fully live into our baptismal identity.
In August 2017, we were horrified by the evil racism in Charlottesville that led to innocent life being lost. Colleagues have told me that a local Methodist church offered hospitality to those decrying racism, and they hung Methodist baptismal vows in their sanctuary as a reminder of the reason they were there. The sign contained the question that my parents answered for me when I was an infant: do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
If you have been baptized, then I invite you to explore your own baptismal vows. What did you renounce at your baptism, and what did you accept as your new calling and identity? If you haven’t been baptized, I invite you to consider what baptism may mean for your identity. I invite all of us to consider the question that was on display at the Methodist church in Charlottesville: Do YOU accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Before we can correctly answer that question, we must first know who we are.