BAPTISM IS ANTI-AMERICANA rite of resistance.
Baptism is the central ritual and rite of becoming a Christian. But ever since the fourth century, the meaning of baptism has been intentionally obfuscated. While once it was known as a public treasonous act, it is now a harmless ritual done behind church walls. Today in America, baptism doesn’t ruffle any feathers. Baptism doesn’t raise any eyebrows. Baptism doesn’t offend. Today in America, baptism is a personal religious choice that doesn’t really affect anyone else.
Baptism has lost much of its original meaning. Baptism is actually rich in symbolism that makes it very anti-Roman for the same reasons that also make it anti-American. The original context of baptism in the first century and the early Church holds the key to understanding why. Baptism, if understood properly, should likely cause one to be ostracized, looked down upon, and may even result in imprisonment or death.
It is time to reclaim the original meaning of baptism, but we must understand its original context in order to do so.
ESCAPE FROM EGYPT ONLY TO BECOME EGYPT
Nothing shaped ancient Israel’s religion more than their slavery in Egypt and their subsequent exodus. The descendants of Abraham, generations upon generations, grew up in the empire of Egypt; it was their home (Exodus 12:40). After a time, the Hebrews began to grow exceedingly in number and the pharaoh, being concerned about this, turned them into slaves (Exodus 1:10-14). As the years wore on, the Israelites cried out to God for deliverance from empire (Exodus 2:23-25). God heard their cries and raised up Moses to rescue them (Exodus 3:2-3). As they were leaving, the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army. The Israelites famously escaped through the Red Sea as Moses parted the waters while the Egyptian military drowned. Safe on the other side, they were free to seek the Promised Land and live out their calling as God’s people (Exodus 3:8, 19:3-6).
If you’re familiar with the story, then you know that things didn’t go very well after they escaped from the empire of Egypt. After just a couple of months of freedom, they began to complain and desired to return to their slavery (Exodus 16:2-3). God warned them, “you are not to go back that way again” (Deuteronomy 17:16). The Israelites eventually came into the Promised Land, but it wasn’t long before they rejected the Lord’s ways. God desired that he alone be their King, but the Israelites rejected him and wanted their own human ruler (1 Samuel 8:5-8). God warned them of all the horrible things that would come from having a human ruler, including becoming slaves, but they didn’t listen (1 Samuel 8:17-19).
After conceding to the Israelites wicked desire for a human ruler, he warned them against becoming an empire. He told them not to acquire a large number of horses (the ancient world’s equivalent to a powerful military force), he told the king to not take many wives, and to not accumulate wealth (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). The book of 1 Kings chronicles the downfall of Israel as they disobeyed every single thing that God had commanded; they amassed horses, wives, and wealth (1 Kings 10:26-29, 11:3, 10:14, 27). Israel started as slaves in an empire, but they eventually became an empire themselves that enslaved their own people. Their rejection of God’s will for their lives, to be a nation of priests who served God alone as King, resulted in their downfall. Israel was only a sovereign and whole nation 80 years before it became fractured and brought into exile. They escaped empire only to become an empire.
IN NEED OF ANOTHER MOSES
When Israel found themselves exiled to Babylon, there only three Jews resisted taking part in the king’s patriotic rituals (Daniel 3:9-12). After 70 years, some Jews returned to Palestine, but under a new master—the Medo-Persian empire. The king of this empire allowed the Jews to rebuild their temple, but its priests worked for Persia and did the king’s bidding.1 The lure of empire was strong, and the Israelites abandoned the ways of God once again. God sent prophets such as Micah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi to call for national repentance, but their message fell on deaf ears, and they were murdered for it (2 Chronicles 24:20-21, Luke 11:47, Matthew 23:30, 37).
Around 200 years passed, Persia fell to Greece, and the Jews had a new master. The elite temple priesthood became Hellenized as they embraced the Greek culture, the language, and customs. They served as tax collectors for their new lord—the Greek empire. Yearning for freedom once again, the Jews managed to overthrow their oppressors by way of the sword during what is known as the Maccabean Revolt. For 100 years, the Jews tasted freedom from empire, but it was bittersweet. Their new Jewish rulers completely abandoned the Scriptures and were in many ways more brutal and exploitative than their former masters. Some scribes, wishing to resist the priestly capitulation and colonial rule, withdrew into the wilderness to form a community at Qumran. There they compiled the Dead Sea Scrolls and renewed their commitment to God, anxiously waiting for God’s kingdom to arrive.
Rome was next on the long list of pagan empires to rule God’s people. Caesar Augustus reigned over the known world, calling himself the “king of kings.”2 Augustus considered ‘Pax Romana’ to be his greatest contribution to the world, his grand plan to establish universal peace among the nations who lived under Roman rule. He sent his military to lands, such as Palestine, to declare the gospel (‘good news’ or ‘euangelion’) of peace and invited them into the Roman empire. In exchange for pledging allegiance to Rome, Caesar guaranteed their peace and safety. If Caesar’s gospel was rejected, he would send in his military to invade and conquer. After centuries of being dominated, the Jews continually turned to the book of Exodus as a piece of subversive literature that exposed the dominant ideology of empire. They yearned for a righteous prophet, for a holy priest, and for a just king. They dreamed about a new Moses that could lead them through the sea and into freedom.
PROPHETS AMONG POLITICIANS
John the Baptizer is our first introduction to baptism in the Bible. The Gospel according to Luke starts his account of John with this sentence, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee… during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2). Luke knows that we cannot understand John or baptism without this backdrop. This is a list of the power brokers in Jerusalem, ranging from the emperor at the top to those below him like Herod and Pilate, and including their Jewish retainers, Annas and Caiaphas. Baptism would challenge them all. John’s message and his baptism had incredibly subversive political implications.
John traveled throughout the region preaching that everyone should repent because the Kingdom of God was finally about to arrive (Matthew 3:1-2). ‘Repent’ in Greek is ‘metanoeō’ which literally means to “change your mind.” John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). John’s message for his listeners was clear: turn away from your current allegiances, reorient your life, and submit to his purification ritual of immersion as you await the promised Kingdom of God. Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology, R. Alan Streett, summarizes well, saying, “John’s water ritual in the desert carried symbolic significance. He was calling Israel to prepare for a new political exodus. In their first exodus God rescued the Hebrews from an oppressive heathen regime as Moses led them through water and wilderness and established them as a holy nation for himself.”3 John was preparing his listeners for a new exodus, out of empire, through the water, and into God’s nation.
John wasn’t the new Moses, though; he was only “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said (John 1:23, Isaiah 40:3). The way of the Lord that John was referring to was the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, the man who would be the new Moses and lead his people out of empire and into the promised land (John 1:29-30). John had created quite a disturbance in the region, and King Herod knew that he had to be silenced. According to the famous first-century Jewish historian Josephus, Herod put John to death for purely political reasons, noting that John posed a threat to his power.4 John, after all, spoke of a new nation that was about to arrive, and he pointed to a new King. Herod the Great sought to kill Jesus when he was a baby, and now his son, Herod Antipas, had just killed John the Baptizer. It wouldn’t be long before Herod would seek to kill Jesus as well (Luke 13:31). Baptism was a subversive, treasonous act.
THROUGH THE SEA AND INTO THE KINGDOM
When Mark records the baptism of Jesus, he says that Jesus saw the heavens “splitting apart” (Mark 1:10 NLT). The Greek term for this word is the same used in Exodus 14:21 in the Greek Old Testament (schizō), where Moses is “splitting apart” (“dividing”) the Red Sea during the exodus.5 When Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt, through the sea, and into the Promised Land, the violent forces of empire tried to stop them. Since Jesus was about to do the same thing, the author of the first Gospel account in the Bible, Matthew, makes a great effort to connect Jesus with Moses and the exodus story. In his account, there is a guiding star which was like the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through the wilderness (Matthew 2:9, Exodus 13:21). Herod’s edict to kill the male Jewish children while Jesus escaped was like Pharaoh’s edict to kill all the male Hebrew infants while baby Moses escaped (Matthew 2:16, 13, Exodus 1:15-16, Exodus 2:3). Jesus’s journey down into Egypt and out again echoes Moses’s journey to and from Egypt. Moses escaped from Egypt after killing someone, but he returns after God told him, “all those who were seeking your life are dead.” These are the very same words that God tells Joseph in Matthew: the family is to return home “for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Exodus 4:19, Matthew 2:20). Both Moses and Jesus spent forty days fasting (Exodus 34:28, Matthew 4:2). Moses went up a mountain to receive the old law and Jesus went up a mountain to give the new law (Exodus 19:3, Matthew 5:1-2). Matthew even says that Jesus fulfilled Hosea’s prophesy of “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1, Matthew 2:14-15). Matthew wants you to know that Jesus is a new and improved Moses.6
Moses provided the Law of the Old Covenant, and Jesus provided the Law of the New Covenant, which replaces it (Romans 6:14, 1 Corinthians 9:20, Galatians 6:2). Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, through water, and into a new land to form a new nation. Jesus also led people out of Rome, through the waters of baptism, and into his new nation—the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is crucial to understanding baptism. Caesar had a gospel, a good news proclamation of Rome, and Jesus had one too. Christ’s Gospel was the good news announcement that the Kingdom of God had finally arrived (Mark 1:14-15). The Gospel of the Kingdom is what Jesus talked about more than anything else (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14; Luke 8:1). Jesus says that proclaiming the arrival of his nation was why he was sent (Luke 4:43). Christ’s nation is the undoing of empire and the recipe for its destruction. Christ’s nation is the antithesis to empire, its opposite, and its arch-rival. Baptism is the path to getting there.
Matthew isn’t the only one that wants you to make the connection between Moses and Jesus. Paul also makes a powerful and bold connection between Moses and Jesus.
I don’t want you to forget about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:1-4
Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea, out of empire and into freedom. Paul associates this escape through the water with baptism in Jesus. Baptism is a rite that depicts deliverance from slavery, deliverance from empire, and provides a new identity and citizenship in Christ’s nation. When baptizing, the early Christians would enter a river on one side and exit on the other to symbolize escaping empire through the Red Sea. Streett explains the significance, “John the Baptizer, Jesus, and their followers announced that God was about to intervene on behalf of his people and resurrect Israel to its former glory. They challenged their hearers to embrace God’s alternative narrative for the world, adopt a kingdom-oriented lifestyle, and submit to baptism as a pledge of allegiance to a different Lord than Caesar. As such, baptism was a bold and potentially dangerous subversive act. The gospel of the kingdom was counter-imperial in nature and asserted that Jesus, and not Caesar, possessed the divine right to rule the world.”7 Baptism represents salvation from empire.
TO BE FREE FROM THE DEMONS
Jesus came to announce his Kingdom, an alternative culture, mindset, lifestyle, and ethos to that of Rome and all the empires to come before and after it. Rescue from empire was God’s will but many Jews had different expectations for how this would be accomplished. Most thought that the Messiah would accomplish this through the sword, but Jesus had other plans. Jesus doesn’t utilize violence to accomplish his will. True baptism is freedom from empire, but empires choose their own self-destruction.
Jesus demonstrated how this would play out. Occasionally in the Old Testament, God would instruct his prophets to act out their prophecies as visual lessons for the people (Jeremiah 16:1-18, 19:1-15, 27:1-22; Ezekiel 4:1-17, 12:1-28; Hosea 1-4). We can see Jesus enacting out prophesy as well when he exercises the demons from the Gadarene man (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-19; Luke 8:26-39).
In this account, before Jesus expels the demon from the possessed man, he asks what its name is. The demons reply, “Legion, for we are many” (Mark 5:8-9). In a literal sense, this was because there was a myriad of demons possessing this man; however, first-century hearers in Galilee would have understood the political connotations as well. The word ‘legion’ was commonly used to refer to a contingent of 6,000 Roman soldiers. In this account, Roman soldiers are equated with demons. The demons begged Jesus not to send them out of the country; instead, they ask to be sent into a large herd of pigs (Mark 5:11-12). This detail is political as well. The historian Josephus tells us that a pig’s or boar’s head was the symbol of the Roman Tenth Legion, the exact legion that besieged Jerusalem and occupied the Mount of Olives during the Great Tribulation in AD 66-70.8 This further connects the demonic spirits with Rome and its military.
Once the demons entered the pigs, they all rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned (Mark 5:13 ESV). This wording is remarkably similar to the Exodus account where the Egyptian army drowns in the Red Sea after Moses delivers the Israelites to safety (Exodus 14:27-28, 15:1). God’s people are saved while God’s enemies perish. Empires destroy themselves. The exorcism at Gadara points to a meaning beyond just one man’s deliverance. It is enacted prophesy, announcing empire’s ultimate defeat and the arrival of God’s Kingdom. A new exodus was about to begin.
A RITE OF REVOLT
The Passover meal, or ‘communion,’ is the sacrament that was once eaten in remembrance of the exodus story (Deuteronomy 16:3). We no longer eat communion in remembrance of the old exodus. Today, this sacramental meal is eaten in remembrance of the new exodus because we do it in remembrance of Jesus (Luke 22:19-20). It has been given new meaning. Baptism is also a sacrament, a Christian rite representing death and resurrection into new life and new citizenship (Mark 10:38). The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin word ‘sacramentum,’ which is a voluntary oath. Just like ‘gospel’ was first used by Caesar but subverted by Jesus, so to was the ‘sacramentum.’
Julius Caesar was the first to use sacramentum in a military sense.9 In Rome, it was used as a soldier’s oath to pledge allegiance, obey his superiors, and not abandon his brothers-in-arms. It was a ritual that served as a covenant or agreement between officers and soldiers, and it was a requirement to serve in the military.10 Tacitus (56-117 AD), the Roman senator and historian, referred to sacramentum as the verbal pledge of allegiance a soldier gives to his emperor.11 All military personnel serving Rome were “bound by the sacrament” or oath of allegiance; there was no exception.12 The oath of sacramentum was taken publically, in front of witnesses (both human and divine), and it was irrevocable. Anyone who broke allegiance faced penalties ranging from shame to death.13
The early Church of the first century viewed baptism as their sacramentum to Jesus. Tertullian (160-225 AD) contrasted the Christian sacramentum with the Roman soldier’s pledge of loyalty to the emperor and the empire. He makes the case that just as a soldier, upon his oath of allegiance, was inducted into Caesar’s army, so a Christ-follower was initiated by the sacrament of baptism into God’s Kingdom. Each person vowed faithful (allegiant) service to his ruler and kingdom.14 Baptism into empire or baptism into Christ’s nation was the dividing line. Tertullian condemned any Christian who would be willing to swear the Roman sacramentum, since baptism was the only sacrament a Christian should observe.15 Patriotism for empire was taking the mark of the beast. For the early Church, baptism was abandoning empire and claiming new citizenship in Jesus’s nation.
ESCAPE FROM ROME ONLY TO BECOME ROME
The new and perfected Moses, the King of all creation, Jesus Christ, called all people to be baptized and delivered out of empire and into the salvation of his nation. The Church experienced explosive growth in the first few centuries. New followers of the way of Jesus were willing to die by the hand of the empire rather than join in its culture. They claimed that Caesar had no right to rule and that all authority was given to Jesus, a new rival King.
There were no internal disputes within the early Church; they all recognized a sharp contrast between empire and Kingdom. Clement of Alexandria (150–214AD) said, “We Christians are a peaceful race… for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”16 Tertullian (160–220AD) said, “Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.”17 Speratus (martyred 180AD) said, “I recognize no empire of this present age.”18 Tatian of Assyria (120–180AD) said, “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.”19 Justin the Martyr (100–165AD) said, “God called Abraham and commanded him to go out from the country where he was living. With this call God has roused us all, and now we have left the state. We have renounced all the things the world offers… The gods of the nations are demons.”20 Marcellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD, said, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors… It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.” Sentenced to death, he prayed for God to bless his executors, and was killed.
So why doesn’t today’s church in America sound anything like the early Church in Rome? The reason is that just like how Israel escaped from the empire of Egypt only to become an empire themselves, the early Church escaped the empire of Rome only to become the empire of Rome. The Church has been affected ever since. In the fourth century, the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and made it the official state religion. Constantine claimed to become a Christian himself, converted many pagan temples into church buildings, and appointed priests and theologians, forming the Roman Catholic church. Almost all of Jesus’ ideas about rejecting wealth and power were thrown away. For the empire to survive, they had to be. The radical call to servant peacemaking and total nonviolence was replaced with patriotic war-making and violent rule. Rome’s wars, once waged in Mars’ name, were now waged in Jesus’. Even Caesar Constantine knew deep down that baptism was incompatible with the ways of empire; he waited until he was on his death bed before being baptized.
For hundreds of years, baptism was the sacrament that marked the dividing line between one’s former life, former citizenship, former allegiances and their new life, new citizenship, and new allegiance. Baptism was once a difficult decision that meant abandoning empire and gaining new citizenship in Jesus’ nation, the antithesis of Rome. Baptism once meant counting the costs and breaking ties with the past. Baptism was once a political act of subversion against the power structures of empire. For many early Christ-followers, baptism was the initial step that often led to their persecution and even death. Baptism was a rite of resistance. It was.
After Constantine, something had to be done about baptism; it couldn’t continue to exist with its subversive nature. The first and most drastic change made to baptism was that it was no longer a choice; it was compulsory. Baptism was now administered to babies, obviously without their consent or knowledge. Secondly, it acted as both a sacrament of joining the Catholic church and becoming a Roman citizen. Baptism was no longer about joining a resistance movement; it became an act of capitulation. Baptism was no longer about gaining citizenship in the Kingdom of God; it became the act of gaining citizenship in empire. Streett puts it this way, “baptism lost its counter-imperial significance. No longer seen as a mark of resistance, it became a sign of acceptability and respectability. The idea that baptism was a rite of entrance into an alternative kingdom fell by the wayside.”21 This disastrous shift lives with us today in the empire of America.
BAPTISM IN THE EMPIRE OF AMERICA
Many churches in America today do not practice infant baptism, but the ineffectiveness and loss of original meaning remain intact. Modern-day Christians usually understand baptism to be of individual importance, often seen as a ritual that secures a spot in an immaterial afterlife. But the true meaning of baptism isn’t so much about the regeneration of an individual as it is about the regeneration of a nation—Christ’s nation. Biblical baptism is not about going to heaven when you die, instead, it is about a calling to pledge your allegiance to God’s Kingdom. It is about repentance achieved by turning your back on empire and taking the first steps of resistance.
Israel escaped empire only to become an empire. The early Church escaped empire only to become an empire. The American church needs to take the baptismal call seriously to escape from empire, or else we will continue to see history repeating itself.
Baptism, if it is to hold the same power as it did during the time of Jesus and the early Church, must reclaim its meaning. Baptism must hold its original meaning but in our American context. If baptism for the early Church meant experiencing an exodus out of Rome, the largest empire so far at the time, how much more so should baptism be an exodus for citizens of the largest empire in human history? Understood faithfully, baptism must be an exodus out of America. Baptism isn’t about the deliverance of the soul; it is about the deliverance of a people out of the slavery of America and into the freedom of Christ’s nation. Baptism is about switching your allegiance from America to Jesus. Baptism is the initiation ritual for gaining citizenship in God’s Kingdom and for leaving your old American citizenship in the waters. Baptism is crossing that line in the sand that says you reject the culture and power structures of the empire of America. Baptism is a public declaration that no president or government employee has the right to rule—all authority has been given to King Jesus.
Baptism is anti-American, just like it once was anti-Roman. Baptism is anti-American because it claims that America’s gospel of economic prosperity and military might is no gospel at all. Baptism is anti-American because it claims that America’s soldiers, bullets, and bombs are an affront to God. Baptism is anti-American because it invites everyone to abandon America, cross through the waters, and enter the Kingdom. Baptism is an exodus from America, and God warns us, “you are not to go back that way again” (Deuteronomy 17:16).